I’ve worked with author Nick Elliott since 2014, when he was starting out with his first novel, Sea of Gold, which turned out to be the first in a trilogy of thrillers featuring maritime claims investigator Angus McKinnon. It has been exciting to join him on his journey from beginning writer to knowledgeable self-published author; when not reading and commenting on his early drafts, or copyediting the finished version, I’ve been watching from the sidelines, intrigued to see how he has taken his books from manuscript to print and ebook – and how he’s explored the world of self-publisher marketing. I thought his experience might be interesting for others thinking about writing and self-publishing, and he has kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about it. Dive in! (But with McKinnon’s alter ego, watch out for the unexpected …)
Helen: Writing a novel is a big commitment for anyone – what made you want to start writing, and what kind of expectations did you have at the beginning?
Nick: Ten years ago I was working full time from home but doing a lot of travelling. One Saturday morning, without too much forethought, I sat down and made a list of some of the more interesting things that had happened through my work over the years. I was aware that, as they were growing up, my daughters had known little about what my job entailed: where it had taken me and what had happened along the way. The list was just that. Some of the events were demanding, others more entertaining.
As the list evolved I began to realise that it wouldn’t mean much to them without some explanation, and since we only met up infrequently for family get-togethers they weren’t going to want to sit down with me and listen to these stories when we all had plenty of other things to do and talk about.
Over the following months something else occurred to me. What if I expanded and embellished some of these experiences into a novel? So in early 2010, on our way to Morocco, I bought a red notebook in the airport and began fleshing out the list which formed the basis of my first book, Sea of Gold.
My expectations were limited but I felt compelled to press on with it. And I was enjoying the process: recalling past events, and researching others that I would work into the plot.
But concurrent with this was a meeting with someone who had already self-published his first novel: Peter Flannery. He was meeting for coffee with a few other would-be indie authors and together, with Peter’s guidance and driven along by his own enthusiasm and success, we became indies ourselves.
H: How did you find the reality of writing your first novel? (And how did that compare with writing the sequels?) How long did it take, from starting to plan and write to publishing? Did that change when you came to write the next two?
N: It was fun, exciting! But I wasn’t seeing it as the beginning of a new career, more a personal project to occupy my spare time. And I was still busy working in my ‘conventional’ job.
The reality, as every author knows, is it’s a solitary occupation. I have a small office space at home in Scotland, and much was written in isolation on a Greek island.
I published Sea of Gold in 2014 – four years after I’d started it. The sequels were different. I’d done what they say you shouldn’t and thrown (almost) everything bar the kitchen sink into Sea of Gold by way of my own experiences, so had to come up with something new for the second book, Dark Ocean. I was focused on a particular idea but my wife steered me away from it and suggested the book should take place in Hong Kong, where we’d lived for eighteen years and which we were still very familiar with. Again, it was a sense of excitement that drove my motivation for the project. Dark Ocean took three years, by which time I’d already reduced my full-time work to part-time.
Black Reef came next, and took me just two years. For the first time I departed from my previous practice of writing only of places I knew well. For West Africa I had to call on the experiences of others (among them Joseph Conrad, Tim Butcher and an old shipping friend) as well as online research, without ever getting down there. But that stimulated my imagination in new ways.
I should add here that I’m not a fast writer. There are plenty of successful indie authors turning out three or four book a year and making very good money at it.
H: Did you originally think about trying to find an agent and/or a publisher, and following the traditional route to getting published? What made you decide to self-publish?
N: No. Pretty much from my first meeting with Peter, I decided life was too short to be waiting for rejection slips when Amazon was there, ready and waiting with their 70 per cent royalties on offer.
H: Do you think there are any particular advantages or disadvantages to self-publishing? What would you say they were?
N: The big challenge is marketing your own books. But then that is true with traditional publishing to an extent. Personally, I find it difficult, though not impossible, to refocus my mind on marketing while I’m writing. Others manage it well by splitting the day into the two activities – which is what I try to do, but it isn’t easy.
H: I’ve always thought self-publishing must be very hard work and demand a host of different skills (production and marketing are two that come to mind). Did you already have some of these skills, or did you discover and learn them as you went along?
N: The production side is not as formidable as some may think. There are professionals out there to help. In my case I’ve used such people for cover design, formatting, proofreading and, most importantly, editing. For everything else, Amazon really does make it easy for you. Say what you like about them, they can be a self-publishing author’s best friend.
H: What unexpected jobs or skills did you have to pick up?
N: Marketing has changed so much since social media has come of age. Getting my head round the bidding systems of Facebook, Amazon, BookBub (among others) has been challenging (that euphemism again!) but again, there’s plenty of help online. Courses and blogs like those of Mark Dawson, Jo Penn and many others are very accessible, and to belong to a self-publishing indie authors’ group is pretty much an imperative.
H: Publishing is a risky and not a cheap business – and that applies just as much for self-publishers as for traditional publishers. I think that can come as a surprise to new self-publishers. It clearly didn’t put you off, as you have gone on to produce two more books, but what would you say was your most surprising expense?
N: Amazon – because it costs nothing! Quality editing is the single biggest expense, but it’s worth it [Ed.: Thanks Nick!]. Good cover design comes next, then on the marketing side advertising costs can mount up, although with the bidding system and pay-per-click, it’s very controllable. Then would come ‘real world’ marketing – attending book festivals, book signings, etc.; but given the huge universes of Facebook and Amazon, I question whether incurring such real-world expenses is necessary. That’s a subjective view though.
H: Do you have any tips to help writers on a budget achieve the best for their book?
N: Here are three at the top of my list:
H: How do you balance time to write with time to manage the publishing itself? Did you ever find yourself having to do both at the same time – perhaps when you were working on your second and third books in particular?
N: Yes, see above. This is probably the biggest challenge of the lot but it is a matter of good time management and self-discipline.
H: I know that apart from me you’ve also worked with other freelancers to help produce your books: designers – both for the covers and the text itself – and a proofreader. What made you prefer to hire us rather than do everything yourself, and once you’d decided – how did you find the others? [Ed: Nick and I met when we got chatting at an event about publishing at CABN in the Scottish Borders.]
N: Meeting you so early on was very fortuitous indeed. Although I didn’t call on your services for another year or so I knew I’d found a professional I could rely on when the time came, and I was right.
The others (text formatting, cover design and proofreading) were a mix of word-of-mouth recommendations and online searches.
H: In our discussions you’ve often mentioned the value of the writers’ groups you’re a member of. How have they helped you, and would you recommend that other new writers look for a group to join?
N: Definitely. You’ll find like-minded people from all walks of life at different stages in their writing careers and with something to bring to the table. Above all perhaps is to meet folk who endure the same sense of commitment to something they love doing but is as hard as it is rewarding. For me though, it was important to find a group that were indies keen to discuss the publishing process. Of course we talk about writing and where we’re at with our latest projects, but publishing and marketing tend to be the main focus.
H: I can think of so many more questions that readers would be interested in, but we’ve covered a lot here, so perhaps for now it’s best to wrap up. I hope there will be an opportunity to talk more about the books themselves – and the character of your protagonist Angus McKinnon – another time. In the meanwhile, what would be your top tip for a new writer who is thinking about self-publishing?
N: Don’t be afraid. Like most things, it’s not as daunting as it appears before you take the leap!
Do check out Nick’s trilogy – it’s a fun and exciting read, and McKinnon is the ideal guide through his world of chicanery and mischief on the high seas and in the hallowed halls of high finance. You can find out more about some of the places his investigations take him on Nick’s Pinterest page.