Irish indie author Claire Farrell eschews social media, preferring instead to spend her days writing books she'd want to read. When the recession hit hard, she made writing her full time job. Two years later, her books are selling so well she supports her large family on her writing income. As she told us in the interview below, she writes up to 5,000 words a day. She's a great example of why authors should distribute as widely as possible, keep writing and stay patient because you never know when or where your books will start resonating with readers.
[David Weir] We've noticed how well your books are selling and wanted to ask you to share some of your secrets with our readers. One thing we noticed was that Thirst, the first in your Ava Delaney series, is free. How important has that been to help your subsequent books sell?
[Claire Farrell] The Ava Delaney series didn’t sell anywhere outside of the UK Amazon store for the first few months. When I released the second book, I set the first as free, and that pretty much drew attention to it on various channels. Having a freebie was a huge kickstart into getting noticed, but that was last year, before the massive flood of freebies. My book made it into the top 100 freebie lists on Amazon and Apple (despite its truly awful average rating on Amazon at the time), which was pretty much free advertising. I knew that most people who downloaded the book would likely never read it, but I figured that some of those who were really interested in the genre would probably read it quickly. The emails started coming in that week about the series, and a lot of people would thank me for giving away my book; I was surprised because I was thanking them for taking the time to read it.
[DW] The covers to your books are beautiful and professional-looking in design; how have you achieved that?
[CF] So far, I’ve created the covers to my self-published work myself using Gimp and Photoshop and stock images. My only aim was to create something simple and recognisable. It isn’t the perfect solution, and I’m constantly on the lookout for the right artist to revamp the Ava Delaney series because they aren’t as professional as I would like.
[DW] You also maintain a blog. In what ways has blogging helped build your audience and sell books?
[CF] I’ve slowed down on blogging due to lack of time, but I don’t feel as though blogging helped build an audience. It’s more of a base for people to find me, and it’s less formal than a static website. It’s great for giving quick updates and answering random questions, but I rarely write anything truly serious or meaningful.
[DW] Can you share with us the way your books have taken off in different markets through different distribution channels?
[CF] I wasn’t paying much attention, to be honest. It sort of happened all by itself. I’ve never expected to sell more than a handful of books, but I’ve been publishing a series, and I think that’s probably the most important thing I did. I know that the majority of readers who contact me directly are those who found my books on Apple or Barnes & Noble. I know that having a freebie was massively important. I believe Apple have featured my books on the genre pages, and that probably helped, but I’m not sure how, other than one being a freebie, my books are being found anywhere else.
[DW] How important has Smashwords' Premium Catalog been to your books' success?
[CF] At first, I thought it would be useful to price match Thirst to a freebie. And it was. If I look at this as a business, availability and content are ranked right up there in importance, and I couldn’t upload directly to any of those retailers, so the Premium Catalog was a boon. But living in Europe made me fully aware of the additional benefits of having books as widely distributed as possible. At the time I began publishing, Irish people (and others) were charged an extra couple of dollars to buy a book which took a lot of impulse buys out of the equation. Smashwords alone was the perfect solution. Apple recently began selling modern ebooks in the Irish iBookstore, which was another avenue that excited me, but they also regularly feature self-published books. Their customers seem to be avid readers who enjoy low priced books and frequent releases. Barnes & Noble seem to do their own thing, but lately they’ve been chasing Amazon’s tail in terms of sales. I don’t sell much on the other channels, but I see the potential there—Kobo in particular.
[DW] What is your view of Amazon's KDP Select (exclusive) program and whether it will help or harm authors in the future?
[CF] Exclusivity can and will work very well for some writers. Especially in the early stages when the full force of interest is behind it. I can see why writers are tempted, and I know some people have blown up using Select, but I couldn’t imagine taking my books down from other channels. I have a series, so it would be a bit cheeky to take future books away from the people who have been reading all along, just because they don’t shop at a certain place. As a reader, it wouldn’t make me happy, but we all have big decisions to make.
On another level, it has taken me almost two years to sell books at the distribution channels. It happened almost overnight in the end, so you never know when luck will be in your favour. I don’t sell a massive amount of books compared to the well-known names, but I’m proof that you don’t have to. I’m thrilled about my progress so far, and I hate to think what I might have missed out on if I chose Select.
[DW] So when did you start writing?
[CF] I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Always. Before I could write, I would draw pictures and make up stories in my head about them. I let it fall by the wayside in my late teens for a number of reasons, and I regret that, but times changed. In 2010, a couple of weeks before my 27th birthday, I was pregnant with our fifth child and preparing to upload a book for the first time.
The recession had already struck bad. There had only been one Borders here, but my partner worked there contractually. The first company who employed him there had been liquidated, and people were losing their jobs everywhere. Borders was eventually shut down, and my partner was promised work by an English company, but things got so bad that they couldn’t afford to set up in Ireland again. We were pretty much screwed, and for the first time in years, there was no work out there.
We had both been born in harder times, and we had grown up through the boom. The pop was bound to happen, but we still weren’t prepared. We were surviving, but with four kids and another on the way, I needed more than surviving on benefits. I researched the heck out of anything I could do, and I began hearing about self-publishing ebooks. That kicked off the writing buzz again. I had to do something, and I finally began to see writing as a viable option. I feel like I truly started writing in the last two years, and we’re not screwed anymore.
[DW] Did you receive any special encouragement from anyone along the way?
[CF] Teachers in my primary school went out of their way to make a big deal of me writing stories. They gave me hope that I could do something that would make me happy. Obviously, my partner has been the most encouraging person. Without him, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to give it a real chance. I have five kids, including twins, under the age of eight. He wouldn’t voluntarily put up with them every morning if he didn’t believe in me. ;)
[DW] When did you realize you have a talent that resonates with readers?
[CF] I’ve never thought of it in those terms. I write what’s in my heart and head, and I hope for the best. There’s an audience for everything, and I’ve been lucky enough to find some readers who are open to the stories I share.
[DW] Did you try conventional publishing before turning to indie platforms like Smashwords?
[CF] No. It has never appealed to me. I don’t believe I have the temperament suited to it, and I don’t believe I write suitable books either. The indie scene was perfect for me. I don’t think either method is right or wrong, and I think the most success will probably be had by combining both, but neither are suitable for everyone out there. Both are hard work in different ways, and some of us are suited to one than the other.
[DW] You live in Ireland -- how important is your country in your writing, as in providing a specific sense of place?
[CF] I try not to rely on setting too much. I’m sometimes told I’m doing it wrong, but I skim descriptions when I’m reading, so I try not to dwell on them while writing. I prefer to let readers find their own world in the story. I’ve always wanted to write a world that anyone could step inside, no matter their circumstances. Because some people have asked more about the locations, I did use Pinterest to share actual pictures of places mentioned, but some readers weren’t happy about me ruining their own vision, which was actually kind of cool. In a non-descriptive sense, I believe Ireland, or at least, Dublin, is very present within the writing. I don’t live in a pretty place, and I think it translates in the writing. Also, the Irishisms. No editor will ever manage to clean my manuscript of the slang.
[DW] Do you have a sense of your audience, their demographics and where they are based?
[CF] There’s a good mix with UK and US readers taking the biggest shares—and yes, I use British English. Most are probably female, but it isn’t something I focus on.
[DW] You characterize some of your books as "romantic paranormal suspense." What key elements make a good novel of this type work?
[CF] I generally call the Ava books "urban fantasy." It’s a pretty broad term, but I can’t think of anything more appropriate. For me, the most important element in any novel is the characterisation. If people can relate to the characters, then they are likely to care to stay with them until the end. And I have to care about the characters to write about them.
[DW] Do you recommend any particular length?
[CF] I enjoy writing shorter pieces, but every audience is different. With so many people reading on smaller devices, short is great. It feels good to finish a story, especially when you don’t have much time to read. I think we’re finally getting back to a point where length isn’t necessarily a judgment on the value of a story.
[DW] Can you describe your writing process, i.e., how much time you spend each day, whether you write from a pre-formed plan or rather more freestyle?
[CF] I’m not a great planner, although I’ve discovered that writing a series can be a lot easier if you prepare a vague sort of outline at the very least. My writing process is a little frantic. I go into hermit mode and write until it’s done. My partner has been able to give up his search for work in order to help me find the time. My first drafts are probably more like incredibly detailed outlines, but for me, that’s a lot easier. I write a lot because I enjoy. I love first draft writing. My current “schedule” is 5,000 words a day, but I don’t publish everything I write. The editing takes so much longer (partly because you’re relying on other people’s help) that there just isn’t enough time right now because I’m focusing so much on my series. I don’t write every single day, but while a book is out with beta readers or an editor or proofreader, I focus on writing something new.
[DW] Do you have other advice for others who might hope to replicate your lead and follow their own dreams to write and publish?
[CF] I write books I want to read.
I haven’t aspired to be one of the top sellers. I didn’t have a backlist to publish. You probably won’t notice me on Facebook or Twitter. Most people will never remember my name, and I’m not part of any indie group. I just plod along, doing my own thing—right or wrong. I didn’t even tell my family I was publishing for a long time. I’ve probably never been in the top 2000 on Amazon, or top 500 on Barnes & Noble, but I’m supporting my rather large family right now, and that’s what matters to me. I’ve no idea how many books I’ve sold, and I think too many people get stuck on the numbers and rankings, but it’s more important that readers are satisfied if you want long-term results. You don’t have to be in the top 100. Making a living from fiction isn’t an impossible dream. I’m not the greatest writer, I don’t have the best covers, and I don’t have a platform. I’m not trying to write anything profound, but I write about things I care about and wrap them up in a world a reader can hopefully get lost in.
It’s taken a long time for my books to stand on their own two feet, but I’ve been too busy writing new stories to notice. That’s probably the key. Having a freebie (before Select) helped boost the series, but releasing new content has kept readers with me. The only advice I can give anyone is to be patient and dedicated, and find your audience. Keep writing, keep working on improving your craft, and treat people with respect. Don’t be afraid to take chances. Not every book has a huge market, but that’s okay. Not everyone can take the same path, so you find your own. The only true failure is in giving up.
[DW] Thanks, Claire!
Smashwords distributes Claire Farrell to the following ebook stores:
Barnes & Noble
Diesel eBook Store
David Weir is a veteran journalist who has published three books and hundreds of articles in various publications, including The Economist, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. He currently covers technology for 7x7.com.