With thousands of positive reviews of her three best-selling psychological thrillers to spur her on to her next book, British self-published author Rachel Abbott shares the secrets of her success, including one which may come as a surprise to some indie writers: the support of a carefully-chosen agent.
What's the secret of your success?
Hard work, plus a lot of luck. You can write the best book in the world, but if people don’t know about it, it’s not going to get noticed in amongst the 2.6 million other books on Amazon, and so you have to be focused and determined, and you have to work really hard. When I published Only the Innocent – my first self-published title, I just put it up there on Amazon and sat and watched as it sold one or two copies a day. Then my business head came into play. What could I do to make my book stand out? How could I get people to notice my book amongst so many? I spent far too long being completely unfocused, and it was only when I wrote a marketing plan with very specific aims and objectives that things started to happen. Suddenly people noticed my book – the tactics were working. And then it got to number 1 in the Kindle chart and stayed there for four weeks. But it was very hard work. I worked about fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for three months. I stuffed myself with chocolate biscuits and put on far too much weight, but the sense of achievement as the reviews started to come in and my book rose up the charts was immense.
What was the single best thing you ever did?
I signed with Lizzy Kremer of David Higham Associates as my agent. Like many people, I had initially failed to find an agent. To be fair, I hadn’t tried very hard, but when Only the Innocent did so well, agents started to approach me. Lizzy wasn’t one of them, but she was recommended to me so I got in touch with her and liked her straight-talking approach. She has had a massive impact on my writing. Unlike some agents who simply try to find and negotiate publishing deals, Lizzy becomes involved in my writing from the start of each new book. She provides guidance, ideas, and when I have finished my first draft, she is the first one to read and comment, sometimes making editorial suggestions that transform my thinking and send me off in a new direction. I genuinely believe that through working with her my writing has improved dramatically. The other thing Lizzy and I work on together is strategy. It isn’t always easy to decide whether to self-publish or to seek a traditional publisher, and a good agent is in an excellent position to advise at each stage of a writer’s career. People are often surprised that I have an agent, thinking that self-publishing means that you have to go it alone, but that is no longer the case and I find that working with an agent allows me to explore options with the full support of somebody who is firmly on my side, but has the expertise and understanding of the publishing industry.
How do you get/stay in creative mode?
My problem is starting a new book. I have an idea, and I play around with it in my head for quite a while before I commit to paper. But once the story is established, it develops a life of its own, and it’s the only thing that I think about for most of the time. Writing is never the problem; plotting is the thing that slows me down. My books tend to be quite complex, and so I’m not able to have an idea and just sit down and write, seeing where the story takes me. I have to know how all the elements fit together, and I love it and hate it in equal measure. I adore the process of plotting, but I am always itching to start writing, and they are completely different mind-sets. One is all about logic and pinning your mind down to the most minute detail, the other is about painting pictures with words and letting your imagination develop scenarios and characters. So I try to do most of the plotting first, and have the facts nailed down so that I can focus on the fiction.
How do you prioritise?
I try to establish a timetable. I check all the things I shouldn’t check like chart position when I get up in the morning before breakfast, and I go through all my emails and tweets. I get rid of the amazing amount of junk that I get each day and flag those emails that need a reply. After breakfast (which is a very brief affair), I respond to any readers who have contacted me, but as soon as that’s done, provided there is nothing deadly urgent, I consult my ridiculously long to-do list and decide if there is anything vital that will stop me writing. It has to be pretty serious, something that is going to result in a fine or worse if I don’t do it. to stop me writing. I think that I am at my most creative in the mornings, so I work for as long as I can before breaking for a quick lunch. My low point of the day is always the early afternoon. If I let myself, I would go to sleep every day for an hour. So I fill this low spot with doing the essentials – paying bills, responding to non-urgent but necessary emails – and then when that’s over I can get back to writing. It would be very, very easy to fill every day with other tasks. There are so many marketing possibilities, and if I pursued each new discovery on the internet that might lead to greater reader engagement, I would literally never write, so I have to be very strict with myself.
I’m working on my next book, another psychological thriller. The policeman who has featured in all my books to date, Tom Douglas, has his own developing story, and so alongside the main storyline we will be discovering a little more about what happened to Tom’s brother, Jack – who has been mentioned in every book to date. But that can’t be the main focus. It’s another strand to the story, but principally the novel, just like the other three, will be about dilemmas. I like to write about situations that any of us might find ourselves in (if we’re very unlucky!), which leave readers wondering whether they would have dealt with the circumstances in the same way. Sometimes good people are forced to do bad things, and my protagonists are always faced with difficult decisions. The next book will continue with this theme, with the story of Tom’s brother as an additional layer of interest.
What's the highlight of being an author-publisher for you?
It is without a doubt the response from readers. Each time I publish a new book, and I am sure it’s the same for every author, it’s with a feeling of trepidation. It doesn’t matter how many advance readers have told me they love the book, it’s not until people buy it and either get in touch or post a review that I get a sense of how people are reacting. The reaction to my latest book, Sleep Tight, has been overwhelming, and it is amazing to receive several emails a day from readers, together with Twitter and Facebook posts. That’s the real joy of publishing my books.
What's your top tip for other indie authors?
Decide before you start exactly what you want to get out of it. Is it your aim just to have a book published on Amazon for your own personal satisfaction? Or do you want maximum readers but you don’t care about making any money? These are perfectly valid reasons for uploading your book. If, however, you are serious about making a commercial success of your book, then you have to do treat it like a business, and have an associated business plan with all the costs that you might incur. The main costs will be:
- A decent cover design. This will undoubtedly cost you money, but there are websites that specialise in matching writers to creative designers who shouldn’t cost the earth, and the cover is so important.
- Have your book professionally edited. It’s not good enough just to ask your sister or spouse to proofread it. Editing is a whole different ball game, and it will make a substantial difference to the final book.
The business plan should also include your marketing plan. This doesn’t need to cost money, because you can write it yourself, although you may decide to invest a little money in some apps that make your life easier or extend your reach to potential readers. Your marketing plan should address how people will discover your book, and what will motivate them to buy it. Ideally it will also cover how you plan to get people to review it too. I could write pages and pages on this subject, but clearly this isn’t the place. The important thing is: if you want to be commercially successful, you have to treat this like a business.
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