By Mark Dawson
You might be reading this on a train or a bus. If you are, have a look around. What do you see? People with their heads in newspapers. Some listening to music. Others reading books, asleep, staring out of the window, or watching something on their tablets. Of those with laptops, I’d bet a small number will be writing a novel. And some of them might be making pretty good money.
I have a full time film industry job in London’s Soho and a young family in Wiltshire. Writing almost exclusively on the train, I have written and launched eight novels, novellas and collections this year. From an underwhelming beginning, those books are now downloaded, on average, more than 20,000 times a month. They will have made me nearly three times what I earned in my day job in the last year alone, and that doesn’t count royalties from audio book versions and translation rights.
And, the best part of it is that it’s not rocket science. There’s no secret formula. If you can tell a compelling story, and are prepared to work hard, then you can do it, too.
I didn’t come to indie publishing completely cold. I had two books traditionally published fifteen years ago. They weren’t particularly good books and, despite working with some talented people, the experience was ultimately dispiriting. It seemed to me that unless you got a big advance, your publisher would just usher your precious book out into the big bad world and cross his or her fingers that it sold.
I gave up writing for five years and missed the start of the indie revolution. I wasn’t impressed with the prospect of giving up print for an electronic screen, no matter how good the technology was reputed to be. A friend didn’t have those hang ups, wrote a novel and published it. I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to see someone else doing well before trying to get in on the act, and his example inspired me to get back to writing.
I’m glad I did.
It took me a couple of years to write my next novel, The Black Mile. My agent shopped it around and, despite some interest, everyone passed. I self-published it in the middle of 2013. It had sluggish sales until I experimented with promotion. I made it free and had 50,000 downloads over the course of a weekend. I got fan mail. Sales. Then more sales. Readers asked when the next one would be available.
This kind of feedback was a first for me. I took it seriously from then.
I knew I needed to write good stories, and fast. I wrote a sequel in The Imposter, but those books were too dependent on time consuming research. I dusted off an idea I had years ago, about an alcoholic assassin seeking to right the wrongs of his past. I could write those books quickly, relying on my love of film and doing my research on the internet. Now I just needed to find a place to do it. My commute is 90 minutes long. I always get a table, both ways, and I’ve always found the journey to be conducive to ‘creative thinking’ (or daydreaming, whichever you prefer). I invested in a MacBook, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and a year’s supply of hazelnut lattes. I was good to go.
I started publishing the John Milton books in the summer of 2013. Since then, I’ve written six full-length instalments, the three novels in the Beatrix Rose spin-off series and three novellas. That’s around 700,000 words of content (the Harry Potter series clocks in at just over 1,000,000 words). What might otherwise have been dead, wasted time, has become my most productive slice of the day.
But just writing the books isn’t enough. You need to be a publisher, too. Far too many indies cut corners and put up content that isn’t good enough. My philosophy is this: my books need to be indistinguishable from a big five publisher’s books.
That means I pay a professional to design my covers. He already works in the book industry and has created a brand for my books that really stands out on Kobo’s pages. You don’t get long to hook new readers; a great cover is essential. Remember: it needs to be striking enough to stand out when displayed as a thumbnail. There are great designers and they’re often not prohibitively expensive.
I made the mistake of proofreading The Black Mile myself. I missed a lot of errors. Those early readers might never buy another of my books. It’s an excellent reminder why it serves to pay for a professional job. Now, I have an editor and a proof-reader and then, when they’ve cleaned up my mistakes, a cadre of crack readers who get to read the new books early. I count special forces soldiers, law enforcement officers, intelligence operatives and, best of all, a submariner among the members of the team. They check my facts and correct the things that I’ve got wrong (a free tip: if your book involves gunplay, make sure that you don’t put a safety on a pistol that doesn’t have a safety. Your North American readers will not thank you).
You’ll need to build a promotional schedule and know the best ways to advertise. If you can get onto one of Kobo’s amazing promos, you can earn as much in one day as most people earn in seven. The Black Mile was featured in the October promotion and has been at #1 in all its categories all week, beating out Martina Cole and Lee Child. And how cool is that?
Writing on the train has had its moments. Fellow commuters shoulder surf some of the time. One companion, upon getting up at Waterloo, gave me his name and told me to look him up on LinkedIn. He had been a very senior officer in British intelligence (very senior) and was willing to act as a consultant. Another passenger on the 1020 vomit comet, much the worse for drink, told me he was a serving Canadian intelligence operative and that I had some details wrong. He was kind of scary. I didn’t look him up.
Think of the opportunity a commute can present. For me, it was three hours on the train every day. That’s fifteen hours a week. Seven hundred hours a year. You can do a lot with that kind of time. Building a little publishing empire has been one of the most productive and rewarding things I’ve ever done and, thanks to my readers, I’m going to have to find a new place to write in the New Year. Because, even though I love my ‘normal’ job, I’ve handed in my notice. I’m going to be doing the thing I love for my full time job, and I can’t wait.
His books are available on Kobo here.