Kathleen Jones talks to Sophie Nicholls about The Dress

A first time, young, independently published, UK novelist who makes it to the top of the Amazon best-seller lists has to be pretty special.  One of the E-book phenomenons of the past 12 months has been Sophie Nicholls novel The Dress,  and, as I'm just about to produce my own first novel on Kindle, I was fascinated by her success and wondered what I could learn from her approach. Sophie is a poet with a collection ‘Refugee’ recently out from Salt publishing, and she has previously published a novella ‘Ruby Slippers’, but The Dress is her first novel.  I read and reviewed it for the IEBR site and was very impressed by the quality of the writing and the story.  It seemed to me (and she has 75 reviews on Amazon to prove it) that it was equally as good as many of the big commercial names stacked up in Waterstones and WH Smith;  Kate Morton, Victoria Hislop, Adele Geras, Joanne Harris - Sophie’s novel stands up well against them.

Yet Sophie didn’t bother to go down the traditional route of agents and publishers, deciding instead to put the book straight into KDP.  I was curious to know why Sophie had opted to go for e-publishing as her first option, since The Dress is such a commercial novel and, as a writer already published by Salt, it seemed to me that she would have been snapped up by an agent without any problem.  When I talked to Sophie, it was my first question.

Last year, my dad was seriously ill in hospital, awaiting a quadruple heart bypass. I spent lots of time by his hospital bed and often our conversations would turn to our unrealised hopes and dreams. Serious illness often has a way of focusing your mind on things you haven't yet done in your life and what is most important to you. My dad said that once he was better he was going to run a 10k marathon and raise money for the hospital.  I pledged that I would finally publish a book.  As my dad reminded me, I'd always wanted to write a novel, since being a small child. Somehow, I'd ended up helping other people to develop their writing and creative lives through my work as a university lecturer and coach, but had never quite managed to make the time to finish some of my own projects.

At the same time, my dad spotted an article in his newspaper about the Kindle author Amanda Hocking who was making serious money out of her Young Adult novels.

This all happened in February 2011 and, by September, all of this had coalesced into The Dress. Spurred on by my pact with my dad, I finished writing the book and, in fact, losing myself in the story of Fabbia and Ella provided me with a kind of emotional safe haven away from my worries about his surgery and health.  By the time I typed the last sentence, I knew that I was going to publish it myself through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing Programme. The speed with which I could get the book out there appealed to me enormously.

All the advice sites for independent authors stress the importance of doing lots of publicity - blogging, twittering, networking - so I was interested to know what Sophie’s plan had been and how she had organised getting the novel noticed.  Her answer really surprised me.

I actually did very little publicity. I had no launch strategy. The entire project was a bit of an experiment. I wrote a short post for my blog, tweeted a link to it and linked to it from Facebook. I also mentioned it to subscribers to my newsletter.

Other than that, I focused on producing a cover and writing a blurb for the book that I felt might attract people's attention. The mighty Amazon did the rest for me. It really does offer writers an opportunity to get their books in front of hundreds of thousands of potential readers.

I also wondered whether Sophie had used any of the peer-review sites for beta readings before publication.

No, but I asked five people I knew to be my beta-readers. They gave me some very helpful feedback.

Had she used a freelance editor or had she done all the tweaking and proof-reading herself?

I used a professional proofreader. I really think this is essential. No matter how many times you go through your manuscript, there will always be things that you miss. 

And of course I asked her how she felt when The Dress began to climb the Amazon ratings!

Unbelievably exciting. When I began to see the first spike in sales, I thought it would just be a very temporary fluke.  I couldn't believe it when I woke up the next morning and had made it into the Top 10 - and then I watched with incredulity as The Dress climbed into the Top 5. I've been extraordinarily lucky.

Visitors to Sophie’s blog will know that she’s working on a sequel.  I asked her what had influenced that decision and  how easy it was to write another novel from the same material. It seemed to me, when I reviewed The Dress that Sophie had given her characters such a happy ending and tied off all the loose ends so well that there might not be room for a sequel.

In fact, I'm working on two further books to complete the 'Everyday Magic' trilogy. One of the most wonderful and unexpected things about the book's success has been the emails I've received from readers all over the world. It quickly became clear to me that they wanted more of Ella and Fabbia Moreno - and I love writing about these characters so much that it seemed like a natural next step to go on and develop their stories further.

It's true that there's a nice ending to The Dress - but there's also so much more to explore. Books 2 and 3 will each have a slightly different focus and will introduce some new characters too. Book 2 follows Ella, Billy and baby Grace as they continue to develop their life in York - and Fabbia and Madaar-Bozoorg each make important appearances. In Book 3, Ella goes to Italy in search of her father's side of the family.

But having just given birth to my own beautiful baby daughter, I can't get the next book out fast enough for my loyal readers. They keep asking me when it will be finished - which is lovely and so encouraging. I'm hoping that I can get back to writing more soon.

So it seems that there were no magic tricks, no grand plan, no giant publicity campaign of give-aways and tweets.  Just a well-written, beautifully produced novel that has captured readers’ imaginations.  Publishers eat your hearts out - electronic publishing has made it all possible.  That kind of ‘everyday magic’  could happen to any of us, all we have to do is to keep on writing.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/wordsaucery
Twitter: twitter.com/wordsauce

Read my review on the Indie E-Book Review website.

Kathleen Jones blogs at http://kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.com
and her website is www.kathleenjones.co.uk

Kathleen Jones' Books:
A Passionate Sisterhood:  The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets
Christina Rossetti:  Learning not to be First
Margaret Cavendish:  A Glorious Fame
Three and Other Stories   


Dennis Hamley said…
Kathleen, that was a lovely interview. Useful for me as a guide to how to do it because I'm just about to interview For my last issue as editor of The Oxford Writer someone with an equally interesting (though totally different)experience to communicate and I want to do the best by him for the readers. It's lovely and heartening to hear of someone-else who has really made it in the indie ebook stakes. 'Pour encourager les autres,' as the man said.

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