The London Book Fair lands on an unusually sunny three days in the capital. The scorching rays – rarely seen at all, let alone in April in the UK – seem at odds with a closed-off indoor book fair. But that hasn’t stopped scores of page-turner enthusiasts scouring the giant exhibition centre’s main floor, looking for publishers to schmooze, books to buy and advice to receive.
It’s the advice from authors who’ve ‘made it’ that seems to resonate most with attendees. Seminars and workshops are scattered in between the stands – all packed with a baying audience that fire off seemingly endless questions. They’re all trying to piece together an escape route out of the doldrums of full-time work.
One man, Mark Dawson, has a queue of wannabe writers lining up to speak to him as we sit down for an interview. Dawson is one of the self-publishing success stories that Amazon likes to wheel out when journalists like myself come knocking. But Dawson’s success isn’t down to simply publishing his crime-thriller series and hoping for the best.
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Dawson has become an entrepreneur. With the self-publishing platform, he had no choice. The tactics he employed to promote his series aren’t game-changing, or even particularly clever, but the scale in which he implemented them is what made the difference.
To date he has sold over 300,000 copies of his series about an assassin called John Milton. Dawson says he pocketed “ six figures” last year and he’s on course to make much more this year. And he’s got plans for bigger and better things for this series outside of print form.
Dawson’s recent success isn’t representative of his time in publishing, however. He actually had a book published by Pan Books called “The Art of Falling Apart” in 2000, which completely bombed. Not because because it was bad – ironically it’s now available on Kindle and has 32 five-star reviews out of 39 – but because few people read it or are aware of it. Mark puts the book’s failure down to the publishers inability to promote his work and generate any sort of interest.
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“I live in the countryside outside of Salisbury [in the UK] – there are lots of farmers’ fields and one farmer was bringing in his crops. I was cycling my bike and I decided to take a break. I parked my bike, sat down with my back against this tree and got my phone out. Miraculously I managed to get some signal and I thought ‘I’ll check how the book is doing’.
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Incredibly,Dawson had sold 50,000 copies of The Black Mile over the course of a weekend.
But he was immediately presented with two problems. The first was that he’d made no money whatsoever from The Black Mile, a book he’d poured hours of research and travel into [because it was free]. The second was that he had no follow-up book for his new fanbase to dig in to.
It was at this point that Dawson went from being a simple author to an entrepreneur.
“It was a wasted opportunity.” Dawson admits. “ But it did give me a kick up the arse and proved to me that this is legitimate and that I should write a new book, so I did.”
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To get new readers onboard, Dawson does the usual stuff like getting blogs to review his books. But what he says works the most is Facebook advertising. Dawson is pumping $370 a day into Facebook advertising and he’s receiving double that in return on investment.