It’s a terrible cliché, beloved of X Factor contestants, to compare one’s career to a rollercoaster. But that’s exactly what mine has been like: a ride with a very long, slow, uneventful build up, followed by a dizzying and frankly scary series of plummets, ascents and loop-the-loops.
I spent my twenties writing novels and submitting the first three chapters of each one to agents and publishers. If I hadn’t almost immediately attracted a few nibbles from interested agents I might have given up quickly. But after writing three novels (terrible, slightly better, pretty good) I finally landed an agent and was convinced that this was it. After half a decade trying, I was going to get the book deal I’d always dreamt of.
It didn’t happen. My agent couldn’t sell that novel, or the next one or even the one after that. I spent a lot of time despairing. Then, in 1999, the BBC decided to make a documentary about aspiring writers, foolishly thinking it would make good telly. They filmed me reading out excerpts from my rejection letters, my pain and disappointment broadcast to an unimpressed nation. I still didn’t get a book deal, but received an email from another aspiring writer who was in the same situation. Her name was Louise Voss.
Louise and I became pen pals – or email buddies – and didn’t meet until she invited me to her birthday party two years later. By this time, Louise had a mega-bucks deal and I was still locked outside the publishing party. One night in 2002, while quite drunk, we came up with the idea for a co-written novel: a thriller written from the points of view of a stalker and his victim. We called it Killing Cupid and I was convinced we would find a publisher, especially as the book was optioned by the BBC before we’d finished it. But it didn’t happen. They all said that it wasn’t quite enough of a thriller or enough of a black comedy. It was that thing publishers hate: a novel that’s hard to categorise. And then the TV option led nowhere.
A few years later, after I’d written two or three more solo novels, we decided to have another go. This time we would write a more straightforward, action-packed thriller. So we wrote Catch Your Death. By this time, Louise had lost her book deal and her agent had retired. We sent Catch to a number of agents but none of them took us on. I even sent it to my old agent – who had dumped me shortly after the TV documentary – who rejected it with a single line: “Just not good enough.”
So I gave up. This was 2006. I had a good job by this point, was starting to have children. I couldn’t take the rejection any more, the endless hope, all those hours spent in front of a screen with nothing to show for it except a pile of yellowing manuscripts.
This is the point where the rollercoaster trundles up to the first ascent. In 2010, my girlfriend bought me a Kindle. Around the same time, I read about some writers in America who were having success self-publishing via Amazon’s KDP platform. Some of them had even gone on to get traditional book deals. ‘We should do that,’ I suggested to Louise. She wasn’t keen. She was sure we wouldn’t sell any, that it would be embarrassing. But I persuaded her and we spent the next few months re-writing and updating Killing Cupid.
We self-published it in February 2011. As Louise predicted, on day one we sold two copies: one to my boss, another to my mother-in-law. But I quickly became obsessed with trying to sell more copies and spent the next few months working like a man possessed, doing everything I could think of to promote it. My girlfriend was pregnant with our second child and it’s fair to say that I neglected her, spending hours every evening writing blog posts, posting on forums, networking and also re-writing Catch Your Death, readying it for publication.
It was easier back then for self-published writers to break through and by early May, Killing Cupid had entered the top 100 on Amazon.co.uk. Louise and I were excited. I had become a KDP addict, checking the sales figures all the time, like a rat pressing a lever hoping for a pellet. We released Catch in mid May. This was our more commercial book and we had high hopes.
Suddenly, the rollercoaster shot into action. It took me a long time to figure out what had happened, but it seems that Amazon sent an email to the people who had bought Cupid over the previous months and enough of them bought Catch on the same day to send it shooting up the charts. It landed in the top ten. Three days later it was No.1 and Cupid followed it up to No.2.
I was ecstatic. After all those years of getting nowhere, I had not one but two bestsellers. We were even earning some money. We had a crazy few weeks of appearing live on BBC Breakfast, Sky News, Radio 2 and in lots of newspapers. The books remained lodged at the top of the Kindle rankings. Then a few agents contacted us, including one who had previously rejected us. He took us on and within days we signed a four-book deal with HarperCollins.
We thought it would be easy from this point on. HarperCollins planned to release the paperback of Catch Your Death in January 2012. We visited their offices and were met with a champagne reception. We were living the dream. But I experienced the first stirring of foreboding in the meeting afterwards when they told us there was no marketing budget for the book. It seems they thought that the people who’d already bought it on Kindle would rush out to buy it again.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The book’s sales were disappointing, though to be fair to HC they did get it into WHSmith travel and a couple of supermarkets. Killing Cupid was released in August 2012, during the Olympics and at the height of 50 Shades mania when no one was buying anything except erotica. It stiffed. Our third novel, All Fall Down, was published in January 2013. It wasn’t in any shops. We knew HC had given up on us and they told us that it was highly unlikely that our fourth novel, Forward Slash, would be sold anywhere either.
So this was February 2013 and the rollercoaster was stuck somewhere in a pitch-black tunnel. I had gambled by quitting my day job and spent all my advance (which, between two of us, after tax and agent’s commission, wasn’t a huge amount) on a deposit on a cheap house in Wolverhampton. I was at my overdraft limit, credit cards maxed out, a huge tax bill looming and with a third child on the way. The dream was over and I was having sleepless nights.
But I had this novel sitting on my computer called The Magpies. I had originally written it way back in 2000. I only had a copy because I had once emailed it to my girlfriend and she still had it in her inbox. I had been tinkering with it for a long time. I decided to self-publish it. I’d been successful once. Could I do it again? I figured out that if I could sell 20,000 copies at £1.99 I could pay my tax bill and get my head above water. But selling 20,000 copies of any book is hard.
I sold a few hundred copies on launch day to my hardcore fans. Then it started to slip down the rankings. I was despondent. This wasn’t going to work. But on Good Friday 2013 something wonderful happened. Amazon must have sent out an email to my existing readers. The Magpies sold 1000 copies that day and another 1000 the next. It flew up the chart into the top ten. It stayed there for two months, hitting No.1 and selling 150,000 copies over the summer. (It’s now sold almost 300,000 copies.)
I was back. My bacon was saved. And then Amazon Publishing made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Since then, they have published two more of my novels, one of which also reached No.1, and are also publishing my books with Louise. I am finally a full-time writer.
I am constantly amazed that I managed to pull off my comeback. But I still feel as if I’m just starting out and there is a part of me that would still love to see my books in shops, not just on Amazon. But I am doing what I love, writing books, reaching lots of readers and making a living. I’ve had some luck along the way but believe that if you have the talent and determination, it’s possible to be successful. I wish my ride had been smoother, less like a fairground ride, but then it wouldn’t have been half as much fun, would it?
Mark Edwards writes psychological thrillers, including The Magpies and Because She Loves Me, on his own and police procedurals with Louise Voss, including From the Cradle. He lives in Wolverhampton with his young family. His fourth solo novels, Follow You Home, is published on June 30th 2015.
Follow You Home: http://bit.ly/followyouhomeuk