Making a Living as a Writer in the 21st Century

Last Thursday I spoke at an event in Belfast organized by LitNetNI, Making a Living as a Writer in the 21st Century, along with Eoin Purcell of Irish Publishing News and author Carlo Gébler. (If you are one of the lovely people I met that day, well hello there! Remember to drink coffee while simultaneously reading this blog for maximum effect.)

My presentation was called ‘A Year in the Life of Catherine, Caffeinated’ because I wanted to show how in the space of a year, I’ve gone from making nothing as a writer to making a (very modest!) living as one, and have done it using free resources available to everyone. You can download the full presentation here, but this is basically what I said.

In February 2010 my income from writing was nothing.

(Strictly speaking it was actually a little bit less than that because I have a stationery shopping problem and need no excuse for stockpiling Post-Its, clicky pens and all the other items I imagine I need for writing.)

What could I do to change this? Excluding any money-making schemes I didn’t have total control over (such as waiting by the phone for a publisher to call), I could:

  • Start a blog
  • Use the blog and social media to build an audience
  • If nothing else, an established “author platform” would at least improve my chances of getting traditionally published
  • Self-publish Mousetrapped, the non-fiction book I’d tried to get published.

So the first thing I did was start a blog. (Or rather, start a proper blog. I’d previously been blogging here, but not very well.)

I came here to Word Press, took a free blog, a free theme and paid $17 to upgrade to a customized URL (

It’s very important to give your blog a name other than your own, unless your name is Stephen King or JK Rowling. A lot of people – myself included – find new blogs to read by perusing other people’s blog rolls, and we don’t have the time or inclination to click through each one to see what it’s about or if it’s something interesting. This is where naming your blog becomes important, because I am far more likely to click on, say, High Heels and Book Deals, than Jane Doe’s Blog.

As for content, I posted about:

  • Self-printing. I chronicled the entire story of my self-publishing adventures, warts and all, here on my blog
  • Novely. Posts about writing. Things like ‘How To Make a Novel Bible’, helpful How To  books and NaNoWriMo
  • Book Reviews. Um, the clue is in the title.
  • Miscellaneous. Personal blog posts, funny writing-related videos, coffee and news.

Then I needed to send people to that blog. A website is not a shop window that even if you do nothing someone will eventually stroll past. If you tell no one it’s there, you could potentially have a website that is never visited by anyone at all. You need to send people to it.

  • Twitter. Fun, supportive and useful. What more could you want? Put your blog URL in your Twitter bio, set up your blog so links to your new posts are tweeted automatically and make Twitter friends who are sometimes, against their better judgement, interested in reading something you have to say in a format longer than 140 characters. My Twitter page is here.

  • Facebook fan page. This is entirely different to a Facebook profile, where people ‘friend’ you. People will – hopefully! – ‘like’ your fan page. Setting one of these up is worthwhile because it captures the attention of people already using the platform and can target specific groups, e.g. Disney fans for Mousetrapped. Post links to relevant blog posts on your page’s wall. My Facebook fan page is here.
  • Contests and giveaways, like my coffee contest.
  • Other blogs. Blogging is a community. You’ll get out of it as much as you put in. Read other blogs, leave comments, get to know other bloggers and make blogging friends. Make things easier for yourself by using Google Reader which delivers all new posts from the blogs you’ve chosen to follow to one place each day. Add your favorite blogs to your blog roll (see bottom right sidebar for mine). Eventually when you get to know other bloggers you can do guest posts on their blogs and they can do guest posts on yours, thus building your blog readership.

So now I had a blog and people were reading it. Now I needed to let them know that I had a book for sale.

In a nice way. I cannot stress the ‘nice’ bit enough; the quickest way to fail at this is to be a shameless self-promoter. You know the way you feel when you accidentally answer the phone to a cold caller trying to sell you something you don’t need or want? Well, why would anyone read your blog or follow your Twitter account if that’s all they felt while they were there? Rule number 1 is always be nice.

On my blog:

  • Self-printing posts, as above.
  • Mousetrapped Mondays. Whereas the self-printing posts were not directly promoting my book, I did do things like post videos and pictures, and other more obvious advertising. So as not to leave a bitter taste in my blog readers’ collective nose, I confined these posts to Mondays which then became ‘Mousetrapped Mondays’. This went on for a few weeks, and then I released Mousetrapped on a Monday to complete the cycle.

On other blogs:

  • Guests posts. Some blogging friends invited me to write posts about self-publishing or other aspects of my experience.
  • Reviews and interviews. I made about 20 copies of my book available to book bloggers. Some of them not only posted reviews but also interviewed me or arranged a giveaway of a copy.

On Twitter:

  • I did the same on Twitter, confining promotional tweets to about 3-5 a week, and all on the same together. I used the hashtag ‘#mousetrappedmonday” to identify these.

On Facebook:

  • Cross-linked ‘Mousetrapped Monday’ blog posts
  • Gave family and friends an opportunity to help advertise (or have no excuse not to!) my book
  • I asked readers to send in pictures of themselves reading the book, and uploaded them in an album called ‘Look Who’s Reading Mousetrapped.’

I also made two video book trailers, which you can watch here, and signed up for an Amazon Author page (through Author Central) and a Goodreads profile.

When blogging, remember that most people who read your blog posts will NOT be reading them on your blog. They might browse them on a blog reading application like Google Reader (and so are only seeing plain text) or in ‘mobile view’ on their phone. Therefore it’s always vital to put something at the end of the post like, ‘if you want to read more about this topic…’ or ‘click here to read more about this book…’ so wherever the reader is, they still have an option to read more if they want. Also, you have no idea where your blog posts might end up, so always behave professionally.

Some other things I did:

There’s more detailed information about this area in the following blog posts:

So I had established all the main components of an online platform, but what if by some slim chance someone first heard about Mousetrapped from the book itself? It saves me a lot of trouble, yes, but don’t I still want to bring that person into my online existence? Yes, of course, because somewhere down the line there’ll be another book, and I’ll want to tell them about it. That means connecting the physical book to our online presence.

To do this I:

  • Did something very simple: printed the links to my blog, Twitter account and Facebook fan page in the back of the book. This works really well in e-books, as the links are live and can be clicked on instantly.
  • Created a dedicated book site, aimed at readers who had already finished the book and wanted to learn more
  • Gave readers an incentive to go online and look me up. I used Mail Chimp (another free service) to sign up readers to a mailing list who, from the end of the next month, will receive a new ‘More Mousetrapped’ story once a month for a year. These will be short episodes of things that didn’t make it into the book, or related things that have happened since.

This also feeds into my long-term plan. Yes, I’ve built a readership, but I’m connected to them through social media platforms which may or may not last. If Twitter disappeared tomorrow, how would I contact my 1,000+ followers? The short answer is I couldn’t. Therefore your goal should always be to collect e-mail addresses. I don’t mean this in an evil sense, where you collect emails and then sell them to a third party or spam them with offers with cheaper prescription drugs. I’m saying that if six months or a year down the line you have another book to sell, you want to let these people know you do. You can also offer added value to your readership by doing things like newsletters, new stories, etc.

NB: Never use email addresses without permission, and always give subscribers the option to unsubscribe. Nobody likes annoying and unwelcome emails, especially when they’re trying to sell you stuff you don’t want at the same time.

How much time does all this take? At the beginning, maybe 1-2 hours a day. At the moment, I stockpile 3-5 blog posts over a couple of hours at the weekend (while simultaneously watching TV) and spend maybe 30 minutes a day maintaining it, like replying to comments, messages, etc.

I started this blog on 1st February 2010 and Mousetrapped went on sale on 29th March 2010. What are the results?

Since 1st February 2010:

  • The blog has had 39,000+ visits
  • I have 1,100+ Twitter followers
  • I have 300+ Facebook followers
  • I’ve sold 3,100 books.

Remember my writing income in February 2010? It was absolutely nothing. Nada. Zero. But just a year later, in February 2011, it will be around €1,700. This comes from book sales (mainly), speaking engagements and feature writing.

A modest income, yes, but still an income. And not bad considering:

  • I don’t have a book contract, the support of a grant or bursary, or any other kind of regular income
  • The book I’m selling is self-published, only available online and mostly sells in an e-book edition priced $2.99
  • My book hasn’t been on sale for a year yet
  • I did it all by myself – and from my desk.

And money isn’t everything. In February 2010, I did nothing but write, blog, tweet, drink huge amounts of coffee and stared out the window. But this month, February 2011, has been very exciting. I have:

You can see all the exciting things I’ve got to do (and how they’ve been increasing in frequency) by looking at my News page.

Some final thoughts:

  • Blogging, tweeting, etc. isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy doing it it can be very easy to do it well.
  • It may not be for you but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s below you. It’s not. You may think that being a writer should be all about scribbling stream-of-consciousness with a pencil in a dark corner of a bohemian Parisian cafe called Pretension and that engaging in social media is selling your literary soul, and you’re entitled to think that. But while you’ve got your head up your arse, I’ll be selling books.
  • Numbers snowball. In the beginning, there may only be a handful of people reading your blog. Keep at it. The results are cumulative: what was five people last week will become ten this week, and twenty the next. And anyway, it’s quality, not quantity.
  • The biggest benefits are the ones you don’t expect. Your email account came become a very exciting place!
  • It won’t affect your writing time if you don’t let it. We’re all grown-ups. We can step away from Twitter, can’t we?
  • I think it’s the best thing I ever did for my writing career and that there’s no reason why it can’t be yours!

So that’s all, folks. If you’re starting out on the whole blogging/Twitter/Facebook thing, good luck!

After a very interesting and fun day at the LitNetNI workshop, Eoin and I made our way over to BBC Radio Ulster where we appeared on Arts Extra, talking about the same topic. You can listen to the show here. We’re on about the 15:15 mark.

Click here to read more of my self-printing posts.

Click here to find out more about Mousetrapped.

132 Launches in 132 Seconds

The Space Shuttle Discovery is currently a couple of hundred miles above the earth kissing the International Space Station and hopefully enjoying its last ever trip into orbit. Discovery is of course very special to me personally because it’s the shuttle I saw launch into space. To commemorate Discovery’s last mission CNN put together this amazing video, 132 Shuttle Launches in 132 Seconds, and the lovely Suzanne sent me a link to it. (Thanks, Suzanne!) WordPress won’t let me embed so you’ll have to click through to watch. Enjoy…

Did You Read? (VIDEO)

If everything has gone to plan, I’m currently on a train somewhere between Belfast and Cork and so not in any position to be blogging anything of substance. I’ll make up for it next week, I promise. In the meantime, I stumbled across this video last weekend which just made me crack up. It definitely fits into the Funny ‘Cause It’s True category…

From the The New Yorker:

“Haven’t we all been in situations where idea-sharing devolves into joyless one-upmanship and cultural bloodsport? (My favorite bit of dialogue? Q: “Did you read that steampunk article in BoingBoing?” A: “I did not like the end of it.”) Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish reading that thing in the Atlantic about artificial intelligence.”

More Radio, A Reminder & Publishing Odds

I’m on Community Radio Youghal* today around 1.30pm with the lovely Shirley Donovan, whom I “met” on Twitter last week. You’ll be able to listen online here, but I totally understand if after the rash of radio interviews over the past week or so, you’re sick of the sound of my voice. However if you’re not, you can listen to some of the other ones I did here.

Just a little reminder: I’m headed to Belfast for LitNetNI’s Making a Living as a Writer in the 21st Century workshop on Thursday (24th), along with Eoin Purcell and Carlo Gebler. I’ll be talking about this, i.e. blogging, and other procrastination activities that have happily become not only acceptable but also, luckily, conducive to selling books. Tickets are £40 and you can register for the event here.

On Tuesdays from now on I’ll be blogging at on my new ‘Double-Spaced’ guest blog. Today’s post is about the odds, and how despite all the foreboding, scaremongering and general negativity that greets the aspiring writer, the odds of your publishing dreams coming true may be better than you think.

“If there’s one thing I hate about this writing game, it’s the odds.

Everyone’s heard them: less than 1% of 1% of 1% etc. etc. of books written get published. The reality is probably even less than that. You are more likely, the experts say, to win the lotto or get struck by lightning than you are to see your novel for sale in Easons. (Excluding you sneaking in there with one you mocked up yourself and slipped on the shelf, of course.) If you were embarking on any other endeavour that had these kinds of odds, you’d think twice about even starting. What would be the point?”

Click here to read the rest of the post on

*If you’re not Irish, Youghal is pronounced y’all. Hearing tourists trying to pronounce it is always a great source of amusement.

What I Thought Of… THE LEOPARD by Jo Nesbo

You may remember that recently the lovely people at Vintage Books sent me an enormous pile of Jo Nesbo books, and this weekend, thanks to being under the weather, I finally got around to reading the newest one: The Leopard.

“In the depths of winter, a killer stalks the city streets. His victims are two young women, both found with twenty-four inexplicable puncture wounds, both drowned in their own blood. The crime scenes offer no clues, the media is reaching fever pitch and the police are running out of options. There is only one man who can help them, and he doesn’t want to be found. Deeply traumatized by The Snowman investigation, which threatened the lives of those he holds most dear, Inspector Harry Hole has lost himself in the squalor of Hong Kong’s opium dens, But with his father seriously ill in hospital, Harry reluctantly agrees to return to Oslo. He has no intention of working on the case, but his instinct takes over when a third victim is found brutally murdered in a city car park. The victims appear completely unconnected to one another, but it’s not long before Harry makes a discovery: the women all spent the night in an isolated mountain hostel. And someone is picking off the guests one by one.”

The Leopard had a lot to live up to, seeing as I rated The Snowman as one of the best – and creepiest – crime thrillers I had ever read. Luckily a lot of the same elements were here: a snowy Scandinavia, a sadistic but smart killer, a labyrinthine plot and, most importantly, the tortured detective Harry Hole, more tortured than ever and at the beginning of the book, hiding in Hong Kong. Throw in a power struggle between Oslo’s police department and the Kripos serious crime unit, a potential love interest for Hole and a father on death’s door, and you have yourself a well above-average clever crime thriller.

But it’s very complicated. Maybe a bit too much. The plot takes in three continents, events from four or five decades and a cast of characters that I would have struggled to keep track of even if I’d taken the time to keep a list. There was a map of Oslo printed at the beginning of the book – something that I, as a reader, have never understood or as much as glanced at; surely there’s no need unless the novel’s terrain is fictional? – but it might have been more helpful if there was a list of the cast. And at 600+ pages, this crime thriller lost a bit of its page-turning appeal just because there was so many pages to get through, far more than I’d expect for a novel of this genre.

Don’t get me wrong: I did like it, and I’ll still find the time to read Nesbo’s backlist and look out for new titles of his in the future. But by the time I got down to the last 50 to 100 pages, it was hard to care about who the killer was or why they were killing; my head was swimming with all the threads, and it became a chore to hold them all together.

Coincidentally, would you believe that this isn’t the first crime novel I’ve read featuring a tortured detective called Harry who doesn’t play by the rules, drinks and smokes, listens to Mile Davis and ends up in Hong Kong’s Chunking Mansions? Bosch also had a wander around there in Michael Connelly’s Nine Dragons. How weird is that?!

Click here to buy The Leopard from The Book Depository with free shipping worldwide.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

The ISBN Zone


One area of this whole self-publishing, Print On Demand, e-book thing that seems to still be mired in confusion is the whole question of ISBNs. I myself am still confused about it, so let’s see if we can work it out all, shall we? I’ve mined the magical interweb for the answers to my ISBN questions, but they aren’t always presented in the most straight-forward way. So if you know anything better, or can confirm or correct, please do let me know in the comments below.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. This 10 or 13 digit numerical identifier helps catalogue, track and, um, identify various editions of books.

Although not legally required, in order for your book to be distributed and sold through the same channels as a ‘properly’ published book, you need to have one. It normally appears on the copyright page and above the barcode on the back of the book.

And we have W.H. Smith to thank for them. Who knew?

Peter Paranoia

An ISBN normally appears alongside the copyright notice, but it has nothing to do with ownership. The main purpose of an ISBN is to identify, whereas copyright serves to protect.

As long as the self-publishing service you use operates a non-exclusive agreement (and it should), you have nothing to worry about with regards to ownership or your rights. For example: if you take a free ISBN from Createspace, they own the ISBN (and so you can’t use it with anyone else) but they do not own your work.

I have seen countless self-publishers get their independent knickers in a right twist over ISBNs, and while some concern (however unfounded) over the ownership of your work is perfectly natural, being wildly paranoid about scenarios that have about as much chance of transpiring as I do of getting an urge to run a marathon (or anything, or anywhere) is just plain crazy.

So stop worrying about what whether or not taking a free ISBN will affect your future Universal Studios movie rights/NBC sitcom development deal contract negotiations and come back and join the rest of us in the real world – where we’re selling books.

ISBNs and Createspace

Createspace, the Print On Demand arm of Amazon, offer self-publishers four ISBN options:

  1. A free ISBN. Createspace will be your publisher of record, although ‘Createspace’ won’t appear anywhere in your book unless you put it there, but it will appear on your Amazon (and other) listings. This is what I did, and what I recommend you do – especially if you’re only going to be publishing a book or two. This is the lowest cost, fewest headaches way to self-print, and that’s the only way I’m for.
  2. A custom ISBN ($10 and US residents only). You get to choose the publisher of record, i.e. make up your own publishing house name, and although with this option your book won’t be eligible for inclusion in the Libraries and Academic Institution distribution channels, you’re still in for all the important ones, like online booksellers. You can only use this ISBN with Createspace.
  3. A custom universal ISBN ($99 and US residents only). Like No. 2, but you can use it with any publisher, e.g. if you decide to do a second print run with a difference service, you can use the same ISBN. (I think! But then what else could it mean? Answers on a postcard please.)
  4. Provide your own ISBN.

Your ISBN goes at the top of your copyright page, and Createspace’s all-seeing computers will rifle through your interior file to make sure it’s there before you’ll be allowed to order a proof copy.

You’ll also find that as your Amazon listing begins to build, the ISBN will be the quickest way to find it.

You can read all about Createspace’s ISBN options here.

ISBNs and Amazon KDP

ISBNs are not required to publish an e-book with Amazon KDP. They will automatically assign you a 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) which helps track your ebook on its sites. Mine, for example, is B003BNZC10.

You do not need to insert this into your e-book file.

There is a field during the title set-up process for you to put an ISBN in, if you already own one, but you don’t need to. And since you can only use each ISBN once, why waste it on an edition that doesn’t even require it?

You cannot use an ISBN you have already used on a print or any other edition but you can put something in your e-book like, ‘A print edition of this title (ISBN-XXXXXXXXXX) is also available.’

ISBNs and Smashwords

You don’t need an ISBN to publish an e-book with Smashwords, but you do need one to sell your e-book in their Premium Catalogue. So ah, basically yes, actually, you do need one!

Smashwords offers three ISBN options:

  1. Use your own
  2. Take a free one. Your book must be eligible for their Premium Catalogue (i.e. past their Premium Catalogue entrance exam) in order for you to receive one of these free ISBNs and, as with Createspace above, this will register Smashwords as the publishers of record
  3. Acquire a premium ISBN from Smashwords ($9.95 and only available to US residents) that registers you as the publisher of record. Again, your book must be eligible for inclusion in Smashwords’ Premium Catalogue in order to purchase this.

You can find out more about Smashwords’ ISBN options on their FAQ page.

My ISBN Tattoo

If some day in the dreamy future I get a book deal and become an international best-selling author and then find a time machine that lets me go back and slip a copy of my book into the pocket of one of Oprah’s producers and then use some sort of Jedi mind trick on them to get an invite to the show, I would SO get a tattoo of the ISBN on that book.

How cool would that be?

Answer: VERY.

Click here to read all my self-printing posts.

Click here to read about Mousetrapped, the book I self-printed.

Love in the Time of Amazon Rankings

Someone either tweeted or blogged about this video a couple of weeks back, and I’ve completely forgotten who it was. Damn my addled brain. But if it was you, please let me know so I can credit you with pointing me in the direction of it, because it’s brilliant. And sadly quite accurately reflective of the obsessive behavior incessantly checking your Amazon sales ranking can lead to…

And also: this is essentially a book trailer, in that it’s an advertisement for these people’s books. This, ladies and gents, is how it’s done. There’s no hard sell, no silly overstatements – in fact, you barely notice that they’re advertising their books at all. It’s total genius!