#323 – Important Tools for Indie Authors with Mark Dawson

In today’s episode, we are joined by renowned indie publishing business expert, educator and author, Mark Dawson – who also happens to be a fellow podcast producer and host! Mark Dawson is the author of over twenty books across multiple series, has sold millions of copies of his titles, and is also the founder of the Self Publishing Formula and host of the Self Publishing Show podcast.

In today’s episode, we are joined by renowned indie publishing business expert, educator and author, Mark Dawson – who also happens to be a fellow podcast producer and host! Mark Dawson is the author of over twenty books across multiple series, has sold millions of copies of his titles, and is also the founder of the Self Publishing Formula and host of the Self Publishing Show podcast. Mark hardly needs an introduction – his presence in the world of self-publishing goes above and beyond, and it was great to have him join us for this episode.

We spoke to Mark about his Facebook ad process, his advertising course, his newsletter and how he optimizes its reach, and what he has coming up next – including the a live conference! We had a really wonderful time and an interesting conversation with Mark – don’t forget to check out Self Publishing Formula for more resources and the associated Facebook group for a great community.

Be sure to also check out Self Publishing Show Live – digital tickets are available now!

  • We ask Mark about his tagline, “there’s never been a better time to be a writer,” and what that means
  • Mark discusses the current trends in self-publishing and indie author’s earnings, as well as the research ALLi did in this regard
  • We hear more about Mark’s past – from being a lawyer and published by Macmillan, to today, after taking a gamble and forging ahead with his successful self-publishing career
  • We ask Mark what he sees as the biggest change in the self-publishing industry
  • Mark elaborates on advertising, his advertising courses, and how important advertising is for indie authors – as well as tells us about how he does his Facebook ads (and why he continues to do them himself)
  • We ask Mark what metrics he has for “good ads” for authors and their books
  • Mark talks about his newsletter – “the most important thing I have” – and how he utilizes it; he also gives some great advice for those of you with newsletters
  • We hear a little more about what Mark will be doing next, and when his advertising courses will available next
  • And much more!

Useful Links

Mark’s website

Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Self Publishing Formula

SPF Podcast

Mark’s books on Kobo

Mentioned in this episode:



Joanna Penn  

Facebook Ads Expedition  

Lucy Score 

John Milton series  

Richard and Judy Book Club

Mark Dawson was born in Lowestoft, in the UK. He has worked as a DJ, a door-to-door ice cream seller, factory hand and club promoter. He eventually trained as a lawyer and worked for ten years in the City of London and Soho, firstly pursuing money launderers around the world and then acting for celebrities suing newspapers for libel.

He is presently writing three series.

The USA Today and Audible bestselling John Milton books involve a disgruntled British assassin who is trying – without much success – to put his past behind him. In order to atone for the blood on his hands he has decided to help those in need.

The Beatrix Rose series follows the adventures of the most dangerous woman ever to serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and the vengeance she wreaks after being betrayed by her former employers. The series is currently in development for TV.

Isabella Rose continues her mother’s adventures in a quest to uncover a global conspiracy that threatens to pitch the world into war.

The Soho Noir books, beginning with The Black Mile and continuing with The Imposter, follow the glitz and glamour of criminal life in London’s West End from the 1940s to the present day.

Mark lives in Wiltshire with his wife and two young children.

Episode Transcript

Transcription by www.speechpad.com

Laura: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Laura, Kobo Writing Life’s author engagement manager.

Tara: And I’m Tara, director of Kobo Writing Life. This week on the podcast, we are talking to indie giant, Mark Dawson. If you’re not familiar with him, where have you been—under a rock? He’s huge. He’s a multi-million-selling author of the John Milton series of over 20 books, and he’s the founder of the Self Publishing Formula, which is a website that is really dedicated to helping authors on their independent publishing journey. And if you aren’t part of their Facebook group, I’d recommend it. It’s full of lots of tips about how to grow your business and things that you might not know about.

Laura: We talked to Mark a lot about his Facebook ads course and how he still does his own Facebook ads even after all this time. We also talked to him about how he uses his newsletter list and what he has coming up next, including the self-publishing live conference.

Tara: It was a super interesting interview, so stay tuned. So, on the podcast this week, we are here with a man that needs no introduction but I will give you an introduction anyway, Mark Dawson, who is a multi-million copy-selling author of the John Milton series with over 20 books at this point and the founder of the Self Publishing Formula. Thanks, Mark, for joining us.

Mark: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Tara: It’s been so nice to have you on. And one thing that I always really like when I listen to your podcast on the regular, your tagline always stays with me that there’s never been a better time to be a writer. Can you talk about that a little bit? Because I sometimes think that there’s a misconception that people have missed the boat in being a writer or that you still can’t make a successful living as an author.

Mark: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s certainly true, that statement, and it’s as true today if no more true than when we started saying it 375 episodes ago. So, you only really need to look at the recent survey that I put together for the ALCS, the copyright collection agency. We suggested that the median UK author made…or median earnings per year was about £8,000, which was obviously… You can’t really live on £8,000 in the UK and worse it was going down. So, the trend was pointing down. So I saw that and then there’s a lot of publicity coming after it with people…you know, a society of authors getting involved and decrying it and saying this was terrible, which of course it is. Authors should be paid more.

But what it signally failed to do was to address what I’m seeing and what we see as people working on the other side of the argument that the self-publishing side is that it’s a very optimistic time. There are more readers than ever, platforms like Kobo developing new products and new things for readers all the time. And I’d just come back from 20Books in Vegas when that report came out and as always, it was very positive. Everyone was upbeat, full of enthusiasm. And so I got talking to The Lancet independent authors and we…because I thought let’s hire the people who did the report for ALCS and commissioned it and asked them to ask indie authors, which they didn’t really do. And strangely enough, Orner and I had this…already had the same idea as me. So, they’ve got their big data drop they’ve been talking about. And subsequent to that, we have hired that body to do a report for us.

Unsurprisingly, the result of that is that indie author earnings are higher on average than the £8,000 that the trad authors get. And importantly, the trend is pointing up. So I really do think there’s so many ways to get your stuff in front of readers. Like, trad is fine. It’s absolutely completely legitimate. And I have some trad deals, but I don’t really care. I mean, I just want to get my books in front of readers. And if I do it that way or digitally or with audiobooks or in translation, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s just getting stories to readers who’ll enjoy them.

Tara: Nice. That’s so interesting, especially to dive into some of the insights that came from those reports as well because it’s, I was going to say, under-reported but often just unreported in general, anything to do with like the indie publishing industry. So, I appreciate you and allies’ sort of advocacy on that regard. So, you’re, sort of, kind of a mainstay within the indie author community itself. So, how did you get your start really? So, what’s your story if we can go all the way back?

Mark: Yeah. So, I was originally traditionally published by Macmillan in 2000 with a couple of books, and I was a lawyer at the time and I thought this was kind of the start of this career. I’d always wanted to be a writer from being young. And books were published. They got onto the shelves of stores, and I thought, “This was it. No more law. I was going to have this amazing career as a writer.”

It didn’t happen because I don’t think the books were very well published and more importantly, they weren’t very good books. So they kind of run the shelves for a couple of weeks, and they disappeared because no one was buying them. And I had two shots. No one was going to give me a third book, and so I kind of gave up.

And for six or seven years, I didn’t do anything until some friends of mine who I was working with and someone else, two two friends independent of each other, said that they’d just published their own stuff digitally, and they were really enjoying contact with readers. They’ve actually made some money. Not much but some. And so I started looking into what was possible and finished a book that I had been working on, got that online, started to see a few sales, not many again, but enough to make me think this had some potential.

Eventually found the Milton series, published that, and then started to sell more and more books. And it got to the stage 10 years ago in… About eight, nine years ago I’ve been full-time now, but it just got to the point where I was making quite a lot more money from my books than I was in my day job. And that was the moment I decided it was safe to, kind of, cut ties and go for it.
And without any question, that’s been the most sensible and best decision I’ve made in my, kind of, professional life because I have to pinch myself sometimes that I can get up, tell stories, and entertain people on my own time. I’m my own boss, I run my own business, and I love it. It’s just a real privilege.

Tara: That’s the dream really being able to quit the day job and do what you love full-time.

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. And that’d always been what I wanted to do, but I thought I had a mortgage to pay. Even just before I left to go full-time, my wife was on maternity leave, so I had, kind of, responsibilities as the only one bringing in any money. So, it was a bit of a gamble. Weirdly, she was like, “You know, you should quit now,” when I kind of matched my salary, but I’m more cautious than she is, and I thought, “Well, if I quit now and it all goes wrong, we’re going to find ourselves in the spot of bother.”
So, I waited until I think I was making maybe five or six times what I was making in the day job, and then it was… I couldn’t put it off anymore because it would’ve been, you know… I was actually losing money by staying in the old job because I couldn’t write as fast as I could when I went full-time.

Laura: That’s amazing. Well, the gamble paid off for sure. And now you’ve been publishing for over 10 years now, as you said. And what do you think is the biggest change that you’ve seen in the industry?

Mark: There are a few things. I mean, kind of when I started, you could get away with a less professional product than you can now. So, you had the Kindle Gold Rush in the early days when you could put a book to 99 pence and 99 cents and almost not do anything else. Maybe get a Pixel of Ink promotion. I remember that. There’s a site we used to use in the old days of free books or your bargain books and then, kind of, cross your fingers and download a few, have a few download, and then kind of see if you can get some momentum off the back of that.

So, it was easier in those days. But as more and more writers come into the market and there are more books available, you’ve got to make sure that your product is as professional as it can be because you’re going to be competing with all of them and all of the trad books. And you’ve got to make sure that readers don’t see yours and see any reason at all not to give it a chance. So, you can’t really get away with a cover that you’ve done yourself anymore unless you’re also a cover designer, and there aren’t many of those who write and can do covers. Some but not many. You’ve got to have a great blurb.

And then obviously you’ve got to have a really good book. It’s got to be well-formatted. It’s got to be well-edited. All those kinds of things were not optional but less important in the early days, but these days they’re critical. And then allied to that, it used to be the case you could upload a book and then let the algorithms work their magic. Again, that’s not really possible anymore. You kind of have to advertise now.

And I think, especially as we developed SPF, it was a very useful tool seven or eight years ago that you could make a lot of money with because no one else was doing it, and it wasn’t necessary but it was a good thing. But as time’s gone by, everyone really is advertising these days, and I think it’s incredibly unlikely that a writer would find significant success unless they figure out how to get their book. There’s a lot of noise now, and you’ve got to find a way to get that to the top so readers can see it. And advertising is probably the best way to do that.

Tara: You’ve mentioned SPF there, and I wanted to ask a little about, kind of, what really inspired you to create that community. Like, one of the things that I love the most about working with indie authors is the sense of camaraderie that you find. Like, everyone is, in essence, in competition with one another, but there’s an awful lot more of authors wanting to build one another up than there is that… I’m sure that competition exists, but people really are open to sharing how they found success. And Self Publishing Formula is this huge community, and I was curious about kind of what inspired you to show your hand and share your secrets.

Mark: Yeah, and I’ve been asked that over the years why did I do that? Because I mean, I could have kept all that to myself and probably made more money for longer and sold more books if I hadn’t told everybody. But I mean, there’s a few reasons but it’s not completely altruistic. Obviously, SPF is a business with quite a few staff now all around the world. So, it’s there to provide another income stream, which is just generally a good idea.

But beyond that, you’re right. It is a very collaborative community. It’s not particularly competitive. I certainly don’t really feel competitive even when I see great numbers by authors who are often friends. I don’t feel jealous. I generally feel, “Well done. That’s great.” And it just gives me a kick up the ass to see if I can do better. So it’s all very healthy.

But, yeah, I love the community. I always have, and I love the podcast I used to listen to in the early days, so Joanna Penn, who’s now a good friend of mine, Johnny, Sean, and Dave who had the self-publishing show way back and don’t do that anymore. But again, they’re friends now, and I took a lot of value and I learned a lot from all of those guys and some others who aren’t in the space anymore. And it just felt like it was a good thing to do to kind of give a little bit back.

And also we do things like we have our conference, which is coming up. As we record this, it’s in about a month’s time. And that will be like on the South Bank of the Thames two days with my tribe, with writers. It’s great. It’s just a really fun event. We always try to make sure people leave with a spring in their step and so it’s not… You know, you’ll learn something and also hopefully you’ll be inspired. And we try very hard to make sure that happens. And it’s probably the two best days of the year for us because it’s a really fun event. We don’t make any money on it. In fact, we probably lose money because it’s bloody expensive to hire the venue that we have, but I don’t mind that at all. it’s something that we really look forward to.

Tara: Nice. And I definitely would recommend checking out… I think we were talking beforehand that you’re going to have a digital on-demand version for people that can’t go there in person. So, that’ll be really interesting for any indies out there. So, you’re talking about how advertising is really the key differentiator these days in getting your books seen, and you run lots of courses sort of always considered the go-to for anyone that is looking to learn about any book advertising with the most recent being the sort of Facebook ads expedition. So, just curious about what can an author expect to get from a course like this and why is advertising so important to their books.

Mark: Well, that course is free. So, it’s a seven-day course with seven videos and an email that goes out every day, and it teaches authors how to use Facebook ads to build a mailing list. So, using what we call lead generation ads to offer something to a reader in exchange for their email address. And then of course once you have the email address, you start to build an audience. You can do all kinds of fun things with the audience.

So, yeah, it’s a good opportunity to kind of learn without risking, number one, that you don’t like the sound of my voice, which not everyone does. So, it’s a good chance to take a course without any kind of financial stakes there. And the aim is, at the end of that course, you will have something tangible.

So, you do the course. We’ll teach you how to set up a Facebook ads account. We’ll teach you how to use what you need to offer to get readers interested enough to give you their email address, and then we’ll tell you what to do with the email at the end of the week. So, at the end of that week, you go away with maybe…you’ve got 10 readers you didn’t have before. Maybe you’ve got 100 readers depending on how much you want to invest in the ads, but you’ll leave with knowledge and with some people who there’s a pretty good chance are interested in the kind of things that you’re writing about.

Laura: That’s great that there’s that starter course that people can look at before they start spending money on everything else. Would you say that Facebook is the main platform that authors should be looking at for their books, main ad platform?

Mark: Which is the main ad platform? There are three I would say in terms of the ones I would recommend. So, it’s Facebook, Amazon, and BookBub. So, those are the three main levers you can pull. And which one is the most important really depends on your circumstances. So, if you’re on Amazon and you’re exclusive to Amazon and you’re in KU, you’ll probably find Amazon ads are very important. But if you are not exclusive and say you make a big play of selling books on Kobo, for example, then Facebook ads are the ones I’d recommend.

And Kobo offers some things that are unusual and advantageous compared to Amazon in particular, so things like not having a top limit on the price you can charge. So, you could put together a huge mega bundle of say six books and you’re not constrained by charging no more than $9.99. If you want to get 70%, you could charge… I used to do a bundle when I was advertising it for I think $25 for all of the Milton books. So, that’s the margin you’ve got to play with there in terms of the clicks you need to have before you get one sale was huge. So, that was really profitable. It’s an expensive item, but you probably get 100 to 200 clicks before you need to convert one into a sale. And so that was a really, really good tactic that I’d recommend listeners looking to give that a try because combining the two can be quite a profitable idea.

Tara: Yeah, we definitely see mega box set bundles or not even mega but just priced above the $9.99 kind of regularly selling pretty well on Kobo with our readers responding to the idea of a convenient place of having all of their books, not necessarily seeing it as a bargain per se. And so you mentioned there, kind of, like click ratios to like what’s considered a good sale or anything. And I believe you still run all of your own ads, is that correct?

Mark: I do. Yeah. I wish I didn’t but…

Tara: I’m sure you could find somebody to do that for you.

Mark: No. Do you know? I haven’t been able to, and I have looked. It’s really tricky because the problem is I’m quite good at it, which is I’m certainly not the best I’ve ever seen but I’m quite good at it. And the reason I am is because they’re my books, and I’m invested in them. I know them inside out. I know what my readers like. I know who my readers are, where to find them, what their avatar is. All of that kind of stuff is just… I know it because it’s my book and I’ve done it for 10 years.

But the problem with agencies is that you can get someone to run your ads for you, but you’re probably going to be another line on a spreadsheet. So, you kind of lack that emotional connection between the advertiser and the book, the product. And I have tried an awful lot of different ways to get that done, and I’ve always taken it back again because I just don’t, you know… Also, I’m a control freak, which doesn’t help. So, it’s quite difficult sometimes to kind of… I know it’s a flaw but I can’t help it.

This is probably even worse, I actually quite enjoy it. So, I’m quite kind of nerdy in a kind of a “I like spreadsheets” kind of way, which is quite weird. I think it’s a little bit unusual to find someone who’s a decent writer but also is not scared by spreadsheets. I find them quite interesting, which is… If I said too much, then, yeah, that’s me. If an agency came along and I thought they could do a really good job, I would hand it over in a heartbeat because there are probably better ways I could spend my time. But until that happens, I’ll keep doing it.

Laura: You’re definitely not the first control freak author that we’ve talked to. There’s a lot of people who have trouble handing that off to a team, but it’s true what you said. Like, you do kind of have that emotional connection to your work, and it’s hard for an agency to replicate that when they’re working with a bunch of other accounts. So, that’s a good point. It’s like your baby, so you know the most about it.

Mark: Yeah, even when I’ve run ads with AMG, which is a big Amazon kind of division where they kind of run the really big spending campaign suite, they didn’t work either. So, it’s kind of not as well as they used to. So, it is frustrating, but that’s how it is. And you’re right. I think a lot of the good successful that I know too are very reluctant to hand stuff off. And so I am seeing quite a lot of kind of husband-wife partnerships these days where the wife often is the excellent writer and the husband is happy to run the business for her. So, people like Lucy Score and her husband, they took our courses six years ago when she wasn’t selling anything, and I can’t even think about how much she’s doing now but her husband runs the business for her so she can write, and it’s a really good team. And we see that quite a lot now, which is a pretty cool trend.

Tara: I think that also brings an additional level of kind of authenticity to the courses that you’re doing as well, because you know this stuff inside and out. You’re literally doing it to run your publishing business. So, I think that that’s probably just an additional helpful thing for any authors that are kind of wondering whether they should jump into it or not. I know we kind of… Maybe this is a silly question about what is considered a good ad. I mean, obviously, a good ad is something that will sell a book, but what’s a metric that you think is really important? How should an author know if their ad is working per se?

Mark: It’s return on investment, and that’s the only one that really matters. So, provided you’re making more than you’re spending. That’s a good ad. I mean, one of the other important numbers that actually I got lots of help from Kobo back in the day because Amazon wouldn’t tell me this but Kobo did. I wanted to know what my read-through rate was. So, in other words, if you as a reader buy Book 1 and I’ve got a series of 10 books, the actual value of that sale is probably not… Unless I’m a really, really bad writer and you hate me so much, you’re never going to buy another book again. The value of that sale is actually how many books on average that reader would go on to buy. That’s critically important, because if, say, the sale of Book 1 is not 70% of $2.99. Let’s say you buy on average four books, maybe it’s $12 or $13. All of the other decisions you make with regards to how much you can spend to get that first sale changed. So, I’ve seen authors…maybe they think they’re spending $3 to make $2, and they kill that ad because they think it’s losing the money where in fact they might be making quite a lot of money because readers are going on to buy the other books. I think read-through is very important and then you combine that with the spend to get the return. And those two numbers will probably be the ones that are most important.

Laura: And how often would you say authors should be going in to, kind of, check their ads and potentially tweak them?

Mark: It depends on personal situations. I mean, if you don’t have a huge budget, you probably need to be in there quite often because, for example, if you tell Facebook you want to spend $20, it will spend $20. It might actually spend a bit more than $20. So, you want to make sure that you’re in control of the budget. Amazon’s a little bit different because it’s based on clicks as opposed to impressions.

But, yeah, I mean, I think especially in the early days when you’re kind of getting started, it is quite time-intensive because you’ve got to find the right combination of image and text and copy and the one that works best and audience. But once you have that nailed and if it’s going well, you can sit back a bit and, kind of, let it do its thing. But I’ve probably checked my ads every couple of days. And in the moment, I’m doing quite a big campaign for one of my books, so I’m checking it every day, maybe a few times a day, but that’s a little bit unusual.

Tara: And would you be tweaking it or you’re just in there just to make sure that it’s steady?

Mark: For the Amazon campaign, I am tweaking it, so I’m kind of looking at keywords that are too expensive or they’re spending but they’re not converting and I’ll kill those one by one to try and narrow it down to the ones that are working. With Facebook ads, it’s actually quite good now at doing the test for you so you can run things like dynamic creative that you can give it a few options of all the main components of the ad and it will fire out lots of variations and find the one that it thinks is best. And it is becoming more accurate at predicting that.

So, I mean, at the moment, I fired one up yesterday and the clicks are like 8 cents, which is about the lowest I’ve had for a long time, which I’m usually low, and it’s selling books. So, I’m kind of gradually increasing the spend on that one too to try and keep that momentum going. But, yeah, I mean, if it wasn’t working, I’d be going in and tweaking it manually to see if I could find a combination that worked.

Tara: It’s those robots. They know how to sell books. They’re figuring it out.

Mark: They do, they do. Also, weirdly, ChatGPT pretty good at advertising. So, the other day I… Actually, for this campaign, I just thought, “I wonder how good it is.” So, I said, “Look, I’m writing a book like this. Here’s the blurb.” So, I upload that and then I said, “I want to run a Facebook ad campaign. Can you give me some copy for it? Five variations of the copy, five variations of the headline, and give me some ideas for targetable interests.” And it spat out everything. It was really good.

That ad is now… So, the machine gave me all that. I then fed it into Facebook’s machine, and it’s optimizing that for me. And it is, as I said, working quite well, which is… As AI becomes more and more powerful, those are the kinds of things that I think it’s going to be good for. Not necessarily for the writing but for kind of the marketing tasks. I think it could be really, really helpful.

Tara: Yeah, that’s super interesting. Make sure you don’t accidentally say, “Write the next book.” You’d be like, “Oh, my God, it’s a robot-written thing.” But I do agree. I think that there’s room for us to use and leverage these tools in ways that are probably for you, as a writer, maybe the most boring part is trying to come up with the ad copy or the summaries or things like that.

Mark: Yeah, but it’s good at blurbs as well. I mean, I find that hard. It’s difficult. I can do a 90,000-word novel but a 250-word blurb is a different skill and I’m not great at it. But I wouldn’t say ChatGPT is great at it, but it will give you a decent first stab that you then… I mean, you’ll probably change almost everything in it, but it’s nice to have something to work with rather than having a blank screen. So, yeah, and I’m noticing it’s getting better at doing that over time, so it won’t be that long I suspect before it will actually do a serviceable blurb that you can use, which again that’s going to be good for saving time.

Tara: Definitely. Definitely agree. Do you change your ad tactics by format or do you just treat it as “this is the book” in all formats or does your ad look slightly different for audio than it does for ebook or print?

Mark: I don’t do too much on audio because I have a deal with a production house actually in the UK and the U.S. So, they do all of that. So, I think the royalty I get is not as generous as I would get if I did it myself, so it makes it a little bit more punchy to try and get that to convert and possibly a little bit too hard for me to do that without losing money.

But, yeah, I mean, the most obvious format that we’ll see variation is translations. I do a lot of sales in Germany and so all of those ads obviously need to be in German. And given that I don’t speak any German, that has been something of a challenge. So, I mean, my translator needs to be on hand to help me with that. Although, again, I mean I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but ChatGPT can speak German as well, so that’s another useful thing you can use although the problem is you don’t really know because I don’t speak German. I don’t know how well it speaks German. So, yeah, that will be a thing. But, no, generally I think the ad doesn’t…the format doesn’t matter too much. The ad is the ad, and it will probably work across all formats.

Laura: Is there one mistake that you’re kind of seeing authors make over and over again with their ads? Because sometimes they hear from a lot of different indie authors that their ads just aren’t working. So, I wonder if it’s something that’s consistent across different authors.

Mark: Yeah. As kind of touching on something I said before, they don’t really know if the ads are successful or not, so they think that they’re not, and they probably are when you take into account kind of the read-through and the associated purchases. I also see, especially with Amazon ads, a lot of people are just kind of throwing up hundreds of ads over a short space of time, and most of those ads are not relevant and they don’t understand how the algorithm works. So, if Amazon sees you chucking up tons of ads and it isn’t producing a result that’s satisfactory for the reader, the customer, those ads will be deprecated by the algorithm. And I don’t know this for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual ad account level gets dinged as well. So, I think that’s quite dangerous.

And also people who ignore the sales…they think the sales dashboard is inaccurate and they just ignore it and just look at, kind of, the actual dashboard of sales, which doesn’t take into account things like organic sales, other promotions. It’s a very risky way of doing things that I wouldn’t recommend, but I do see quite a lot of people doing that. And then they’ll come to us with an ads dashboard that looks like a car crash, and it’s really difficult then to kind of look at a car crash and try and find out the kind of nuggets of useful data because it’s just swamped by everything else. So, that’s not an approach that I would recommend as being a particularly good idea.

Tara: Are you kind of always going to be… I mean, like you were saying that the ads are essential to being an indie author now, so the expectation would be that you’re always sort of tipping away with ads in the background and then sort of ramping it up for whenever you have a release. So, do you sometimes see authors where they could potentially do a month-long ad campaign and be disappointed because that’s all they’re doing?

Mark: Yeah. I mean, I’m running ads all the time every single day. And those ads almost always go to either the first book in the series that I’m advertising or the first box set because just thinking of my own behavior as a consumer is, if I see an ad for Book 6 with a series I haven’t read before, I’m probably not going to buy it because I might perhaps, if it looks interesting, do my own research and find Book 1, but I’d much rather see an ad for Book 1 and then make the decision to go on and buy the others. So, I think that is quite important.

And the other thing about digital, which is really cool, is that there’s an infinite backlist, infinite shelf space, so you don’t need to worry about not being stocked because your book will always be available. And the first book in the Milton series is about eight years old now. And I’ve sold millions of copies of it, but I still haven’t touched the surface of the full potential of the audience. No one knows who I am outside of our little space or hardly anyone. And for everyone who sees those ads, that book might as well have been published yesterday because it’s a new book and they’ll see that and go, “Oh, great, there’s 20 books in that series. I love a long series. I could lose myself for the summer in these books.”

So, that’s why those are kind of background residual ads, always firing, always sending it out to people who hopefully haven’t seen me before or maybe have seen an ad before but didn’t just for whatever reason weren’t ready to make a purchase that time. Maybe not even the second time or the third time. Maybe the fourth time they see the ad or the 10th time, it’s been in their head and they’re like, “I remember that. I’ll give it a try now.” Then it’s on me as a writer. So, my kind of role as a marketer finishes at that point, and my skill as a writer in hooking you and getting you through that book and tempting you to buy the next one and the next one and the next one becomes more important.

Tara: I liked your post recently where you kind of didn’t take your own advice and you had ads in the tube.

Mark: Oh, yeah.

Tara: I’m just curious, how did those perform or was that just something as kind of like a life goal that you wanted to kind of check?

Mark: Vanity. I didn’t pay for them, which helps because I’ve no idea how they performed because you can’t track it. So, that’s the thing I don’t like about it is that it’s up there and people… You’ve got to pay for it, but you’re paying for everyone who’s looked at it. So, you’re not even… I can’t zero in on people … or even people who read. So, anyone on the train can go past it. Maybe the 5% of people who see it will be interested, but I’ve got to pay for 100%.

So, I don’t think they’re a very good investment. I suspect they don’t work as well as some people might think that they do, but on the other hand, as you say, it was a bit of a life goal and I did get to have a picture of me standing in front of it, and that was quite fun. Would I do it again? Probably not, but I can tick that one off.

Tara: Okay. I was just wondering. I was like, “Maybe it was super successful and you found this whole new thing and there’s a reason why there’s always ads on the subways.”

Mark: I think what it was good for is it was an image that I could use in social posts, right? So, I posted it on… In fact, I’ve posted it quite a lot because it’s a Richard & Judy Bookclub pick in the UK with the Atticus book at the moment, which is pretty cool. And I’ve been able to post pictures of me standing in front of a display with that book standing in front of a billboard and just posting those organically to my Facebook channel. It’s had 1,500 likes, something like that, which is very, very high, much higher than normal. And so I think I’ve probably… I would’ve got bang for my buck by repurposing that, but I don’t think, if I hadn’t done that, it would’ve moved the needle at all. It may have done it with everything else taken into account.

Tara: The Richard & Judy Bookclub pick is huge. Like, how did that come about? Was that through a publisher? Is that kind of like just the same way we think traditionally it works?

Mark: I had to sacrifice a goat in the garden. No, it was… So, I’m published. I have a deal with a publisher called Welbeck in the UK. It’s a weird deal. So, it’s print-only, which is kind of the holy grail. I still don’t understand why publishers don’t offer that more often with really, really big selling indie titles that have got thousands of reviews, tens of thousands of reviews, and are loved by readers. Why they don’t go, “Well, this is basically a no-brainer. This will work in print. De-risk it,” but, but they don’t do that.

But I was able to get Welbeck to do it because the guy who runs Welbeck loves the Milton books and is now a friend of mine. So, they have a sales team. They put the Atticus book up for Rich & Judy, and apparently, I don’t know how much of this is true, Rich & Judy do read the shortlist and liked that book and picked it. So, that has been really good fun the last month or so, because the store that’s associated with it in the UK is WHSmith, which is a really big chain, and it’s everywhere. I mean, every single store has it, which is kind of… I’ve never had that before. And it’s kind of another life goal is to kind of stand in a store and watch someone pick my book up and go buy it. And that has happened now, which it never happened before. So, will it make me a lot of money? I don’t think it will, but is it another kind of validation? And not just for me, but I think for indies generally it’s a sign that some of the things that we always thought were outside of our reach are probably not outside our reach anymore.

Tara: Nice. That’s great to see indie authors doing that. I just want to explain, maybe Laura, you don’t know who Richard & Judy are, I’m thinking. They’re massive in the UK and Ireland. They’re very well-known of just these TV stars that host this huge book club, and it’s incredible that Mark’s book as an indie as well has been chosen.

Mark: Yeah, the analog would be Oprah in the States. Not quite as big as the Oprah’s Book Club, but it is big over here.

Laura: In my head, I was comparing it to like Reese Witherspoon’s book club or something like that.

Mark: Yeah, very, very similar. Yeah.

Laura: That’s awesome. Another bucket list item checked off.

Mark: Yeah.

Laura: I want us to talk about your newsletter list a little bit. So, how important is your newsletter list in your marketing strategy and do you find that the same techniques still work for that like offering a free first-in-series or novella? Is that still helping you build your list?

Mark: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s the most important thing I have. So, the ability to reach readers when I want on my terms without relying on a third-party, could be Amazon, could be Facebook, whatever, is incredibly valuable. And you can do things with a listing, clever things like building lookalike audiences with Facebook ads, and all of that kind of stuff is extremely, extremely valuable.

Do the same tactics work? Yeah, they definitely do. I mean, one thing I’d say for authors is you want to be focusing as many…you want to get as many avenues for readers to follow to get to your list as possible. So, it could be end of book, offer them something, advertising, offer them something again. You know, I think you have to give them something these days. And the days unfortunately are long gone where you could just say, “Join my list for news about my new releases,” because people get that a lot all the time. And they’re very protective of their inboxes. They don’t want to be spammed. All of that kind of stuff is really, really relevant. So, you got to make it worth their while to take a chance. But, yeah, it definitely does still work.
And we’ve seen that with… We have a little business called Hello Books as well, which is kind of a book promotional service, and we build our list that way as well. So, it’s a bigger scale that can work pretty effectively.

Laura: What sort of frequency does your newsletter go out on? Are you still kind of having a conversational or is it business? Is it down to like, “Here’s my book”?

Mark: Yeah, until recently, like this year, it was kind of once a month if I could but definitely once a release, maybe five or six a year to 12 a year. But I have tried this year to go weekly, and it can be a little bit difficult because what you’re doing is send something when you’ve really got nothing to say. So, it’s like last week was, “Writing a book this week,” and then this week, “Still writing that book.” It’s quite difficult to kind of say that without people going, “This is really boring. I’m going to unsubscribe now.”

So, I’m not sure I’ve completely nailed it yet, but probably I’d say bimonthly to maybe three a month at the moment if everything is in alignment, so I’m not too busy with other things and I’ve got something that I want to say. So, yeah, I’ve taken inspiration from other authors, typically romance authors, who are usually much better at doing this than anybody else. And a lot of the authors I’m following have a really good tone of voice. They know what their readers want. And even if they don’t have anything to say about a new book, they can talk about something in their lives, which is I think is a very useful thing to do as a writer to show readers that you think about the same things as they do, and you’ve got relevant news, and you share, and you’re open. And all those kinds of things definitely help when you’ve got something that you want to sell.

Tara: I know we’re seeing more and more authors kind of take the hybrid route with having maybe one of their series traditionally published, or maybe it’s just like you’re saying a print format or anything. And I know that the marketing is heavily on the author regardless of how you’re being published. So, could authors use…like, is building a newsletter a really good leveraging tool with trying to get different publishing deals you think?

Mark: Absolutely. I mean, that’d be one of the first questions that you get asked these days. If you’re submitting or you’re you’re trying to get a deal, publishers will ask what size of channels do you have? Do you have a newsletter? What’s your Facebook like? What’s TikTok like? These are increasingly, increasingly relevant. So, yeah, if you want to go for a deal, all of the things that we use as indies will be very advantageous for you in the other side of things as well.

Tara: So, you’re doing all of this all together. You have your self-publishing show live that’s coming up as we’re recording in a couple of weeks but will be available digitally when this goes out. How do you balance doing this, like writing a weekly
newsletter, writing a book, doing all of your own ads, taking the tube to see your ad? How do you balance everything?

Mark: It’s quite difficult because we’ve also got… Fuse Books is a little publisher that I run with James. We publish four authors…well, six now. Hello Books, as I said, is a promotion business. There’s SPF and … . It is a lot. I mean, the book side of things, there’s only me. So, the kind of … which is my kind of imprint that I don’t have anyone working with me apart from my designer, my editor who are contractors. They’re not employed. SPF, there’s probably about 10 of us now. So, Catherine runs the live shows. So, I don’t need to do really much more than just show up, say hello, and then clear off again. I don’t have too much to do on that. Courses and things. Yeah, those are things that I do, so when we need to rerecord them, that is a fairly big time suck. That might mean I don’t write for two or three weeks, which makes me quite antsy, but that’s got to be done.

So, yeah, it is a question of delegating where you can, getting good people you can trust to do the work for you and with you, and trying to be productive as well. I’ve got two kids as well and a dog. So, there’s a lot going on. But also these are all first-world problems, and I absolutely love all of that. I really enjoy everything I do, and I’d much rather do that than commute from Salisbury to London every day to do a job where I don’t see my kids very much. And so I’m not complaining, but it can be a bit of a juggle sometimes.

Laura: And what’s up next for you and where can authors go to learn more about your Facebook ads course?

Mark: So, up next, the show is coming up. The Ads for Authors course will probably be out again in the late summer or autumn. If you want to find out about the books, it’s markjdawson.com. If you want to find out about Self Publishing or the podcast or the show or the courses, it’s selfpublishingformula.com, and I think it’s a pretty decent website and everything should be obvious as to where you find what you need.
Laura:And that excellent podcast.

Mark: Well, not as good as yours, but it’s we have fun.

Tara: Oh, look at us. We’re just batting back and forth the compliments. So, thanks. Oh, well, thanks so much, Mark, for joining us. It’s been super insightful and really appreciate you taking the time to chat.

Mark: Thanks, guys.

Laura: Thank you for listening to the Kobo Writing Life Podcast. If you’re interested in picking up Mark’s books, we will include links in our show notes. If you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. Be sure to follow us on social media. We are @kobowritinglife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.

Tara: This episode was hosted by Tara Cremin and Laura Granger with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. And our theme music was composed by Tear Jerker, and thanks to Mark for being a guest. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.

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