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August 11, 2016
By Nicole Audrey Spector
Crime novelists are trading traditional publishing deals for indie freedom.

Authors of thrillers and mysteries who have endured the woes of traditional publishing may find that the indie route is the best way to go. Like romance—a genre that famously sees some of its self-published authors make millions—crime fiction lends itself well to self-publishing, in part because authors can pump out a ton of books in a relatively short time while building and engaging with an active audience online. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it for those crime authors whose careers have taken off as a result.

Mark Dawson, the British bestselling author of the John Milton, Beatrix Rose, and Soho Noir series, was a struggling writer before he discovered self-publishing and created a killer marketing strategy around it. Now he brings in six figures per year and offers courses for authors on how to use Facebook ads and other digital tools to build readership and turn a pretty profit.

In 2002 Pan Macmillan published Dawson’s first two novels, The Art of Falling Apart and Subpoena Colada. The process of working with Pan’s staff was great, Dawson says, but, once the books were out there, little was done to build momentum and attract new readers. “I did a load of promotion myself,” he notes, adding, “That wasn’t what I had in mind when I gave them 90% of the royalties.”

Dawson arrived at the conclusion that the traditional publishing model “is fundamentally flawed, if not completely broken.” Disappointed, he abandoned the idea of being an author for several years. His interest resumed with the emergence of a new, fascinating device: the Kindle.

“I stopped writing until the Kindle came around and in 2011 or 2012 self-published [two books],” Dawson says. “It started slowly because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I could see that I was getting readers and then more readers, and then reviews, and I started writing faster and faster.”

By 2014, “things went stratospheric,” Dawson says, and he was able to quit his job and devote himself full-time to writing. He now self-publishes an average of five books per year. “The more the better, but I’d say two books a year is what you need to establish yourself, and you’ll greatly increase your odds if you write in a series,” he notes.

Becoming an “Authorpreneur”

"Crime novelists who self-publish successfully need an aggressive marketing plan."
As with authors in any genre, crime novelists who self-publish successfully need an aggressive marketing plan. They must devote a great deal of their time to their craft, as they might when working with a traditional publisher, as well as to building and maintaining engagement with readers. Facebook advertising, an email subscription list, free download offers, and a keen attentiveness to what’s working in the bigger world of digital marketing have all been integral to Dawson’s success. “I listen to a lot of digital marketing experts who’ve been doing this for longer,” he says.

Peter Bartram, the author of the Crampton of the Chronicle crime series and many other books, says that as an indie author, he’s had to become an “authorpreneur.” “The key is to master the technology and know how to use it to reach readers in very targeted ways,” says Bartram, who originally signed on with W.H. Allen back in the ’80s—”when publishers still took you to lunch in good restaurants with fine food and wines.” Of course, he adds, ”that model could never last.”

Studying the business models of Dawson and fellow bestselling self-published crime author Nick Stephenson, Bartram focuses heavily on building a readership and building a digital database of tuned-in readers. “Marketers talk about winning market share by ‘owning the customer,’” Bartram says. “You have to know who your fans are, [and] the best way to do that is by building a database of readers who like your books. Keep in touch with them by offering them regular freebies such as free short stories and relevant articles, competitions, and so on. It’s all about giving readers something they enjoy.”

Sally Spedding, author of eight crime novels via traditional publishers, went indie with her ninth book, Cut to the Bone, after her publisher decided to produce e-books only, and shortly after that, put an end to publishing fiction. Spedding has quickly learned that succeeding as a self-published author means maintaining a vibrant digital and social presence. She keeps up with her website, produces a blog, and networks on Facebook and Twitter.

Also necessary, Spedding finds, is “getting out there to book fairs [and other] events where you can exhibit your books, and, if you enjoy it as I do, running workshops and giving talks.”

Michael Parker, who was traditionally published in the ‘80s and now self-publishes, says the process has helped him to realize just how vital promotion, marketing, and building an email list are to an author’s success. In a sense, he can now do exactly for his books what he felt his traditional publisher wasn’t doing. “I learned that my publisher was not into promotion for me,” Parker says. “They only included my titles in their quarterly brochure when they were due for publication, [and] most of my hardback titles went into the libraries.”

The Quick Turnaround

What many crime authors—particularly those who churn out series—love about self-publishing is the ability to deliver books without having to go through all the hoops of traditional publishing. Vincent Zandri says the quick turnaround from the typewriter to the press, so to speak, is what first attracted him to self-publishing. “Under the traditional model, you submit the manuscript to the agent and they take weeks if not months going over it,” Zandri says. “They submit it to the big publisher, and said publisher spends a year developing it, or just plain sitting on it. By the time it’s published, the mojo is gone.”

Zandri also says the pay is better as a self-published author. “Here I was moving tens of thousands of e-books, and suddenly I’m making this great living with real money, rather than struggling from advance to advance, which is Monopoly money,” he says.

As enjoyable as the quick turnaround can be, some authors may find it problematic because they can’t simply drop one book without having the next in the works. Dawson says the failure to have a follow-up book ready was his biggest mistake when he began self-publishing.

“I remember checking the numbers after one weekend of [offering the book for free], and I had something like 50,000 downloads,” Dawson says. “That’s 50,000 readers who may read and buy the next book—but the problem was, I didn’t have a next book for them, and I wasn’t switched on with a mailing list yet, so there was no way apart from their checking Amazon for me to communicate with them.”

Writing and Connecting Every Day

In order to have new books always in the queue and keep voracious readers satisfied, indie crime authors have to get in the habit of writing every day. It may sound like a dream come true, particularly if it means trading in a day job one can’t stand, but often it isn’t easy.

Part of what makes daily writing difficult for self-published authors is that they simultaneously have to be marketing, or at least connecting with their fan base. Cozy mystery author Sara Rosett, who started self-publishing in 2012, has found that it’s a balancing act. “As an indie author you need to be able to switch roles from the creative artist when you’re writing to the marketing salesperson when you’re promoting,” she says. “Those are two very different skills, and you need to actually enjoy both aspects of the business.”

Chris Simms, a crime author who went indie when his former editor at Orion retired and his new editor didn’t share his vision, says writing is “only half the struggle” of a self-published author’s work. “The other 50% is promoting and advertising,” he says, “and it can be just a time-consuming as the writing.”

Getting Readers Involved

Marketing shouldn’t only be promoting and advertising; it should also get readers involved in the creative process. Dawson has built up a team of several hundred readers who receive advance copies of his books, and he encourages them to provide feedback.

“The advance team will occasionally pick up things that slipped through the cracks and correct facts I’ve got wrong,” Dawson says. “My character is an ex-assassin and he fires a gun a lot. I live in England and I’ve never fired a gun before. [In early books] I put safeties on guns that don’t have safeties. As an author selling most of his books to an American audience, you get facts wrong about guns, you’re going to get crucified—and I did. But these days I’ve got soldiers on the advance team, special forces guys, FBI and CIA agents, and they’ll tell me things are wrong.”

Engaging readers also enables them to play a special role in the creation of the book, which can enhance authors’ appeal. “I’ve included my readers in my creative process, [and] I’ve included my readers’ names in the books,” says crime author Simon Wood. ”I’ve road tested story ideas, cover designs, titles with them, [and] they’ve helped with me research based on their qualifications. Having these people with me when it comes to book launch time is invaluable.”