In this installment of our series on self-publishing interviews, we've got a slightly different take on the self-publishing success story - find out how crime writers Louise Voss & Mark Edwards co-authored their books, turned them into bestsellers & secured a traditional publishing deal here.
Firstly, for the readers who maybe haven’t come across your work before, can you tell us about your books?
LV: We write fast-paced thrillers, with either a psychological bent (KILLING CUPID, FORWARD SLASH) or action adventures (CATCH YOUR DEATH and ALL FALL DOWN). Our latest work in progress is the former, and introduces our new detective DI Patrick Lennon, a tattooed ex-Goth single dad!
Louise, what was it that first inspired you to get in touch with Mark?
LV: When I saw him on a TV documentary about wannabe writers back in 1999, I just really identified with him. We were in very similar places with our writing – we both had agents and had both written two manuscripts but hadn’t had anything but nice rejections from publishers. Mark read out extracts from his latest novel and I thought it was really good. His agent’s name was mentioned so I wrote Mark a spur of the moment very brief email care of the agent, wishing him luck, not expecting any reply, and was pleased to hear back from him. We became regular email penpals, always only talking about writing, publishing, books and music we liked, and didn’t actually meet until 18 months later.
Can you talk us through your decision to start writing together?
LV: After a few months we began to send each other our respective works-in-progress, and got into the habit of editing each other’s chapters. From there it didn’t feel like too much of stretch to actually write something together. We went out drinking one night soon after we’d starting meeting up face-to-face (which we didn’t do often, because we lived quite far away from each other) and decided to write a thriller with an alternating male/female narrative.
What do you feel are the advantages of co-authoring?
LV: Twice the output with half the effort! It’s really great to have someone with whom you can endlessly bounce ideas off, and whom you trust to say whether something works or doesn’t work, because you know they have as much invested in it as you do. Mark is much better at plotting than I am, which is a definite advantage for me. It would take me ages to get to the sorts of conclusions and twists he seems to manage effortlessly!
Can you describe the actual process of writing with a co-author for us? For example, how do you split the work? How do you decide whose ideas to go with?
ME: We start with a brainstorm around a central idea – sometimes this is done very quickly, other times we can agonise over it for weeks. But once we’ve got the central idea, we meet up and work out a very loose skeleton of a plot, which we turn into a chapter plan where we plot out the first eight to ten chapters, and discuss our central characters and their motivations, personalities, etc. Then we divide up the chapters and start writing. We almost always divide them up by character because all our novels have multiple points of view.
It can get quite messy – we don’t usually write the chapters in order and keeping track of who’s doing what can be a nightmare. But we have a master document into which we put completed chapters after we’ve written and edited them, and we use a chapter plan which expands as we go along. At the end, we both read through the first draft and list all the issues and questions in a huge spreadsheet/to-do list. We almost always have several thorny plot problems at the end which we meet up to thrash out. These meetings can be very painful but we always get there in the end!
What’s a typical writing day for both of you?
LV: During term-time I write in a café from 7.30-8.50 after I’ve dropped off my daughter at the bus stop, and then go to my part-time day job as a university administrator. I only work 3.5 days a week, so have a day and half dedicated writing time too. I tend to edit/tinker with the chapters in the evenings as I’m often too tired to write anything fresh.
ME: Until now, I have squeezed writing in between my day job, childcare and a hundred other things, usually writing late at night after everyone else has gone to bed. It’s not ideal! However, the success of The Magpies, my solo novel, means I am just starting a sabbatical which means I can write almost full-time. I have joined the local gym and am planning on using it as my office, so I can get fit and get the next book written at the same time.]
Since the self-published version of Catch Your Death reached No. 1 in the Amazon charts, the story has found a new audience. Is there a particular moment in the journey of the novel where you realised it had ‘broken through’?
ME: It was the day it started shooting up the Amazon rankings. We’d watched Killing Cupid climb the chart very slowly over a few months; then, when we published CYD, it shot up the chart like a rocket. When it entered the top ten it was incredibly exciting and quite emotional. Later, seeing it in bookshops, for example as Read of the Week, in WHSmith, was thrilling.
How quickly did things change for you after Catch Your Death started receiving so much positive attention?
LV: Very very quickly! It was ironic – after so many years of trying to get the attention of publishers and agents, once we hit No.1, they all came to us (including some who had previously rejected the same novel!) We received the sort of publicity that before we could only have dreamed of – between us, we were on BBC Breakfast three times, then Sky News, Radio 4, Radio 2, Reuters… and they all came to us! We had articles about our success in most of the broadsheets, and I had a feature in the Evening Standard. It was astonishing. Such an exciting time.
Was it always your intention to self-publish, or would you have considered the traditional publishing route had the opportunity presented itself?
LV: We tried to get a conventional publishing deal for both Killing Cupid and Catch Your Death when we first wrote them. Killing Cupid got optioned by the BBC for a two-part drama, but agents and editors claimed it wasn’t ‘genre’ enough for them and so it was never published. That was when we decided to write a more conventional thriller, which became Catch Your Death – but that didn’t get picked up either. I think we were unlucky with that one. After that, we gave up for a few years, and it was only when Amazon introduced its Kindle self-publishing platform at the end of 2010 that Mark persuaded me we should stick both books on there, rather than leaving them to languish in a bottom drawer. I’m so glad he did!
What would you say is the single biggest advantage of deciding to self-publish?
ME: The biggest advantage was that it led to us having a writing career again. Without it, our dreams of being writers would have remained in the past, but they were, ahem, re-kindled by Amazon. Going forward, we will always have the option to self-publish because it allows you to get books out quickly and easily and means we have total control. Our ideal would be to do a mix of both, which I think more and more writers will do going forward.
Are there things you feel as though you missed out on by not going down the traditional publishing route first (working alongside an editor, for example)?
ME: Yes, having an editor is a distinct advantage of traditional publishing, though it should be noted that Killing Cupid wasn’t edited at all by HarperCollins and it was still chosen by Peter James as his favourite novel of 2013. Our other books were definitely improved by having an editor, though. The other thing is that you get more respect when you are published by a traditional publisher. I think that we are still not taken wholly seriously because of our origins. But our readers couldn’t care less how our books reach them – they just want to read them.
You seem to use social media a lot to interact with your readership – how important do you think this is to becoming a success as a self-published author? Or, indeed, to any kind of author today?
ME: social media is a fantastic way of communicating with your readers, rather than sales and marketing tool. It’s very important these days to nurture your readers and be friendly with them because a) It’s fun and b) It will make them more loyal and likely to tell their friends about you.
Do you feel there’s a greater sense of community within the self-publishing industry?
ME: There is an excellent, supportive community within self-publishing and we made loads of friends with other writers across the world when we started. But it’s the same inside the traditional publishing world, at least in crime fiction. Go to the Harrogate Crime Festival and all the writers hang out together. At the moment there isn’t much crossover between the two camps but I’m sure this will change.
Do you think that traditional publishing can continue to keep up with the rise of self-publishing?
ME: So far, I don’t think self-publishing has harmed traditional publishing. Instead, they have cherry-picked the most successful indie writers and brought them across, because most self-publishers still hanker after a ‘proper’ publisher. But I think things will slowly change as more authors realise they can do it on their own. There will be a generation of writers who see self-publishing as their first option – that’s when it will get dangerous.
Finally, if there was one piece of advice you would give to an author thinking of self-publishing, what would it be?
LV: Make sure you are really well-prepared!
ME: Be nice to everyone.