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How can you find the intersection between what the market wants and what you love to read? How can you strategically seed book sales to improve your marketing? Rachel McLean talks about her 5 steps to indie author success.
In the intro, how to predict and profit from publishing trends [ALLi blog]; my live, in-person events IRL and online; Trends for 2023 webinar with Alex Newton, K-lytics.
Today's show is sponsored by IngramSpark, which I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 40,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries, and more. It's your content—do more with it through IngramSpark.com. Use promo code PENN at checkout for 1 free book upload, print, ebook, or both, if uploaded at the same time—until December 31, 2022.
Rachel McLean is the award-winning and best-selling author of the Dorset Crime novels and the Zoe Finch detective series, and she writes nonfiction for writers under Rachel McCollin. Today we're talking about Five Steps to Author Success: Write Books Readers Love and Become a Full-Time Writer.
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 is below.
- Why Rachel chose to become an indie author — and why her first books didn't sell so well
- How to find the intersection between what the market wants and what you want to write
- The importance of characters in a series
- Researching locations
- Strategically seeding book sales to improve book marketing
- Adapting to change as an author
You can find Rachel at RachelMcLean.com
Header image by Joanna Penn on Midjourney.
Transcript of Interview with Rachel McLean
Joanna: Rachel McLean is the award-winning and best-selling author of the Dorset Crime novels and the Zoe Finch detective series, and she writes nonfiction for writers under Rachel McCollin. Today we're talking about Five Steps to Author Success: Write Books Readers Love and Become a Full Time Writer. So welcome, Rachel.
Rachel: Thank you for having me on. It's lovely to be here.
Joanna: Oh, yeah, this is gonna be so fascinating.
But first up, just tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing?
Rachel: Well, I mean, like many writers I've been writing since I was in primary school. I think I wrote my first serialized story when I was about nine. And I loved to write stories when I was a child, and then went to secondary school and had it drummed out of me and had to write essays, went to university much the same process.
And then quite a few years later, I was working at the Environment Agency and I was responsible for communication skills training. I had to test out a business writing course. It was all about plain English and also about writing for an audience and understanding the needs of the reader. And on this course, we had to mind map a piece of writing that we were planning.
I wasn't actually planning a piece of writing because I was there to trial the course, as against because I was doing the kind of writing where I needed it. So I thought, I know, I’ll mind map a novel. And so I did, and that eventually became A House Divided, which is one of my political thriller trilogies. I started writing that when I was pregnant with my oldest son who's about to turn 18, and it took 15 years to get from that point to publication. I write a lot faster now though.
Joanna: That's brilliant. And then, okay, so just bring us up to date then because he's 18 now, and so you said 15 years.
So three years ago you really started getting into publishing. Why didn't you go the traditional route?
Rachel: So yeah, three or four years ago, I was a member of writers' group, Birmingham Writers’ Group, which I joined to get some motivation to write. And I had a couple of friends through that group, Heide Goody and Iain Grant, and they’d been publishing independently, they'd been self-publishing for a few years. And I'd seen that they were doing well, they were making money, building up a readership, getting quite a loyal following. And at the same time, I was querying agents and not getting anywhere.
And then I went to a festival of writing in York which is run by Jericho Writers. And there were people there from the indie world and the trad world talking about the differences between the two.
And I thought, actually, I think this could be for me, because I've always run my own business, I've got a head for marketing, and accounting, and all those kinds of thing that you need to do to run your own publishing business. And I like to have autonomy over what I do.
So I started publishing in December 2017. It was slow at first, but I stuck with it and did a lot of learning around the marketing and the publishing and also improving my craft. And then eventually, it was July 2020 that I released the book that took off and made my career, which was the first Zoe Finch book.
Joanna: What I love about your book, The Five Steps to Author Success, you do break all this down. And it's very evident that you do have this head for business because I love that you studied this. I mean, it annoys me how people think, ‘oh, I'm just not a good writer,' therefore, I'm not selling, or I'm not good, I don't have talent, or whatever. So you've done so many things to study about this. But I want to first ask you about mindset. Those first books weren't so successful.
How did you change your mindset to make the shift to where you are now as an award-winning, best-selling author?
Rachel: I think the simple thing is I stopped writing books that were just for me and started writing books that I enjoyed writing, but also that readers would enjoy reading. And I got a much better grasp of what the market wanted.
But also, there's a human side to that. It's about understanding what readers respond to and what they enjoy.
And I know people can sometimes be a bit sniffy about the idea of understanding the market and researching the market, that it seems quite calculating. But actually, it's about writing things that other people want to read, which to me, is what writing is for.
Joanna: It's interesting, I've been thinking about this because you actually say this in the book as well. That we are not normal, like writers are not readers. So we are readers, but we're not normal readers. I've got here on my desk, a book on the Arctic, a book on robots and AI, and I'm reading a Richard Osman cozy mystery. I mean, you know, I read all over the shop.
And so how do we go from being eclectic readers and people interested in all these things, to going down to that human side and identifying what particular niche genre authors really like to read without taking it too weird? Which I know I do with my books.
Rachel: I mean, I think what I did was I see it, and this is in my book as a kind of Venn diagram, where you've got what you like to read, what other readers like to read, and what you're good at writing.
And I looked at that and I, like you, I like reading all sorts of things, but I like reading crime and I like reading thrillers.
In terms of what I'm good at writing, I know that I'm good at writing suspense and mystery. And I tend to write the darker side of things better than lighter, more humorous books. And then there's finding what the market wants. And for that, the sweet spot there was crime, particularly with the British market, because I'd already tried writing books aimed at the US market and not done very well.
And I know a lot of indies find that you need to hit the US market to achieve success because obviously, it's so much bigger than the British market, but the British market for crime is massive.
And you just mentioned Richard Osman, if you look at his reviews on Amazon and those are going to reflect sales levels, it shows that there is room—he sold 10 times what I have, and I've sold a million books in the last few years, and it shows that there is room for many more sales of books in those genres.
Joanna: Congratulations, by the way, that’s a hell of a lot of sales. And again, I love in the book that you're super honest and you're like my early books didn't do that, and then I did this process and then I started selling a lot.
Tell us about your research process to figure out how to write to this market.
Rachel: Yeah, well, I read Chris Fox's books — Write to Market. I found his book really useful because they're short and pithy and they get straight to the point and they give you some very practical tips. And one that I picked up from him was looking at your comps and reading the reviews of your comps rather than your own reviews.
So while I look at some of my own reviews, I don't go into the rabbit hole of reading all my own reviews because that’s where madness lies. But I looked at what people were saying about books by people like LJ Ross and JD Kirk and other successful indies in the crime genre, and also the people who are published by the digital first publishers like Joffe, to find out what it was that readers were responding to, what it was they liked, what it was they weren't so keen on.
And then I looked at how I could—without copying what other people have done—but how I could bring those aspects of what readers liked into my own writing.
Joanna: And then what did you do?
Did you turn that into like a blueprint that you followed?
Rachel: The first book, Deadly Wishes, which was the first Zoe Finch book, I wrote that in the first lockdown sitting in a campervan in my front drive. And for that one, I actually produced a spreadsheet to plot the book. I don't plot in such detail now. I like a good spreadsheet, I’m a bit of a geek like you.
I had a spreadsheet that had all the chapters, and then in each chapter, it detailed what was happening in terms of advancing the plot, developing the characters, bringing readers into the location, because that's something that really came out in my research is that readers love a strong sense of location in crime books, whether there was any action, and also what the clues and red herrings were.
So I plotted that out on this huge spreadsheet that I printed out and put on the back of my door in my living room at home. I couldn't fit it in the campervan. And I used that, I worked through that to write the book and it gave me a very detailed blueprint for how to do that. And I sort of slowly, over the next few books, reduced the amount of detail I was doing in terms of the planning as I got more familiar and more comfortable with it.
Joanna: And I mean, I've read some of your books and I've also read quite a lot of crime books over time, and I've written some myself, but I did kind of get bored because they do have a formula.
So how do you stop yourself from getting bored or burning out in such a voracious genre?
Because crime in the UK is a bit like romance, I guess. It's super, super fast moving.
Rachel: It is. I get readers emailing me the day after a book comes out saying, when's the next one out? And I say to them, not for a few months, but read one of LJ Ross's books in the meantime. And we all recommend each other, the crime genre has got a big community of authors in the UK and we all help each other out and recommend each other's books.
But in terms of not getting bored, for me, it's all about the characters. So I have underlying story arcs within each series. So there's a plot, there's an arc in each book, which is the crime and the solution of the crime. But then under that there is an arc, which in the Zoe Finch series is all about police corruption and in the Dorset Crime series is about organized crime and the fact that the main detective is in a relationship with a lawyer who's tied up with organized crime.
And I find developing that storyline is what keeps me motivated as I work through the series, because actually, that's sort of a slightly trickier and more fun storyline to develop because it's not formulaic, it's not something that all crime authors do.
It's something that I can be more creative with because it's something that I've come up with. And readers love it, it’s what keeps readers going from one book to the next.
And also the characters. So in lockdown, the characters in the Zoe Finch series were my mates, they kept me company in lock down. And I really enjoy going back to writing characters.
So for example, I've been writing the Dorset Crime series for quite a while now, but I'm currently writing a Christmas Zoe Finch book, which I'm almost finished, and it's really nice to go back to writing people who I haven't written for about 18 months, and just spending some time with those characters again. So I think that's what keeps me going.
Joanna: And Angela Marsons said that, of course, she's a very successful crime writer as well. She said that people feel that about the characters. And it's so interesting, I resisted reading the Richard Osmans because I was like, oh, it's because he's famous on TV that he's so successful. Have you read his books?
Rachel: I have. And they are really good.
Joanna: They are, they are.
Rachel: I love the tone they're written in.
Joanna: Yeah, and also the characters. If people listening, especially if you're not in the UK you might not know them, but they are cozy mysteries but they're set in a retirement home and the characters are all in their 70s, really. And I've just whizzed through the four books or whatever it is, three books, and preordered the fourth because I love the characters.
And I think, I mean, it can be difficult with a crime genre, which is why it's interesting his detectives are not the primary characters, actually, they're side characters.
How can we write original characters and plots without using the tired cliches? Or do we need to use the cliches because that's what crime readers want?
Rachel: There are some tired cliches that crime readers expect and there are tropes, but then I think it's just about putting your own twist on it.
I deliberately don't read huge amounts of crime because I don't want to end up aping all of the other books that I read. I read enough that it just keeps me on top of what's happening in the genre and how other people are writing, but that's by no means what I'm reading all the time.
So I mean, it's also about having characters who feel real. So I sat in an author event in Swanage library, which is one of the locations in my Dorset books, and witnessed an argument between two readers about whether or not they liked the main detective. And I just sat back and thought, my job here is done, because if these people think this woman is so real that they're prepared to have an argument over whether they like her or not, I've clearly written her well.
And actually, it's a spin-off series, she was the boss of Zoe Finch in the first crime series I wrote, and I really enjoyed writing her. So I thought, I'll move her down to Dorset because I love Dorset, and I had all my childhood holidays there, and show her trying to fit in in a rural community and struggling with it at first, but eventually developing relationships with the other detectives down there. And the process of that, and the humor in that, readers have really responded to and they really enjoyed.
Joanna: You say in the book, “if you want to write a book that sells in the tens of thousands, or even the millions, then find ways to tweak your readers' heartstrings.” So obviously, you've talked about real characters, but how do we tweak those heartstrings? How do we write more emotionally?
Rachel: I think it's about having characters that readers feel that they know and that they can relate to. They don't always love them, but they respond to them in some way or another. Taking time to develop those characters.
I actually think the development of the characters is more important in a long-running crime series than attention to detail on the actual crimes.
Although, I am quite fastidious with my procedural aspects, I have all the textbooks and I have a retired detective who checks them for me. But I think it's building up those characters to a point where readers care about them, and then having things happen to them. It’s the old thing about you create a character and then have horrible things happen to them and see if they can get out of it.
And I also think, twisting the relationships between the characters and making things happen there, and people discovering things about people that they've got either professional or personal relationships with that throws that relationship on its head, and that is often linked to the crime, but pulls together the personal and the professional for those characters.
I’m a member of a Facebook group called UK Crime Book Club. And when I started writing crime, I asked the question, do people like to read crime books where there's quite a lot about the main detective’s personal life?
And the overwhelming response was, yes, people do like that. So I made sure I included things about Zoe's son and her partner who she got together with over the course of the books and that kind of thing. Because readers really like to feel that those characters have got some depth, and they're not just turning up to work and solving crimes.
Joanna: No, absolutely. Although, again, I mean, you mentioned being fastidious. I feel like there's almost a bar that you have to reach, which is a certain amount of reality and then the characters, otherwise people pick apart the procedural aspects and forget the characters. Whereas if you can get the plot and the procedural stuff right, then it's almost like they can focus on the stuff they really, really love.
Rachel: Yeah. And I think it needs to be credible enough that it doesn't draw attention to itself. So research into police procedure is much like research into location or world building in that it's a bit like an iceberg, where only a 10th of what you've researched actually shows up in the book. But it's about having that confidence in what you're writing about that you know that what does show up in the book is correct.
Joanna: So on location then, because this is another kind of thing with UK crime writers, is specific areas in the UK, specific counties. And I don't know if LJ Ross was the person who made this more obvious, but it really does seem like everyone's picking out a part of the country to focus on.
So you've had holidays and things in Dorset, but you don't live there anymore. Do you do research trips or is it all online research?
Rachel: I do. I go regularly. When I was writing the first six books, I was probably going to Dorset more than once a month. And when I started writing the series, I spent a week in Dorset, and I planned out where all my crime scenes were going to be and I walked them all.
I made them all in places that were fairly inaccessible, so it meant I got to have a really nice walk, but it also meant that I could imagine that you've got this beauty spot with an amazing view and we're going to spoil it by dumping a body in it and then putting forensic tents up and all the rest of it.
And as well, have a bit of an opportunity for some conflicts and some humor around how the detectives and the forensics people are going to get there and the logistics of working in that sort of environment. So the location is really important.
Fortunately, my parents had a caravan in Wareham on the Isle of Purbeck when I was a child, probably for about five or six years. And then they had another one when I was in my 20s, so I didn't go to it so often, but I still went down. So I know the area very, very well.
A lot of my formative memories are down there learning to ride a bike, learning to swim on the beach, that kind of thing. And the beauty of it is the area hasn't changed that much. So I went back to Wareham, bought chips from the same fish and chip shop that I've been going to when I was eight years old. I went to the same cake shop, same pub, all the rest of it.
So the beauty is it's not as if I have to suddenly change all those memories and catch up. And there are some things that change, and that's why I go down. I've had occasions when it's short notice I've decided just to go down for two days or even a day, because I can just about get down and back in a day from Birmingham, because I needed to walk a specific location.
So I had a climax scene in I think the fourth book in that series that was set on Peveril Point in Swanage, and I thought, Peveril Point I know has changed because there's been quite a lot of development work there, a lot of holiday homes being built. But I thought, I've got to go down there, I've got to walk this cliff where this big scene is taking place, because if I get this wrong, my readers will know because a lot of my readers are local to Dorset.
So I went down for a couple of days. I managed to get some other research done as well. And something else I do, which I did then, was I also do a face to camera video at all my crime scenes. And then on publication day, I release that on social media to celebrate the fact that it's been published and generate interest in the book. And readers really enjoy that as well.
Joanna: Well, that's great because I did want to ask you about book marketing.
You talk in the book about ‘strategically seeding book sales.' So how did you do that? What is working for you in terms of marketing?
Rachel: This is something I was very much inspired to do by Chris Fox and his books. And what I wanted to get to was a point where Amazon was doing most of my marketing for me, because I'm exclusive, I'm in KU. So that was where my focus was.
So that was all about getting the algorithm to really understand who my readers were and who it should be targeting when it's recommending my books to people, so that the chances of people buying the book is obviously maximized.
So that started with seeding sales of crime readers to start with using Facebook, because one of the things I discovered trying to use Amazon ads for previous books was, as people often say, it's very, very difficult to get your Amazon ads to serve.
And I read Amazon Ads Unleashed by Robert J. Ryan. And he explained that Amazon ads, because Amazon have data not only on what you're bidding and what keywords you're using or whatever, they also have data on how well your book is selling and how well your book page is converting, unlike any other advertising platforms. And Amazon uses that when deciding whether to serve your ad.
So I thought, right, I need Amazon to know that people who land on my book page are going to buy the book. So I started by running Facebook ads at a low budget just about three pounds a day, I think something like that, and testing copy, testing creative testing audiences, and getting to a point where I was getting a really good conversion rate from those ads.
This was when the first book was on pre-order. And so at that point, I got to a point where I had a certain level of sales, and I think by then I had two books out and the third book on pre-order. So I wanted to have enough read-through that it would make it possible for me to spend more on an ad for the sale of book one.
I started running Amazon ads, and I did that very, very strategically aimed at specific authors and specific books.
So instead of using keyword targeting, I used product targeting. And I still do, I target products and categories.
I started out by trolling Amazon using a scraper called Data Miner, and getting all the ASINs of my comps, and then targeting all of those with my ads. So I had within each ad, I had an ad set for each author that had all those ASINs that it was targeting.
After a while that didn't have enough targets to show up the ads on because you've only got a certain number of books. So I switched to using category targets instead. And I still do that instead of using keywords. And it's working very well for me.
I'm finding that on a sale of book one I'm doubling my money with read-through on all the ads that I run across Facebook and Amazon. And obviously seeding a lot of organic sales because that only accounts for about 10% of my sales overall.
I get emails from readers saying, oh, Amazon recommended your book to me and I really enjoyed it. And I think, yes, good ol’ Amazon doing your job. And I get emails every day from Amazon telling me to buy my own books, and Amazon probably thinks, why is this woman constantly looking at her own books? But it's worked really, really well for me. And it was a process that took a while.
I did use BookBub ads when I was first doing it. I wouldn't actually recommend doing that now because it's so hard to get them. Not so much to run profitably because I wasn't expecting to make a profit, but actually to run at the sort of levels you need for it to provide Amazon with data that will help your also-boughts.
So it's better, I would say, to use product targeting to populate the also-boughts by making sure that people who are reading the authors that you want in your also-boughts are getting your ads.
Joanna: You've clearly got a super analytical brain, which is great. But it's interesting, so we're recording this in October 2022, and a lot of people are saying that Amazon ads are too expensive, Facebook ads don't work anymore since the privacy stuff, like you just said, BookBub might not have the volume, especially in the UK, like you're doing the UK specifically.
So what are your thoughts on ‘things don't work anymore’?
Rachel: I'm not denying it. It probably is a bit harder now than it was a couple of years ago, particularly with Facebook having fewer targeting options.
So I was targeting specific authors, and you can't really do that now. So I target crime readers, I target the entire genre. And I have got the benefit that Facebook has got two years and thousands and thousands of ads served in data to understand better who to serve my ads to.
I've also got the disadvantage that my ads have been served to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. And obviously the longer that goes on, the less conversion you're going to get from those ads because people get fatigued from seeing them.
But I've got ads that are still making a profit. I've got one from the Zoe Finch series that I started running in June 2021. And I ran it because it was a quote from a review that said, “If you like Line of Duty, you'll love this.” And it was when Line of Duty series six was running. So I thought I've got to take advantage of this. So I started running that ad it did fantastically while Line of Duty was running and continued making a profit. And it's still, what, almost 18 months on, it's still making money for me.
So you can run do long-running ads as long as you keep an eye on them and tweak the budget, because the budget does have to come down over time because your clicks get more expensive. But it is possible to do it.
I think it takes a lot of work in terms of understanding what your targets are and who your readers are, so that your advertising is working in conjunction with the algorithm recommending to people. And that's what's helped me build a career.
Joanna: And it's interesting, because part of what you're talking about there, some people listening are excited by what you said, and other people are going, I do not want to do that, that is too much work. And you said something to me before we started recording, which was you had looked at my website and found which elements would work for me.
And this seems to be the most important thing, right? Because I'm not like you, in that I don't do spreadsheets, I'm kind of a different kind of geek. But I don't like running ads myself, I just don't enjoy it, basically. And there are people listening who will feel like that, too.
So how can people work out what elements are going to work for them? Do they just have to give things a go?
Rachel: I think there's an element of giving it a go. And there's also an element of just understanding what your own preferences are. So for example, with TikTok, that's the hot thing at the moment in book marketing that everybody's talking about. And I dabbled in it for about a week and got bored, but I think I knew already that it wouldn't be for me because I couldn't bear to watch TikTok.
Joanna: Me too.
Rachel: Just oh, it just does my head in.
Joanna: Kill me now!
Rachel: And I mean, I don't know whether that just shows I'm old. But I put it on my phone and I talked to my son about it. He's 14, and he's exactly the same. He says, “oh, no, it's full of rubbish.” I said, “don't you even watch cat videos on it?” He says, “no, I watch those on YouTube.” And he will watch hours and hours of cat videos on YouTube. So I think that stuff on TikTok isn't long enough for him.
Joanna: Hmm. That's interesting. And again, it's the same with our readers, right? Us as writers and also our readers, we don't have to be on TikTok to sell books. I mean, you're doing it one way, people do it different ways. And we just have to figure it out.
But I just want to ask you, like you mentioned fatigue with your ads, for example, and fatigue with readers.
How do you know when to start another series?
Because a lot of crime series are just episodic, you know, by book 21 or whatever. Is it that you will keep all of the series going on and on and on? Or do you plan to spin off a new series every time you get to a point of reader fatigue or advertising fatigue?
Rachel: Yeah, the way it works for me is it's around the underlying storyline. So my series arc will come to a conclusion, and that's the point at which I will spin off a new series.
I always have at least one character for an existing series in the new series, which helps pull readers along to the new series, which readers respond really well to. And also it means I can pick a sidekick and give them a bigger role.
Sometimes you develop those characters, and they're not your main character, but you really enjoy writing them, and you think, oh, I'd quite like to write a series around this person.
It's quite interesting because I've been talking to a TV production company about pitching the Zoe Finch series, and what they like is they say I've created a universe and that it's what's called franchisable. And I think, well, I wasn't intending anything like that, but it sounds great when you put it like that.
Readers love it because I've created this world with all these people and they will pop up in each other’s series, and sometimes not physically there, but on the other end of the phone giving advice or something like that, or support. And it means that I don't leave those characters behind, even when I stopped writing their books as well. They're always there as a possibility.
Joanna: You talked about your spreadsheet for the first book in terms of plotting.
Do you have a world bible? Or how the hell are you keeping all of this stuff organized?
Rachel: My editor, Joe Hames, he has a fantastic memory for this stuff. I have tried to keep a series bible so many times, and I've tried different ways of doing it. I've tried doing it in Scrivener. I've tried having spreadsheets. I've tried having in the back of a notebook. And I get about 10,000 words into a book and I stop adding to it.
But Joe remembers things, so I will write a scene in book four of a series in which somebody pulls up in a blue car and he'll say, “no, in book one, they were driving a brown car.” And he'll remember all those things. And he'll say, “oh, but so-and-so went off to this place. They got transferred to a different location in book three,” or something. So it's really useful having an editor who can help with that stuff.
Joanna: I have a Vellum document actually that I put every finished book in. And then I literally just use the search function. I'm like, I know I had someone who did this, let me just search and find them, and then I have to reread it. So I've also tried to build a world bible over and over again, and I don't know, maybe it's just because we want to write another book, but I just cannot be bothered.
Rachel: Yeah, yeah. I want to be writing stories, not bibles. I like that idea about a Vellum document. I use keywords in Scrivener, so I have all the characters and the locations and the themes, and in each chapter I will add the keywords of which ones are in there.
And when I start a new book, I always take the last book I wrote, even if it was in another series, because of the fact that I have characters coming over from series, and I will start with that Scrivener document, remove all of the chapters and everything, but keep the keywords, and then start writing the next book. So I've got those keywords already there. So that's one way I do it, but to be honest, I don't go into the sort of level of detail of the bible.
Joanna: Well, if you do end up with a TV series, that's one of the things they often want is, “so Rachel, just give us the world bible, the series bible for this.” And you're like, “ugh.” Well, then you can just outsource that.
You have a great chapter on adapting to change, which I think is so important. And you do talk a lot about mindset in the book. There's a lot of change in like the Amazon charts, and I mean, change is a constant. But you are a successful full-time fiction author, and you do have some nonfiction too.
What are some of your tips for authors looking to make it full-time?
Rachel: I think it's about not being too set in your ways in terms of expecting to continue working in exactly the same way from one year to the next. It's about having some buffer or some backup.
I know something that I've seen you talk about at SPS Live and listened to on your podcast is about the concept of multiple streams of income, which I don't do because my brain works better with focusing on one thing and really doubling down on that. But I have financial backup in that I put money aside, and since I've been running a business, I've made sure that I've got six months’ worth of income sitting somewhere that I can't get it, so that if my sales dropped off a cliff, I would have that buffer to be able to do something about it.
I mean, this year, I've had to adapt to quite a lot of change in that I haven't been able to write as much because I've had a lot of stuff going on in my personal life. And that has disappointed readers at times because I've gone from writing a book every two months to a book every three months, which is still a lot by trad publishing standards, but I have had queries from readers about it.
At first, I found that really, really stressful. And I started to think, like how am I going to manage to write more books and go back to writing that fast? And then I thought, no stop, just give them other books to read in the meantime.
So because my newsletter goes out every week, and it used to be that that cycle half of those newsletters were about a new release because each new release would get four emails, and now they're not. I've replaced some of those with recommendation emails saying, “here's an author that you might want to try.” And readers love that because they think it's really generous. And I'm just, you know, trying to support other indies and keep readers happy and find some content for my newsletter as well.
So readers are getting used to the fact that I'm writing a little bit slower now. And I think the fact that I forced myself to sort of hang tight and not respond to the pressure on that, I'm glad I did that now.
Joanna: You're right, because things change. Like when I had COVID I could barely do anything for ages. And things happen, life happens, and we cannot be driven by the reader demand in that way. Because like you said, they email you the day after. And it's just impossible, you cannot keep up.
You just said that, “I don't have multiple streams of income. I'm very focused.” And I do think this is a personality difference.
You do have multiple streams of income. You have how many books now?
Rachel: That's true. 13 crime books at the moment.
Joanna: And then other books as well.
Rachel: Yeah, yeah. Although I have the other thrillers and I have a few nonfiction books, but they don't come anywhere close to making a living for me. But I think the fact that I have two series does give me a bit of a buffer there because I have some readers who read both, and I have some readers who just read one. I have more readers for the Dorset books.
As it turned out, and this wasn't in my plan, releasing a series of books set in Dorset in a summer where people can't travel abroad was a really, really successful thing to do. And when I started planning them, I didn't know that was going to be the case.
I got so many emails from people saying, “I'm lying on Bournemouth beach at the moment reading your book, and nobody's been murdered yet.” That was great. It was really nice to have all those people in the location.
I got a tweet from somebody recently saying, “we recently went around to Dorset and we decided that we would visit all the locations in your books, and that's what the structure of the holiday became.” And that was amazing. I felt like, you know, that's something people do for Jane Austen books.
Joanna: That’s true.
Rachel: It was so gratifying.
Joanna: Yeah, I've heard people say that about some of mine as well. And that's why I'm quite looking forward to the augmented reality options where maybe we can do a tour. You know, like you said, you do these visits and you do a thing to camera.
Well, in the future, I believe, you will be able to record that, and then when people are there, they'll be able to see with their glasses on, they'll see you superimposed over the environment talking about your book. So I really love that idea for those of us for whom sense of place is super important. I think that's going to be an interesting, either a licensing deal, or to do ourselves. I think that's quite cool.
Rachel: Absolutely, I'd love to do that sort of thing. Something I'm planning—which I was planning for this Christmas, but it hasn't happened in time, so I'm planning it in time for next Christmas—is a coffee-table book which is a walk around Dorset taking in all my crime scenes. And with lots and lots of photographs of the area around them and the locations and some personal stories as to what those locations mean to me and my history with them.
It's something that I was inspired to do by Ann Cleeves who's written a coffee table book about Shetland with lots of photos in it. And I'd really like to do that, and something like that will be fabulous in VR.
Joanna: Yes, interestingly, Val McDermid did one on Scotland as well. So wait, LJ Ross is going to have to do something around Northumberland. I love that idea. So will you put that under your fiction name as well?
Rachel: Yes, yes, yes. Because that will be aimed at my fiction readers.
Joanna: Yes. And I will be putting out a book on pilgrimage, which will be my first nonfiction book under my fiction name. And you also put out Five Steps to Author Success under your fiction name.
So you have multiple author names, I have multiple author names, and so far, we have both kept those fiction and nonfiction.
So tell me, why did you put a nonfiction book under your fiction name?
And this photography book as well will be a nonfiction. Can we use this kind of content marketing as fiction authors or are we messing up are also-boughts?
Rachel: I think for me, the reason that I wrote the Five Steps book as Rachel McLean was because it was all about how I'd written and sold books as Rachel McLean.
Whereas the Rachel McCollin books, they started because I was traditionally published writing WordPress development books. And there were a few published by publishers and then a couple that have been published by me independently. One of them is WordPress for Writers, for example. So they're very much about IT, those books.
There are a few more that are about writing that are workbooks and that kind of thing. But I'd sort of left that behind because I put quite a lot of work into that in 2019. And then I used a piece of software called Toggle where you can track your time and I tracked my time spent on fiction and nonfiction, and the amount of time I was spending on content marketing on nonfiction was huge. And it was meaning that my efficiency in terms of sales was really, really low for nonfiction. So I left that behind and focused on the fiction.
So because I haven't really been using that pen name for quite a while, I decided that I would publish this book as the name that is associated with the successful author, so that people could see that this is a book about how to succeed as an author, written by somebody who is genuinely successful as an author.
Because you get so many books and courses by people who aren't successful or pretend to know how to do it, and I wanted to make it very clear that I was speaking as somebody who knew what I was talking about.
Also, and this is something I say in the book a lot, this is not a one size fits all approach. And what I've done will not necessarily work in exactly the same way for you. So don't assume that I'm telling you exactly what to do. It's a series of tips and experiences that I've gone through that hopefully will help people.
Joanna: It's a great book.
So tell us, where can people find you and everything you do online?
Rachel: Yeah, they can find me at RachelMcLean.com which is the hub for all of my books under the pen name Rachel McLean, so it's mainly around the crime fiction there. And on RachelMcLean.com they can get a free novella from each of my Dorset Crime and Zoe Finch series.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Rachel. That was great.
Rachel: Thank you.
Seamus Anthony says
Great book and interview. Thanks both!
Matty Dalrymple says
Brilliant conversation–thank you!!
Anna Sayburn Lane says
A really illuminating conversation between two fantastic writers, showing different routes to success. Thank you both.
Carolyn Mahony says
A great interview with genuinely useful tips. I met Rachel briefly at the SPF event in London back in the summer where she was on one of the panels. She’s very articulate and is very generous with her sharing of marketing advice. Thanks to both of you for an interesting podcast.