Recently, Forbes ran an article about Mark Dawson with the headline: Amazon pays $450,000 a year to this self-published writer. Today, I interview Mark about how he writes fast, the empowerment of being indie, Facebook advertising and email list marketing.
In the intro I talk about my cycling trip to Croatia which was a much needed rest away from the computer 🙂 You can see some of the photos on Flickr here.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Kobo’s financial support pays for the hosting and transcription, and if you enjoy the show, you can now support my time on Patreon. Thank you for your support!
Mark Dawson is an internationally bestselling thriller author with the John Milton and Beatrix Rose series. He also shares his knowledge with authors at SelfPublishingFormula.com and has a new course about Facebook marketing here.
- How Mark got started in writing back in the late 90s. Traditional publishing didn't quite go how he expected, despite a great advance. Dispirited, Mark stopped writing for a number of years. When he heard about the Kindle and self-publishing, he began to write again, starting slow but then writing nearly a million words in 2014. The number of quality books he produced catapulted him into sales success and then he began to grow his email list at the same time. In Nov 2011, Mark left his job to write full time.
- A comparison of traditional publishing vs self-publishing. The change in mindset Mark has had to go through. The empowerment of going indie. The author can't just write – you have to take control of your marketing and your business as well. The indie way is not for everyone though – it takes a certain personality type.
- How to speed up your writing. Mark's first self-published novel, The Black Mile, took 14 months to write but he began to speed up. His early books were heavy on research in physical locations, but in order to speed up, he started writing the John Milton series which could be researched purely on the internet. Mark was fueled by a huge jolt of enthusiasm based on feedback – both through monthly income and emails from readers that encouraged him to write more, faster. Use Scrivener to roughly outline with key story beats and then just write between them. Don't write to the market – write what you love to read. You can't tell what the zeitgeist will be in 6 months – or even years ahead. We're in this for the long term. Discipline and productivity through repeated routine.
- Growing your audience with email lists and Facebook advertising. We refer back to the interview with Nick Stephenson around Reader Magnets and also Nick's course, YourFirst10KReaders.com. Mark talks about how he uses Facebook ads to get new signups to his list every day, and also to drive sales to his boxsets. He covers how you can do this yourself in his new course about Facebook marketing at SelfPublishingFormula. We talk about how great FB ads can be but also how much testing you have to do in order to optimize your ads. It's a real commitment and you have to be really careful around cashflow. Mark also gives advice on what to email the list once readers are acquired and how to keep the list warm, as well as how to build a street team and what to ask them for.
Transcription of interview with Mark Dawson
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com and today I'm here with Mark Dawson. Hi, Mark.
Mark: Hello, Joanna. How you doing?
Joanna: I'm good. So just a little introduction, Mark is an internationally best-selling, thrill author with the John Milton and Beatrix Rose series, and he also shares his knowledge with authors at selfpublishingformula.com. So we'll be talking about all of that today.
Mark, I think to some people it seems like you've appeared out of nowhere recently, but you've actually been writing a lot longer so I wonder if you could tell us a bit about your writing and publishing journey.
Mark: Yeah, sure. I started writing when I was much younger. I originally wrote something as a middle school student. This is going to date me. I started school in the BBC Micros in the Maths department, and I wrote this absolutely shocking short story that no one will ever read, because, in fact, I think I burnt it. It was terrible.
Then I was first published in '99 or 2000, something like that 15 years ago, and it was a novel called “The Art of Falling Apart”. I was a boy then so this was writing about the music industry because I used to DJ as well quite a lot so that's stuff that I knew.
Then after that I wrote a novel called “Subpoena Colada” so that's sort of set in the legal world. Again, kind of based on some things that I was familiar with.
They did okay and I got nice advances. These days I would have got, they'd have been considered extremely good advances, pretty good for the time. Then the experience was disheartening towards the end. We'll probably get into that later.
The whole thing didn't go quite as I wanted it to so I stopped for ages and then a friend of mine, this would be six or seven years after that, so probably, more actually 2010, 2011, said, “You know about the Kindle?” And I kind of did. It was on my radar but I hadn't considered it properly. I was persuaded by him, he had a novel published and was doing reasonably well so I thought, “Yeah, well I should try this. It seems like a really good way to get directly to readers,” which was always the thing that I struggled with with the old way of doing things.
So I wrote my first self-published novel. It was called “The Black Mile”, which took me about 14 months to write. We'll get onto my acceleration since then but I put it out. It didn't do all that much. I was a bit lazy in those days so I just kind of published it and left it there.
And then one day, or one weekend, I decided I would use the free days that Amazon was giving or still gives, and I remember this really well. It would something like August 2012, I'm going to guess. I live in the countryside, outside Salisbury, in the UK. It was a beautiful day. The farmer was harvesting his crops. I went out for a long bike ride and I remember putting my bike down and sitting against the beautiful old oak tree. Got my phone out and by a miracle I had a signal. I thought, “I'll just check and see how many sales I've got, downloads I've had.”
It was something ridiculous like 50,000 over the weekend. This was in the days when free runs were a bit more powerful than they are today. That was kind of the light bulb moment for me. It was that this is amazing. Even if only 5% of these people actually open the book and read it, that's still an amazing haul for two days worth of meeting nothing at all.
After that, I went into kind of crazy mode. So I wrote another book quite quickly that was, again, very research dependent so it was quite slow for me to do that. It took another nine months to write it. Then after that I was getting more sales and I was starting to do reasonably well and I realized you needed to produce fast so I started, I switched into the John Milton series and the Beatrix Rose series. Books I could write without the kind of time intensive research I was doing.
So I didn't need to go to the National Archive. I didn't need to go to the Colindale Newspaper archives and look at 1940 newspapers, all that kind of stuff. I could do it all on the internet. I could go, use current stories for inspiration and just write. This would be 2014 when people started to hear about me.
I published nearly a million words in 2014 and went from selling a few hundred books in January to tens of thousands of books in December so maybe this multiplied by a factor of 15 and kind of crazy growth but it is doable. We'll probably get into some of the strategies that other people can use to replicate that kind of fast growth.
Joanna: And then you left your job.
Mark: Yeah. I did, yeah. It wasn't like a job I didn't want to leave. I was a lawyer for ages and I did want to leave that because I hate lawyers, basically. Sorry if there are any lawyers listening. I like law but I'm not so keen on lawyers. So I left that 10 years ago, 11 years ago and I went to work for the British Board of Film Classification so I was basically a film censor.
So for the few of you who don't know what that might entail, the kind of short answer is I was paid to watch movies and television for a living. So it wasn't a job. I loved it. I would have been very, very happy to continue. No one leaves the job because it's so, it pays quite well and it's fun. But it got to the stage where, late November, I was making much, much more money from writing than I was from the job and the way I viewed it was I liked my job but I loved writing.
So once the economic stacked up and it was kind of, the decision was accelerated a bit by threat of redundancy and I thought, “Well I'm going to go anyway. If they're going to pay me a little bit of money to go as well, this could be the right time.” And so 20th of November was my last day.
Funny enough, a little anecdote, on the 27th Amazon called me and said, “Mark, there's been a terrible mistake with your Kindle account.” I thought, “No, God. What's wrong?” And they'd actually overpaid me by a huge amount and it was like a five figure overpayment but when they called it was like, “Oh God. They're going to close my account down and I've just quit my job.” I've got two kids under three and all this stuff but it wasn't that. Anyway, that was worrying.
Joanna: Yeah. Wow. I think we'd all like to be overpaid by five figures.
Joanna: But it's interesting because you talk about the advances you had in traditional publishing and what's so funny is the definition of success is quite different, I think. That would be considered a success by a lot of people but you didn't, from what you've said, you didn't really enjoy that experience.
Joanna: And also, your mindset has kind of changed a lot, I think.
So what are the main differences between that old world of traditional publishing and where you are and some of the mindset shifts you've had to go through?
Mark: In the main ways. In the old days you'd write your manuscript, you'd give it to your agent, and the agent would place it. And then that would be that. You kind of, that would be the end of your involvement unless you did a book tour or you did some publication, some kind of, you went in to newspapers, that kind of stuff. That would be the extent of it.
I did do a little bit of radio stuff. They put me on national radio and that kind of thing, which was fun but my involvement kind of stopped as soon as the book hit the shelves. And that was very, very frustrating to me because even, I was like 21, 22 then so a bit wet behind the ears, but I could still see them making terrible mistakes. They just weren't doing things that seemed to me to be really obvious. There was nothing I could do about it. I had no input on the cover. The covers were absolutely diabolical.
I had no input on any kind of promotional marketing, which was funny because there wasn't any. These were very frustrating experiences and it was, the high point of that was seeing my book on a shelf in a book shop. Unfortunately it was on the wrong shelf in the wrong book shop so I would kind of move them around and take them from the bottom, put them on the middle shelf, and the next day of course they'd be back on the bottom again. Then the day after that they'd be gone. So that was really dispiriting.
The difference, the mind shift now is you've got to, you can't… I think when I was younger I had this romantic vision of being an artist and just kind of sitting down and writing 500 words at my leisure while sipping a gin and tonic, all that kind of stuff.
Joanna: That's my day.
Mark: Yeah. It just doesn't work like that. It's not, I mean some people may be very, very lucky and even they get a traditional deal where it just takes off. So look at Terry Hayes last year with “I Am Pilgrim”, a very, very good book, his first book and it's done amazingly well. He probably won't need to do that much again.
But that kind of lightning in a bottle situation strikes once or twice a year and the odds are astronomical. You can't bank on that.
So you've got to work. You've got to, as soon as you finish, as soon as you type “The End” you've got to take one hat off and put your other hat on and you've got to get on to the business side of things. Of course, those roles are concurrent. They don't, once you start doing the business, those run at the same time.
You've got to be prepared to do everything. I love that. I love the total control. If anything goes wrong it's my fault, probably, because I've made an error. So if my cover is wrong it's because I didn't choose the right one or I gave the wrong instructions to my designer. If I'm running an advertising campaign and it loses me money, well that's definitely my fault because I haven't set the campaign up properly. All that kind of stuff, it's completely down to us now and I find that liberating. Not everyone does.
Joanna: I think that's a good point. I'm coming to the conclusion more and more that this isn't actually for everyone.
Joanna: I used to think everyone could do this but I actually don't think they can. I think a lot of people just want to give it to traditional. But you still have an agent, don't you? And you still have connections into that world and you're looking at other deals.
So do you see hybrid as the way forward?
Mark: Yes. For me it is. Everything is on the table as far as I can see. If my agent found me a UK publishing deal including digital rights tomorrow and they paid me enough, I'd do it. And the benefit is these days we can take a year's worth of sales and extrapolate that forward and say, “Well actually are now, I know what they're worth because this is what I can sell. I will sell this many books.”
So if you want to buy my books you've got to beat that, pay me a premium on that. So realistically that's probably not going to happen because for me it would be very high six figures and probably a million pounds to buy those rights. It's just not going to happen because no one really knows who I am in traditional publishing, probably.
Joanna: I think they might be getting to know you. We're going to come back to that. But let's talk about the speed because you mentioned the first book took 14 months. My first book also took 14 months and I've probably sped up to maybe four months but that naturally happens as you write more books, I think. And you put the hours in, like you say. But you write far more quickly than that. So how did you go, I mean obviously you said you removed the research but you still do research so…
…what are your tips for speeding up the books?
Mark: I think, from a general position, one of the reasons last year was so fast for me was because I suddenly got a huge jolt of enthusiasm and that was predicated by the fact that I was getting a lot of external validation I'd never had before. You can measure that in a number of ways. You can measure it crudely by the size of your bank balance and how much you're getting paid every month.
That's a good way to keep score but better than that is how many, I was starting to get some readers going, “I can't believe… I love this book.” I got some last year. It's just unbelievable. I got one, I'll tell you about two. I got one at Christmastime. A guy from Chicago, quite old I think, sent me a Christmas card saying that I had… I think he said he was 80 and he hadn't read anything for 40 years and after reading my books he rediscovered his love of reading.
And he gave me a $20 bill to buy myself a gin and tonic with. That's unbelievable. So I spent that on a book of mine, signed it, sent it back to him so that was the very least I could do.
After that, this year I got someone's, one of my characters in one of my books is suffering from terminal cancer and I got an email from a guy, a very, very senior defense contractor in the States. He had terminal cancer and he said reading my books has given him hours of pleasure and it was accurate. So that's kind of, that's wonderful feedback to get.
So I've started to get that kind of jolt, which is great and I wanted to… I kind of sensed that I was on the crest of a wave and I had to strike. That was, if I didn't, I kind of coasted, which I sometimes have done in the past, then that momentum might pass me by and I just, it would start to be calm again.
So I had to work hard but in terms of practicality, there are some ways I'd say that I use that probably are replicable. I had three hours a day because I was still commuting from London on the train and I've got two small kids. So when I got home, I couldn't write outside of those times on the train. So I can write 3,000 words in three hours without too much bother.
The thing I think that enabled me to do that was using Scrivener and how that enables you to visually see a loose skeleton for your novel.
So I tend to start by having a start point, a middle point, and an end point. I'll have some kind of action beats that I want to hit in between those points. Then it's kind of, I think John Cheever said this, “Writing is like driving cross-country in the dark just with, all you can see is how far your headlights extend.”
So you know where you start and where your destination needs to be and then you just find your way. That's a pretty good analogy for me. If I got bored, if I'm like, “I don't feel like writing dialogue today and I want to write an action scene,” then I'll just jump forward in the plot. I know roughly how it's going to hold together and I'll write that. Then I might think, “Now this dialogue,” and then just being able to jump back and forth like that and be flexible.
Joanna: And how did you… I mean realistically as well, you're writing an assassin, basically assassin series fast-paces action adventure. Very popular genre. We've got to admit that people who are writing in less popular genres won't sell so many books.
How did you decide on which books to write in order to do well?
Mark: I just wanted… There was no scientific formula for that. I just wanted to write something that I wanted to read. So one lesson I can probably impart from what I've done before, after my first two books were published… I was published by Macmillan and they were publishing a guy called Matthew Reilly. You probably…
Joanna: Mm. I love his books.
Mark: He was published by my editor so I looked at his success and I read some of his books and I thought, “That's bloody easy. I could do that in my sleep with my eyes closed.” Course I couldn't.
I tried to do that and I thought, “I'm going to write to the market. These are obviously selling.” I want to get into airport book shops and all that kind of stuff so I spent probably a year writing this absolutely rubbish book that was awful. That's the only time since I've been writing, so in all of my life, it was the only time I actually had to force myself to open the laptop. It was like pulling teeth. I hated it.
I think, some people it may be a little bit different but for me I would say very strongly don't write to what you think people want to read.
Write what you want to read because it's impossible to tell where the zeitgeist is going to be in six months time.
No one would have thought that sexy billionaires were the big thing, like they're going to be, before “50 Shades” here. You know? You can't predict those kind of trends. I think you waste your time if you try and do that and you end up writing something… If you don't enjoy it, it will be very, very obvious in your prose.
Joanna: I agree with you. I often use the romance example. We all know that if you want to sell more books you write romance and write a lot of them but I don't read romance so I'm not going to write romance and you obviously don't either.
Mark: You don't know that 🙂
Joanna: I've read quite a few of your books or maybe you've got another name.
Mark: I couldn't possibly say, “No, I don't.” I have thought about that. My wife's pretty well read and we talked about it once because it is, romance is obviously the big genre everywhere.
Facebook advertisements we'll touch on later. I've seen absolutely stupendous results for romance writers. Ridiculous results. Better than I can achieve writing thrillers. So I was talking to my wife once in the car and she's read much more widely than I have. We were talking about you could take a well-known book or a well-known classic romance novel and update it and people are doing that all the time.
I could write it. We could write it together. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that was a really bad idea because I think I'd hate it. It would be very arrogant of me as well because I don't know the genre. To think that I could suddenly just go, today I'll write “Northanger Abbey” or something. It's ludicrous. It would be terrible. I'm much better writing what I know.
Joanna: I agree. I think that respect for the genre is so important and when people have a go at romance writers as well, I'm just like you guys just don't have a clue because it's very difficult to write within any genre unless you know it. Like you talked about Matthew Reilly. I love Matthew Reilly absolutely and the Scarecrow books. I do want to write something like that but I also want to write like “The Stand” and more horror. So I think that's more important to think about, who you admire.
But I also went to a literary festival the other weekend and it was so interesting. The empowerment level was probably what I would call it;
How empowered indies are compared to traditional. Is that something that you've seen as well as this whole thing has changed your level of empowerment?
Mark: Massively and that's just a function of control and we can do whatever we want. If you're traditionally published, and unless I had a very good deal with Simon & Schuster for the John Milton series and they sold really well and then on the sixth book that comes around I go, “I don't know. I really fancy writing a romance,” they'll tell me where to go because there's no way that that would ever work.
If you're like a super name: Stephen King. Iain Banks; we were the same age and he went from sci-fi to literature on an alternate basis and that worked for him but people, that's a rarity to be able to have that kind of freedom. We can do whatever we want them and if it doesn't work that's our fault as well but at least we could if we wanted to.
Joanna: Yeah. Exactly. And it's more fun that way, I think.
Joanna: The number of authors at this festival were saying, “Oh well I really want to write this but my publisher won't let me.” I'm like, “Won't let you? That's ridiculous.” You don't need to ask permission.
Mark: Yeah. It's funny. We mentioned about this before but you go to those kind of festivals and I've done that, too, because we hang out with other indies. We immerse ourselves in the indie culture and I go slightly more further than that. That's why I immerse myself in internet marketing and all those kinds of things. Understanding things that, to me, now seem second nature because I do them every day but when… I'm paid now. I consult for a traditional publisher so I'm quite expensive. So they paid for me on Friday.
I went in, gave a talk to an agency about the kinds of things that we do now and simple things like putting a call to action at the front and back of the book and that's common knowledge now, knowing the writer is going to be surprised by this. But you kind of see them going, “What? Mailing list? What's a mailing list?”
Joanna: “We don't want to hear from readers.”
Mark: I know. It's ridiculous. It's not their fault. The reason we think it's ridiculous is because it seems too obvious to us because we've all listened to all the podcasts and we've read all the books, and all these kinds of places where we get our knowledge from. And for people who frequent those places it is common knowledge but if you're a traditional publisher, and you're probably too scared to look behind the curtain and see what indies are doing, when you actually are confronted by these powerful techniques, it's kind of like, “Shit. This is unbelievable. What do we…”
Joanna: I was thinking about this, I think it's about skin in the game. The fact is that you and I, every book we write, every advert that works, every person that we email with is potentially a dollar in the pocket whereas most people working for traditional publishers, their salaries are not based on the sales of any particular book.
So actually, when you look, even their sales and marketing people aren't incentivized per book so I think it's that skin in the game is my measurement now.
It's like how do you make your money and is it in any way related to me? Which is why we love Amazon and Kobo and iBooks, all the rest because they make money when we make money. So that's kind of my measurement. I want to ask you about discipline because you worked really hard. When you had a day job you were working on the train.
You now work really hard because you're not at a full-time job but you have more than a full-time job.
How do you balance your time with all these different things and what are your tips on actually getting down to it?
Mark: Balancing is just, I draw up a to-do list of stuff every day and do as much of it as I can. I'm particularly busy at the moment. I'm doing some things outside of my usual run of the mill stuff, which it's fine but it's a real workload.
In terms of balancing creative stuff with business stuff, you've got to examine when you're most productive for those particular tasks.
For me, creative energy is very different from administrative energy. I'm best in the mornings. I'm up at 6:00 every day, get my kids off to nursery and I'm usually writing by 8:00. I'll write through until that creative muscle is a bit tired so maybe I'll write until 11:00 or 12:00. Then I'll stop. I'll probably go for a run. Then I'll come back and I might do a little bit more if I'm in the flow of things but if I'm not then I'll start to do all the admin.
So I'll look at advertising. I'll look at answering emails, corresponding with readers, all that kind of stuff, which I love everything. I love it all but if I did it the other way around I'd be spent by the time I needed to use that energy to write stuff, which at the end of the day, that's really what pays the bills for me is writing new, fresh stuff that I can then sell.
Joanna: No, I agree. So you say you love everything.
Is there anything that you don't like doing, like in everything that we do?
Mark: No, not really. The only thing that I find a bit of a chore, I could systematize this so I don't have to do it so much, but I give away a lot of free books as an incentive to get onto my list. I advertise that and it's on… The CTAs are everywhere to drive people. I probably add 150 people to my mailing list every day so that's great but a lot of my readers, and I know this from surveying them, they tend towards the other end of the spectrum and it's something is not straightforward for everyone. That's completely fine. It wasn't straightforward for me the first time I tried it.
What do I do? Where's the file gone? It's not where it's supposed to be. So that can be testy and in the email that goes out I say, “If you have any problems, please email me. I don't mind,” and so I actively encourage it.
So people do email me quite a lot so I'll probably have five or ten people a day asking me for help to get them onto their device. And it wouldn't just be the Kindle. Using it for everything or PDFs or… So I provide as much as I can. There are links to things like send to Kindle Amazon's funky little email system to send stuff to your Kindle. That's been a godsend. It's made it a lot easier for me but I still get, sometimes I'll get people coming back to me three or four times. I can't do it. I can't do it. I've had some people say, “This is impossible. This is a scam.”
Joanna: I've got the same thing. I think you're right. It will get better, I'm sure, over time but right now people… I'm sure some people listening don't know what sideload means. It just means getting the book onto your device without it magically appearing. Right? Yeah. Where has it gone? Where has the file gone? It's in your download folder.
Mark: Exactly. Yeah. So you have to diagnose that sometimes with limited information so it can be difficult. But then there are other things. My wife is always saying to me, “You need to get a system and you need to get a VA,” and I'm not against that but a lot of the time I spend, a lot of the management and administrative time is corresponding with readers who send me nice emails and I would say one of the best pieces of advice I would give is you have to reply to every single piece of it and you can't send canned responses because it's obvious.
You can't get someone else to do it for you because that's obvious, too. You have to do it yourself. That's a definite drain and there will come a point, probably not miles away for me, that when I just can't do that anymore because I'll end up doing two hours a day every day and I don't, unfortunately there are only 24 hours for me to be…
You know what I'm saying. It's difficult and I'll have to do something to pass that off but I'm fighting as hard as I can because I think one of the reasons I did well last year is because I'm converting all of those people who took the time to write to me, I'm turning them from readers into fans and then I'll offer them a chance to be on my advance team so they become superfans and by the end, hopefully they become friends. That's the, I think that was the process that did most to push me forward last year and I don't really want to give that up. You know?
Joanna: No, I agree. Actually, the one-to-one email between you and your fans and me and my fans is so powerful and I spend a lot of time doing it, too. Actually, it's brilliant because I know, and I've got little notes on people like what their dog is called and –
Mark: Oh, you're good.
Joanna: Well only with the super-fans. Because some people, you just learn more about them over time. I love to, like one guy was in Alaska and he sent me a picture of him on his snowmobile picking up the parcel of my book and I'm like, “That's super cool.”
Mark: That's very cool.
Joanna: That's really cool so to find out stuff like that is just great but you mentioned that adding 150 per day to your list and everyone's going, “Ahh, that's ridiculous.”
How are you adding or how did you start with adding people to your list and how do you do it now?
Mark: The starting point is you've got to have a call to action everywhere you can get it By call to action I mean an invitation field to join your list and you incentivize them with something that people want.
So basically you give a reader a book, or for me, I give away four books. It depends whatever you can give away. You give something away to incentivize them to drive them to join the list, give you their email address.
When I started doing that, that worked very well and then I started to sell or be downloaded in very high numbers and so that is always going to be at the front and back of the book. On every Amazon page I can get it on, it'll be there. It will be on my author page. I've got a video of me on the author page with me telling people please have some free books. So you do that as much as you can.
Then if you get something like a book promotion deal, any kind of advertising where you suspect you'll be driving a lot of eyeballs onto your page, make absolutely sure that the page has that front and center. I'd much rather take subscriber than a sale or download because once I have that person in my list, then I can start to market to them in a way that I control rather than a way that the retailer controls. It's just a much better idea. So that would have gradually increased. I did a few contests to give a big jolt of subscribers but I probably wouldn't recommend that anymore because, for obvious reasons.
Joanna: Freebie seekers. Yeah.
Mark: You're not getting readers necessarily. You get some but you'll get a lot of people who will unsubscribe en masse when you send them something that isn't free and you want to avoid that. I've had my newsletter account suspended right at the start when I didn't know what I was doing and so if that happened it would be a serious problem because that's my big asset is my list.
But these days, the thing that I've discovered, since Christmas really, that's worked really, really, really well is Facebook advertising so that is, it's like a nuclear weapon. When used properly, which I've started to teach people how to do it, but one of the things I started, I think in January, January the 29th it was and I did a six week campaign. I spent $2,000, something like that, and added 4,500 subscribers and I still add, I've dialed it down to about $10 a day now on that campaign now and I still add 30 or 40 subscribers a day even at that low level.
And they're not, they're somewhere in between contest winners and readers who've come in after reading a book so they're quite, they're cold. They're not cold leads and they're not warm. They're somewhere in between. So they won't be quite as reactive in terms of buying behavior as others but they're still quite good and I've done the sums and they certainly bring me more than I've spent to acquire them. So that works well.
One guy I had, he's been following some of the things that I've been teaching, exploded his list from here. Twenty-seven people on his list and he said it took a year and one-half to get 27. He's got 2,600 now. In like a month. It's just amazingly powerful.
Joanna: I would agree with you. I don't think getting people, like if you have a decent giveaway and most people won't have four books to give away but even if you have one, if you have a decent giveaway, nice landing page, easy signup, then getting people in the list is easy enough I'd say.
Joanna: But keeping people on the list and keeping them warm between books, especially if you're not putting out books regularly, what's your advice for what you do with those people? Because so many authors don't know what to talk about to their list or how to keep that list warm.
Mark: Yeah. You can get different advice from different people on this and I've read plenty and seen plenty of authors who will email them every week. Definitely don't, I don't do that.
Joanna: I wouldn't do that. No.
Mark: I wouldn't know what to say for a start and I know that if I was receiving those emails I would unsubscribe fairly quickly so don't do that. Probably don't even email them every month. I'll email them when I've got something that they might like.
So recently all of my Milton books were published audio book by Audible. Audible bought them and then released them all at the same time, so I'll tell them about that because I know that a lot of people were asking me when the audio books were available so that's good information for them. It'll go to promotion on a book. I'll tell them it's 99 cents for a couple days. I'll definitely tell them when there's a new book coming out. That's the kind of, that's my limit.
The only difference, the only exception to that is my street team, my advanced list. I've got about 800 people on that and I will tell them things more often and I'll advance them things more often as well so they get everything. They get all the books for free in advance. Those guys are completely amazing. I love all of them like my children.
Joanna: Maybe not quite the same.
Mark: No, not quite. That was another one of the main things I learned last year was leveraging readers in a street team like that because I can… I remember looking back and I couldn't get reviews. It was impossible.
You need sales to get reviews but you need reviews to get sales. I hadn't actually solved that problem. The answer is you get a street team and you build them up over time.
The last book I launched on a Friday. By the time I properly launched on the Monday I had 150 reviews and 140 were five star reviews. That's just remarkable and I would have sold my grandmother down the river for that if someone said that was possible. I will email those people more often and I will ask, say I've got a, if I want to get a book reviewed, or a book that doesn't have the number of reviews I think it probably needs.
I tend to look at 100 as a minimum. Less is possible. That works for me. If I've got 50 then I'll email them and say, “Look, this is what I'm doing.” If you just explain why you're doing it and why it would be amazingly helpful of them if they did it and how grateful you'd be, people tend to surprise me because I've come to expect it but people, they're nice and they're good and they'll do you something like that because they can sometimes feel invested in your career as well.
If you're giving them books to critique early on they feel invested in that book, especially if you tell them the change they suggested is now has been published, which I do all the time. So those guys I email more often but probably even with them, no more than once a month.
Joanna: Yeah. No, exactly. And to get the street team you have an autoresponder series. Right? Where you tell people things when they automatically sign up.
Mark: Yeah. There's a series of emails that go out. So when the four books that go out a day at a time and then I'll start to, and the autoresponder is switched off for the team now because it's got like 800 people and that's probably enough. But I've got vacancies, that comes, that opens out and I'll get people. You just say, “Would you like to get the books for free in advance?” I don't say it's dependent on anything.
Mark: That wouldn't work for me. Apart from the, having the administrative task of checking, I don't care about that. I'm quite happy to give them a free book and this is how cool they are. Sometimes they'll, apart from critiquing it and fact checking it and stomping on any typos that have got past my editors, when the book is launched they'll buy it, too, because I say, when I tell them it's ready for reviews I'll also say, “If you're able to buy it,” I give it to them at 99 cents, “If you're able to buy it and your review is verified and will carry more weight and it'll be great for me because it starts to trigger the Amazon algorithm.”
I've got 800 on the list and 400 buy it, 400 is enough to get me well up, well into the top 1000 and then when you hit it with your main list, so then I hit it with 20,000 people, you can, I can launch into the top 200 now without too much bother most times.
When you bother to explain why it's important then people will do amazing things for you.
Joanna: I think that honesty and that's, I think, really important and kind of being humble but still asking. I think I've learned that from you and I've bought Amanda Palmer's “Art of Asking” book and I'm reading that and trying to… I think it's partly a personality thing and partly sort of an author thing of feeling like you have to, you don't want to ask people. You think your book should be good enough that they will do it anyway but they just won't. Often this call to action idea that you have to ask will make a big difference.
But I want to come back on Facebook because you're doing a lot of Facebook advertising. It's like the trendy thing right now. It's become the big thing and you've got a course, free videos that people can get at selfpublishingformula.com. Now, I gave it a go.
You showed me and I gave it a go and it's so funny because it makes me miserable. It makes me so miserable to… I don't like Facebook I've said many times. I don't like being on Facebook. I love Twitter. So when I go on Facebook I feel totally negative, just the whole experience. And I know that to be successful you really have to be in there and tracking things like you do very, very well. And part of me thinks, “Don't be such an idiot and just knuckle down,” and then part of me just goes, “Oo, but I don't want to.”
So for people who do like Facebook or people who are willing to double down and do it, what are some of the top things they need to do to get Facebook advertising right?
Mark: I look at, there's two objectives that I look at for advertising on Facebook. The first one is mailing the signups and the second one is driving sales.
For mailing the signups you need to have a good offer so you need to give away something of interest. You've got to target that really specifically and that's the thing about Facebook, which is so stupendous is how laser focused your targets are going to be. My books are compared to Lee Child's books so Jack Reacher, John Milton are similar kind of characters and I can target my ads to people who Facebook knows like Lee Child or Jack Reacher who are between the ages of 40 and 45, female, living in San Diego, if I wanted to be as precise as that.
Targeting is really, really key and there's some amazingly funky things you can do with targeting like building look-alike audiences and custom audiences off your website traffic, all this really cool stuff. So you've got to get that right and that's the technical stuff and that's kind of that bit where the blood comes out of my ears sometimes but I like it. It's fun. Not so much the blood coming out of my ears but you know, you kind of work at that.
Then you've got to think where's the traffic going? So it's got to go onto the landing pages. Your landing page has got to be really congruent with the ad so it's not, there's no dissonance between the two experiences. You make it very, very easy to sign up and the language has got to be right so you don't say things like, “Give me your email address.”
Or even worse, an email box where you put in your email address and then submit. You don't think about it until you actually think about actually that's not really, that's not the word I'm trying to use there. So the way to say it is –
Joanna: Unless it's BDSM erotica.
Mark: Massively. Yeah. Exactly. So for some genres that's probably perfect. Not for the ones that we're writing.
So I'll say, “Where do you want me to send your free books?” You present it to them in that kind of a giving way rather than a taking away so there's a bit of psychology involved but it's not difficult.
So there's that and then for the paid sales it's all about… It works best with boxed sets because there's an expense for advertising that needs to be defrayed by a higher royalty item so I tend to sell $6.99 box sets that give me $5.20 from Amazon and I can get clicks around about 20 or 30 cents per click and I can convert those clicks at around about 10%. So those maths, when they add up, it means I've got to sell one every 11 or 12 clicks.
If I'm converting at 10% then I'm beating that so I'm going to be making every click or every buy after that one buy is making me profit so I can reasonably, reliably every day double my money on Facebook advertising so I invest $300 and I take $600 back, which is, if you can find… If anyone knows a way any other you can get that kind of return please tell me because I'll be on that.
Joanna: Yeah. The reason you're getting that is because you spent a lot of time optimizing every part of that chain.
Joanna: And it's got to be the right targeted advert, the right audience, the right landing page, the right offer. There's a lot of things that have to be exactly right for things to convert at that level. When I went into it, it was like, “Oh my goodness.” You have to get to that point. You have to test so many different variations to get there.
So how long did it take you to optimize, to get in there and optimize it?
Mark: Probably six months, I'd say. So that's how long I've been testing and I've spent a lot of money as well to get to that stage. I know what I'm doing now and I've got, because I'm spending enough money I've got a Facebook rep, which is quite cool. She called me today. They basically just called me to make sure I'm going to keep spending the same amount I think.
If I've got any questions that's really helpful because Facebook can be a bit impenetrable to see how their algorithms work. But yeah, I taught myself how to do it. I listened to a lot of podcasts. I did a lot of testing. I read lots of books and that kind of stuff, which is, and I do quite like spreadsheets and stuff like that, which is not for everyone. But you do need to have, I think if you don't enjoy it then maybe get someone to do it for you.
Joanna: Mm. I have been thinking about that but then to pay somebody else to do it for you then you really have to have something that converts well because your profit will be lower.
Joanna: There's been changes with, probably one of the big problems with Facebook. I think everybody knows now it's a pay to play platform.
Joanna: Like it's really changed. There's almost no point in having your own page because then trying for organic traffic just doesn't work. So if it's pay to play and you know that, oh I've lost my train of thought now. What was I going to say?
Mark: Organics definitely have changed. A year ago you probably, if you did a normal post, you'd probably get penetration of 20% to 30% delivery to your fans. It's probably about 2% to 3% now so they've really throttled it. But there are ways to bring that up again. So if you get high engagement on your post, so one of the things I do, every Thursday I have throwback Thursday on my fan page and I put stupid pictures of me as a child up.
Joanna: How do you have all of those? People didn't have cameras when we were young.
Mark: My mom has kept everything so she's got loads of these things so my dad scans them. I put them up. I'm not afraid to laugh at myself. They get massive engagement so I've got, I think, 5,000 people on my, as Facebook fans. The last one was seen by a fifth of them so that's great.
That means the next time I post something, Facebook knows I'm an engaging poster so that means I get a bit more organic reach than would normally be the case. So you can kind of… It's not gaming it. I understand where they're coming from. They want, it's all about the user experience at Facebook so they want people to get the kind of stuff they like and engagement is a good way to demonstrate that. That's also true for their ads. Ads are cheaper the more engaging they are so the more likes, the shares you get, the cheaper the CPC, cost per click, will be.
Joanna: Really? See, and this, what I was going to say was that the algorithms, given that they change things so regularly, things that might have been working one day then just stop working.
You have to monitor it every day really. Don't you?
Mark: Yeah. You do. Before we got on the call, at 2:00 I always check. It doesn't take very long. I check on Facebook for basically what the clicks are costing me and I use affiliate links on Amazon to confirm that those links have generated a number of sales. It's just a question of dividing one by the other to get your ad spend and your revenue and find the return. So as long as I keep going in there in the black, I'll keep spending the same or maybe increase it a bit.
Joanna: Mm. We should also say on the cash flow, obviously you have to pay Facebook when you hit a limit or at the end of the month. Is that right?
Mark: Yes. Exactly.
Joanna: Whereas you get your income from Amazon sixty days later.
So you have to be really careful with cash flow on those two.
Mark: Yes. That's a good point. One of the people in my group, she is just amazing. She had a box set. She's an erotic romance author so she's in that kind of sweet spot of hot genre. She was making, I think, $200 a day on this one box set and last month she made $18,000 after doing what I suggested. She had to stop because she couldn't afford the cash flow. So she'll get all that money in two months time, in which case, if she's sensible she'll –
Joanna: Turn it back on again.
Mark: Turn it all, probably take half of that money, reinvest it and then double that, etc., etc. But until then she's got to turn them all off so that must be very frustrating. I'm a little more fortunate than that because I've got, I'm making enough from general sales to be able to not worry about that so much.
Joanna: I think it's important for people to know, you have, all these things, you have to be very careful. You can lose your shirt –
Mark: Absolutely. Yeah.
Joanna: – on advertising.
Mark: It's not easy and it's not guaranteed so, and Facebook is really, really good at just charging your credit card. All right? As long as, there are a lot, it also gives you lots of information so it's not disreputable in any way. As long you are sensible and you don't, and you set small budgets, you can set it to like a dollar and leave it at that.
Joanna: I think I'm very risk averse so I've made the point. Everyone has heard we've put some disclaimers around this but you do really well and you are helping people do really well.
Tell people about the Self-Publishing Formula course and what they can find there.
Mark: At selfpublishingformula.com is a bit you sign up and I'll give you three videos that will demonstrate in a way that actually works. I'm not holding stuff back, how to use those ads to grow your mailing list. So that's the information that guy I mentioned earlier used to go from 27 to 2,500 and none of that is paid. That's all available for free and anyone can take a lunge at that.
But the full course, which I think will be available when this is live, will be much more in-depth and will cover the thing that probably most people are most interested in, making money from advertising. So how do you sell box sets? How do you sell lower price items? Is it possible? Where do I get good images from? Loads of stuff. It's really, I've been working with some guys from the BBC who are doing all the technical stuff because I'm actually lazy and they're better at it than I am.
So it looks really nice. I'm proud of it. I think it's got a lot of really useful stuff that I would have paid a lot of money to get because it would have short-circuited all that research and expense that we mentioned earlier to get to where I am now. It's not easy. It's not going to make it, it's not a slam dunk but it will shortcut a lot of that hard work.
Joanna: It's called Self-Publishing Formula but is it about self-publishing or it's mainly now about paid advertising?
Mark: There'll be other courses but I think that's the brand, Self-Publishing Formula will be the brand. To be honest, when I scoped it out I was much, much more ambitious, like a real A to Z and I completely underestimated how much work it was.
So after banging my head against the wall, the thing that everyone wants to talk to me about at the moment is Facebook. So that's a pretty big subject in itself and it just made more sense to concentrate on that. That's definitely where the demand is.
If it does well then I'm very good on launching books. That's another thing I'm quite pleased and proud of and that's on launching or mailing list or all that kind of stuff but for now it's for folks on advertising.
Joanna: And I think it's great that you recognize that and I've done courses, too, as we've talked about. What's so funny when you try and break down what you know is you realize that you know quite a lot and I, again, circling back to the traditional publishing people at the literary festivals, there were questions. Somebody said, “Well I thought you made more money from print book than ebooks.” It's just like, stuff like that. Basic things that we know that we've learned as indies, so many people just don't know.
So when you try and teach it you realize how much we've learned over the years. So I hope everyone listening, give yourself a pat on the back. How much we've all learned in quite a short amount of time, essentially. We're running this business that is pretty much the same as a traditional publisher but better.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. We are in the vanguard of a revolution and that's the way I look at it. This is, there's too much momentum now for this to change. This is the way publishing will be going forward.
We look at author earnings as obviously that's happening and we are right at the front of that. Even if someone listening to this has just listened to it for the first time, you're already ahead. The fact that you found a podcast like this, you're already ahead of probably 95% of the industry. That's just how it is.
Joanna: And it's hard to remember that. I've been doing this since 2008, back in the day with Lulu. You know, before the Kindle and everything and it's kind of weird to think that we're at the front. But I agree with you. I think we're still in the toddling years I would say. We're still early but it terms of global we haven't even started on the global kind of scene, have we? I mean it's crazy what's going to happen.
Actually, and talking about that because I met quite a big name author.
What's starting to happen is these big name authors are starting to go indie
They might not be talking about it publicly yet because they're still embarrassed and they don't want to piss off their publishers but what he was saying, interestingly, was watch out indies because once the big names start putting their back list up we will lose out to the big names. So stop telling everyone about it. What do you think about that?
Mark: Can I, should I be polite? Yeah. I think that's –
Joanna: Try not to swear.
Mark: I won't swear too much. No, I think, I don't mind competition. It's fine. If he or she prices at $4.99 or $5.99, I'll price it at a dollar less than that. You know? There's definitely, there are things coming down the track that are going to make it more competitive. That's for sure but it's not as if there's a shortage of readers.
Joanna: No. They're growing every month.
Mark: Exactly. I'm very enthused about the reading. You mentioned different markets, things like Germany. That's probably the next one. We look at China.
Mark: Nigeria, exactly. All these places and as you've mentioned before and it's absolutely right, skipping desktop, going straight to digital, straight to having a book in your pocket by one press of a button. It's a massive expansion of the readership, probably unprecedented in human history in terms of getting content to readers with no friction. That's very, very exciting. And I think you're right. There's definitely going to be a big author, by which I mean a really big author. If I were Stephen King I would be like, why am I giving them… He's only getting 30% as royalty or something like that.
Joanna: He's probably getting much more. He probably gets like 70%.
Mark: Yeah. Exactly. But there was someone of that kind of stature, he was getting less than 70%. At some point I think, “Why do I need them to do that for me anymore?” Maybe I'll need to hire someone to take care of the technical side but I'll be very attracted by the difference in those royalties. And it will only take someone of that kind of ilk…
Joanna: It's funny though because J.K. Rowling has done this.
Any J.K. Rowling ebook goes straight to Pottermore which is her self-published company essentially. But people forget that I think.
Mark: Yeah. Yeah. I had forgotten. She's a visionary and good for her. That was extremely prescient on her part.
Joanna: Exactly. But yeah, another big name would be good. You know?
Mark: The thing is that wasn't really a massive news story that she did, let's say Barry Eisler, for example, turning down half a million dollars to go indie. That was a story but think what that will be like when someone of King's standing goes, “Actually, I'm going to turn down $3 million,” or more. James Patterson suddenly goes, “I'll do this myself now,” and he's the kind of guy who'd do it.
Mark: Just put it out himself and then that could be the kind of, another tipping point. We've had a series of tipping points and that might be the next one.
Joanna: Yeah. And I'm with you. We, what I love about our kind of movement, it's pretty much a movement now, isn't it? Is that we are all stay positive and glass half full, glass almost completely full type people and it's a brilliant time.
So, right, where can people find you and your books online?
Mark: Okay. So if it's for books and to see how I run mailing lists and branding and all that kind of stuff then go to markjdawson.com.
For the course it's selfpublishingformula.com and if you want to get in touch with me I do answer everything. So if you join the list just reply to one of the emails that you'll get automatically sent. You'll get a personal email from me unless my wife beats it into me I can't do that anymore but for the foreseeable future it will be me, and not some VA in the Philippines.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well thanks so much for your time, Mark. That was great.