How do you become a successful self-published author?

October 10, 2019 1:42 pm

We talk to author, Keith Houghton, about how he went from computer repairman to best-selling author with over 900,000 books and 50,000 audiobooks sold across 14 different countries.

Keith published his first book, Killing Hope (Book 1 in the Gabe Quinn Thrillers series), in 2011 through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). The book was an instant hit with thousands of copies bought and five star reviews flooding in. Since then, Keith has gone on to self-publish two further books in the Gabe Quinn series and has had several stand-alone titles published through Amazon’s traditional publishing imprint, Thomas & Mercer.

Here, Keith tells us how self-publishing changed his life and allowed him to earn a living doing something he truly loves.

How did you get into writing?

I imagine, like most writers, I got into writing at an early age, mainly through being an avid reader. It was the early 1970’s, and I remember reading Enid Blyton by torchlight under the bed covers when I should have been sleeping, her children’s stories sparking a sense of adventure in my young mind. Inspired, I began to write my own short stories. But it wasn’t until I started reading science fiction novels at age 11 that I turned my hand to more serious works, with a view to becoming an author.

What do you write about?

As a lifelong science fiction fan, my first full-length forays into mainstream writing were sci-fi: sprawling space operas about future civilisations and reluctant heroes. But I’ve also written a few film scripts and several comedy stage plays along the way, one of which was produced by a theatre company in 2002. These days, I write crime fiction: police procedurals such as my latest Maggie Novak series about a female homicide detective based in Florida, as well as stand-alone psychological thrillers set in various locations across the United States.

What inspired the first Gabe Quinn book?

My first Gabe Quinn thriller Killing Hope came about through necessity. It was conceived in 2005, at a point in my writing where I felt that I needed to switch directions in order to break out. By chance, I picked up a copy of James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider and thought that it was the kind of book I’d like to write. And so I put together the storyline for Hope, using Los Angeles as a setting because I wanted my protagonist to be an American homicide cop and LA seemed a natural choice.

What is your writing process?

My writing process always begins life as a germ of an idea. I start with a premise, letting it germinate in my mind over time. If it takes root and blossoms into something beautiful, I’ll start fleshing out a basic synopsis to see how viable the idea will be as a novel. If it looks good, I’ll write it. My process isn’t always linear, and I’ll jump from scene to scene, adding and subtracting as the story takes shape. I never stick rigidly to the synopsis, using it as a loose framework only. This allows for new twists to come along and take me by surprise and the story in a different direction. Also, I edit as I go along, which means that the first draft is more or less the finished product. My wife is my beta reader. She gets to read the finished manuscript before anyone else. Everything she questions, I amend. And everything she says is superfluous, I remove. By the time the novel goes to my official editor, it’s already at the high polish stage. Typically, because I now write full-time, it takes me 7-8 months from start to finish. When I wrote Killing Hope I was still working a day job, too, and it took me five years to write that first novel.

Did you always intend for it to be a series?

Yes. I wasn’t sure how many would be in the Gabe Quinn Thrillers. For two reasons, I’ve hit a natural pause at three full-length novels in the series: one, the main back story arc begins in book one and ends in book three, and so the trilogy has a natural feel to it; and two, all my time these days is taken up writing novels on contract to my traditional publisher Amazon Publishing, leaving no time (right now) to write another Gabe Quinn.

How did you come to self-publish the book?

In 2010, when I had put together the first draft, I sent it out to three literary agents in London. Two of them got in touch, showing their interest. One was Camilla Wray at Darley Anderson. She was excited with the first draft and wanted to help shape it to a point where she felt she could then represent it with the major publishers. Over the next eighteen months we corresponded via email, sending edits back and to, and turning the book into something more marketable. In late 2011, Camilla informed me that she was going on maternity leave and that it would be 12 months until we could continue developing the novel. Two months earlier, I had already put one of my old sci-fi books on Kindle Direct Publishing, and it had sold a handful of copies. I decided to put Hope on KDP and see what happened (if anything) while Camilla was out of the picture. When the book started to sell in the shedloads and reader feedback started coming in, I knew that self-publishing the series was the way to go.

How did you find the editing process?

For my indie books, I self-edit as I go along. For my traditionally published books, I have a team of assigned editors, with the main dev editor located in New York.

What inspired your cover designs?

Originally, for the Gabe Quinn series, I did the book covers myself. I’ve always been creative, and I’d previously dabbled with programmes such as Adobe Illustrator, and so doing them myself was the obvious choice. Having worked in retail a long time ago, I was familiar with marketing and branding, and I knew I wanted the look of the series to be visually eye-catching as well as have a theme continuity. Those covers lasted a few years until I paid for professional versions on the e-books (the originals are still visible on the print versions).

Where did you first publish it and how did you spread the word?

Right from the get-go I self-published exclusively with Kindle Direct Publishing, using KDP Select’s author utilities (such as giveaways) to help promote the book.

At what point did you make the switch from amateur writer to professional author?

This came about virtually overnight. In 2013, after the blazing success of the Gabe Quinn series on Kindle, the then Senior Acquisitions Editor at Amazon Publishing, Emilie Marneur, got in touch to see if I would like to write a stand-alone book for their Thomas & Mercer imprint. Obviously, I couldn’t refuse; I’d dreamed about being traditionally published for over 30 years. Here was my chance to make my dream a reality. So, in 2014, I signed the contract and gave up my full-time job, spending the rest of the year writing what would become my first breakaway standalone psychological thriller No Coming Back.

How has your marketing strategy evolved since the first book?

Since being traditionally published with Amazon Publishing, I don’t have any control over the marketing of my Thomas & Mercer books. I still market and promote my indie Gabe Quinn series, though, via KDP Select. This hasn’t changed over the years and now seems less effective than it used to be. Lately, I’ve been dabbling with Facebook Ads and Amazon Advertising, but found them ineffective unless an enormous amount of money is invested.

What would you say are your most effective tools when it comes to promoting your books?

Online advertisers such as BookBub seem to be the best way to get your book in front of as many readers as possible in the shortest span of time. But, again, the initial investment is huge, which can be the deciding factor for many indie writers.

Why do you think the books have been so successful?

I think there’s an element of being in the right place at the right time, but also writing something that is engaging and has a decent story line, with characters that live and breathe in a reader’s imagination. That said, you can write the best book ever written, but if it sits at rank one million on Amazon and no one ever reads it, then what’s the point? You’ve got to be innovative, find new ways to promote your books and you as a brand, use social media to build a fan base and grow an email list. Basically, you can’t sit back once you publish your book and expect readers to pick it up and enthuse over it. First, you’ve got to write a killer novel, then promote it every which way you can, and then not rest on your laurels, which means writing the next book.

How do you go about getting reviews for your books?

Good and bad, all my reviews are organic, coming from genuine readers. The only time I encourage readers to review my books is if I’ve given them a free copy as part of a launch campaign, but even then they have the last word.

How does traditional publishing compare to self-publishing in your experience?

As an indie author, I maintain complete control over my books. I market them as I see fit. I price them as I see fit. I choose the covers and the content. It allows the control freak in me to set out my stall as I want it, and to interact with my readership on my terms. As a traditionally published author, all that control is taken away, and my career is at the whim of computer algorithms.

What do you think the future holds for self-published authors?

I think the self-publishing world got off to a bang with the rise of the Kindle. But now the initial explosion is settling down and the boom is over. Readers are remembering how much they loved print books. I think there’ll always be electronic options from here onward, but I think the opportunities for new indie authors to leap ahead of the pack and compete on a level playing field with traditionally published authors will be fewer every year.

If you could offer one piece of advice to other authors looking to self-publish, what would it be?

Try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else. My intention was to self-publish as a stopgap until a publishing deal came along. Self-pubbing ended up changing my life forever. And I’ve never looked back. What have you got to lose?

What are you working on now?

The third instalment of my new Maggie Novak mystery thriller series, the first of which ‘Don’t Even Breathe’ came out earlier this year, with the second book ‘A Place Called Fear’ due for release in November.

If you would like to know more about Keith Houghton and his upcoming titles, please visit his website ‘Writing can be Murder’.