What are the key elements of a good crime novel? How can you reboot your author career through publishing and marketing changes? Ed James shares insights on his writing craft and author business.
In the intro, Jeff Bezos steps down as CEO of Amazon [The Verge]; Why this is the best time to be in publishing [The Hotsheet]; Why enterprise publishing is on the rise [Mike Shatzkin]; plus I’m on the Intermittent Fasting Stories Podcast.
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Ed James is a Scottish crime author with over 20 crime and thriller novels spanning five different series set across Edinburgh, Dundee, London and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.A.
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.
- The differences between crime audiences in the US vs UK
- The essential elements of a crime novel
- How Ed’s engineering background influences his writing and plotting
- Where ideas come from and how to keep things original while adhering to genre tropes
- Curiosity as a muscle
- Different publishing choices for different books at different times
- The importance of book covers for book marketing
You can find Ed James at EdJames.co.uk and on Twitter @EdJamesAuthor
Transcript of interview with Ed James
Joanna Penn: Ed James is a Scottish crime author with over 20 crime and thriller novels spanning five different series set across Edinburgh, Dundee, London and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.A. Welcome, Ed.
Ed James: Hi, Joanna. It’s good to catch up again after so long.
Joanna Penn: Indeed, and we see each other in person occasionally at events.
Tell us a bit more about you, and how you got into writing.
Ed James: My path to writing was because I was looking for a creative outlet as I was growing up, and it used to be music, and I was in bands and so on and so forth, and then that all died a bit in about 2005, 2006 time.
I was very angry about music, and how much time I’d spent on it and a lot of other things, so I just started channeling my energies into writing. And over that next four years, it was a case of writing what people call practice novels, I suppose, over various genres, sending them off to agents, getting absolutely nothing other than maybe a few little leaflets back, saying yeah, no, thanks for sending, it’s not for us kind of thing.
And then I think about 2010 I finished the first Scott Cullen book, and actually had some interest from agents there. And that was quite exciting, because everyone I knew who’d been involved in writing had never even got that far, so it was like three months you wait when you send off the full manuscript, and then another not quite a form rejection, but just saying, yeah, it’s not for us.
That was a bit dispiriting, and I gave up writing about that point, for about a year and a half. My day job got a bit hectic as well, and then I remember reading lots of stuff late 2011, about how the Kindle was taking off, and I thought, right, I’ve got that book, I think it’s probably got a lot of potential, so I’ll finish it, publish it and see how it goes. And that took me a bit longer than expected because it needed a lot of work, so maybe the agents weren’t so daft.
Then my dad did the copyediting and proofing for it, and I got it up in the middle of April 2012. And it took me quite a while to get any sales to come in, and that was, like, I think you talk about the flip of being an author to being the publisher, and it’s understanding that side of it.
I knew absolutely nothing, no understanding of what publishers even did around editing or marketing, all that kind of stuff. And actually, just having to get a handle on marketing, and then start to sell books, that was in those days you got a lot of stuff free from Amazon, I think it’s fair to say. They used to present your books to people, and that was always quite nice. And once you got enough traffic on, you’d get quite a lot of traction off that.
Joanna Penn: So that takes you up to sort of 2012, 2013.
What happened with your day job?
Ed James: Around that time, I think I published five books in about a year, maybe… a year and a half, and it started creeping up to being quite a good monthly income. And at that point I was working in London, and I was actually traveling from my home near Edinburgh every week on a 6:30 flight down to London in the morning, and then back up on Thursday night and working from home on Friday.
I was basically either working or writing when I was down there, occasionally seeing friends. I started to get quite a bit of money coming in from having a decent start to a series, so four books in that, and a vampire thriller that didn’t exactly set the world aflame.
I had back pain at the time, it was really a lower back problem, and I was struggling to actually work. So I had another contract in Edinburgh this time and I lasted about three days because my back was so bad, and it must have been some form of sick building syndrome.
I just sat from then, recovered a bit and wrote, and the money kept coming in, rolling in and increasing, so I haven’t looked back since. That’s now my eighth year, I think, full time, so it’s been a pretty good ride, but stressful I think it’s fair to say.
Joanna Penn: It’s a stressful one. We’ll come back to the publishing side, but I want to start with the genre side because a lot of listeners, obviously we’ve got a lot of UK listeners, but we’ve also got a lot of Americans listening, people in other countries.
I feel like crime fiction has a really specific place in the UK market. It feels like it’s a huge genre, and we have an appreciation, perhaps even the literary critics seem to have some appreciation of crime novels.
Why is crime so big in the UK? And what are the essential genre elements for a crime novel?
Ed James: There is definitely something in the discrepancy between Britain and America in terms of popularity of maybe more of the police procedural side of things, which I write.
In America, it’s very hard to think of any police procedural. It’s probably only Michael Connelly’s Bosch series, that’s a police procedural, and even then it’s like a PI working in the police force, whereas a lot of the big books over there tend to be that PI thing, which isn’t really a genre over here.
Whereas we have a rich legacy of police procedural going back to Inspector Morse. A lot of is I think the television side of it picks up. If you think when we were growing up, there was lots of TV shows that we had, basically police procedural case of the week, those long-running, quite cheesy ones like ‘The Bill’ that’s run every week, and every jobbing actor would appear in.
That is probably ingrained in our consciousness. And then the police force here is different to America, with all the difficulties they’ve had over there, the roots of it are quite different. So police officers here tend to be seen directly more as absolute heroes, whereas America it’s maybe a more of a murky gray area.
I think it’s been really traditionally difficult for British police procedural authors to translate their success across the Atlantic. I remember Ian Rankin saying that it took him about 20 Rebus books before he had a best seller over there. And I think his eighth one over here basically established that whole genre, with the stuff him and Val McDermid were doing at that time in the late ’90s.
It’s rare for British authors to have that sort of success over there. Someone like Ruth Ware, for instance, sells an absolute kiloton over there, and that’s her biggest market. And she writes very British crime novels. She’s maybe a bit more traditional, but with a modern twist on it, and they do colossally well in that neck of the woods.
So, it’s an interesting one, and it’s something I’ve definitely seen. I do sell an interesting number in America, surprisingly so, but it’s not that much bigger than what you’d sell in Canada or Australia, so maybe it’s like an expat community or anglophiles or whatever.
It was an interesting one that led me on to writing an FBI thriller set over in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, just to see if I could sell books over there. But one of the things I’ve found with…I don’t know, but maybe it’s particular to genre fiction, that the readers tend to be very intolerant of authors experimenting, I think. I think they like the characters as much as they like the author, if that makes sense.
Someone will be looking for a Reacher book or a Rebus book rather than a Lee Child or an Ian Rankin book, and if you write something that’s by the same name but it’s a thriller set in America, with American English, and it’s not got a couple of alcoholic cops wandering around Edinburgh, it’s got a lot of chase scenes and so on, they don’t seem to appreciate the difference.
That’s one of the things I’ve found with the vampire book that should have maybe been more of a warning sign back in the day, that writing under the same author name, they just want police procedurals, that’s what the reader, a lot of the reader feedback I got was. And it’s quite hard when you’ve got that established brand, to then break into other things.
Joanna Penn: I totally agree. And I tried, because being here in England, and I’ve met you and a lot of crime authors at conferences. And I decided to write myself a proper crime novel, with a detective and everything, and I attempted a police procedural, and ended up with a supernatural psychological crime thriller hybrid — my Brooke and Daniel series.
I just can’t write anything that doesn’t have supernatural in, and I discovered that these crime readers just would not read it. They wouldn’t pick it up. It just wasn’t their thing.
And that cross-genre, as you’re saying there, it just doesn’t seem to work, particularly, with a British crime audience. I think you’re right about America, there’s a lot more FBI thrillers than there are police procedurals as such.
If we accept that we’re going to write a very pure crime, novel, a police procedural, what are the main genre elements, the essential things, that you need?
Ed James: The main thing that you want to focus on with a police procedural isn’t so much necessarily the crime, but it’s starting to look at character. That’s probably true of any type of fiction, really, but I think with police procedures, it’s very important.
Like I was saying earlier, I think the readers are attached to the characters. So if you think about a long-running series, it’s about people wanting to spend time with those characters, they become their friend. I think it’s the same, that’s why podcasts are so important now, and popular, because a lot of the long-running podcasts, it’s like spending time with your friends.
So thinking about lots of TV shows like ‘Friends’ and ‘Cheers’ and all that kind of stuff, it’s about that bond of friendship that the audience has with the creator. A lot of the characters that do really well are interesting. You don’t have to be a kind of Superman type, or too dark like a Bruce Wayne type, but like, sort of an interesting character is kind of fresh and has an interesting spin on it.
I’d say the characters I’ve created, the Scott Cullen one is the one who tends to attach most to people, and he was started as the opposite of the tropes, where there’s a middle-aged alcoholic who drives a classic car, and has a difficult relationship with his estranged daughter or whatever. All those things, it was inverting that, and making him a really young cop who was kind of idealistic, and all those sort of things.
So it made it a bit interesting for me to write, and I could see that it was kind of fresh, and it seems to have picked up on a lot. But the problem is that a lot of the readers tend to be quite conservative in their views, not…with a small c, maybe, rather than a capital C.
If you look at the bigger sellers, they do like a patrician-type, steady hand on the till, so someone who’s an authority figure rather than a wee daft idiot from Edinburgh running around. And so that’s the main kind of thing I think, is if you’re looking at writing a police procedural series, is focusing on an interesting, unique character. And someone that you want to write and you want to spend time with, and that you think other people will.
Also, the other side of it is that I think the important thing is each novel in a series should be not necessarily standalone, but that case should just cover that, so any new readers who are picking up book eight or whatever can just get a contained story, and there’s not too much heavy backstory they need to have read the first seven to get up to speed on.
Focus on the victims, and the families and friends of the victims, making them interesting characters, showing their lives. Because with a police procedural it’s a reflective thing, so you’re not necessarily seeing the victim alive and going through their day, you’re investigating their life through a lens, and you’re picking up lies and clues from the friends and family, and there’s discrepancies, and that’s where the detectives work at it.
They can throw in things like action scenes to spice it up a bit, but that’s broadly what you’re writing is investigating someone’s life, and I’m picking where it all went wrong, to the point where someone killed them.
And obviously, you can extend that into the psychology of a serial killer, where you’ve got a very active threat against the police who are trying to solve the crime, but a lot of police procedural books tend to be a single murder, which is much more believable to write, whereas a serial killer there’s hundreds of them in fiction, and not so many in actual real life anymore.
Joanna Penn: It’s interesting you say that, because I was thinking I really write thrillers where things are much bigger, like the threat is much, much bigger. But as you say, I think a lot of the police procedural books, as you say, there might be one murder, and even though the stakes are high, they’re not the destruction of humanity, or millions of people dying. I don’t want to use “small” in a derogatory way, and it doesn’t even have to be domestic.
It’s a much tighter viewpoint than having this grand, epic thriller.
Ed James: One of my favorite books which you never see mentioned is a craft book, ‘Secrets of Action Screenwriting,’ by I think it’s William Martell. It’s got one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen for a book, but the interior is incredible, and there’s lots of dissection. And it’s very applicable for any type of crime stuff, or thrillers, or anything like that. It’s really good stuff, it’s all about the psychology of the villains.
But like you were saying, I think the thing he hones in on is the stakes. So they should either be personal or global, like you say, but take it to the extreme. Police procedurals, it’s not about trying to save the President’s life to avert a nuclear war or anything, it’s about someone’s life is collapsed and the most extreme personal loss is someone’s death…and then you can extend that with police procedurals, and serial killers, and get more of sort of a threat to society in wider active parts of it.
I think you’re definitely right, the police procedurals tend to have much more of that personal side of it than your big conspiracies. That’s not to say there’s not a genre for conspiracy police procedurals…
Joanna Penn: That’s a good point. I want to come back to your background, because you worked in process engineering. Crime novels, mysteries, solving a crime, what you can’t do is really make it easy for people to figure out.
How does your process engineering background influence your writing process and your plotting?
Ed James: The thing I look at is trying to make everything as efficient as possible. So, that was what I was always doing in insurance companies and banks, is like there’s a process of someone, I don’t know, changing an address or applying payments or refunding payments, and you’re looking at it, documenting what they’re doing, and you’re understanding where they really had the problem point is things that slow it all down.
It’s kind of same with writing, where can I make this more efficient? Every time I write a book, I try to do something different to see if I can make it more efficient. And it’s always like just having that sort of flow chart…and it’s actually not even some kind of document, but it’s always in my head.
Everything I do is all about process and flows of left to right. I think a novel, when you’re reading it, it’s obviously left to right, but a lot of the stuff we write, thrillers or police procedurals, you can think about it, whether you’re plotting or pantsing, you can think about it right to left, where the right is you’ve got the answer, so why has someone done this? That’s the biggest question any book, when you’re writing it, you should always ask yourself.
It’s not necessarily about the character, but why has someone killed someone, why is someone trying to start a nuclear war between America and China, or that kind of stuff. What’s the motivation behind the villain, and what’s their plan? And then it’s how do you reveal that, how do you get the front-facing narrative drive to meet up with discovering the motive?
Once you’ve got those bits at least sort of concrete, a lot of the stuff falls out of that because there’s a conflict between what your protagonist hero wants and what your villain is trying to do, and all that sort of comes out kind of naturally now, I find, whereas before when I was writing, it was very messy.
I’ve written 30-odd books now, and you learn a lot when you’re going through editing with people. There’s no one standard editorial process. Everyone has their own little biases they bring to it, and their own little tips and tricks.
One of the things I’d like to do is use various editors at various points, and pick up little techniques, little tricks so that it speeds me up so that any less editing is a go, so it’s maybe not the first draft, but it’s about the first final product I’ve done that’s as close to finished as possible. So it’s been edited by myself to the same standard as another editor would have done because I’ve learned a lot of the things they would be looking for.
It’s kind of like designing, I suppose. One of the main things you’ll see in screenwriting books, for example, is that a scene should either show character, or move the plot forward. And if it doesn’t cut it out, an editor will say this scene doesn’t move anything forward, can you just get rid of it?
Making sure that when you’re going through an outline, or even if you’re pantsing it, when you’re actually writing it, making sure there’s tension to it, does this move the plot forward, is there an obstacle to the character getting what they want, is it clearly defined what the character wants in this scene, or does it just show them, show something about them, or ideally both?
All that kind of stuff is trying to sort of get myself maybe not so much a pro forma, but a template that asks me all these standard questions, then it becomes intuition and instinct as you’re going through the outline. So a lot of it’s practice, but a lot of it’s reading up on craft books as well to understand the best, the best practices across other people’s experiences.
Anything that tingles your spidey sense, putting that into your own process, and making sure that every time you go through stuff, you’re starting at the right point, or making sure that any scenes that you’ve got in there should be in there, have to be in there, and they’re essential to the story.
Joanna Penn: Everybody now wants your flowchart, and your writing process engineering book. I think you should definitely try and put that together at some point, and come back and tell us about it.
I used to do a similar job in consulting, and swim lane diagrams is probably what you’re talking about, the different roles, and who would do what, and then you try and re-engineer that.
But it’s funny, because I can’t think of my writing in that way. What I do is, as you say, with every scene is I will sort of see what the movement is, and I use that Robert McKee value shift, the plus or minus, or minus minus, or all of those types of things.
So as you say, we all pick up our tips along the way, and we apply them, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or whatever you do, you will find a way. It sounds like you’ve got a really honed process, because you’ve written, as you said, over 30 books now, and you’re still going.
One of the things with crime novels, of course, is that generally, the crime is often the same, someone’s been murdered, and there really only are a certain number of ways to murder people and how people actually die. So the originality is never in the death really, rarely in the death, the originality is more about, as you say, the motivations of the characters, and the development of the characters.
How do you do your research? How do you pick things up? Do you read a lot of true crime, or how do you get your ideas?
Ed James: Yeah. Well, there’s that shop in Camden, you know, that sells author ideas now.
Joanna Penn: Yeah. I think they’ve run out.
Ed James: I don’t really read a lot of true crime, or listen to a lot. But you’re absolutely right, that the thing is, there’s not necessarily a lot of originality. And I’ve tried to do it a few times in books where…I think the first one I published with Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, but it was called ‘Snared,’ and it’s now being re-edited and republished as ‘Tooth and Claw.’ That was not a murder, that was sort of domestic terrorism, so animal rights.
But it was a missing person andI treated it as very much a police procedural, and I think there wasn’t even a murder until about 200 pages in. So that was me trying to do, right, how can I do a book that doesn’t have a murder on page one, and just trying to do something interesting like that.
I think a lot of it is I’ll have an idea for either like a character who seems interesting, and then you can get some motivations, and it’s like, what would push them to kill, or you get ideas about a theme, so that one about animal rights terrorism, what would be the motivations for that, what kind of crimes would they commit to get into the papers or onto the telly to further their cause?
A lot of it just comes down to thinking about the victim and the villain and what would make someone push themselves to that extreme end? And then it’s just all a lot of osmosis, I think. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and current affairs, news, politics, video games and technology and stuff, and it’s amazing the interesting stuff you pick up that just sort of sparks off some little sort little idea that starts flowing out from there, that makes you think, oh, well, if I took that and they did that…
And a lot of it’s what ifs; what if someone like so-and-so was was more like this, and they did that? Which isn’t really very helpful, but that’s usually the starting point.
One of the things I’ve been doing this year is a lot of idea development. Because usually, I think when you’re talking about plotting and pantsing, whenever I’ve tried either, I always have a bit of a mess in the third act, just as it’s closing in, and it’s always like, well, I haven’t thought through this, I haven’t thought through that.
So what I’ve spent a lot of time this year on is refining my process so that I understand that motivation, and then being able to bake it into the whole story as I go through it.
I think that would be the biggest piece of advice I would say, and it’s simple stuff like the who, what, where, why, when, how? Answer those questions, and you’ve got a pretty solid sort of motivation for a book. And then you can twist it a few times, and you get something that’s actually quite interesting because sometimes the first idea you come up with is fairly vanilla, fairly plain, but then if you twist it and then twist it again, you get something that’s kind of unique and cool, that probably, hopefully, nobody’s ever done before, and you can run wild with that.
Joanna Penn: You mentioned that what sparks your interest, and I think developing that curiosity is so important. I feel like that’s where, when I worked in the IT and business process industry, I didn’t understand that spark of curiosity, I couldn’t tap into it.
It takes practice to become aware of your personal radar as to what you are interested in, and then honestly do that. One of mine is religious relics. I can’t walk past a religious relic, I just love them. I’m so interested in them, and I’m always reading about them, and they turn up in a lot of my books. But it’s like, I didn’t really know that about myself.
Do you find that curiosity is almost a muscle that you have to lean into and trust in some way?
Ed James: Yes. And I think that’s an interesting one. I think when you’re growing up, you assume everyone’s the same, and as you grow up, you discover people are very different, and you’re very different, and you have your own little peculiarities. You can’t walk past a religious icon. I can’t walk past a map. I’m absolutely fascinated by maps.
Joanna Penn: I can’t walk past a map, either.
Ed James: I absolutely love maps. Maybe I should write high fantasy so I can get maps to put at the back or the start of my books, and then throughout.
One other thing is that I never thought I was a people person, but as I sort of worked, I really actually was, and I got fascinated by the people I would meet and engage with. And when you work in financial services, you actually meet a lot of interesting characters, and that’s for sure. Certainly banking I probably have met quite a lot of psychopaths.
I don’t mean that flippantly, I mean genuinely, the sort of behavior that you get from these people, it’s quite staggering, when you actually analyze it. I’ve had incredibly difficult meetings. We go into an office in central London, and you just sit down, and then you’ve got to get something out of these guys there to help with your part of a project. And they just sit there and go why the eff should I help you?
That actually, genuinely happened to me, and I still can’t believe it. There’s a lot of crazy people out there, and when you start meeting them you’ll notice yourself that when you’re working in that sort of industry, and you’re flipping around between different companies or different parts of a company, you meet lots and lots and lots of people.
If you meet hundreds and thousands of people, it’s like you start to see fine gradations of people and lots of different personality types, and then you get them very instinctively. And a lot of the time when I’m writing particularly, the characters jump out of my head because it’s all based on aspects of people I’ve met. Not friends or family, just like little bits of people, and you sort of extrapolate that. Which is sort of really an unusual piece of psychoanalysis I’ve just done on myself.
Joanna Penn: I’ve never been a people person, so I do things in quite a different way, but that’s interesting about you.
I do want to ask you about marketing. You recently…I think it was recently, or last year, you rebranded your series covers.
Ed James: Yeah.
Joanna Penn: And obviously a series is so critical, but why did you do that?
What was the need, and how important is that, branding and cover design, in crime selling?
Ed James: I think a good cover is a pretty good starting point. Because predominantly when you’re looking at the stuff I do, it’s all on Amazon whereas people who are wide, they’re still on a digital platform, so you’re looking at it on a screen, or whether it’s a phone or a computer or a tablet or whatever, so that’s the thing that people are seeing.
Especially now, as more and more of the Amazon stuff is becoming very…not quite pay to play, I don’t want to mean that disparagingly, but there’s a huge focus on the advertising, and the thing you’re advertising isn’t necessarily anything other than the book cover.
When you look at the sponsored page, a section of a page on Amazon, it’s the book cover, so it’s got to be particularly eye-catching. I’ve always done my own covers for the self-published books, and they used to be pretty rubbish and amateur and stuff. I’ve just had a lot of practice now that I feel I can start to produce more professional-looking ones, and so I’ve been able to sort of do print ones which look quite cool.
The reason I rebranded; it can be quite a good habit to get into, I think, to just have a look. If you even look at the trad-pub publishing world, people like Ian Rankin I’ve noticed a lot, since I bought his books starting in late 1998 going onwards, there’s been about four or five different iterations of his covers.
So they always move around different themes, but they’re always reasonably similar, but they do like to refresh the backlist. I think that sort of function of that, particularly in the digital age is that you can look at a book cover, and you’ll just go, eh, doesn’t look like it’s for me, when the interior could be entirely up your street, but you are judging a book by the cover, which is a very true thing.
But if you adjust the cover so that it’s got a different image, or it’s got different typography, or it’s sort of brasher colors or it’s more monochrome and it makes that person look again. And they see it, they’re seeing it and they’re getting presented to on Amazon, then it might be you get more sales just because of that, that someone who’s potentially passed by your book because they didn’t like the look of the cover, they might have a little, well, that looks quite interesting, and not realizing they’ve already looked at it before.
It’s trivially easy to upload a new file nowadays. The downside of is you don’t want to change the title because you might confuse people, which I have done.
Joanna Penn: I have also done. But you just have to say previously published as or whatever, and hope that it was long ago that people won’t buy it. And of course, you can’t buy the same Kindle file twice, and it will tell you you already bought this, so I don’t worry too much about that.
What are any other ways that you have found successful in terms of marketing crime fiction?
Ed James: I think the main thing now is all ads really. I had a point at the start of last year where my sales were in the toilet. I hadn’t had a book out for a wee while I think, and so I had that dark night of the soul moment whereas I needed to look at how to get this working.
I dabbled a bit in the Facebook ads side of things and a bit of Amazon ads, and I was just really going hardcore on that, and spent, I think, a solid month, maybe even six weeks figuring out what to do, reformatting all my books, recovering them, and then doubling the sales over that time, as well as kind of publishing some new stuff.
[If you resonate with this, check out the interview with Michaelbrent Collings on rebooting your backlist, which goes into this in more detail.]
But that, it seems to be a lot focus on the marketing side now is definitely about being able to advertise on the various platforms. I’ve only really done Facebook and Amazon, and they’ve both got their own different functions I seem to find as I go through it.
I’m not particularly great at it, I would say. There are a lot of people out there who are much, much better than me, and you see their pages and their books being advertised against your own. But you do see the return on it.
Obviously back in the day, it used to be you uploaded a book, got a few people to buy it, and then Amazon’s algorithm would kick in and fire it around. I don’t know if that’s still necessarily the case, or if my vampire book spoiled my name with a lot of people on Amazon.
Joanna Penn: I want to read this vampire book now. Is it under Ed James?
Ed James: It was. I haven’t published it last year actually, because I didn’t sell any. It was just, like, it was just sitting there.
Joanna Penn: You should just put it up under another name now.
Ed James: I may do that, yeah. I might do that.
Joanna Penn: Put an initial in it, and stick it up. Why not? Earlier you mentioned practice novels, and I don’t even know if we’re in that world anymore. I think there are so many varied types of books that people put up on to Amazon, Kindle. As you say, if you do your own covers, and you can format things and you can just put something up under a different name, I think it’s interesting. Personally, I’m up for your vampire novel, so I want to hear that. But we’re coming towards the end of our time.
I do want to ask you about your publishing experience, because you’ve mentioned Thomas & Mercer, and then of course, you’ve mentioned your self-publishing. And you mentioned all the rejections at the beginning.
What have been your choices with publishing, and what’s changed?
Ed James: I had a good run with Thomas & Mercer working as a hybrid thing. They batched up the first three Fenchurch books for instance, and that was a lot of getting three books together to then rapidly release. That was a huge success that then led on to a lot of people discovering my other books, I think.
And then, I think there’s a lot with publishing houses, faces change and stuff, and people move on. So I moved away from that, and I wanted to have a bit more control of myself, and try other things.
I’ve had books published by Headline and by Bookouture, and they’ve both been interesting experiences as well, and it is interesting to see the different models that each of the publishers play.
I think when you’re considering whether to sell a book to a publisher or to self-publish it yourself, is that you basically, when you sell a book, you’re ceding all control, pretty much, of that book and you have to trust that somebody, that that person you’re selling it to is going to do their utmost to sell the book as well as you can, or better.
And obviously there’s a lot of people out there who’ve made huge sums of money from selling books to traditional publishers or digital publishers these days, but there are a lot of people who’ve had their fingers burnt and stuff.
And I think the thing with the self-publishing side is that I’ve spent a lot of time on maintaining my backlist, which I don’t think many publishers necessarily do. It’s a good passive income.
Obviously, you need to do a wee bit of work on the advertising side to get things in.
But the stuff that Mark Dawson teaches on his Ads for Authors course, that does work. If you’ve got a book series, the funneling books through book one through six, seven, eight in the series, it does work, and it’s lucrative if you can get it working.
That’s the thing I would point to is that if you’re in control of your entire destiny with the publishing side of it, then you’re going to give your all to make sure those books sell as well as they can, whereas a publisher they tend to stick to windows of about three months, and if they’re not selling in that, then that’s it, it’s gone, you’re not hot anymore. Whereas you’re always going be hot to yourself, I think.
Joanna Penn: Not sure about that!
Ed James: But you know what I mean, you give all your focus to all your babies that you’ve got, and you want to give them as much attention as possible, and sell them as much as you can, whereas a lot of publishers, they’ll move on to the next big author, and it’s the nature of the beast.
Sometimes you’re the big author, and you’re going to sell a gazillion pounds of books, but I think it’s harder and harder to see if that’s going to be you or not, or if you’re just going to be something that’s thrown at the wall, and you just sort of dribble down the side.
Joanna Penn: Exactly. As they say, they might take a hundred books in a year or something, and then one of them might stick or break out.
What’s so difficult about the publishing industry, I think, is the reporting. It’s the same in the indie space, which is you hear about the big successes in traditional publishing, but you don’t often hear about all the authors, of which there are many, who break up with their agent, or get orphaned at a publisher, or just get picked up and then nothing happens. We hear about the big success stories. But I think, also, a lot of people don’t want to criticize their publisher, even if they’re not being treated very well.
Ed James: That’s very true. There’s a certain amount of professionalism that people will not do that. You don’t pick up a copy of The Bookseller and see, yeah, here’s a list of all the authors who have been dropped this week.
Joanna Penn: Exactly.
Ed James: It’s all about so-and-so has had a gazillion-pound book deal. And here’s their agent, and they’ve done really well. But a lot of times, when people can get these big deals, there’s no guarantee of success as well, and it’s quite a mystery, quite tough to be a debut author getting a big deal.
Joanna Penn: Oh, I don’t know, one of those seven-figure deals would be fine.
Just before we finish, I did want to ask you, because you talked there, it was 2012, I think you said, 2011, 2012 when you self-published the first book. I moved back to England in 2011, and in 2012 I think I went to London Book Fair for the first time, and I really started to socialize more in the British scene as such, the British writer scene.
I think even came to Harrogate at a similar time, Harrogate Crime Festival, for people who are listening, and I very much felt there was a stigma in the UK around self-publishing, that it really still had this kind of negative view, and people treated me a bit like a curiosity, and I found that really hard.
Did you feel the same way back in 2012? And then have you seen things change?
Ed James: I think you’re totally right, and I don’t think it has changed that much. I think if you look at the big festivals like Harrogate, Bloody Scotland, Capital Crime, etc., they don’t tend to have a lot of indie authors, or even digitally published authors, through Thomas & Mercer, or Bookouture or whatever.
I think there’s definitely a stigma attached to not being with a big, traditional publisher, and having the weight of their publicity machine at it. There’s definitely a snobbish element out there.
But I think actually, when you meet other authors, all the ones who are traditionally published, they’re always very interested…I don’t know if you get that, they’re very interested in, well, how do you find self-publishing, and all that kind of stuff?
Joanna Penn: Quietly interested.
Ed James: Yes, quietly interested, they don’t want their agent to see you talking to them. I think they maybe see it as a little, wee hobby they could have on the side, rather than actually the indie mindset, which I suppose is different from self-publishing, whereas you are your own publisher, and you’re actually going to push yourself really far, whereas the self-publishing just feels a bit more…I mean, you used the terminology, it feels a bit more hobbyist.
So, I think that’s the impression I get. And I think a lot of them, I think the difficulty they see is actually, oh, how do I get a cover done, how do I get someone to edit it, how do I upload it on Amazon, which is all the easy stuff.
Joanna Penn: Exactly.
Ed James: It’s the marketing that’s the really tough stuff, and that’s the bit I don’t think anyone really appreciates, and there’s a lot of hard hours put into just sort of mastering any of that kind of stuff.
Joanna Penn: I should have met you back then. I think maybe I did, but because I’m such an introvert, I probably just didn’t speak to anyone. I just stood in the corner.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Ed James: My books are all on Amazon. I think the first Scott Cullen book is 0.79p, you can have a look at that. There’s a Vicky Dodds book called ‘Blood and Guts,’ which is free, and there’s another three in that series. And my website is edjames.co.uk.
Joanna Penn: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Ed. That was great.
Ed James: Cool. Thank you very much, Joanna. Grateful to you to have me. Thank you.
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Author: Joanna Penn