How can you write what you love and still aim for bestseller status? How can you combine craft and business in your writing life? Suzy K Quinn answers these questions and more in this fascinating interview.
In the intro, entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers sells $250K worth of ebooks and audiobooks direct from his website [Sivers]; Amazon Decoded by David Gaughran; 150 Self-Publishing Questions Answered by Michael La Ronn and ALLi; The Ultimate Collection of Audiobook Marketing Examples from BookBub Blog; 6 Figure Author Podcast episode 50 on taking your author income to the next level. Plus, ARKANE Thriller #11, Tree of Life, is now available for pre-order.
Today's show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
- The definition of a bestselling book
- Does writing a bestseller mean you have to write to market?
- Hooking readers with a strong book package
- The importance of communicating how people are going to feel when they read a book
- The long term view of building an author brand
- What the future of publishing might look like
[Note, I am not an affiliate for this course. I took it myself and thought it was super useful, so I wanted to tell you about it!]
Transcript of Interview with Suzy K Quinn
Joanna: Suzy K. Quinn is the bestselling author of romance, comedy, and thrillers. She also teaches a course on how to write a bestseller for Mark Dawson's Self-Publishing Formula, and it is a fantastic course. I've taken it myself and we're talking about it today. Welcome, Suzy.
Suzy: Hi, Jo. How are you doing?
Joanna: I'm good. Thanks for coming on the show.
First up, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Suzy: I've been writing for years really. Probably the same as you. I reckon it's a really common story with most writers. You start as a kid when you were sort of seven or eight, you start writing stories and then you just carry on with it really. So, it's quite hard to pinpoint. Isn't it?
When you first identify with writing as a career, it usually comes in bits and pieces. I was a journalist first. And then I was always writing books sort of in the background. And then I was first published when I was 30 with Hodder & Stoughton. And just kind of went from there really. So, it's been a while, but it's been a lot of fun mostly.
Joanna: Mostly! The course is fantastic as I said. Let's get into it. Because I feel like the word bestseller has a lot of issues for people and that people have different ideas of what bestseller is.
What are we really aiming for when we say bestseller? Is it the orange label or is it breakout Dan Brown-style sales?
Suzy: When you say issues with people, would you mean in terms of how it's quantified? Is it that people would have an issue with what would be termed a bestseller? Like some people might think it's one thing. Some people might think of something else?
Joanna: Yes. What are you defining it as?
Suzy: In the publishing industry, let's say a bestseller is a hundred thousand copies per book, so a best selling book will be seen as in the publishing industry as a hundred thousand copies has been sold. But even the publishing industry themselves say that's quite a loose definition. So it's a little bit wishy-washy. If you've been on the New York Times bestseller list or you're visible in the charts, I think it's reasonable to say you're a bestseller. But I would, in my head, the standard definition is a hundred thousand copies.
Joanna: And over what period?
Suzy: I don't think it matters really. If you sold a hundred thousand copies, it's seen as the bestseller book from a publishing industry point of view. What do you need the definition for? Is it so that you can feel the authors can give themselves a badge to say that they've been a best selling author?
Joanna: I think what's interesting is within the indie author community, if you get to number one on Amazon in a subcategory, you will get an orange label on your book that says ‘bestseller.'
Suzy: I wouldn't have thought many people even in the indie community would term themselves a bestseller on that basis. I think you'd say you were a bestseller in the such and such category, you were parenting bestseller or you were a romantic comedy bestseller. I'm going to guess most people wouldn't call themselves a bestseller if they're in the category.
Joanna: Many people listening, including myself, have never been in traditional publishing (in the English language). So, I didn't even know that a hundred thousand copies per book was what traditional publishing call it. I guess I wanted to get clear at the outset that this course is not about category hacking on Amazon, which is something that indie authors get obsessed with, but that's not what you're talking about.
You're actually talking, I think, more about a breakout success, which would be noticed across the publishing industry, which is fantastic.
Suzy: Yes, the level of book that would earn you a really good income. That's really how I would personally define it. So, you're able to sell books consistently that earn you a really decent living and not a £10,000 a year average author/novelist earnings, but living a really decent living.
So, £40K-£50K a year plus. In dollars, you know, I don't know, $70,000 a year, so you're earning a decent professional wage as a minimum. That would be what I would be terming. And if you earning that, I'd say you're pretty much in the bestselling camp.
Joanna: Which is excellent. I'm glad we've got that upfront because I certainly wanted to go through the material as how do you take things to the next level.
Let's get into it in more detail because you start off the course with the biggest mistake that authors make, if they're aiming for a bestseller and there's so much in the course, but this made me, I wrote lots of notes on this initial stuff.
Tell us, what is the biggest mistake that authors make?
Suzy: The biggest mistake really is coming to write your book without a marketing plan. Doing the marketing plan afterward, I would say. Coming to your novel, just with your idea, with your story idea, but without any idea of who your audience is going to be and who you're writing for.
Joanna: Yes. I think the biggest thing that people react against with that is: Does that mean I have to write to market? Or can I write a book that I love?
Suzy: I think good authors sail somewhere through the middle. They've got an understanding that they want to create something for readers, that readers understand, that they know what it is, they know what product they're buying, but at the same time, it's got something original and something of the author in that book. It's not just a kind of carbon copy of a genre type book. It's something original as well.
I feel you can do both. I think it's not an either/or to say that if you're looking at what readers want, you can't do what you love, because I think all of us, you're right, we all want to write things that readers love. It almost comes before what we want in a way. We're writing for people to see it, otherwise, we wouldn't be writers. We'd just be hobby poets or hobby storytellers for ourselves.
I suppose one of the things I definitely feel is important as a writer is that you're recognized for your stories and what you're doing, and that comes from readers loving them. I suppose they're very interlinked, those two things.
Joanna: Absolutely. I agree. But I think that there's a lot of different sub-genres that we could write, but you talk a lot about the idea of a book package. It's great language because I'd heard this from people like Seth Godin who talk about being a book packager back in the day, but I hadn't really thought about what we do is having a package.
Could you tell us more about the book package?
Susy: It's really important to have a really strong title or an idea of the group of people you're writing for. You could look at it in terms of genre. You have to make a decision in terms of are you in crime, are you writing thrillers? Are you writing romance or just a specific group of people who will be attracted to you? Cyber enthusiasts or people who like horses or something like that.
A specific group of people who will be uniquely interested in what you're writing. And then that with a really good title. And I'm not saying when you write your book, you can't change the title cause you definitely can. But if you can start off with a really, really, really strong title and a kind of hooky, one-sentence premise that would get people interested in reading the book, then I think you're onto a really good start before you start writing.
Joanna: Yes. And I know people are going, well, how do I come up with a hooky one-sentence premise? And it's funny because I was really thinking about my own books and I often what I do come up with my tagline after I've written the book. Whereas you were really suggesting we come up with that beforehand.
If we need to come up with the hook beforehand, what are some of your tips for coming up with that?
Suzy: Well, I would say, everyone's different. If you really feel that you can't do it beforehand, there are plenty of bestselling writers who don't, but I would say it gives you the best chance, really. Especially if you're new to things and you haven't got an audience already, you haven't got a fan base, it really gives you a good chance.
I feel like the best tip I can give you is to tell you that you can do it and that, as a writer, you already know how to do it. And just to look out for other best selling books. And when you see those best-selling books, what are their hooky premises, kind of picking apart those two. There's a recent bestseller called The Flatshare, and the premise of that, I don't know if you've heard of it. It's a rom-com. It was number one in the charts a few weeks ago. And the premise is there's two complete strangers who share a flat and they share a bed, but they've never met each other.
One of them is a night worker and one of them is a day worker. So, one of them has the bed at nighttime, one has the bed in the daytime, it's a man and woman and they don't meet. And that's just a great one-sentence premise.
So, I would say, look at other books that have big concepts like that and see if you can identify what their one-sentence or a couple of sentence premise is so you can kind of get your head around what that means.
And then the ideas will come to you. I think it's the sort of thing that just comes to you when you're not looking for it, when you're having a shower or you're walking somewhere that you got this premise, or this idea might pop into your head or you're reading something else and you think, wow, do you know what?
At the moment we've got all the lockdown and the pandemic and the Coronavirus and there's all sorts of stories around that you might think, ‘Oh, what if I'm thinking of kids, but what if all the adults died of the Coronavirus because kids can't get it? And what if that happened?'
These kinds of ideas can come to you like that. And I think the ideas come to people all the time, but it's just a question of noticing them really and realizing how important it is to notice those big ideas and hold onto them and base a book around them rather than writing blindly and hoping ideas come out of it and then trying to put it all together at the end, which is a lot more difficult, not impossible, but more difficult.
Joanna: Yes, absolutely. That's why I wanted to go through course because I am a discovery writer and I would like to shift my process into something more prepared in advance.
I want to come back on The Flatshare, because you've mentioned a title earlier, a strong title, and then something that might suggest something. When you said The Flatshare, I thought crime or thriller, I don't know why. In my head, I had a stalker thing in mind. And then you said it was a romcom.
When we're talking about titles, especially for fiction, it's really easy for non-fiction, but for fiction titles:
Are we aiming for something that gives an indication of genre or does that tagline and cover, for example, help the package?
Suzy: It definitely is everything together really isn't it? I know what you're saying about The Flatshare in terms of it could work really, really well as a thriller or something, the sort of ‘Single White Female' thing.
But combined with a nice image on the cover and a nice tagline and stuff, I think it sends quite clear messages for the genre it has. So, I would say if possible your title should convey genre for sure if possible. But if you got a really, really strong title, it's a really dynamic title, it really makes people pay attention. And when combined with the concept or a one-sentence, little sort of premise and a graphic, a photo on the cover, it really sends a message, then I think it's okay. I think it's fine.
Joanna: I think that's really good to keep in mind because sometimes we get obsessed with the title, but then as you say, the title doesn't really exist on its own. It exists with these other things, which is cool. I wonder what you think about cross genre writing because many authors, including myself, write across genres and sometimes that's actually really hard to market.
Do you think if you want to write a bestseller, you can't write cross genre?
Suzy: Oh, no way. I mean, you can but, rules are meant to be broken. I would say the aim of this course is to give a really clear, efficient route into writing a bestseller. So if you just absolutely can pin down one audience and you're writing cross genre and you've come up with something really new, really innovative and really imaginative then for sure, you really believe in it.
Of course, it's entirely possible. Good writing is good writing at the end of the day, and there's all sorts of books that reinvent genres as well. There's all sorts of big authors that create their own genre. So, if you feel that you're creating something different and you want to carve something out and you don't want to be hemmed in, then for sure, go, and it sounds like you're doing incredibly so far. There's no hard fast rules to it.
Joanna: On the package and having clear genre covers, for example, in the UK, you know a crime cover by what it looks like. It's quite obvious here, what is a British crime novel.
And yet if you look at an American thriller novel, it will look quite different. So, I feel that we're in this difficult point with independent publishing, whereas in traditional publishing, you would potentially have different publishers, different covers all of that, but we load up one book on to multiple stores, so in different countries across the world with one cover. These seem to be uniquely different challenges. Do you think? You have to decide, do you want to appeal to a British crime reading audience, or do you want to appeal to an American thriller reading audience, or suspense?
Suzy: I would say that there are covers that send very clear international messages. I know what you're saying that the there were some differences and there are, but I would say there are, broadly speaking, you can send quite clear messaging on covers.
The dark colors in a cover are going to indicate more thrillery suspenseful type book. Your light, pastely colors and cartoons and things like that are going to indicate something probably more chick lity and stuff like that.
I wouldn't make it too difficult, really. What you're really sending out with genre is what are people going to feel when they read the book? Are people going to feel scared? Are they going to feel excited? Are they going to feel safe, warm, and loved? What are the key emotions people are going to get from reading your book?
I would suggest it's pretty international. And if you really felt strongly that you wanted to send a very, very specific, let's say crime fiction message to the U.S. audience and the UK audience, and you wanted different covers to do that, you can do that on KDP. So you could have two different covers, you could upload two different products and sell one in the U.S. and one in the UK.
Joanna: I wanted to ask about supply and demand and how we should research that and why it's important. Because I feel like indie authors are very aware of the concepts, but I don't know how much we actually put it into the planning.
If we're looking for a best selling niche, what would be some of your recommendations for researching supply and demand?
Suzy: I would say Amazon is like the most amazing research tool for authors who want to find what's selling well. If the sort of thing they're writing about is selling well, and if it isn't, it doesn't necessarily mean you can't write about it exactly because obviously new genres pop up all the time and new types of book pop up all the time.
Gaming lit, that's a new thing that didn't exist 5, 10 years ago. But I would say looking at categories on Amazon, looking at the bestseller charts on Amazon studying those often, seeing what is coming up regularly and looking to see, okay, right. You can see this type of book and it's quite similar to what I write is a best seller in this category and it's marketed in this way and just kind of getting your head around all those kinds of messages that books send out to readers and help them make that buying decision.
Joanna: And if authors want to pitch traditional publishing, and I know many of my audience do, when we're thinking about that supply and demand, because obviously the traditional publishing engine, it takes a lot longer than indie. If we're researching on Amazon that's what has already happened as opposed to something that might happen down the track. Any thoughts on that, when we're pitching an idea?
Suzy: I think you should be researching it on Amazon anyway even if it's for a future pitch. Publishers do spend their whole time analyzing charts, looking at what's in the top 50 and looking what's selling and they're buying books based on what's selling at the moment.
They're not necessarily buying books for what they think might sell in a year's time because they don't know what that is yet. So, and it's true that publishing is slow and it's true that some trends pass through, but equally, probably because publishing is so slow, I think trends take quite a long time to move through. The only trend I can think that's actually move through a lesson quite a lot will be the erotica trend after '50 Shades of Gray,' but even so, it's still there. It's still absolutely there. It's still a great big salable category.
Can you think of any sort of categories or areas that have now become kind of really unpopular and people don't read anymore?
Joanna: Pandemic Lit?
Suzy: Are people reading it at the moment?
Joanna: Well, it's funny. I did actually read an article on that. They've put out some of these books that talk about the pandemic. I picked up one and I was like, ‘Do you know what? I just do not want to read this right now.' But clearly people are reading those books.
Suzy: I think one of the best sellers is called, it's literally called Pandemic, isn't it? It's whoever wrote that must've felt so pleased in a hopefully not too much of a gratuitous way, but there was a like, ‘Wow, you know, this is my time. I wrote this book called Pandemic and look, yeah, look what happened?' Well, we'll see. Three years, five years you might look back and go, yes, there's still an appetite.
Joanna: I think you're right. Even though you might feel like something might have moved on, like you mentioned erotica, I think the reason it doesn't look so big anymore is because they removed it from a lot of the searches. But it's certainly still a niche that people are buying and reading. But even vampires, I think is the favorite, isn't it? It just keeps coming back.
Suzy: For sure. To somewhat answer your question, I wouldn't worry too much about, if you want to get traditionally published, should you try and find it?
I would say it's even more important because publishers get so many manuscripts that don't really know what they are in terms of where it's going with your audience. So, if you come out so much stronger, if you approach your publisher with a real understanding of, okay, this is a crime novel, you know, it's aimed at the market who read these kinds of books and it's going to make you look more professional.
Joanna: Absolutely. One of the things you said earlier, you said, ‘Good writing is good writing.' The word good, if it's used in a genre sense can be different to how people mean it in a literary sense.
Good writing is good writing. What do you mean by that?
Suzy: If you're writing something that's appealing to readers and you've got a great story there, then they're going to find it anyway. You were talking about cross-genre at the time, right? So, if you're writing something as cross-genre, but you've got a really powerful story then I think it's going to find its readers.
You don't need to worry too much, if you're feeling like you should crystallize completely into one genre, but you're not at the moment. It might take longer for books that don't have a really clear sales point to find their audience, but when they do, often they're even bigger.
Like the Lee Child is an author like that. I think it took longer for them to get the ball rolling, but people didn't really understand what they were getting at first. Then when people did now there are loads of books like Lee Child because everyone wants that kind of fiction.
Joanna: Many people listening are just writing their first books. So, what is good writing when you're aiming for that bestseller because often we're told in literary circles that good writing is a certain type of writing. Is bestseller type of writing more page-turning or are there different types of writing if you're doing a bestseller as opposed to say a literary work?
Suzy: To me, there are no differences. There are different types of writing, but if you're connecting with readers, then you connect with readers. It doesn't matter if the writing is literary style or a more commercial style or a more simple, more accessible style. If readers enjoy it and they feel something when they're reading it and they connect with it, then it's great, right? This is what we're aiming to do.
Joanna: That's great. So, one of the things that many new authors think is that the first book they write is the one that's going to be the bestseller.
But what about the long-term view and building an author brand over time?
Suzy: It's important to have a longterm view because I guess everyone, when you write, you do have that first book that you absolutely love, and it is really important to you and writing a novel, when you first do it, it's really difficult. And it takes a really long time. So, that first one feels really, really, really important.
But in terms of a long term career, you've got to get your head around writing more than one, because if you want to be a novelist, obviously you're going to be writing for 10 years or 20 years, or what have you. So, it's a good idea to try and picture, whatever you're writing at the moment, to try and picture that, where would I go next? What will be the next 3 books or 5 books or 10 books? Could they all fit together?
Not necessarily recreate what you've just written, but are you willing to create something similar so that readers can understand what you're about and what you're doing and keep going back to the same thing? And I think the more you're able to do that, the easier it is for readers to get behind you and keep reading what you write.
Joanna: So, you said 3 books there, or 5 or 10.
Are you saying that writing series is the way to go as well?
Suzy: Sort of but not necessarily. Let's say Sophie Kinsella, she has written series with the Shopaholic books, but she also writes other similar chick-lit, if that's the right term for it. I'm trying to think of someone else who does similar but different characters each time.
Series is much easier because you don't have to recreate characters again. And also, if the readers are enjoying that character, if you've really hit them up with your main character, they're going to want to see that character again. But so it could be either.
But if let's say, if you're doing romantic comedy definitely you could do a romantic comedy with one set of characters and then something with a similar style, but just a completely different story with different characters, but in the same kind of area ideally.
Joanna: So the emotional promise of the brand over multiple books?
Suzy: That's a great way to put it.
Joanna: You mentioned there 10 years, 20 years, I imagine some people listening here are just starting out going, ‘What do you mean?' And I wonder if the traditional publishing industry makes it seem different because they keep relaunching existing authors with a new, a brand new pen name.
Suzy: It's a tricky one that, isn't it? I think the reason behind the publishing industry doing that, why they would take an author that's written one thing and then try out with another name is because I think they're wary of muddying the brand, so doing something that would alienate existing readers. But I feel like in the process of doing that, you're losing your authentic kind of connection with readers.
I personally feel like, especially as an indie author, it's better, even if you're going in a completely different direction and doing a different sort of book, it's better to make sure your book cover and your title and everything else has really, really clear messages to the reader.
Let's say you've written a romance and now you're going to do a thriller and make sure those two books are really clearly packaged and presented as this is completely different. So, it was a really awesome video of James Patterson who does loads of different types of books. And he's written recently a Diary of a Wimpy Kid type, knock-off. Sorry, JP. He's so good at really clear messages. And there's a video of him holding up one of his thrillers and he basically says, he's holding up his new book, which is, I think his ‘Middle grade,' might be ‘Middle School.' And he's holding up the “Middle School” book and he says, ‘This is for kids.'
And then he holds up his other book, his thriller, and he says, ‘This is not for kids.' And he says it really three times, you know, ‘This is for kids. This is not for kids.' So, people get a really clear message, this is the same name, but these are two completely different products for different audiences.
Joanna: I think actually it was a great answer. We're both in the industry and there are a number of authors who've been billed as debuts when they're not debuts. They might have like 15 books under another name. And then they're being billed by the industry as somebody who's fresh out the box [which gives new authors the impression that it's easy to hit big with a first book.]
I think many new authors who don't know what happens behind the scenes think that you can out of the box, you can have this bestseller, but I think perhaps that's never been true. Publishers have always encouraged writers to better their craft and then maybe launch them as a new brand. So, I like your answer. I think that's great.
Suzy: There is a thing within publishing. I think that publishers, if they can launch someone as a debut to bookshops, it has this kind of shiny new thing that they can go to booksellers and go, ‘This is brand new. This is,' you know, so I think it's probably, maybe it sounds a bit deceptive, but they're probably on the side of the authors where they're doing that because they're probably trying to create something that is exciting for booksellers.
Then the booksellers can go, ‘Wow, it's a new debut.' For some reason, there's this love affair with publishing books as the exciting debut novel. So, maybe they're just being kind to authors there. And they're just thinking if we retitle you, they give you a new name and then you can reap the benefits of that.
But I know what you're saying that if you're a new author, you're not necessarily seeing an honest picture of the debut novel. If you read this like Girl on a Train, for example, if you're reading that and you think, ‘Wow, this is an incredible debut.' But she has written quite a bit before, you might have an unrealistic expectation of, you know, how good you have to be.
Joanna: Exactly. I like the fact that you've said as indies because it's so much work to build a brand for the long term. I thought if I write in this other genre, should I start another name? And I'm like, ‘I did not want to start another name. I already have two names, but you know, I just don't want to do that.' So, I like the fact that you're saying it's fine.
And as you say, James Patterson is the highest-earning author in the world, and he's doing it, so that's great.
Suzy: Also as well on that note, you want an authentic connection with your readers and how can you be authentic if you've got someone else's name? It's in my name. So, my name, I'm up to Suzy. And even that I struggled with, because my name is Sue. So, the Suzy who came about from a Twitter handle, and I don't mind being Suzy because everyone at school used to call me Suzy, but it's still even, that's a struggle and that's not even far from my real name. If I was called Jennifer or something, trying to talk to readers and having them connect on Facebook or Twitter and people were calling me that I would feel really false writing to them. So I think be authentic.
Joanna: Being authentic is a good message anyway, but we're almost out of time.
I did have just have one question about what you think. Because at the moment we're slightly relaxed but basically still in lockdown here in the UK and there's a lot of stuff going on in the publishing world.
What do you think will change out of publishing because of the pandemic? Is everyone now going to go indie or do you think the publishers will roll back?
Suzy: From what I've heard and I've heard different stories, some publishers are going to have a bit of a hard time, books are usually sale or return, so there's going to be a lot of stock being returned. If you've got a lot of stock in bookshops and it's being returned, that's going to be tricky.
There's going to be a bit of a log jam [with the publishing schedule]. It's a fantastic time for ebook successes, of course. But I think the publishing industry kind of ticks over, doesn't it? I don't think anything too awful is going to happen. I think it will be a bit of a knock and I feel really bad for smaller publishers.
But it's a great time to be an indie author. You've got so much more control over everything, you're mainly focusing on ebook sales and they're fairly untouchable. So, that will be my good prediction for indies, it's a good time.
Joanna: Where can people find you and the course and your books and everything you do online?
Suzy: The online course is basically secrets of how to write a bestseller. It's a video course and takes you through step by step through the best, most efficient way to create a bestseller and really give you the best chance of doing that over many painful experiences and difficulties I've struggled over decades of writing.
I'd say it's aimed at you if you're writing your first novel, but also if you've been publishing for some time, if you've been published before and you did well and you didn't know how to recreate it, or if you've published and it didn't go so well and you're not sure why.
Joanna: And where can people find you and all of the stuff do online?
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Suzy. That was great.
Suzy: Oh, you're welcome, Jo.