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December 29, 2016
By A.M. Khalifa
The bestselling author of the John Milton series talks about Facebook advertising and the fading stigma of self-publishing.

Mark Dawson, author of the bestselling John Milton series, is one of the most successful indie thriller writers today. A rock star both to his fans and the indie literary community, Dawson has seen his books downloaded millions of times, while Forbes estimates he earned $500,000 from Amazon alone in 2015. And yet, despite his stratospheric success and writing commitments, he remains passionate about sharing his marketing and self-publishing secrets.

The indie publishing revolution has been around now for a few years, but is there a risk of indie fatigue, that we are rehashing the same advice?

It’s easy to take for granted the basic things. Simple things like getting a mailing list, which I say all the time. To me it’s now obvious, but it wasn’t obvious when I started. I speak to plenty of new writers who have no idea how to start a list, or indeed the point of having one. That’s 101 for any modern author, but I sometimes assume everyone knows what I know, because I live and breathe this.

Before writing you had a comfortable life and a great job. What was the moment you decided you were going to take on writing full time? 

I always wanted to be a writer. I was a lawyer by trade, and then had a job I loved with the British Board of Film Classification. I was effectively watching movies and getting paid for it. I was there for 10 years—great job, great people. No one ever leaves. I spoke to my wife at the start of 2014 when I was earning about the same from my job as I was from my writing. She was on maternity leave, so I couldn’t afford to be frivolous. I had to pay the mortgage. We agreed, if I could continue to maintain that income level for twelve months, it would be an indicator of longevity and I could quit. As 2014 progressed, I doubled, then tripled my income from writing. By November 2014, when I eventually left my job, I was making mid-five figures a month from writing. I was earning almost what I made in a year from my job in one month as a writer. I’ve been full time ever since, and it’s only gotten better.

So you’ve cracked the holy grail of figuring out how to sell books. What’s the next big thing that would bring you and other successful indie writers closer to the mainstream realm?

I am already in the mainstream. I’ve had more than a million downloads of my books. There aren’t that many traditionally published writers with those numbers.

But how about indie publishing collectively, what’s the next big barrier to break? Isn't there still a stigma to self-publishing?

" My definition of vanity publishing today is to be traditionally published, to have the stamp of approval of the big five publishers, to have your book on the shelves."
There is. But fuck that, I don’t care. And let’s be honest here, there are lots of really bad traditionally published books that have bad covers and are full of errors. I come across them all the time. There are probably proportionally more bad independently published books, because there are no filters. I could scribble something down and upload it to Amazon in 10 minutes, and Amazon will not reject if off the bat for being rubbish. But there are many independently published authors with very high standards. I work with the same cover designer who does Stephen King’s books, and three top notch editors. My workflow is what you would expect if you were publishing with any traditional publisher.

In fact, I would go so far as saying that the tables have turned. My definition of vanity publishing today is to be traditionally published, to have the stamp of approval of the big five publishers, to have your book on the shelves. I say that as a successful independently published author, who wouldn’t sell my books to traditional publishers. Vanity publishing is no longer about the poor sod who wants to see his name in print and prints five thousand copies of his book to stack in his garage forever.

This may come across as arrogance on my part, but if you were to go to the product page on Amazon of Lee Child or Vince Flynn or me, I would challenge you without looking at the imprint to be able to tell which one is independently published and which one is backed by a traditional publisher.

Do readers really care?

Exactly. It’s all about the story.

But isn’t it also a question of exposure and name recognition? How do you get your book into the hands of readers and let them judge you?

Look at Facebook advertising. That’s an effective way of doing things and overcoming that barrier. You can see that traditional publishers are just starting to say, “Wait a minute, this works, right?” It works and then some. I have students who are making close to 300 percent returns on their advertising investment. As independent publishers, we are nimble, we are open to learning, and are much faster to react to new opportunities than traditional publishers. 

Why did you feel it was important for you to share your trade secrets with other independent writers? 

The indie community is supportive and collaborative. I had a lot of help when I was getting started, and I am more than happy to put a little back.

What’s your next big challenge in publishing?

I’d like to do more with print. I sell a decent amount of paperbacks, but distribution into brick and mortar stores is something that is still difficult to crack as an indie.

Does a successful independently published writer need a literary agent?

I think their role is changing as the industry evolves. They have taken on an additional editorial functions now that the publishers are leaner, and they are still the best way to sell subsidiary rights. I’m repped by one of the larger London agencies and they deal with my film and foreign rights. Very happy with that.

Finally, other than a mailing list, what other piece of critical advice would you give to the newly published independent writer on how to best position themselves in the market?

Be professional. And write good stuff. The best marketing in the world can only sell the first book. If that’s no good, you’re not going to get that reader to buy the second book.

A.M. Khalifa is a novelist based in the eternal city of Rome.