By Jay McGregor
The London Book Fair lands on an unusually sunny three days in the capital. The scorching rays – rarely seen at all, let alone in April in the UK – seem at odds with a closed-off indoor book fair. But that hasn’t stopped scores of page-turner enthusiasts scouring the giant exhibition centre’s main floor, looking for publishers to schmooze, books to buy and advice to receive.
It’s the advice from authors who’ve ‘made it’ that seems to resonate most with attendees. Seminars and workshops are scattered in between the stands – all packed with a baying audience that fire off seemingly endless questions. They’re all trying to piece together an escape route out of the doldrums of full-time work.
One man, Mark Dawson, has a queue of wannabe writers lining up to speak to him as we sit down for an interview. Dawson is one of the self-publishing success stories that Amazon likes to wheel out when journalists like myself come knocking. But Dawson’s success isn’t down to simply publishing his crime-thriller series and hoping for the best.
Dawson has become an entrepreneur. With the self-publishing platform, he had no choice. The tactics he employed to promote his series aren’t game-changing, or even particularly clever, but the scale in which he implemented them is what made the difference.
To date he has sold over 300,000 copies of his series about an assassin called John Milton. Dawson says he pocketed “ six figures” last year and he’s on course to make much more this year. And he’s got plans for bigger and better things for this series outside of print form.
Dawson’s recent success isn’t representative of his time in publishing, however. He actually had a book published by Pan Books called “The Art of Falling Apart” in 2000, which completely bombed. Not because it was bad – ironically it’s now available on Kindle and has 32 five-star reviews out of 39 – but because few people read it or are aware of it. Mark puts the book’s failure down to the publishers inability to promote his work and generate any sort of interest.
He got so desperate to boost sales that he’d visit a bookstore and move his book to a shelf where it was more visible. As you read on you’ll see that this is indicative of Dawson’s personality, and why self-publishing is the perfect platform for someone like him.
His experience with his first book put him off writing for a few years. The amount of effort required simply didn’t translate into real-world results – financial or otherwise. It wasn’t until a friend pointed him in the direction of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing that he decided to dip his feet in for a second time.
Dawson’s first self-published book, “The Black Mile” – a thriller set in London’s West End between 1940 and 1970 – again failed to register. He had a meagre amount of downloads and the book – which required a huge amount of research to write – looked like it was oncourse to be forgotten about like the thousands of other books in Amazon’s sprawling online store.
So he tried something else. He gave The Black Mile away for free. Amazon recommends this as a promotional tool, and it’s one that many try. For most writers the idea of giving away your hard-earned words for free is just plain unacceptable. The language used by Amazon saying that it’s a “promotional tool” is all too common a phrase that anyone who has ever written professionally will hear.
There’s this misplaced, but widespread, idea that writing is easy (a common problem for all creatives) and working for free will give you the platform needed to make money from future works. It’s often peddled by editors looking to make a quick buck from some light exploitation and it’s almost always a waste of time.
Dawson recognises this, but he was desperate to not have another failure under his name. So he rolled the dice and hoped for the best. Fortunately, it worked out.
Rolling the dice
“I remember the day really vividly.” Dawson explained, recounting the moments leading up to finding out how well The Black Mile had done.
“I live in the countryside outside of Salisbury [in the UK] – there are lots of farmers’ fields and one farmer was bringing in his crops. I was cycling my bike and I decided to take a break. I parked my bike, sat down with my back against this tree and got my phone out. Miraculously I managed to get some signal and I thought ‘I’ll check how the book is doing’.
“It had sold 50,000 copies and I was like ‘holy shit!’ that’s unbelievable.”
Incredibly,Dawson had sold 50,000 copies of The Black Mile over the course of a weekend.
But he was immediately presented with two problems. The first was that he’d made no money whatsoever from The Black Mile, a book he’d poured hours of research and travel into. The second was that he had no follow-up book for his new fanbase to dig in to.
It was at this point that Dawson went from being a simple author to an entrepreneur.
“It was a wasted opportunity.” Dawson admits. “ But it did give me a kick up the arse and proved to me that this is legitimate and that I should write a new book, so I did.”
“I wanted to put together something that was a bit easier and quicker write and something a bit more contemporary. So I started writing a series about a character called John Milton who’s an assassin.”
Since Dawson started the John Milton series in June 2013, he has sold 300,000 copies. There are six books in total at around 80 to 90 thousand words per book. Most of which were written when Dawson held down a full-time job and raised two young children.
How does he maintain such a high release-rate? By using his four-hour daily commute to London to write thousands of words a day. As soon as he sits down on the train and opens up his laptop, he’s writing solidly until it’s time to get off.
This sort of dedication is strikingly similar amongst all of the authors I spoke to. It’s not uncommon to meet someone who says they’re writing a book, but the reality is that they – maybe – complete 1000 words every six months. For Dawson and others, they really are writing a book. The reason for this is to keep their fans constantly engaged and busy with plenty of new material, which perhaps partly explains their unique success.
Dawson also credits his success to his unusual attitude towards publishing. He approaches it like a business, one in which writing is just a single cog in the media machine. He engages (responding to all fan messages) with all of his fans and focusses on building a rapport to ensure their loyalty. He holds seminars to give other writers advice and guidance. And through all of these activities, he collects names and email addresses that have amounted to a 15,000 person strong mailing list. It’s through this that he disseminates his new work. What Dawson has done is essentially build a small but loyal community that translates into near guaranteed sales.
To get new readers onboard, Dawson does the usual stuff like getting blogs to review his books. But what he says works the most is Facebook advertising. Dawson is pumping $370 a day into Facebook advertising and he’s receiving double that in return on investment.
The combination of having a loyal fanbase that always leave glowing reviews on your book’s landing page (user recommendations being one of the most powerful forms of marketing), and driving new customers to said books via large-scale Facebook advertising has created a very lucrative business for Dawson. He’s done what he could never do with a traditional publisher because he can exercise complete control over the entire process.