David Penny is a former trade-published British science fiction and fantasy writer as a young man. He now self-publishes historical fiction in his retirement and doing very well with it. He has written a 10-book series set in Moorish medieval Spain.
Interview Transcript David Penny
Richard Lowe 00:00
So, I’m with David Penny. He’s a former trade published British sci fi fantasy writer as a young man, and now he publishes historical fiction in his retirement. And he’s doing very well at it. He’s got a 10 book series set in the Moorish medieval Spain. So let’s get into the interview with David Penny. Okay, all right, let’s start. David, why don’t you tell me about yourself?
David Penny 00:33
Okay. Hi, Richard, thank you for having me on your podcast,
Richard Lowe 00:37
and welcome to the podcast, by the way.
David Penny 00:39
Yeah. Thank you. Okay. I, when you sent me through some questions, I thought about this, I’ve always been a writer. As far back as I can remember, one of my first recollections is sitting at home in the garden, and I was about nine years old, at a tiny little school desk, and I was writing a story about aliens and spaceships and all things weird and wonderful. And I always wanted to be a writer. And it just took me a while to actually become one. And, you know, what schools are like, I used to go to meetings, and they said, What are you going to do when you leave school? And I said, I’m going to be a writer. And they said, Yeah, but what are you really going to do? And so I did various bits and pieces. But I just wrote and wrote and wrote and just kept on doing it. And then I was, I suppose I was very, very fortunate at the age of 23. I got a book deal. And I, that was followed by three others, and they were all science fiction. And then I just stopped writing at about the age of 30. I think real life intruded. And I got married, we had kids, I had to earn more money than Well, at that time, not very much money came in from writing. Although my fourth book went into a German translation, and it paid is enough that I bought an engagement ring, and two pairs of walking boots. So I stopped writing and didn’t do any I did various jobs and ended up right, creating a software company, which I ran for over 30 years. And then I had about 10 years ago, I realized that I’d always wanted to be a writer, and I wasn’t writing and my life had become something else. And so I started to do it again. But at that point, I was no longer reading science fiction. So I started to write what I read, then, which was mystery, and crime and thrillers.
Richard Lowe 02:56
Okay, and how do you go from there?
David Penny 02:58
Yeah. And in fact, what I, as you as I said, I was a Trad published author had four novels out. And I sort of, when I came back to it, the whole infrastructure had changed. When I first started, there was no unless I wanted to vanity publish, which I didn’t want to do. There was no alternative to going with a traditional route. And I was just hugely fortunate, I managed to get an agent and a book deal. You know, it’s, it’s something that everybody wants, and something that I managed to do without really apparently trying for it. But then when I came back, there was this new thing that was called self publishing. And initially, I thought maybe it’s a bit like vanity publishing. And then when I looked into it more, I realized that no, it isn’t vanity publishing, it’s something completely different. And so I did a bit of work. And I wrote more books, and I wrote books that have never seen the light of day and will almost certainly never see the light of day even though I like some of the ideas in them. And I found out things I joined the alliance of independent authors. And I brought out my first books which sank without trace, as most self published books, there’s a lot of skills you need to acquire to be a successful, self published author. And it takes a while to realize that you have to you know what it’s like everybody writes a book, and you must interview loads of people and talk to loads of people, Richard, everybody writes a book, and they are convinced it is a work of genius. As as I was, as everybody is, and they put it out there and they they’re sure that is quite funny. You see this on bulletin boards and question boards, and people say, my books been out for a week. They’ve only made three sales and all of those to my family. Why are people not buying Do you think, yeah, people aren’t buying? Because they have no idea who you are, they have no idea. You’ve got a book. There’s millions. I don’t know how many books Amazon publishes in a day. But it’s got to be up in the 1000s. And most of them simply sync without trace. So it did, it’s trying to find that balance between writing the best book you can, producing it as well as you can, and then finding the readers. And it’s the difficult thing is finding the readers that is hugely tough. And how do you do that? What I, yeah, well, what I did, I fell lucky, really, in that, you start you have to market. There’s all sorts of things about marketing. And, and as you know, everybody, there’s a whole list of things you can do like blogging. And it’s changed over the years quite a lot. When I first started, Twitter worked quite well, and you’d go on Twitter, and you’d post things and you’d follow people and those people would follow you back. And it game, it became quite a good way of marketing. I know, I don’t know if you know, a lady called Rachel Abbott. She’s a UK writer. And she writes, I suppose what is now the big genre, which is psychological thrillers. They’re all first person present tense, and I hate because first person present tense, it just, I can’t read it. But she is now sold about 4 million books. And she claims the only marketing she’s ever done is to post onto Twitter. And when you look at what she does and talk to her, what she does is probably what is totally wrong, because he just posts seven entries that talk about by my book, this is great. Look, I’ve got a new four star review, I’ve got a new five star review. And then about every one in eight, she posts a little bit of negative information about herself. And nowadays, that’s what everybody tells you not to do. But I think she’s built up enough of a following now that she is able to manage that. And so I did Twitter, I did Facebook, I did all sorts of things. And you know what it’s like at the outset you desperate for reviews, and you search for reviews. And it’s only as you become more successful, do you realize that you simply have to sell a lot of books in order to get even a small number of reviews, it’s maybe probably one in 1000, readers might feel strongly enough to send you a review. Unfortunately, probably one in 100 of the people that don’t like your book, feel strongly. One star. That’s my experience. And that it is yeah, I’ve got a stalker who gives me a one star review for every single book I’ve ever written. And it’s just the same two lines. This is a terrible book. Do not read it. I don’t know, these people are just strange on them. So you have to you have to manage to get to those readers and my bro to Damascus occurred when I discovered Facebook advertising. Do you know of guy called Mark Dawson at all? Richard? I do not. You don’t all right. He’s He’s very big in the UK. He’s becoming bigger in the US. He runs. He’s a writer. And he writes thrillers which are quite fast paced. He sells lots of books. So he’s sold a couple of million books. But he has set up a website. And it tells you how to use Facebook advertising effectively, which is what he’s he learned for himself. And it was when I did Mark’s course and started to play around with Facebook advertising that really my sales began to pick up in a major way. I’ve been doing them. I’m just trying to think two years now maybe a little bit longer than two years. And I didn’t start doing much advertising until my third book came out. So as you said, it’s a 10 book series. There are not 10 books yet there are only five and working on the success as we talk on that as we talk. I was working on it for about two minutes before we started to talk. And if you I think a standalone is a really hard sell. And I think it’s easier to write in a series but if you write in a series do not otherwise any sort of really advertising paid advertising in particular until you have at least three books. So I had three books I discovered Facebook advertising a started to experiment without using all of the techniques that Mark Dawson told me about, and just us doing his course saved me, so much trial and error and heartache and probably doing things wrong. And so I tried it for three months, and I lost about 300 pounds, $500 $400, something like that. And I didn’t regard it as a failure. I regarded it as a learning process. So I, I stopped my adverts completely, I sat down for another two or three months and worked out and went back to Mike’s course, and try to work out what I was doing wrong. And I found that what I should have been doing right was orange. Which is sounds strange. But what I’ve discovered is that orange adverts on Facebook work really well. So every one of my adverts from that point on has a hint of orange to it. Because what you’re trying to do with the adverts is stop people in their tracks. They’re scrolling through Facebook, and they’re looking for posts of pictures of puppies and cats and, and people falling over and all sorts of things. And you have to grab their attention in probably a 10th of a second at most. And what I’ve found is something quite broad, quite saturated catches people’s attention. And they are curious enough then to read the words that you’re posting. So I went back and I find it about orange by mistake. By the way. It’s wasn’t anything particularly designed, I created an advert and it was simply a guy, a silhouette of a guy on horseback with a sword in his hand riding out of the sunset with a castle behind because I read historical mysteries, it seemed to be quite good. And some clever person posted You do realize this as Edinburgh Castle, don’t you? And he’s got nothing to do. And I said, Oh yeah, but that does. Yeah, it works. So. But anyway, I did that advert and almost immediately, I started to get results from it. So my sales went from couple of sales a week to 10 a week. And then 20 a week, and then so on and so on. And over time you, you can refine what you’re doing, and you learn what works, what doesn’t work. And you have to kind of play around with it. But basically, I’m a very lazy individual. So I don’t spend terribly long on this. I know some people that will spend probably half of their days, playing around with their adverts, and doing various things. So that worked for me. So I went, as I said from selling a couple of books a week, and currently selling roughly 100 a day now, and my income has gone from basically nothing to a living wage. So even though I’m retired, we have not touched any of our pensions yet. So I’m able to make a reasonable living, doing what I love doing. And doing it purely through. The thing to remember is that, as I said before, readers don’t come to you they’re not the readers are out there looking for books to read, and they’re hungry for books to read. But it would be a total fluke, if they came across yours by accident. So you have to place your product in front of people, right? And make them intrigued enough to click through and look. And so that’s that’s what I was lucky enough to do. And then I moved into a trade Twitter ads, they didn’t work. I try I use Amazon ads quite extensively, both in the US and the UK. And they are quite good because they’re cheap, they’re a lot cheaper than Facebook. If you put a $20 a day budget into Facebook, it will it will spend $21 or $22. If you put a $10 a day budget into Amazon, you’re lucky if they’ll spend the dollar. And so that’s the difference between the two. And Amazon ads are beginning. I think they’re getting their act together more and they’re becoming more and more effective as time goes on. And maybe as Facebook ads become less attractive to authors, it’s something that to move into. I’ve got a good friend who writes cozy mysteries set in England. And we talk all the time. And I said to her don’t advertise until you’re up to three books. He’s now got five I think or six. And she started doing Amazon ads. And she is now doing as well as I am simply through using Amazon advertising. And she’s doing really, really well and so I’m quite pleased for her not jealous at all, but please.
Richard Lowe 14:40
All right, that’s cool. What’s your biggest challenge as an author, how you deal with it?
David Penny 14:45
They said well, not to try not to repeat myself. The biggest challenge of any author is how the hell do I sell my books, but as an author itself, lots of things. As I said I was lucky enough to have or novels when I was relatively young a few years ago, I went back to my publisher and asked them if I could get the rights reverted to me. And and to republish them again. And they said, Yes, your because obviously, they’ve been out of print for years and years and years. And there was no problem with that. So I got them back. And I didn’t actually have a copy of every single one of those books, but I bought some off Amazon secondhand, and read them and thought, Oh, my God, no, I can’t possibly publish this under Magne. They were truly, truly awful. And so I thought, I have to do something else, you know. But the challenges come with, with learning how to do that properly. And when I was young, there were no, there were no resources to tell you how to write a book, you sat down, you had it, I had an old manual typewriter, that was quite a physical thing to wrestle with. And you wrote the books, and you use TBEX, to paint out all the mistakes you’d hate. And if there were more than a few on a page, you’ve got went and retype the page, and so on. And it’s amazing when you think back how you could actually create a novel under those circumstances, because it was remarkably difficult to do. And it’s so easy. So there are challenges, but one of the challenges we don’t have any more is, we can just use a word processor. And write into any mistakes we make. You just use the backspace key or you you go over the word. And it’s telling you when you’ve got spelling mistakes, and quite often it will tell you if you’ve got grammar mistakes. So one of the challenges early on is to learn what all those tools are, and what works for you and what doesn’t. But my biggest challenge was to learn about structure of a novel. I think having read my stream of consciousness books, when I was younger, I realized that I needed to learn how a book is structured, how a plot is made. And so I went out, and I’ve got a couple of shelves of books here. And they’re just how to write a book, you know, all the trigger points you have. And do you know Blake Snyder’s save the capital, Richard? No, I don’t. All right. Great book it. It’s designed for screenplays, but it is a fantastic book. And it tells you how to write a story that people will want to use. And so you have you know, all the trigger points you have and the beat points that you have to meet. And so I went ahead and do that. So my biggest challenge was really how to learn how to write a book that people would want to read, and how to get that across and to, and to do it. But that because I ran an IT company for many years, lots of the things that many people struggle with these days, such as formatting, and working with websites to upload the books and doing various other things. I find that relatively straightforward. But again, the challenge has changed because when I started out, you have to produce HTML, and then compile that up, and then send it up to Amazon. Now I use a piece of software called vellum. And it simply takes a Word document, and you press a button and it produces a beautifully formatted ebook. And the latest iteration of that also produces a beautifully formatted PDF, ready to upload for print on demand. So it’s, it’s this thing of the challenges are finding the information out when it’s always the same. If you don’t know something, it’s really difficult to do and it is a challenge. Once you know it, it becomes remarkably easy.
Richard Lowe 18:54
Does that vellum? Convert a Word document into something to upload to Kindle?
David Penny 18:59
Yeah, yeah, if you have a Word doc, and you import it directly into vellum, it understands chapters and so it numbers in chapter 123 all the way through. Even if you don’t have a chapter headings on the Word doc, it takes each page break and creates it as a chapter. Okay. You then it’s got styles built in. And so you do and then you press and you can say what do I want so I can produce the pub generic ePub ePub for Apple, mobi, Kobo, whatever format you might want to produce is that directly which you just then upload to your platform. And it’s got this new setting that will produce a PDF ready for uploading to print on demand. And that used to take me I’m a bit of a spreadsheet a bit of a control freak, actually, Richard and so I have a spreadsheet that tells me exactly when my book is going to come out. So this one I’m doing now should be the end of November. All things I’m going right. And my spreadsheet used to contain two weeks when I took my Word doc and it took it into InDesign, Adobe’s InDesign to format it to put it on to a physical printed book. Now vellum does that in about two seconds. So that’s a much much quicker way of doing it and so much easier. And it actually looks just as good as it ever did. And it is really easy to go back and you know, you all books, you find mistakes, and even traditionally published books everyone you read, I don’t know, if you’re the same, you will find the odd gotcha, you know, a spelling mistake or a transposed word or character. And I could use, yeah, it does, yeah, with the best will in the world, you know, you, you use editors and proofreaders and copy editors. And there’s all something always gets through. So it’s just easy, I go back into the vellum file now. Make the change, fix it, recompile it and then upload it back onto the various platforms. And it’s just so easy to do, which is one advantage of being an indie that you have that level of control. There’s a Trad published author you wouldn’t get.
Richard Lowe 21:12
Well, that’s actually leading into a question I was going to ask you is, you’ve been a traditional author and an indie author, like you like being an indie author better. Why is that besides what you just said? Yeah.
David Penny 21:25
As I said, when I came back to writing, I made a deliberate choice to go indie. I was arrogant enough to believe that my writing was good enough to go and get an agent. And it would be good enough to be taken on by a traditional publisher. Fortunately, I didn’t have to prove that theory. But I knew from experience that if I went that way, it would take me at least 18 months before I saw what I had written in print. And that felt like too long a hiatus. I could have gone on and written another book, but you would probably want to get at least one out before you commit to that. And so one of the things I like about being an indie is I’m I have total control over whatever I do. And I am master of my own destiny. I’m not at anyone else’s beck and call. In addition, going indie, I get 70% of the proceeds of Sunday, I got back from over here we have a very big crime festival. That is the Harrogate crime Festival. It’s set in the middle of it in the north of England. And big writers come there. This year, there was Lee Child, John Grisham loads and loads of people who you know, but 100 authors attend the panels, and maybe four or 500 people or more attend the event as a whole. And I know a lot of people there now and the traditionally published authors are earning significantly less per book than I am. They might they might be selling more print copies, more physical properties, or copies. And to be honest, you asked me earlier about challenges. One of the big challenges in Indian indie is how do you sell into bookstores?
Richard Lowe 23:17
And that is something I’ve still not worked out. It’s a bit better than it was but not much. I have not gotten a lot of either.
David Penny 23:30
Now, to be honest, I make less on a print sale than an ebook. Yeah, I think it’s quite it’s quite. That helps. It is. Yeah, it is. And I think it’s something that a lot of indie struggle with what I did discover, well, we’re had fortuitous meeting three years ago at Harrogate again, I met a lady who is a buyer for the library service in part of England. And she goes there every year to to discover new authors. And we just got to chatting and she said, I like the sound of your books. And so she bought some. And she says I’m now the library’s most popular author. Her little old ladies who come in once a you know, several times a week because they just read and read and read. Think my books are wonderful. But the weird thing is she says, they, they have a vision of exactly what my main character looks like, that doesn’t match what I have in my own head. It’s totally wrong, but I’m quite happy for them to have their own idea of what it looks like. Because when you read, it’s your book, isn’t it? It’s not the author’s book, of course. It’s what you create in your own head.
Richard Lowe 24:44
And how do you how do you get into a creative mood?
David Penny 24:49
Right. I hear okay, I sit at the keyboard and I put these headphones on They play really loud rock music, or trance music, dance music, you know, the sort of thing you’d go and hear at a disco at 4am in the morning, which is what my son does. He’s a DJ and he gives only plays at 4am in the morning. Most people can’t write to music, but I found it turns off my critical thought process. And the when I said, trance music or dance music, that’s exactly what it is. I can’t wait when the writing is going really well. I’m not thinking about it. And there was a guy at Harrogate this year. And he the guy called Don Winslow wins Winslow Winslow, really, he’s a writers writer. And he said, when I look at my books, and the best passages are the ones that cannot remember writing. And that’s what I’m doing. When I try to get into the mood, I’m trying to turn off my I’m trying to become a conduit for the words, which I know are in there somewhere. But it’s like meditation in a way, in a way isn’t it that you have to turn off your critical mind, because I think a lot of writers are too critical of what they’re putting down. So I’m a big believer in writing really fast for a first draft. So I will, I will do a minimum of 2000 words a day. Sometimes I’ll do 10,000 words a day, if it’s really going well. And I will get a first draft done without really reading any of it again, until I get to the end. And then I will go back and fix all the mistakes and the typos and misspellings and, and the inconsistencies where a character has blue eyes in one scene and green in another. Alright. And but it was it Hemingway said you should write drunk, edit sober. It’s a bit like that, you know, it’s almost a turning yourself your mind off, you know, the Craig, I’m probably different. Maybe everybody’s different. And so I’m sure there are writers out there who are very careful and very considered in what they put on the page. But that’s not me. But however, in order to do that, I have to start with a detailed plot outline. So that’s one of the things I do know that I never used to do, I will most of my outlines are about 20,000k in length. And most of my books come in at about 100,000. So I’m creating a fifth fifth of the output is going down on once I start that is always going to change characters Cropper. This one I’m writing in the moment has changed probably more than anything I’ve ever done yet. And you just have to go with that and realize that your heart difficultly crafted outline is nothing more than a rough skeleton on which you’re putting the clay to create a sculpture if you like. And you have to accept it’s gonna go awry. But But if without that outline, I couldn’t even start.
Richard Lowe 28:17
I understand. Yeah, I use voice dictation to write.
David Penny 28:20
Do you? Yeah, that’s interesting. You like that? Do you Richard?
Richard Lowe 28:24
I can do 15,000 words a day.
David Penny 28:27
Wow, I’ve got Dragon Dictate. And I tried and tried and tried to use it and failed dismally. My mind doesn’t work that way.
Richard Lowe 28:37
You do have to kind of hit your head with a brick first. It’s very
David Penny 28:42
that’s what yeah, that’s what I saw. I keep thinking that I will go back to it one day, and I never have because I can I can produce what I want to produce at the speed I’m content with. By using my fingers. I don’t, I’m a pretty do about 60 characters a minute 60 words a minute. And that’s that’s fast enough for me. I can kind of type the speed at which I think what I found with Dragon is that I can’t think fast enough to be any faster than typing. And it’s weird.
Richard Lowe 29:15
It is weird. It takes a different. Yes.
David Penny 29:19
I know lots and lots of lots of people that do do use dictation and they think it is a great way of doing it. And you are more productive. I’m sure
Richard Lowe 29:28
it did take me a while to figure out how to do it though because you definitely have to think a little different kind of twist your mind. You’re a member of the the Alliance for independent authors. Ally for sure if you have any comments about them.
David Penny 29:45
Ally we want to ally Well, one of the things that really made a huge difference to me when I was starting out because number of reasons. First one is it’s a really safe environment because they have a car Those will they have a website and have a blog post, but have a closed Facebook group. So you can go in there and you can ask any question and however stupid it sounds, you will not get leapt upon by loads of trolls who are saying, Oh, you’re an idiot, who don’t you know that? And everybody, people will come forward, they will say, yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s easy to do. This is all you have to do. And so it’s a great resource for that. And I’m glad to say that I don’t have to ask many questions now. But I like it for it’s it’s pushing forward the agenda for writers as a whole. So they’ve got lots of things that they’re talking about. One of them is we talked about getting printed books into book shops, they have a thing called How, how to get your books into bookstores, lots of other bits and pieces that they’re pushing. They’re talking to they’re currently about to talk to Amazon with a list of concerns that ally members have put forward. They want some sort of answer to because you know what, Amazon lets proprietary information. Oh, it says my internet connection is unstable. So hopefully, that’s going to be okay. And it’s very difficult to I’ll turn my phone off completely, and then that might improve it. It’s very difficult to get a solid answer from Amazon, about where they’re doing things, you’ve probably seen about people complaining that reviews, all of their reviews have been taken down. And there’s this thing about gaming the system, but they won’t tell you what the rules that you have to adhere to, they will just take your account down if they think you’ve done it wrong. So Allah is is going to Amazon and Amazon have invited them there to put forward the concerns of all of these writers. And then the other thing I like about it is they have partner members. And so I can’t really what my ally subscription is, because I never think about it, but it’s about $90 a year, something like that. And partner members offer discounts to ally members. And so I save my ally membership probably four or five times over every year simply by the discounts that I get from being a member of that organization. So it’s very good.
Richard Lowe 32:29
Interesting. Okay. No, I think we’ve had a good discussion today, the the band bandwidth is definitely causing this to be weird, but that’s okay. Any closing arguments or closing things you want to say?
David Penny 32:44
Only only advice to people who may be starting out that if you want to be a writer, there is only one way to do it. And that is to write, to sit down and to whatever your your preferences, I know people who like to write with a fountain pen, or people who like you who like to dictate or people who are keyboard agnostic or whatever. And so you cannot create anything unless you practice it. And to accept that it is both an art and a craft. I think you can learn the craft of writing, but is more difficult to learn is the art of writing. But I’ve accepted I’m a craftsman and an artist. And so that’s what I want. And it’s also that’s the thing that can be easily improved. Whereas you cannot you cannot invent creativity. You either got it or you haven’t. So sit down all new writers sit down and write and write lots and write rubbish. And then realize it is rubbish and work out how to improve it. And then right good.
Richard Lowe 33:55
Well, very good. I’ve been talking to David Penny. And be sure to subscribe to this channel. We’ll have more videos out. I’m trying to do two a week. And enjoy. Thank you, David.
David Penny 34:07
Thank you, Richard. Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
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