"Keep Going" — An Interview with #1 Amazon Bestsellers Mark Edwards and Louise Voss
Success doesn’t happen overnight. It is often the result of hard work put in over the years. And Mark Edwards and Louise Voss’ success story tells us as much. They are known for being the first indie authors to ever reach #1 on Amazon.co.uk back in 2011. Now with Amazon Publishing, their latest book is From The Cradle (and the best one, they tell me).
Their story begins much sooner, though. They have been through the ups and downs that characterize a writer’s life, but they have been through them together and always determined to keep going.
Today, we have the pleasure of interviewing both of them. They share their whole story (not only the success part) and their advice for starting indie authors. They also debunk a metadata-myth, analyze why Amazon Publishing is so powerful and explain how to co-write a book using Dropbox.
So sit down with a nice cup of tea/coffee, and hit play. Or alternatively, read through the whole transcript below (courtesy of the Reedsy team).
REEDSY: Hi Mark and Louise, I’m really pleased to have you here. You are known for being the first indie authors to have reached the top of the charts on Amazon.co.uk, a few years ago, with two books that you had co-written. But your collaboration started long before that, right Louise?
LOUISE: Sure, it’s a good story, though it can make me sound a bit like a stalker. It started years ago, around 1998-99, and Mark was on this TV documentary about “wannabe writers”. I was in the exact same situation as him: I had an agent but she wasn’t very enthusiastic. We were both getting lots of rejections but they were really positive rejections. So I just sent him a little email via his agent, basically saying “I really liked your interview”.
He wrote back, and we started corresponding via email about books and writing for around 18 months before we finally met in person. And then we thought: rather than just critiquing each other’s stuff, why don’t we write something together? That’s when we started writing Killing Cupid. We did it all by email, because at that time Mark was in Japan.
MARK: Yes, I was in Tokyo, and Louise was in London. We wrote an entire novel without even speaking to each other, literally. This was back in 2001, and Killing Cupid was optioned by the BBC but we didn’t manage to get a publishing deal for it.
Then, a few years after, I came back from Japan and we decided to write another one together: Catch Your Death. Back then, however, we didn’t have an agent, we still couldn’t get a publisher, we were really back to square one, so we pretty much gave up at that point, didn’t we?
LOUISE: Yes, I think the problem with Killing Cupid was a genre one. When we sent it to publishers, they said “well, it’s not really enough of a thriller to be a thriller; and it’s a comedy as well, we don’t know what to do with it…” And that’s why we decided to write Catch Your Death, because that was unquestionably a thriller.
MARK: Yes, so we both more or less gave up. I came back to the UK, got a good job, and thought: it’s really not worth the pain of trying to find a publishing deal.
Then, 2010 when was I first heard about KDP. And I got a Kindle for my 40th birthday. So I said to Louise: why don’t we take our two old novels, spruce them up a bit, self-publish them and see what happens? And she was very reluctant.
LOUISE: Yes, I thought “oh, no, it will be humiliating, we’ll sell 4 copies…”
MARK: So we spent a few months rewriting and reworking them, because they were really out of date. There were no mobile phones, social media, etc.
We put Killing Cupid out in February 2011, and as Louise predicted we sold around 4 copies on our first day, to people that we knew… But then I became completely obsessed about trying to sell it. I had a full-time job, my girlfriend was pregnant, and she still talks about how I neglected her during that time! And Louise did promotion stuff too.
LOUISE: Yes, we had a list of all the bloggers that accepted unpublished books — there weren’t that many of them but we put together this list and divided it up. Mark started at A and I started at Z and we worked our way to the middle, contacting all of them. It was a lot of work.
REEDSY: And Mark, you did a very good job on the metadata too, right? I read about it on Joanna Penn’s blog, but maybe you can tell us what in your metadata helped make your book successful?
MARK: Yes, we used subtitles. On Killing Cupid, I think it was pretty simple: “Killing Cupid, a psychological thriller”: nothing fancy, really. But we kept rewriting the blurb (book description). Back then, you used to be able to see what percentage of people who viewed your book had bought it, which was fantastic, you could see your conversion rate from browser to reader. So I kept looking at the books in the top 10, especially the self-published thrillers and the ones that had the highest conversion rates, and tried to figure out what it was about those books that incited more people to buy them after they looked at them.
So I was continually tweaking the description and I think that at one point I got it right, because it suddenly doubled our sales in just an hour. I had made the description shorter, more straightforward about the book while also making it sound more intriguing.
We did something much more interesting for the second book, Catch Your Death. We called it: “Catch Your Death (For fans of Dan Brown & Stieg Larsson)”. This quickly became a controversial point, with people starting to talk about it in The Bookseller magazine.
But I actually believe, to this day, that it didn’t make any difference to the sales, because I think we put off as many people as we attracted. If you searched for Dan Brown at the time (and I did it quite a few times), our book didn’t come up, not even on page 30. It didn’t make any difference to the search results.
What really made a difference, and this is a lesson for all indie authors, is that we were patient and hardworking in building a readership. We hand-sold every copy of Killing Cupid in the first 3-4 months: every single sale was hard work. And as we did that, we built a momentum and started climbing up the charts, which made our book more visible. And because it was good, word-of-mouth really worked in our advantage and more people started to buy it.
We released Catch Your Death around 3-4 months after Killing Cupid, as Killing Cupid was climbing into the top 100. And Amazon then sent out an email advertising Catch Your Death to all the people who had previously purchased Killing Cupid.
And it was the day that this email went out — even though we only realized this quite a long time afterwards — that more and more readers started buying both books and we shot up into the top 10. A couple of days later, Amazon removed the Dan Brown subtitle, and it didn’t make any difference at all.
So there was a lot of hype about our metadata at that time, but I really don’t think it made any difference in the end. It was all about slowly building that readership.
REEDSY: I think that’s a great lesson indeed for indie authors. But if we go back to the writing process, Louise, how does that technically work? What tools do you use: Google Drive, Dropbox, …?
LOUISE: Dropbox, we have everything in Dropbox. It works really well for us, you can see the last things people have worked on and when. Though sometimes it happened that we were both working on the same document at the same time, so when we saved it created conflicted copies, which are a nightmare to sort out. But we don’t do that so much now, we’ve got better at it.
We also email a lot, and text, when it’s particularly urgent, but we don’t actually talk that much, unless there is a problem, or in the beginning and the end, when there are things to figure out.
MARK: For Dropbox, we have a “master document” — we do it all in Word — and we write separate chapters in separate Word documents, save them into Dropbox for the other person to make comments. The original author then goes back to that chapter to amend it and when we’re both happy with it we add it to the master document!
We also have other Word documents and spreadsheets for our chapter plans. I think that, ideally, we’d use Scrivener, because that’s what we both write on for our solo novels, but you can’t really use it for collaborative work, as far as I’ve been able to work out.
REEDSY: Now, with the success of Killing Cupid and Catch Your Death, you were prompted to partner with an agent, who got you into traditional publishing. How was that experience?
LOUISE: It’s quite ironic, because we spent years trying to get a publishing deal for both books. But we didn’t have an agent at all until we were #1 on Amazon. I was talking with an author friend of mine and he suggested me to contact his agent. I said “well, he turned us down a few years ago so I don’t think he’ll be interested”. He answered “oh, it’s different now, you’re #1”. So we contacted his agent and he quickly got us a deal with HarperCollins, which was fantastic! I don’t regret it, really, because it was just so lovely to finally have this public validation through a traditional publishing deal, and the idea to have our books in shops, the advance, etc.
I often wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, whether we would do it differently if we had to do it again, and I don’t think we would change much, other than to get more involved in the marketing and publicity of these traditionally published books. We were thinking that the publisher would do most of the marketing and promotion, and it didn’t happen. So I think our mistake wasn’t taking the deal, it was not pushing the books as much as we had when we were self-publishing.
MARK: Louise literally just took the words out of my mouth. I definitely don’t regret it either, it was “a dream come true”. Louise had already had a traditional publishing deal in the past, but for me it was something I’d wanted for years.
LOUISE: Yes, I guess I was a bit more cynical about it, because I already had had an experience with a publisher who dropped me after not promoting the books — and that was back in the day when you could do little yourself. But I still don’t regret it, we had a lovely editor, who did an excellent editorial work, really improving the books. It’s just that not many people got to see them.
MARK: Yes, that was the frustrating thing. What happened is that after the first and second books didn’t do as well as they hoped, the third and fourth ones were pretty much dead in the water.
LOUISE: It basically took the exact same trajectory as my first publishing deal: sales got smaller and smaller and the publisher’s interest got smaller and smaller. Also, one thing to take into account is that two of the four books had already been self-published before and picked up by a lot of people. So I think that didn’t help us as much as we thought it would.
MARK: That was the problem, really. Catch Your Death and Killing Cupid came out a year after we first self-published them, which means the sequel to Catch Your Death came a year and a half after the first book, and by then, everyone had lost interest. And it wasn’t pushed at all, it wasn’t in any shops, it had no visibility.
I actually think that we were a little bit like guinea pigs, because we were the first “indies” to go through that process over here in the UK. The publishers learned from what happened with us for some of the following indie success stories that they picked up.
REEDSY: So you were with a publisher that didn’t do as much as you hoped on the marketing side of things. But now you’re with Amazon, right? Which is almost the opposite.
MARK: Yes, but there is a stage in between. In January 2013, we were in a dark place. We’d had a very disappointing 2012 with the two paperbacks, and when the third one came out in January it just disappeared without a trace. Literally without trace, it left nothing.
I had gambled by quitting my job to be a full-time writer, and I was in a very difficult financial position, with massive tax and credit card bills, plus my wife and I had another baby on the way. So I really was in a state of constant panic, thinking “what am I going to do?” I can laugh about it now, but it was terrible at that time. Every now and again I think “I can’t believe I managed to get myself out of that dark pit that I was in”.
I remember Louise and I had this meeting with our agent in London and he — now, he would probably deny it — but he had lost a bit of interest in us as well. But we were determined to make it work so we decided we would not give up, and start a new series of books instead.
Now, I had this book “The Magpies” that I had had sitting in my bottom drawer for years, and I’d been tinkering with it, on and off. Louise said: “why don’t you just do it, just self-publish it?” So I went home that day, read through it, and thought “actually, this is quite good”. So I self-published The Magpies via my agent (it’s called “agent-assisted self-publishing”) and it basically completely transformed everything, because The Magpies ended up selling (in its self-published version) 170,000 copies. It simply changed my life, and it’s what led to the deal with Amazon.
Amazon Publishing bought the rights for it and for another solo novel from me. And when Louise and I finished our new co-written one, it did go out in submission to various publishers, but Amazon pre-empted it and our commissioning editor there read it in a few days. They made an offer, and because I’d had such a great experience with them already, Louise thought: “why not?”
Everything so far with Amazon Publishing has been fantastic. I mean, I’d like to sell more books in the US, but in the UK it couldn’t have gone any better I think.
REEDSY: Yes, and we actually interviewed another Amazon-published author, Bob Mayer, a few weeks ago who highlighted the “marketing reach” of Amazon publishing imprints. What does that mean exactly? What do these imprints do in terms of marketing that makes it worth it signing away royalties to them?
MARK: Well, they’ve got the most amazing database in the world. They’ve got anyone who has ever bought anything, including anyone who has ever read a psychological thriller! That’s what sets them apart from all the other publishers. Plus, they’ve got the platform of their website, and they also do a lot of on-device marketing. So if you’ve got a Kindle Fire, you’ll see that whenever you turn it on, an advert will appear on the home screen, and they rotate, but they’re often books.
That visibility that you get with Amazon publishing is just fantastic. The restriction of being with them is that you’re pretty much only on the Amazon platform, although they do print books and they are making efforts to get them into the shops. But they’re not on any of the other digital stores, so you’re in kind of a walled garden, like a luxury gated development!
When somebody from a big publisher said to us: “well, wouldn’t you rather be with a traditional publisher and have your books in the shops?”, my answer was that that all sounds great, but when we did have that opportunity, our books were barely in the shops anyway…
REEDSY: So, do you now still produce some marketing effort yourselves or is it all Amazon?
LOUISE: We’ve worked very hard on building up our Facebook page. It’s not like we have tens of thousands of followers, but the ones we do have are so loyal that it’s really helping us get the word of mouth thing going, which is the holy grail of marketing anyway. But we still do work very hard, especially when we do online launches.
REEDSY: To finish on an encouraging note for other authors out there: you’ve been through everything, both of you, in a writer’s career; the ups, the downs, so what would be your advice for an author who’d be in a “dark year” like you had in 2012?
MARK: I think it’s certainly nurturing your existing fans and readers. That is what goes through in our Facebook group, where we have really loyal readers as Louise pointed out. They were really really helpful and acting as cheerleaders to keep us going. And then when we did start selling well, they were there and helped spread the word.
REEDSY: And Louise, what would be your advice?
LOUISE: Keep going!
We lost the rest of Louise’s advice due to recording problems, but feel free to ask her (or Mark) anything in the comments below!