Mark Dawson, author of the bestselling John Milton series, was a London lawyer before taking up writing full time. After his first two traditionally published books didn’t deliver, he turned to self-publishing in 2013. Since then, Dawson has had books optioned by Hollywood producers, Audible has bought audio rights to his books, and foreign publishers are interested in translation deals. He credits indie publishing and successful marketing with his runaway success.
You started off with a book in traditional publishing. Why then did you decide to switch over to self-publishing?
I loved the people that I met at my publisher, but my books didn’t seem to get much in the way of marketing or promotional pushes (despite a healthy advance for both), and, unsurprisingly, they sank without a trace. Now, part of that is because they were not particularly good books, but when the extent of the visible promotional effort was to give me a box of books and to send me off with the instructions to find some reviews…well, that wasn’t what I had in mind. I was beguiled by the ability (and the responsibility) of being able to do everything myself. I love writing, but I also love what comes after it: preparing the cover, the editing, marketing and advertising, connecting with readers around the world. The buck stops with me, and I love that.
Many authors have tried their hands at Indie publishing and failed. What would you attribute your success to?
A few things. You have to be able to write, but that’s a given. The ability to know what you can and cannot do is essential. I am not artistic, and I wouldn’t even consider doing my own covers. I can’t edit my own writing, either; that all gets outsourced. Beyond that, you need to be able to work hard. I was a lawyer in a previous life, and I work much longer hours now than I ever did. The complete refusal to accept failure is helpful too. Once I could see that this was a viable way to get my writing into the hands of readers, I was determined to make it work.
What kind of marketing and advertising do you do for your books?
Sites like BookBub are superb, but it can be difficult to get promotion from them. I sell thousands of books every week, but they turn me down about as often as they accept me. That was the reason I got into Facebook advertising. When done correctly, a Facebook campaign can be the equivalent of a BookBub ad with the very helpful distinction of being something that you can target more precisely and run every day (rather than once a month). I’ve spent over $100,000 on advertising in 2015 but will have made a return of around twice that.
Do you find the marketing work to be a distraction from your writing? How do you balance the two?
It’s not a distraction. Promoting your book is as important as writing it. There’s no point going to the effort of putting down 100,000 words if no one reads them. I tend to be at my most creative in the mornings, so I will write from 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. and then take a break to spend two or three hours on the business when I’m spent. It works well.
What advice would you give to authors looking for a break via self-publishing? What should they watch for, and what should they do?
Work hard. Learn from those who are ahead of you—it is a very helpful and friendly environment, and the ladder won’t be pulled up after those who have had success. Invest in your education. Listen to podcasts on the subject. Read blog posts. Soak it all in. And enjoy it—if it feels like a chore, you’re probably in the wrong game.
Where do you see the indie publishing industry headed?
At the moment, traditional publishing is only just coming to grips with the changes to the industry that are being wrought by digital distribution. They are like a supertanker, just starting the long maneuver to turn around. Indies are nimble and quick, and I can run rings around most publishers when it comes to reactive, aggressive publishing; building a platform of readers (mailing lists, social media presence); and 21st-century, laser-targeted advertising. I see smart writers making the decision to publish themselves, if only for the extra 55% in royalties that they stand to make. I suspect, at some time in the next 12 months, a really big name will decline a new traditional deal and go it alone. That will be a Rubicon moment.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor with a passion for books.