Hard work and razor-sharp writing turned a first-time novelist from a self-published author into a #1 bestselling sensation on Amazon U.K. Rachel Abbott had spent most of her working life as the managing director of an interactive media company, developing software and websites for the education market. Selling that business enabled her to realise a lifelong dream of restoring a property in Italy, and it was during the winter months that she began to write Only The Innocent. It sold more than 100,000 books, and introduced the tenacious DCI Tom Douglas to crime fiction fans. But incredibly, when Rachel first self published, her sales initially went from a highpoint of 25 a day, to one. How did Rachel turn that situation around? Here she reveals some of the secrets of her success, having since published The Back Road, and Sleep Tight, and gives a taster of what’s to come in her new book…
Q: If a reader was recommending your book to another on the basis: “If you like X, you’ll love Rachel Abbott,” what author would give you the biggest thrill to hear was X?
A: That’s a really difficult question, because there are so many great writers. One of my favourites is Sharon Bolton (previously S J Bolton), but I don’t think my books are like hers at all. So I think I would have to say Harlan Coben.
When I first started writing, I had no intention of having a policeman as a main character who ran through all the books. They were going to be stand alone, as many of Harlan Coben’s are. However, when somebody is murdered in the first chapter of a story, a policeman is kind of inevitable, and so many readers fell for Tom Douglas that he became a fixture. That, of course, makes them dissimilar to Harlan Coben’s. But each story is unique, and in each there is (I hope) a twist that people are not expecting. I would like to think that this gives them the same pace and energy as a Harlan Coben book.
Q: As a reader, what psychological thriller of recent years did you enjoy most?
I was recently sent an advance copy of I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. I believe this is her debut novel, and I knew from the first page that it was my kind of book. It’s well worth a read.
Q: Will you give us a teaser re the book you’ve just completed?
A: Emma Jacobs believes that, following some turbulent years, she has at last found peace and happiness with husband David and baby Ollie. And then a stranger walks into their home, and her world tilts on its axis. Why is nobody telling the truth? And why does she suddenly feel afraid for herself and her baby?
The official blurb has yet to be written – it’s hard, because tragedy strikes very quickly in the novel and I don’t want to give too much away. So I hope that gives just a hint of what is to come.
Q: How long did it take you to write your first book, Only The Innocent, when you were writing in your spare time?
A: To be fair, it wasn’t really in my spare time. I used to own a company in England and I sold it in 2000 and after a few more years working part time, I left and went to live in Italy for a while. Although I was busy there with various projects, the winter months were quite dead – so I dedicated myself to writing.
The first draft was very quick – probably only a couple of months. That was because the idea had been in my head for years, and because I am a very fast touch typist. Then came the hard slog. It was probably two years after the first draft before I had a book I was happy with. I launched it – it reached number one – but then I got an agent, who said that the book would benefit from another edit, and she was right. She edited it, and even I could see how much that transformed the book. It made me appreciate the value of a ‘real’ edit – i.e. one where the editor points out whole sections that are unnecessary, or in the wrong place, or ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. And it made me realise how much I had to learn – and still do!
Q: As a fulltime author, how long did it take to write The Back Road, and Sleep Tight – is the process getting faster, or do you find new demands on your time?
A: The Back Road took longer, but that was mainly because I was also re-editing Only the Innocent at the same time. Sleep Tight seemed a little faster, but whichever way I look at it, I need about a year for a book. The plotting takes me quite some time – my books aren’t simple, and there are lots of different strands that all need to come together. And it is inevitable that when I have produced the first draft and it’s gone for a read by my agent, there are going to be some big changes to be made.
I think I am better at the detail level – I know much more about the structure of a chapter than I did (I hope!) – but in terms of the plot, I think it still takes a very good second pair of eyes to see whether the pace of the plot is working, whether it’s confusing to the reader, or whether the characters are likeable. Sometimes they’re not – and that’s intentional. But getting the balance is difficult without somebody checking and pulling things back into line.
As I have chosen to continue self-publishing – at least for now – I also have everything else to organise. The marketing, the launch, the jacket, the paperback versions – although my agent, Lizzy Kremer, and her team at David Higham Associates are unbelievably helpful. But marketing occupies about three months of each year, and so by the time I get started on the next book, which has to be written, edited a couple of times, copy edited, read by early readers – a year soon disappears.
Q: You mentioned in an article in The Guardian that your traditionally established promotion routes had shifted by the time you wrote your second book, The Back Road. Will you expand on what the differences were?
A: When I wrote Only the Innocent, there were far fewer self-published authors. It was more acceptable to try to gently persuade people to buy your book, and there was a definite sense of camaraderie between indie authors. I’m still good friends with several of the ones I met in the early days. So tweeting about a book was okay – people were genuinely interested. Now, people are more sophisticated and are looking for more from writers. I also used some tools for building up genuine Twitter followers too – those interested in my kind of books – but Twitter changed the rules of engagement and made it harder.
I wrote a whole series of blog posts about self-publishing, which people found useful and I became known as somebody who had experience and knowledge. But the web is now stuffed to bursting with people offering advice (many of whom, it has to be said, haven’t actually had success themselves – so writers should be cautious of which advice they take) – and helpful blog posts don’t really work so well as they did.
Amazon forums changed – authors could no longer post in general forums, they had to use the ‘Meet our Authors’ forum. That in itself was fine to start with, because once again indie authors were supportive of each other. But now in general the forums seem to be full of people cutting and pasting the exact same post into as many relevant forums as possible, and never engaging in chat.
That’s just for starters – each new book presents a whole new range of marketing challenges.
Q: Will you give a breakdown of an average day when you are in marketing mode – what has to be done after publishing a cracking crime book?
A: It’s actually more about what I do BEFORE the book is published that matters – and that defines what I do after. I hope that will make sense in a moment!
Before I publish, I will have a comprehensive plan in place and many tasks can be completed before the book is launched. For example, I will create a Twitter stream of quotes from the book – brief teasers. These will all have been created and added to a queue in Social Oomph. I will also have written a number of blog posts, ready to go either on my blog or as a guest on other blogs.
After the book comes out, each day is spent responding to people – Twitter followers who have a question, comments on blog posts, Facebook feedback, etc. There will often be interviews – much like this one – where I need to respond to questions.
We have an active schedule of contacting reviewers, to see if they would be interested in reviewing the book – and these need to be followed up, sent copies of the book, etc.
But the key is definitely in the preparation. Before launch, the review request PDF should have been created, the media site updated, the press release written – and that makes the following months a period when time can be devoted to following up and responding to feedback from readers and reviewers.
Q: What should an indie author, who hopes to make a living from writing excellent books, marketing tick list consist of?
A: That is far too long an answer for this interview – and could be the subject of a whole book. My last marketing plan was twenty-seven pages long, so not very easy to condense in the answer to a question.
Put in simple terms, it’s all about awareness, visibility and discoverability to start with. They all sound like the same thing, but there are subtle differences. Think about that, and then work out what you can do to build all of those three. Make a list of what activities you can perform to achieve each of these.
Once people are aware or have found your book – you need to think about how you create interest. What is going to make them want to learn more? What will create the desire to buy your book? Specify what you believe will work, and then follow your plan, evaluate, and if necessary adjust.
And make it easy for readers to buy – don’t just put at the end of a blog post “you can find my book on Amazon” – put a link. I know it sounds basic, but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who don’t.
If you have a plan and stick to it, it will prevent you from spending days on the internet looking for the next good idea – a crime that I have been very guilty of in the past. That’s why I need a clearly defined list of actions.
Q: Will you put in order of priority for the author planning to self publish today Facebook; Twitter; Blogging?
A: Sorry – but I can’t do that. It’s all down to the individual. A really good blogger who has a massive following because they have managed to hit on the perfect format for their readers is onto a winner. But they are few and far between.
Twitter is a way of keeping in touch on a very regular basis – so that readers don’t forget you. Some writers are amazing on Twitter – Joanne Harris is one. She always finds something interesting to say.
Facebook, in my experience, brings the best pro-rata returns. If I post something I generally get a fair percentage of likes and comments. But I have far fewer Facebook ‘likes’ than I have Twitter followers.
It comes down to where you feel most comfortable. In my case, I think I would lose most sales if I stopped using Twitter. But that is certainly not true of every writer.
Q: Many of the Amazon kings and queens talk about the need to bring another book out quickly, so as to keep readers committed to an author. If the traditional publishing model was a book a year, is there a digital difference?
A: Many authors are bringing out novellas between their novels. It was suggested to me – as a means of keeping readers committed. Sadly, I actually dislike novellas. I don’t enjoy reading them, won’t buy them, and often feel that they are a marketing ploy rather than a genuine ‘I need to write this book’ moment from the author. So I have chosen not to write one.
I think the whole idea of more than a book a year is down to the immediacy of buying ebooks. You finish one, immediately go online to look for another by the same writer, one click – and there you have it. It’s disappointing when you can’t find one. Previously you would wait until your next trip to the book shop, when you might look up your favourite author to see if there is anything new, but you would also be overcome with the amazing choice spread in front of you on the display shelves.
Although ebooks are easier to buy, I don’t think it’s as easy to choose your next book by a new author – even though Amazon and all the other retailers work hard to make it so. That’s why readers want to stick with the authors they know, I suspect, and they would love a faster turnaround of the next book.
Q: What do you miss most about your old life, and enjoy most about your new one?
A: The only thing that I miss is that I don’t have enough time now to cook as much as I used to. I love cooking, and would happily spend two days preparing for a special dinner for friends. Now, they’re lucky if they get pizza (although it would be home made). For most of the year, I don’t have the luxury of two days that are spare. I tend to work pretty much every day, unless there is some special reason not to.
As to my new life, I love everything about it. I was worried about retiring early and not having a purpose. But now I can’t wait to get up and start the day and get on with my latest book, or editing, or marketing – whatever the day throws at me.
Possibly the best thing about my new life is where I live. I moved from Italy to the Channel Islands for a whole host of reasons. I still own property in Italy and still visit, but living on the beautiful island of Alderney has been the best thing ever for me. It is the friendliest place I have ever lived, and although I work hard all day, I also have a brilliant social life here with some really good friends – so life is pretty good all round.
Q: Finally, if you were a casting director, who’d be playing DCI Tom Douglas?
A: That was the subject of a very interesting debate on my Facebook page last year. The most voted for by my readers was Dylan McDermott – who does fit the bill but is actually American, so I’m not too sure. Greg Wise was second – a complete surprise to me, and not at all the Tom Douglas of my imagination. Jack Davenport was probably my favourite, or Clive Owen.
(c) Niamh O’Connor
Here’s what Rachel’s latest book Sleep Tight is all about:
Now, two years later, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Douglas is called in to investigate this family again, but this time it’s Olivia who has disappeared. All the evidence suggests that she was here, in the family home, that morning. But her car is in the garage, and her purse is on the kitchen table.
The police want to issue a national appeal, but every single picture of this family has been removed from albums, from phones, from computers.
And then they find the blood…
Has the past caught up with Olivia?
Sleep Tight – if you can. You never know who’s watching.