Rachel Abbott and Paul Finch – in conversation: self vs traditional publishing

I’m enjoying my journey as a self-published author very much and that’s partly because one of the great things about the self-publishing community is how supportive indie authors are of each other. We often compare notes, and offer each other advice. But I don’t really know many traditionally published authors, so I was delighted to be introduced recently to Paul Finch, whose novel Stalkers has been in the Kindle top 100 for over a hundred days. We had a chat about the similarities and differences in our experiences.

Paul_headshotRA: We are both lucky enough to have been in the Kindle top twenty recently, but we became bestsellers by quite different routes I think. Would you tell me a bit about how Stalkers came to be published?

PF: The idea behind Stalkers came from one of my brain-storming sessions, where I simply devote a day or two to hatching high-concept ideas and jotting them down. Not necessarily ideas aimed at any particular project … just anything that strikes me as the basis for a good story, be it for a novel, a novella, a short story or even a screenplay. Stalkers originally began life as an idea entitled The Nice Guys Club. It just hit me one evening…this idea about the most terrible kind of secret club. At first I thought it would only work as a horror story – it was too dark to imagine it falling into the realms of crime or thriller fiction. But I’d been massively impressed by US cop shows like The Shield and The Wire, and have long felt that we are painfully lacking in this kind of stuff over here. In all honesty, you have to go back to The Sweeney to find that kind of edgy, gritty, fast-moving crime series in a British setting. Several times I’d spoken to my agent on this same subject, and he’d always responded: “if you can give me one, I’ll try to sell it”. The Nice Guys Club seemed a perfect fit for this new police hero I was evolving – an affable but isolated character, hard-boiled as hell, and loaded with baggage – but it was also obvious that it would be near enough impossible to place this story on television; the subject matter was simply too disturbing.

RA: I love the idea of brain-storming for a couple of days. I might try that. The starting point for me is to base my books on people that any one of us might meet, and I focus on the lengths that ordinary people will go to in order to protect themselves and their lives. My villains are usually well disguised as somebody that you or I might know, without realising that they have a very dark side.

Like you, though, I felt that the whole idea of stalking was a great basis for a book, and The Back Road touches on the subject in various ways.  I think it’s a popular theme for readers and authors at the moment because it strikes at particular fears we have as a result of living our lives online. I first became interested in the concept of one of my characters being tracked down and followed when discussing some of the dangers of social media with a friend. In The Back Road a girl is contacted on Facebook by someone who is able to hide their identity while forging an intimate and dangerous friendship. Another character makes a mistake in her personal life and as a result finds herself being hounded in a more conventional way – with phone calls, texts, and signs that her tormenter has been in her home.

When I started my research, I was staggered by just how easy we all make it for people to know everything about us, so that however safe we think we are, there may be an enemy lurking around any corner, with too much information.

I shared my idea for The Back Road with my agent at quite an early stage – when I had an outline and a couple of chapters – and she gave me some useful feedback. This was a huge contrast to the way I wrote my first novel, Only the Innocent, when I had to feel my way through on my own, the way all new writers do. At what stage did you share your book with your agent, and what happened when they sent the book out to publishers?

PF: I mentioned the book to my agent, Julian Friedmann, a couple of times, but Julian is a busy guy and I didn’t expect him to give me masses of feedback on a bare bones premise, so as soon as I’d planned the book out I got down to writing it in full. I’d reached the stage in horror and fantasy where this was something I hadn’t really had to do very much – a few sample chapters and a detailed outline would normally be enough to acquire a commission. But I had no track record in crime or thrillers, so it was apparent from the start that I was going to have to write this book on spec. And that’s what I did, and I actually didn’t mind, because it allowed me to really fill in the blanks. In fact, it seemed predestined – it literally flowed out of the keyboard. I’d written it in about two months. Julian was very pleased to have a finished novel to hawk around, and though it was a big step away from the horror/fantasy novels I’d written in the past, he managed to find an interested publisher, Avon Books at HarperCollins, fairly quickly – though initially, after some debate, they had said ‘no’. I’m not sure why – I think they simply didn’t have space for a new crime writer on their list. But within a year that had changed, and they came back to me again. I signed a three book deal with Avon in late 2011 and the first book came out in February 2013.

RA: The time gap between finishing a book and being published is interesting. I’m always really keen to get my book out there quickly for all sorts of reasons. I was worried that the gap between Only the Innocent and The Back Road would be too great if I didn’t publish as soon as I could. After the launch of Only the Innocent I’d spent several months marketing, and then my agent, Lizzy Kremer, and an editor she works with helped me to develop a new draft of that novel, which took another few months. So to have gone down the traditional route with The Back Road would have caused further delays. I also worry that somebody else will come up with the same idea, or the topicality of a story will be lost. Do you think there are advantages of publishing more slowly?

PF: Well, with Stalkers in particular, I don’t think it was that slow a process.  Once it was agreed that we were selling to Avon, there was the usual one or two months spent negotiating the contract, then, when I’d signed, I went down to London to meet the team, and after that had several editorial meetings with Helen Bolton, who is my editor at Avon. Perhaps I’m just very fortunate in that Helen and I sing from the same songsheet. She’d really liked Stalkers the first time she’d seen it, and she loved DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, who is the central character and someone she felt we could build a whole series of adventures around. There were of course some changes required, but nothing too complex. I must be honest, I pride myself on being easy to work with. I’m not precious about my own material, and will do whatever is necessary to make it work for my publisher. Sure, there are times when I disagree radically and will say so, but thankfully Helen and I have always been able to reach easy compromises. Anyway, from my POV, the book was done and dusted and had left my desk by mid-2012, and I was already working on Sacrifice, the follow-up. I hear your concerns about projects losing topicality and so forth – my biggest fear with police-related material is that laws and police powers and procedures change on a constant and regular basis. But when I was down at CrimeFest in Bristol last month, I learned that most crime-writers share the same anxiety. It’s just something we have to live with.

RA: I found the whole experience of working with an editor completely inspiring, but I like to get input from readers too. My agent is the first person to read the initial draft of my books. She gives me so much guidance about keeping the story on track, and suggests improvement to plot points and character traits. Sometimes this drives me into ‘stomping around the house’ mode as I realise that one simple change that she has suggested would make a tremendous difference to the book, but although it looks like a line on a page, it’s actually a significant amendment with all sorts of ramifications. I get cross with myself because I missed it, and should have spotted it first time round. But the changes are always worth the trouble. Once the plot has been clarified, the editor and I go through two or three iterations – each of which seems to reveal more ‘duh’ moments as she gently points out areas that need tweaking. But I love it, because I’m learning all the time.

Before I publish, I like to send my novel to maybe half a dozen trusted readers – people who read voraciously and are not afraid of commenting. In a plot that’s as complex as The Back Road this was essential because I needed to see whether there were any holes. As a result of their feedback, I made a fairly fundamental adjustment to one of the threads. But I was still very nervous when I launched the book, in case everybody hated it (which thankfully, hasn’t been the case).

With a publisher behind you, I imagine you feel confident when the book is launched that you have their support and that they wouldn’t have allowed your book to hit the shelves if they weren’t sure that it was good. Is that the case? Are you in regular contact, or do you just hear from them when there is something exciting to report?

PF: Well … having an editor at a company like HarperCollins certainly helps to underpin your confidence in a book. I don’t need to tell you, Rachel, that your editor’s first role is that she/he is a professional sounding-board. They don’t miss much. They make ideal proof-readers, copy-editors, etc etc. But my current experience is that they also live the book alongside you. They’re completely immersed in the subtext and the undercurrents – they get into the character’s skin, almost as much as you, the author, do. At least, that’s how it’s been while I’ve been at Avon. I remember one semi-surreal lunch I had with Helen in Hammersmith, when we found ourselves discussing Heck’s future love-life as if we were gossiping about a friend. It’s a huge advantage to have someone onside who has so bought into the material. Of course, we don’t live on top of each other. Writing, as you know, is by its nature a solitary endeavour. I have to get through the bulk of it alone in my office at home, but I tend to stay in contact with Helen on a once-a-week basis, either by phone or email. If I get a radical new idea midway through, which will necessitate big changes to the narrative, I test it out on her. If I have doubts about anything – if something just isn’t working for example, we’ll talk it through. If I’m concerned that the pace is dragging, she’ll suggest cuts that I’d never thought of, and so on. I can honestly say, I’ve never yet had a chat with Helen at the end of which I felt “that didn’t help very much”. I’m not saying this is everyone’s experience of working with a publisher, but it has certainly been mine.

RA: It was great to see Stalkers doing so well in the charts. I can’t help wondering whether traditionally published authors are as obsessed with checking chart positions as self-published authors?  As The Back Road was heading up the charts, I was checking almost hourly – getting up in the middle of the night occasionally (only if I woke up, though, I’m not sad enough to set my alarm!).

PF: To answer your question bluntly, yes I have been massively excited by the book’s rapid ascent up the charts, and I wasn’t expecting it. I just assumed, as I did with all my previous books, that it would make slow, steady progress and would eventually plateau out at somewhere respectable. However, within two weeks of publication I began to get emails from Avon, informing me that something exciting was happening. I started checking online, and was flabbergasted by the number of copies it was selling – within a relatively short time it was far and away my best-selling title.  I think the plethora of very positive reviews helped, but Avon have the full marketing muscle of HarperCollins behind them, and I’m not naive enough to imagine that this wasn’t massively significant in the book’s success – the deals they have with the supermarkets are also an enormous factor. That has helped me shift an awful lot of paperbacks. On top of that, they priced the ebook at 99p, so that flew as well. Occasionally, the price was raised, but throughout its shelf-life, Stalkers has remained massively affordable.

As a self-published author, I’d guess there’s much more onus on you to do your own marketing. Is that the case? If so, it must be quite a challenge, and almost as time-consuming as the actual writing.

RA: There is no doubt at all that I feel entirely responsible for the marketing, but to start with I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. It’s really interesting about your expectations regarding the slow and steady progress. When I released Only the Innocent I was completely new to all this, and I was over the moon when I sold more that a couple of books a day. But then I got the bit between my teeth and realised that the success or failure of the book was all going to be down to me. So my business hat came on, and I sat down and wrote myself a marketing plan. I had to attack this from two angles: immediate sales, and long-term brand building. As the book had already been launched I had to consider what could be done straightaway, and that included looking in detail at the Amazon site and working out how best to make my book discoverable. But I also wanted to make sure it was instantly recognisable so that if a reader came across it, they would think “I’ve seen that book somewhere before” and so those were the most urgent areas to focus on. I also had to think of the future, and so building my sales platform became another huge priority. Each element of the plan had an objective, a list of actions and targets – just as I would have done in any other business.

It was worth it. It took three months for Only the Innocent to get to the top of the Kindle chart, but it stayed at number one for four weeks – and every day I was more and more staggered by the sales. The Back Road has taken a slightly different path – and although I priced the ebook at £1.99, the Amazon 99p promotion for May has been useful in raising the book’s profile. It took off more quickly than Only the Innocent and reached number two in the charts – which is better than I would have imagined possible.

You’re absolutely right about marketing being time-consuming as well.  I would say that I have to allow three months after launch before I can get back to any serious writing. My days are totally occupied with marketing. Do you get involved in any marketing effort at all – such as speaking at events, books signings, etc? And do your publishers organise things like this for you?

PF: I always did a bit of my own marketing. When I was writing horror, Dr Who etc, I regularly attended fantasy conventions, did public readings, book signings and so forth. I also started my own blog – http://paulfinch-writer.blogspot.co.uk/ – on which readers could keep up with all the latest developments.

I found it too enjoyable to actually classify it as work, though ever since I’ve worked as a full-time writer, I’ve loved my job to a degree where it has never felt like ‘real work’. However, when I moved back into writing crime with books like Stalkers, much higher levels of self-publicisation were expected. I have had novels published mass-market before – StrongholdDark North and Dr Who: Hunter’s Moon – but with a huge operation like Avon and HarperCollins it was a different ballgame. They of course have done a phenomenal amount of marketing on my behalf, especially online – their work with Amazon and other online retailers, their comprehension of algorithms and so forth, enabled the book to make a huge impact very quickly – but it’s part of the deal that I do my bit as well so I am now finding that my writing day is frequently interrupted by promotional breaks, which though it’s a new thing for me, is clearly paying dividends. It may be hard to believe, but I’ve only recently started tweeting. I still maintain my blog, but I’ll soon be launching a dedicated Paul Finch crime-writing website, and I’m attending all the main crime festivals this year – Bristol, Harrogate and such, and will be part of a special crime/horror Twisted Tales event at Waterstones, Liverpool One on August 2nd. But I’m fascinated and vaguely horrified to hear that you have to write off an estimated three months after a book-launch. My schedule simply wouldn’t allow that, but surely it gives you a headache as well?

RA: Well yes, in that I have had the next book in my head for months now, and it’s bursting to break free! Although I’ve sketched it out, I have only just started the writing. The marketing does slow me down, and I struggle to write more than a book every twelve months.  But I had no followers on Twitter when I launched Only the Innocent, and during the course of the last year I built that to 14,000 – and I’m active in forums, Goodreads, Facebook and my own blog, which I originally set up to help other indie authors at http://rachelabbottwriter.com. I also developed and manage my own website at www.rachel-abbott.com and I set up one for media at www.rachel-abbott.info – both of which I enjoyed doing.

And if I’m honest, I don’t know how I would feel about handing over complete control. I would want to have an input to a strategic plan – a mix of price and marketing strategy – and I understand that isn’t the relationship between most authors and their publishers. There may be times in a career when volume of sales is the driver, and others where it’s about building a brand or maximising revenue. Each of these requires a different strategic plan.

Another one of the brilliant things about doing so much marketing myself is that I am constant contact with readers – through all the social media sites, forums, etc – and that’s a definite upside that I wouldn’t want to lose.  So despite it taking a lot of time, there are some very positive aspects.

PF: I’m looking forward to meeting readers at The Twisted Tales event in Liverpool, where I’ll be reading selected passages from my next crime novel, Sacrifice. I’ll admit to always being a bit nervous at these events, actually. You’re never sure, of course, how your work is going to be received. Some folk love it, but others inevitably don’t. Only once have I ever been put on the spot by someone who was highly critical to my face, though that was an obnoxious drunk at a horror convention in Birmingham, who told me he enjoyed what he’d seen of my writing but wouldn’t pay for it as he’d never give money to “a Nazi pig”, referring to my former career as a police officer. I can’t remember what I said to him, but I guess there was even less chance of him buying my books afterwards.

On a more serious note, I can’t imagine that you have any fears when you publish – 14,000 fans on Twitter, who you’ve obviously won over by the quality of your work – must be hugely comforting. You’ve hit the spot with your books.

RA: Thanks! But I am very interested in your comment about the way you wonder how your work is going to be received. How do you feel about bad reviews in general? Isn’t it extraordinary to think that only a few years ago, authors would not be able to read readers’ views on their books at all, unless they received a letter in the post? And now so much rests on one’s ratings…it’s so gratifying for me to see people enjoying my book, just days after publication. As a self-published author I am not likely to see my book reviewed in magazines and newspapers. But then reader reviews are mixed, of course, and it’s tricky to keep them in perspective sometimes. We all get comments from negative reviewers such as ‘don’t buy this book’. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, and I genuinely don’t expect everybody to like my books. But it is odd when people get abusive. How do you feel when you get one of those?

PF: To be honest, I just take it on the chin … or try to. As you say, everyone is entitled to their opinion, though some of these I find highly suspicious, especially if the reviewer in question has never reviewed anything else, or has only reviewed a new brand of coffee or something, and yet suddenly seems to go to town on this particular novel. If I didn’t like a book I’d paid for, I wouldn’t post any comment on the retail site where I’d got it from. I might mention why it didn’t appeal to me in forum chat, but I would never go hunting down the place of sale and make comments like “that’s 99p I will never get back” or “I will never read any of his other books and I urge other readers to do the same”. That amounts to sticking the knife in and twisting it simply because you can. Likewise, stuff like “I have only read 30 pages and gave up” make me laugh – they’ve read 30 pages out of 450 and yet still feel qualified to comment! The best laugh, of course, is to see the handful of negative reviewers commiserating with each other in the ‘comments’ columns as if they can’t understand why everyone is wrong except them.

But ultimately, the naysayers are more than made up for by the good comments, which – thankfully where Stalkers is concerned – have been in an enormous majority. Even if they weren’t, I’d take the view that if we consciously put our stuff out there in public, we must expect some people to throw stones.

Of course, whatever happens once the book is published, it helps that I have the support of a big publisher. That’s something you, as a self-published author, don’t have. In that respect, you must feel alone at times?

RA: I do, because I know that whether the book sinks or swims, it’s my responsibility. If everybody hates my books, I have nobody to blame but myself, and whether it sells twenty a day or two thousand a day, it’s all down to me. Without an advance, I could have worked for a year for nothing – so I feel very exposed.

However, I struck very lucky indeed with my agent, Lizzy. She and her team give me no end of support with my writing, and they’re always available if I’m feeling in need of somebody to lend an ear. I published The Back Road through the Amazon White Glove programme – where the agents and Amazon liaise and take over the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) relationship. That seems to have worked well, and there have been some definite pluses – not least that I have somebody to talk to about the whole publishing process. And as an agency, David Higham Associates has a terrific translation rights team and film and TV department, so I’m well looked after and well supported in those areas.

There is no doubt, though, that seeing my books in print on the front table at Waterstones does have huge appeal, as does leaving somebody else to worry about the marketing. While it is good to work at my own pace, I am quite driven and rarely take a day off. But I’m overwhelmed by the positive experience I’ve had in sharing my work with the public directly. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for me, to be able to write a novel and share it with others so quickly. I’ve also seen it as a business challenge – I’ve made a good living so far, and I’ve learned a lot of new marketing skills. And I’ve made some excellent friends! Best of all, I’ve been writing….something I love to do. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to my new novel. It’s about obsession, and the dreadful things that people may be driven to in the name of what they believe to be love.

Can you give us a sneak preview of what’s going to happen in your next book? I know it features the same policeman, but is it a continuation of the same story?

PF: It’s interesting you should ask that question. In Stalkers, Heck takes on a brutal crime syndicate called the Nice Guys Club. Several readers have assumed the sequel will be a direct continuation of this story. It won’t, but Heck isn’t done with the Nice Guys Club. Readers can rest assured – those very nasty men will be back in the near future. In the meantime, Sacrifice sees Heck and other members of the Serial Crime Unit hunting an unknown killer who appears to be celebrating popular holidays and festivals with grisly but appropriate human sacrifices. A drunken man racked and burned on Bonfire Night, a courting couple shot through their hearts with the same arrow on Valentine’s day, etc. I think it will probably be a more nightmarish experience than Stalkers was, simply because of the rapidly rising body-count and the uncertainty surrounding each forthcoming date in the calendar as Heck and the other murder detectives watch the days tick by and wonder who and what will be next.

RA: It has been great talking to you – I’m looking forward to reading your new book Sacrifice, and meeting up with your extremely brave policeman – Heck – again.

PF: Thanks very much, Rachel. I look forward to reading your next novel as well. I’m hugely impressed by what you’ve achieved as a self-published author, and it’s been interesting to learn how much work has gone into it.

To find out more about Paul Finch, visit http://paulfinch-writer.blogspot.co.uk/

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