An interview with author Kerry Wilkinson

Crime writer Kerry Wilkinson is one of the UK’s first self-publishing success stories of the ebook era. He uploaded his first novel Locked In to Amazon in 2011 and, without any traditional advertising, went on to sell over 300,000 copies within a year. The first in a series about Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniel, the novel’s phenomenal success led to a six-book deal with Pan Macmillan earlier this year.

With the fourth book in the Jessica Daniel series, Think Of The Children, to be released early next year, AND the first in a YA fantasy series called The Silver Blackthorn Trilogy to follow later in the year, I talk to the highly productive Kerry about writing, self-publishing and what the future holds.

First I want to ask you about your writing. The Silver Blackthorn Trilogy – was this something you’d been brewing in your head while writing the Jessica Daniel series?
Not really. I went on holiday and came back with most of it plotted long-hand. I work all the time, so actually doing “nothing” for two weeks allowed it all to form in my mind. I started writing the day I got back and didn’t stop until it was all done.

Is Silver Blackthorn’s world something you created recently – or did its creation begin way back when you were a kid reading sci-fi and fantasy novels?
It happened mainly when I was plotting it all out but I read sci-fi and young adult books while growing up. The world-creation is both a blessing and a curse. With Jessica, it is grounded in the real world, so you have to think your way logically around any plot points. With sci-fi, you can make up anything you want – so it’s balancing that with creating a cohesive and plausible world. That and making sure the story is still about the characters and not the concept. I also deliberately tried something new, so Silver is all first-person. It makes the books very different, not just in content but style too.

Going back to your crime series, in Locked In we meet a young, hungry, feisty Jessica Daniel. With the fourth book in the series soon to come out, has she changed much?

At the beginning of book one, she’s still finding her feet in a newish job, living with her best friend and wondering exactly what she wants to do with her life. By book four, she has changed through everything experienced through the first three. She’s more mature and a little calmer dealing with things but also has a greater awareness of what she’s capable of. Her personal life is ever-changing too and I try to balance the books in examining that as well as her work life.

Jessica Daniel’s been a consistent presence in your life for a while now. Do you ever feel like she’s leaning over your shoulder telling you what to write?
Not really, I can go away and do other things and come back to her. In terms of where her life is headed, I am quite a long way ahead.

I read somewhere that you plot your novels out in full before you start writing. When you start writing, however, do you find that sometimes things start going in a different direction to the one you planned?
Sometimes what I think is going to be a small plot point branches off and can become entire chapters, other times something I assumed would be big ends up being a paragraph. I tend to let the story tell itself. It’s easier to cut after it’s been written than write entirely new sections potentially months later.

You used to work as a journalist, thereby earning a living writing. But was writing fiction always your end goal?
I still work as a journalist! I never had any aspirations to be an author or to write fiction. It just sort of happened.

What made you decide to upload Locked In to Amazon, rather than submit it to agents and publishers? Or did you plan to submit to publishers eventually?
I uploaded it on a whim but I wasn’t too fussed about it. I only wrote for myself, to show that I could – or for something to do, depending on which way you want to look at it. My main goal was achieved by getting that far. I had a look into the agent/publisher thing and figured that I left school over a decade ago and barely did my homework then. My days of double-spacing and stamped address envelopes went out then. Essentially, I couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t want it that badly. As it was, I had over two-dozen agents come to me anyway, including the representatives of some very famous people.

What do you think helped Locked In to take off? Did you blog and use social media sites to spread the word? Did pricing play a significant role?
Social media is ridiculously overrated as a marketing tool. I like it because readers find me and let me know what they think of the books, and ask when the next one is out, etc – but that all comes after they’ve read my stuff. It’s a direct way of communicating with them. But I’m still not entirely sure how or why an endless stream of “buy my book” spam is meant to endear yourself to anyone. My books took off because of reasons as old as publishing itself: people read it, liked it, and told others. Word of mouth is the greatest marketing tool you’ll ever have. This endless stream of self-publishing conferences and workshops are, for the most part, run by snake oil salesmen selling you a dream that doesn’t exist. They’re certainly not run by successful self-publishers and, as far as I know, no successful self-publishers have ever emerged from these things. It really annoys me that these people use my name as an example in their marketing, which happens a lot.

I concentrated on getting a lot of little technical things as right as I could with my actual ebooks and the listings – but I figured it out for myself. Indeed, the thing most successful self-publishers share is that they found their own way to make things happen – either by coming up with their own marketing plan, concentrating on aspects relating to the format, or other things. Anything you could ever be told in any of these workshops is something that thousands of other people are already doing. Plus, they forget the number one thing: Write something people might want to read.

Pricing is also overstated as a reason for success. Locked In was a pound – but so are tens of thousands of other books. There are a bunch of 20p books from traditional publishers out there too. It was important in giving people a reason to buy – among others – but actually tens of thousands of readers returned, paying more to buy the Jessica Daniel sequels because they were invested in the character.

Some people think the key is selling everything as cheaply as you can but the actual goal is give something a sense of worth. For self-publishers who actually want a publishing deal (I never courted one), selling yourself for 99p is probably the worst thing you can do. It depends what your end goal is.

You now have a six-book deal with Pan Macmillan. Aside from that being a fantastic achievement, I’d imagine that going from being an indie to handing over the reins to a big publisher might also be a bit scary?
Yes and no. I’m still running the listings and will be for another month or so yet. The odd dynamic is that, to a degree, I know as much about e-publishing as they do. What that means is that I’ve shared all sorts of knowledge with them, which I would hope and expect them to use at least when it comes to my own listings. The main reason to go with a big publisher is that they can get you into places you can’t get yourself. Print books still outsell ebooks. I had nothing to lose by taking their offer.

Now that you have an agent and an editor, are they the first to see your work? Or do you have a muse or muses you run it by first?
I still work in the exact way I did when I started writing – everything gets finished before I hand it over to anyone. I know why I would want to read or watch something and hang everything I do on that in regards to pacing and characterisation. I wouldn’t want anyone’s input before I’m finished. After that, I’m happy to listen.

Have you read many books by other self-published authors?
I haven’t read any… but then I don’t get time to read that much anyway.

And finally, what does the future hold for Jessica Daniel? Has she been snapped up for a TV dramatisation yet?
It’s in the same state as any of these things: agents looking to push things. I don’t worry about it.

Thanks for joining me Kerry, and best of luck with the launch of The Silver Blackthorn Trilogy and the continuing Jessica Daniel series. Visit Kerry’s website to find out more about his books and other news.

Cover story

Recently I had the cover of my novel Hot Property redesigned. The previous cover (above) was OK, but not particularly eye-catching. This time I wanted to make sure we got it right. When I say ‘we’, I’m referring to my husband Chris who is a graphic designer. He usually designs branding and creative campaigns rather than book covers, but he made an exception in my case. (Not that he had much choice.)

With the help of his intern at the time, Emily, we thrashed out what the cover needed to imply. Hot Property is about a group of expats aspiring to live the ‘sun, sea and sand’ dream on the Greek island of Crete. It’s about an idyllic lifestyle, idyllic properties, and not so idyllic characters.

After playing around with the images above, Chris felt that the colours needed to be warm – reds, pinks, oranges. The background needed to be enticing, inviting, a landscape you’d want to step into. But that on its own wasn’t enough. This novel is about romance, unrequited love, rivalry and fraud. There are lots of characters carrying equal weight, rather than one main protagonist, and the story is told from several different viewpoints.

I felt the cover needed to have an air of intrigue about it. Cue the key. All the images above and below were not used in the end, but lining them all up and eliminating them one by one was a good exercise. It helped to pinpoint exactly what was needed – and what wasn’t needed. I liked the way the key is dangling, tempting you to use it to enter the story.

Two separate photos were used in the end, both purchased from iStock, the image of the key being superimposed on a background of a beautiful looking Greek townscape next to the sea. The final result is below. I’m dead pleased with it and would like to say a big thank you to my husband Chris and to Emily for all their help. (Apparently he’s got a big pile of copywriting waiting for me, so that makes us quits.)

There’s honey on the horizon

Emberhoney: Ben King, John ‘The Baron’ Kent and Taylor Madison Damion

There are many parallels to be drawn between the music industry and the publishing world. Musicians and writers alike chase their dreams of being taken on by a record label or a publishing house, and the digital revolution has changed everything, in good ways and bad.

As part of the indie-noir band, Emberhoney, Taylor Madison Damion and John Baron Kent have been working towards a recording contract for several years. They’re talented, make beautiful music and have come close to realising their dream on several occasions – and yet remain without that elusive deal. I asked singer, songwriter and musician Taylor how they’ve managed to keep going and not lose sight of their goals.

It’s been about eight years since I first met you, and I remember thinking Emberhoney were on the brink of something wonderful happening, ie a recording contract. What happened?
There was a lot of excitement around our band at the time with radio play and very positive feedback from record companies etc, but we had no manager or backing of any kind and didn’t know how to capitalise on all of this. We gigged ourselves to exhaustion and literally went bankrupt funding rehearsals, studio costs, gig expenses and promotion. John and I were also working as decorators, our days filled with manual labour. We simply couldn’t earn enough. We burnt out at every level without any support and became utterly demoralised after making endless trips to play in London for the benefit of reps who didn’t bother to turn up.

You could say that the timing of our emergence on the scene was unfortunate because this was when the industry was starting to change dramatically towards its present state – where record companies can’t afford to invest in artists like they used to due to the revolution in music downloading that undermined the usual channels for their revenue. I was also very young and naive and like most artists, lacked business acumen. This version of the band ended after two years and we didn’t play together again for four years. But two years ago we decided to try again and formed a new Emberhoney project with our present bass player. We recently released our latest EP “Smoke” and are now gigging regularly.

How many times did you come close to being taken on by a record label?
There was never any contract on the table, but certainly enough feedback from record labels making us feel that Emberhoney was producing some great music. John talked with 4AD records (who had produced acts such as the Cocteau Twins and the Pixies) and their MD said, ‘Emberhoney were in the top 10% of music received by unsigned acts’. Likewise, ex-Cocteau Twin bass player Simon Raymonde who now runs the Bella Union record label, stated the ‘the songs are well arranged and performances excellent….it won’t be long before you find a suitable label’. However, at the time, Bella Union were not taking on any more artists. There were many others, including some small labels like Words On Music in the USA, that showed great interest in Emberhoney.

What triggered you to set up Honeytone Recordings? Is this your own independent label?
When we first started playing shows as Emberhoney, some bands had mentioned that they were taken more seriously if they presented themselves with an associated ‘label’, a name often thought up by the band themselves. Honeytone Recordings was one such idea during the release of our second EP. However, on reflection I don’t think it was a good idea. If you genuinely want to attract the interest of a record company then there’s no point in making yourselves look like you’re already ‘signed’ to another label.  And if you’re trying to be a label, you need to create a marketing department and develop business skills. Without these, the name is merely a self-publication imprint.

These days Honeytone Recordings is more appropriately the name of our studio where we rehearse and record. We simply couldn’t find time to write, rehearse, record and gig as well as develop marketing skills – until recently. Now we divide the labour. I act as a pathfinder for the band by playing a lot of open mics and solo shows. In doing so, I’ve connected with other musicians who are open to promoting each other, and several local promoters who are impressed enough to ask me back – often with the whole band. Meanwhile, John doesn’t touch his guitar but instead spends the time at Honeytone HQ handling the business side; research, marketing, networking, securing more gigs. This approach is working as our Facebook numbers have increased dramatically in recent weeks and opportunities to play more shows are coming in. This measure has given the Honeytone Recordings imprint a marketing department, but it’s untenable in the long term because John will be forced to pick up his guitar in order to rehearse, gig and record. But we’re hoping it’ll raise our profile sufficiently to attract a manager.

The biggest obstacle self-published writers face is getting publicity for their books. I’m guessing it’s the same for musicians?
Yes it is. The marketing and publicising of your work is a full-time job and an art in itself. There is endless praise for the power of the Internet and how musicians no longer need a record company, but without serious marketing skills and time commitment, this exciting “anyone can do it”  theory does not translate into reality. Our EP’s free on several music-based platforms (see links below) but the challenge is driving traffic to our sites and raising our profile enough to even get people to listen to it. The most effective tool so far has been performing live as often as possible and directing enthusiastic audience members to the websites. This might be the hard way but it works.  I think that combining forces with other artists in the same situation to create a movement greater than any individual artist is an even better way forward.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years’ time? Have your ambitions and outlook changed?
Yes, my ambitions and outlook have changed. I spent those four years of hiatus studying metaphysics, esoteric philosophy and art. It was very therapeutic and I cultivated a completely different attitude to myself and music. I had painfully concluded that the lack of professional recognition and success was a sign that I was not meant to follow my dreams. I was devastated and utterly lost. It’s now clear to me that no matter how little external success I’ve had, I am still a singer and songwriter. I now am trying to perceive the marketing side as an application of my creativity! I no longer imagine being saved from obscurity by a record company. I can see that our own efforts to raise the profile of our band through every means at our disposal including social media and networking as well as gigs, will likely attract investment and free us at some point to focus more on being musicians. We still intend to sign to a label because the division of labour between artist and marketing will always allow you more time to do what you love to do…make music! But we know we’ll have to do much more work than musicians ever had to do before in order to get this sort of investment. In 10 years’ time I hope to have recorded and released at least the three albums’ worth of material I’ve already written, toured the world with my band and have a thriving relationship with a record label. By then, I’ll probably be so addicted to Twitter and Facebook and obsessed with generating an endless stream of “content” and blogging that I’ll never have time to write another song!

Free Emberhoney MP3 downloads 

Free Emberhoney high quality audio downloads

Emberhoney on Youtube

Emberhoney on Myspace

Emberhoney on Twitter

12 helpful quotes for writers, from Flaubert to John Lydon

Whether published, self-published or as yet unpublished, we writers need all the encouragement we can get. So I thought I’d share the following pearls of wisdom – some of which you’ll no doubt know, but it’s good to be reminded. I particularly like Thomas à Kempis’ little gem. So appropriate in the age of social media!

“Praise and criticism seem to me to operate exactly on the same level. If you get a great review, it’s really thrilling for about 10 minutes. If you get a bad review, it’s really crushing for about 10 minutes. Either way, you go on.” 
Ann Patchett, author

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”
Flaubert, 19th Century author

“We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”
Somerset Maugham, 20th Century author

“We should have much peace if we would not busy ourselves with the sayings and doings of others.” 
Thomas à Kempis, 14th Century writer

“Keep adding little by little and you will soon have a big hoard.”
Latin proverb

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company

“Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.”
Jean Sibelius, 20th Century composer

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Winston Churchill

“I really fall in love with my characters, even the bad ones. I love getting together with them. They tell me what to do; they take me on a wild and wonderful trip.”
Jackie Collins, author

“The public has an appetite for anything about imagination – anything that is as far away from reality as is creatively possible.”
Steven Spielberg, film director

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
William Shakespeare

“Do it yourself cos ain’t no one gonna do it for ya.”
John Lydon, original punk rocker.