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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

‘It’s a strange, wonderful feeling to have a sudden word of mouth bestselling book. And

British suspense writer Sarah A. Denzil joins #SetbackComeback today. Her books include SILENT CHILD, which has topped the kindle charts in the UK and Australia, as well as being a top ten Amazon bestseller in the US. SAVING APRIL and THE BROKEN ONES are both top thirty bestsellers in the US and UK Amazon charts.

Sarah lives in Yorkshire with her partner, enjoying the scenic countryside and rather unpredictable weather. She loves to write moody, psychological books about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

Sarah, over to you!

Writing, for me, has always been somewhere in the background since childhood. But it was about ten years ago that I started writing more seriously, beginning with short stories that I sold to magazines, and then moving on to a novel that I hoped to publish.

The first draft of my first novel was not good, as you can imagine. I decided to pay for a developmental edit before I queried agents, and I can still remember the feeling I had when reading the summary of the editors notes. I was at my day job desk. At the time I was working in a local hospital as an administrator. Each sentence brought a deeper sense of sinking until it seemed as though my stomach had hit the ground. My main character was unlikeable, the plot was confusing and much of the book needed to be binned.

But somehow, I picked my stomach up off the floor and I put in the work. I rewrote the entire book in early 2012, then asked for beta readers to help me polish what was there. After a few half-hearted queries to agents (most of whom didn’t respond) I decided that self-publishing was for me. As a heavily introverted person, I just wanted to go it alone. For some reason I had this idea in my mind that published authors had to give talks and go on book tours and attend reading festivals (some do, but not all) and I was terrified of it. I just wanted to write books in my spare room and publish them and see what readers thought of them, so I did. And it went… surprisingly well. Until it suddenly stopped.

About a year after I published my first young adult novel, I quit my admin job to write full time. Self-publishing moves quickly, and I needed to publish three or four books a year in order to make a living. For a while I was succeeding at that. My books were selling well, and I earned around as much as I had with my admin job. But in early 2015, all of that changed. Amazon changed the future of books by rolling out Kindle Unlimited and it had a huge effect on my sales. I also started writing young adult horror books instead of dystopian books and the market was much smaller. My books stopped selling. I went from earning a living, to not even earning above the tax threshold.

At the end of 2015, I had around £500 in my savings account, and the same in my personal account. I wasn’t able to contribute to the mortgage or many of the bills. My books had made less than £200 that month. Luckily, I had a husband who could step up, but not indefinitely. I either had to go back to working in administration, or I had to make a change. Not to mention the quality of life I was experiencing, not able to afford to go on holiday or treat myself to a new outfit. I wanted to carve my own mark on the world and stand on my own two feet, as most of us do.

Indie young adult authors were struggling. Teenagers didn’t want eBooks, they wanted paperbacks from a bookshop, and we couldn’t get our books in bookshops. Our readers were adults who love YA, but a lot of them had moved onto genres like urban fantasy or paranormal romance, and you might think—what’s the difference? But in the bookselling world, the size of a genre makes such a huge difference in terms of possible income. The reality was, my YA horror books, no matter how much I enjoyed writing them, were never going to earn me a living.

It was around the same time that I discovered Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins and SJ Watson, Tammy Cohen, Mark Edwards, Rachel Abbott and many more, all writing amazing psychological thrillers. Until I found those authors, I’d always assumed that a psychological thriller was crime but with serial killers, like Silence of the Lambs. While I love crime-focused movies, I’d never fallen in love with police procedural books, so I’d never considered writing in that genre. However, all of those amazing new domestic noir books lit a fire under my keyboard, and soon I was writing Saving April, my first psychological thriller.

Saving April went on to be one of five books chosen via Kindle Scout in December 2015 to be published by one of Amazon’s publishing houses. Unfortunately, this publisher closed down a few years ago, but the opportunity at the time was a fantastic one. It included a small advance and marketing opportunities. Saving April sold many more copies than I’d expected, but I still had to work really hard if I was going to be able to continue writing full time.

The Broken Ones, my second psychological thriller, performed even better than Saving April, and all of a sudden, I was earning a living wage again. Anyone who has been through financial difficulty will know the weight lifted by the light at the end of the tunnel. That was the experience for me knowing that I’d made enough that year to start contributing to the mortgage again and put some money into a savings account. But what I couldn’t predict was what happened with my third thriller, Silent Child.

About a week after I published Silent Child in January 2017, it was at number one in the Kindle charts. It received the most five-star reviews on Goodreads for the first half of 2017 in the mystery and thriller category. It briefly hit number one in the US chart while finding its way to number one in Australia and Canada. Suddenly I had a lot of interest from foreign publishers, agents, audiobook publishers and TV producers. 2017 was a strange whirlwind that came with it a lot of personal upheaval too, when I got married that year, but also lost family members.

It’s a strange, wonderful feeling to have a sudden word of mouth bestselling book. I don’t think anyone can prepare you for it. And while it’s great, it’s fleeting. Readers wanted Silent Child, but they didn’t always take note of my name or buy my other books. If I wanted to replicate my success with Silent Child, I would drive myself insane trying to do it. How do I then come to terms with going back to normal sales after selling almost a million copies of one standout book?

In a way, I’m glad that I didn’t replicate Silent Child’s success with my follow up books. I’ve seen writers grow from year to year and I cheer them on, but then I notice that they’re working themselves to the bone in order to win in a race against themselves. If they sold one million for the first time, the next year they want to sell TWO million. But I sometimes wonder if that’s a healthy or happy attitude.

I’m grateful to have been through my own personal experience as a self-published and traditionally published author. On Amazon, my books have ranked low, high and everything in between. I’ve found communities who share their knowledge with a collaborative spirit I’ve never seen anywhere else. And if you’re an author NOT following the marketing advice of successful self-published romance authors, you’re missing out, because those absolute bosses know how to shift copies of their books.

In 2020 I’m happy to celebrate ambition (I have plenty of it) while knowing what’s important—a work/life balance, the quality of my books, and continuing that collaborative spirit that raises up all authors as a community. I’m happy to be indie, to publish books in a way that corresponds with my own ethical principles, and to have complete artistic control. I’ll never forget refreshing the Amazon page to find my book at number one, the book that I wrote in my spare room, that I made the cover for and uploaded myself and wrote the blurb for and marketed myself. It meant so much to me. But it was simply one special piece of my writing journey. I’m always looking forward.



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