Kerry Wilkinson is Amazon UK’s No.1 author for the final quarter, selling 250,000 copies of his Jessica Daniel series. This week he agreed a six-book deal with publisher Pan Macmillan for the rights to the series. Locked In is the novel that made his name. He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about traditional publishing and the rise of the E Book.
Do you think there is a specific plot-driven reason for the outstanding success of your novel Locked In or do attribute its sales to other factors?
Not really because people only know the basics about the plot when they buy – or sample. I do think the success of the sequels is down to the characters in the first book, however.
People will give a book a go for many reasons – because it is cheap, because they like the blurb, or the cover or even the title. But they don’t return to buy and read the follow-ups unless they engage with the characters.
There was a very large word-of-mouth movement with Locked In. I still get emails from people who say, “My son/daughter/niece/nephew, etc, recommended it”, or “Someone in my book group was talking about it” and so on. There’s no better advertising than a mate or a family member telling you they enjoyed something because you naturally trust them over a poster campaign or anything similar.
Having complete strangers telling other people you’ve never met about you is a pretty amazing thing.
That all then feeds into Amazon’s own marketing system because, if people are buying your book and they are already keen readers, you’ll get the “Other people who bought this book…” option. Then it snowballs further.
Tell us about Locked In.
Dead bodies are showing up in locked houses, with the police slightly baffled by why they are being killed, who is doing it, how they are doing it, and how they might be connected.
What it’s really about is Jessica Daniel. She a woman in her early thirties struggling to know what she wants from life. She fell into a job and doesn’t know if that’s what she wants to do with her life, let alone if she’s any good at it. On the surface, she’s abrasive and tough but that is largely her way of asserting authority because, behind that, she’s pretty vulnerable and perhaps even immature.
Growing up fascinates me. When you’re a child, you look up to your parents and teachers and assume they know what they are doing. When you become an adult, you realise there is no manual and you pretty much have to make it up as you go along. I find that dynamic enthralling, largely because I am that age. I drive past parks with kids playing football and think, “Yeah I fancy a kickabout” – because there’s that part of you that still feels 15 and remembers having no responsibilities of mortgages, or people relying on you and so on.
So, it’s a crime book with a mystery that will hopefully draw you in but, at it’s heart, it’s about a young woman growing up.
To what extent do enclosures and prisons feature in your writing?
I have actually visited prisons and hated it. The reasons are something that is hard to explain but it felt very claustrophobic, which I guess is the point. Even the forced politeness – “boss” and “Ma’am” sounded more sinister than simply being abusive.
Do you think there is a future for traditional publishing with the rise of the E Book?
I honestly have no idea. For one, this isn’t “my” industry. I’m a journalist who writes books in my spare time. I simply do my own thing and concentrate on myself.
The only thing I would say is that I’m a consumer as well. I read books and enjoy them, so if the publishing industry going away meant that stopping, then I really would not want to see that.
I do think the industry should learn lessons from places like the music business or companies like Kodak. No-one is too big to fail and, if you don’t keep up with what your readers want, then you’re probably going to struggle.
There is a traditional snobbery inherent in publishing based on certain assumptions, such as the reviewers dictate what to read. To what extent do you think technologically driven economic factors have broken that static situation?
Reviewers still dictate to an extent – but it’s the opinions of other “normal” readers, not the large media conglomorates. I really think people pay more attention to 10 reviews from their peers than they do to one from a national newspaper. On Amazon, that’s apparent – but there’s a wider issue too with everything from video games to movies. If you look at the popularity of sites such as metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, it’s clear people look as much to each other as they do attention to professional reviewers.
That goes back to the whole word of mouth thing. If someone you know and trust tells you something is good, you’ll probably listen.
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
Sort of. I had been feeling for a little while that I was basically coasting through life. I had a job that paid me pretty well and worked with people that, in general, I liked. But I wasn’t going anywhere. I had been promoted about as high as I was likely to get, I hadn’t had a pay rise in three years and it was all a bit too easy.
That had been going on for a while and, when I turned 30, I just thought it was about time I did something worthwhile. I’ve always thought I was capable of creating something – not necessarily a novel – then I had the idea for Locked In which I just moved with.
Lots of people say “I can write a book” and you see all those ridiculous stats about what percentage of people think they have a book in them and so on. I’ve always been a doer. I thought I could create something – so, instead of spending months and years crowing about it, I just did it.
I’ve been reviewed by many, many people. Quite a lot of them are good, some of them aren’t. Broadly I’m perfectly fine with readers who don’t think it’s for them but the only reviews that genuinely annoy me are the people who write “I could do better”. I always think that, if they can, why bother going on the internet to say you can instead of just doing it? The opportunities that devices like KDP give you are completely equal opportunity. So if you can write a better book, do it – and you’ll have the exact same chance to sell it and market it that I did.
As for what has influenced my writing … I guess an adult lifetime of being a people-watcher. I’m pretty good at it. Lots of the interactions or off-central themed parts of the books are based in one way or another on something I’ve witnessed in real life. Maybe not exactly but sometimes you will see a minor incident, then you imagination can expand it out into a “what if” scenario.
Do you think that the love of writing is born from understanding there is no ceiling, that it is a process in which you keep on developing and that commensurately the ‘I can do better’ reviewers do not understand the necessary distance from yourself that is implicit in the process?
Honestly? I don’t know and I don’t try to analyse myself too much. I largely work on instinct in what I think would work in a story and how I think the best way to tell it is. I know I’m not the most literary of writers but I’m not sure that really matters because I’m not trying to win a Booker Prize, though it’d be nice to be nominated (That’s a joke which any Alan Partridge fans should get).
Seriously, I’m not trying to write the perfect novel. I only try to create things that interest me. Before I started writing, I thought about the things I want as a reader – even simple things like short chapters. So I stick to a relatively straightforward set of rules. But then you have to understand the format too. Readers can get the first 10% of your work for free as a sample – so I adapt to that. I hate slow-starting books/TV shows/films and so on anyway – but for an ereader it’s even more of a concern.
So I focus on the plotting. End of chapter one: Cliffhanger. End of chapter two: Cliffhanger. End of chapter three & sample: Big cliffhanger. If you want to know what happens next, buy it.
Maybe that’s how writing novels will develop? I don’t know but that’s how I plot the start of books because, as a reader, that’s what I would want. I certainly wouldn’t be buying titles when the sample is free. I’d get the sample, see what I thought, then buy. Simple.
Why do you think people want to read about crime?
Probably because it’s something that feels broadly real while, at the same time, gives the reader access to thoughts and feelings that are generally supposed to be suppressed during everyday life.
Most crime stories also make it very easy to have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. That takes everything back to the simplest of stories. Regardless of which way they are dressed up, the morality of a crime book is usually pretty clear with the hero trying to catch the villain.
I think beyond that, people want a character they can like and get behind. My favourite thing about the success I’ve had isn’t the number of copies of Locked In I’ve sold – it’s the numbers of Vigilante and The Woman In Black which have been shifted. People may try your first book because it’s cheap, or the cover or title is interesting. Perhaps the blurb or your name might draw them in? But they will only come back if you’ve given them a believable character they can enjoy.
Why do you think Jessica Daniel is so appealing?
I think, for a lot of people, Jessica feels real. Most people have different personalities to a degree. Your workmates see one side of you, while your childhood friends see another. Your parents might get another version, while your partner perhaps sees more of the real you. I’m not sure I’ve ever really read or watched too many things that get that across.
With Jessica, I’ve tried to show those different sides. There is a clear difference to the way she talks to strangers and colleagues than friends. Then you get moments when she’s alone and struggling. Some of it is subtle, some more obvious. I also know that some readers simply don’t see it – they read Jessica as the brash, aggressive person she can be while not reading between the lines and seeing the rest. Whether that’s my fault as an author, I just don’t know. It probably is.
But enough people get that to come back for more. I’ve had emails from 14-year-old girls and 17-year-old lads who have read the three books, then others from people who have retired – and everyone else in between. That’s quite a broad spectrum but I think most people generally share the same worries in their lives.
For a teenager, it might be “What will I do with my life?”. For someone who has retired, it could be “Have I wasted my life?” They are basically the same concerns – just at different ends of the cycle.
One of the things I get asked the most, except for “When is the next book out?”, is why I write a female character when I’m a male. The truth is, it didn’t even occur to me as an issue. Most people in life have the same worries. They think about money or their jobs, their girlfriends/wives/boyfriends/husbands. They are concerned for their families and so on. They wonder what the future might have in store for them. Those issues cross gender, racial and sexuality boundaries.
So ultimately, beyond anything crime-wise, I think that’s why people like Jessica. There’s a lot that people can relate to with her.
You’ve just signed a six book deal with Pan Macmillan. What do you think has been the single most decisive factor in such a staggering success?
Undoubtedly reader reaction. I’ve had at least one email from a reader every day for about four months talking about Jessica, speculating about what comes next, asking about when the next book is out and so on. If people like something, they pass it on. So many people have
told me a relative or friend has put them on to the books. It doesn’t matter how good any formal advertising campaign is, you can’t beat word-of-mouth.
Essentially, if it wasn’t for any of that, I wouldn’t be here. It is down to the public and their support of Jessica.
Thank you Kerry for a lucid and informative interview.
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