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.