How niche should you go with your books?
This week's interviewee is Dr. Guy Windsor. He's well known as a martial arts instructor who teaches people the art of sword fighting, but he's also a well-known author in this particular genre or niche. In fact, he's published over 30 books on the subject, and he's created courses too.
I first came across Guy Windsor's work in 2015 when he appeared on The Creative Penn Podcast hosted by Joanna Penn, but he's been writing about martial arts and sword fighting and teaching all of the ideas in his books for over 20 years.
So, I was fascinated to catch up with somebody who is, firstly, able to sustain an interest in such a niche or specific topic for so long and, secondly, in somebody who was writing about a topic that would have a really specific market.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Guy: Before I release any book, I will send it out to a couple of dozen, perhaps, of my advanced readers and I’ll take on board whatever criticisms they have and adjust it so I know that when it goes out into the world, the people it’s intended for will like it. I know it’s up to standard for them. So that means that if I do get a bad review, and everyone gets bad reviews, it means I have a marketing problem. I have sold the book to the wrong person.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: How niche or niche should you go with your books? Hi, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
This week’s interviewee, his name is Dr. Guy Windsor. He’s well known as a martial arts instructor who teaches people in the art of sword fighting, but he’s also a well-known author in this particular genre or niche. In fact, he’s published over 30 books about the art of sword fighting, and he’s also created courses on the topics too. I first came across Guy Windsor’s work back in 2015 when he appeared on The Creative Penn Podcast hosted by Joanna Penn, but he’s actually been writing books and working online since the early 2000s. In other words, he’s been writing about martial arts and sword fighting and teaching all of the ideas in his books for over 20 years. So, I was fascinated to catch up with somebody who is, firstly, able to sustain an interest in such a niche or specific topic for so long and, secondly, in somebody who was writing about a topic that would have a really specific market.
One of my key takeaways from listening to Guy is that he considers Amazon more as a search engine and a lead generation tool for his business rather than a place to simply sell books. In other words, he doesn’t rely on his Amazon royalties to pay the bills. While he earns a good income from his books, he actually relies on Amazon to get his message and his teachings out into the world. And then, if people buy one of his sword fighting books, they may potentially take one of his courses or his in-person workshops.
My other key takeaway from this week’s interview with Guy is it’s possible to combine your real world interests with your writing interests. So, for example, you’re interested in long distance running, like I am, you could potentially turn that into a lucrative online business by writing articles or by publishing books or by creating courses in the topic.
My other takeaway is that Guy has translated his books into multiple languages and he is also somebody who considers the correct format for his teaching materials. I also asked Guy to elaborate on the comparison between martial arts, sword fighting, and writing and he has an interesting take on how discipline, or a lack thereof, is a way to succeed at both crafts and he explains how he uses external motivations and external triggers to help with his sword fighting workshops and also with his writing process.
So, I hope you enjoy this week’s interview with Guy. It was a good chat. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store and you can, of course, share the show with another writer or another friend, because your reviews and ratings really do help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. And, of course, if you have feedback about my catch up with Guy, you can reach out to me on Twitter at @bryanjcollins.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Guy.
Guy: Thanks, Bryan. It’s nice to meet you.
Bryan: You’ve been working online for a little bit longer than I have. I first came across your work while I was starting my site, Become a Writer Today, in 2015 when you were interviewed on The Creative Penn Podcast, and I was doing a bit more research and I saw that you actually wrote your first book back in 2004. Is that right?
Guy: Yeah, I started writing it in about 1999 and it was published in 2004.
Bryan: Did you self-publish that book or did you go traditional?
Guy: No, my first couple of books were — actually, my first I guess three books were traditionally published, Swordsman’s Companion in 2004 and The Duellist’s Companion in 2006 with a specialist niche publisher called Chivalry Bookshelf, which is now defunct, and I can’t say much about them because there was a lawsuit and a non-defamation clause and it all gets very nasty so let’s not go there. And then my third book was published by Freelance Academy Press. No lawsuits there, we’re all still good friends, but I’ve self-published everything since then because it gives me much more control and I make a lot more money that way.
Bryan: So you’re self-publishing and writing your books about medieval and martial arts and you’re also teaching and instructing as well.
Guy: Yeah. I mean, my core thing is to show up and teach classes about how to fight with swords. That is my favorite thing to do and everything else is sort of an adjunct to that. So, I started writing my first book because one of my students said, “Guy, you really should write this stuff down,” and then I thought, well, that’s not a bad idea so I started writing it down and I found that writing the books helped me clarify my thinking and just organized my thoughts and it made me into a better teacher and so I kept doing it because it’s good for making me a better teacher, it’s good for helping me to understand my material better, and, of course, also, people confuse author with authority so how —
Bryan: That’s a fair point.
Guy: Yes, so having a few books out, it really expanded my reach in terms of places I was invited to teach. So, in these days, I teach all over the place. I’ve just come back from Seattle and Baltimore in the United States where I was teaching the last couple of weeks. First time back to the States since COVID and it was great to be there. Although, of course, I took COVID home with me so that wasn’t so good. But, yeah, so writing the books, it started out as just a way to organize my thoughts properly and then it became, by about 2015, when I had like, I guess, four or five out, it became a significant income stream. And then, when COVID hit and all of my in-person teaching went away, my books and my courses together were making up more of my — put it this way, I sold — because everyone started buying books and online courses during the pandemic, I actually made more money without being able to go and get paid to teach than I was in the previous years when I was being paid to teach. So, the books and the courses more than make up for the shortfall in the in-person instruction income.
Bryan: Yeah, I had a similar experience. I found that my traffic and sales went up during COVID because people were spending more time online.
Guy: If you have these sorts of scalable assets, like books and courses, then should disaster strike, like a global pandemic, you have an awful lot more of a safety net than if you are just dependent on a single source of income or teaching in person, that sort of thing.
Bryan: Now, you’re in an interesting niche or genre in that I’m presuming most of what you teach is evergreen, it’s not like the principles change from year to year.
Guy: Well, you say that but the martial arts I teach are research based. So, for example, the book that I published in 2004, The Swordsman’s Companion, from a technical perspective, it is entirely obsolete. It’s completely replaced from a technical perspective by my book The Medieval Longsword which came out in I think 2013, something like that. So, as our research into these historical sources deepens and develops, so how we interpret these styles and bring them to life does change. But, yeah, generally, at this stage, they’re changing a lot more slowly than they were so, yeah, I would say, at least the technical content is these days it’s evergreen, yeah.
Bryan: You mentioned that during the pandemic, your sales went up of your books and courses. Did you think about reconsidering how you deliver your materials post COVID? Maybe focusing more online and on the books rather than in-person teaching?
Guy: Well, the thing is, I’m very self-indulgent, really. I do what I want to do. And what I really liked doing is showing up to a class and teaching people how to fight with swords. In person, it is just the best thing. So, I am not interested in moving to a model where I don’t do that because that’s the best bit. But for five or six years now, six years, I think, since we moved to the UK in 2016, I’ve been effectively location independent so I’m not teaching regular classes day in, day out and I don’t have a local club here, I didn’t start a club when I moved here so I have the various schools that I teach at all over the place but I don’t have one locally, which means I’ve not been showing up to work like four or five nights a week as I was for 15 years. Now, from a day-to-day perspective, it’s all writing books and doing research and creating courses.
Bryan: So what you teach, is it easier to write about it or to record courses about it?
Guy: It depends, because what I teach has a breadth to it. So we have the research stuff. So, for example, I have a book called From Medieval Manuscripts to Modern Practice which takes a book that was written in 1600 — sorry, 1400, so it’s 600 years old, and I take the longsword techniques out of that book and I go through the text and the pictures, so transcribing the text, translating the text into English, showing the pictures on the page, then describing what I think that actually means. So, in other words, how do we do the technique that this picture and this text is describing, and then a video clip linked to in the book of me doing it in practice. So that sort of thing is much best done in a book because there’s a lot of academic stuff to it. There’s transcription, translation, interpretation of the text, that kind of thing. For teaching movement, though, unless you’re in person, you can’t do video. So, for these days, for my practical how-to books, I’ve just brought out a book called The Armizare Workbook and I have a series of rapier workbooks which are also compiled into The Complete Rapier Workbook and they work a little bit differently, where I’m basically just teaching the art as I see it and every drill is linked to with a QR code so you point your phone at the page and it opens up a video of the drill being done in practice. So I’m combining video with some classic workbook format so you get the best of both worlds.
Bryan: That’s a good approach. Interesting you mentioned QR codes as well. That will make things a lot easier for the reader —
Bryan: Are the videos also then on YouTube or are they linked to your course platform?
Guy: I don’t like YouTube because of its business model. You’re not the customer, the advertisers are the customer, and they can do all sorts of horrible things to your stuff. So, I use Vimeo to host my videos and I use Pretty Links, which is it’s a WordPress plugin that allows you to create a memorable slug so it’s guywindsor.net/rapierbook or something, that can link to anywhere and you can change the link if you need to so you can change the target that it points to and that means that if, at some point in the future, I change my mind about how a drill should be done or I get a better quality video for the same drill or whatever, I can upload a new video and just redirect the link so the QR code and the Pretty Link don’t change but the target of them does. So it’s future proof in that sense.
Bryan: Good approach. Yeah, I use Pretty Links for something similar. Haven’t considered using QR codes just yet though. And does it take long to write one of your books?
Guy: It depends, because writing and thinking — I mean, tell me what you mean by writing, if you just mean typing it out, not particularly. I think the quickest I’ve ever written a full-length book is about six weeks, but that took like two years of noodling about with it and then, “Oh, that’s how to do it,” boom, six weeks later, the first draft of the book is done. My first book took me four years. And I found that with COVID and whatnot, my process is a bit more haphazard than it was before. So I might start a project, work on it for a few weeks then forget about it for six months and then come back and do something else for a few weeks and so on, back and forth. So, it really depends.
Bryan: Yeah, I’ve had a similar experience in that, if you know what the topic is, I can write an article quite quickly on it but if I don’t know and I’m just thinking it through, I’ll take quite a bit longer. So I use outlines quite a lot. Is that something that you’ve tried?
Guy: I use whiteboards really, for kind of seeing the book as a whole. I like to see it really big so I have an enormous whiteboard and I sort of plot the thing out on a whiteboard. I don’t use any kind of software, that sort of thing, because my brain doesn’t really do digital that well. I’m a very analog person, like physical sword in my physical hands backing in your physical head. Like I have an eBook reader and I have some eBooks on it but, honestly, they don’t hold my attention. If I liked the book, I’ll just buy it as a paper copy and read that. That works. So whiteboards, notebooks, that’s how I organize everything in my head.
Bryan: Yeah, I like to use both. I have a whiteboard in my office but I do like using digital tools for outlines. I guess it really depends on the project in question.
Guy: And it depends on what works for you. Like I found for a long time, I used Scrivener, which is like the best writing software on the planet and I think most people will agree. But, for the last couple of projects, I just couldn’t get it done in Scrivener for some reason. And so I opened up Pages on my Mac and I wrote it in Pages, which is a bit like going back to…
Guy: …Microsoft Word in the bad old days. And then when I’ve written it in Pages, I might put it then into Scrivener and reorganize it and then export it back to Pages and fiddle about with it and then put it into Vellum or reorganize it and then order a print copy and have a look through it and do edits that way and then put it back. It’s just a mess. Don’t — for God’s sake, people listening, do not copy my methods because they worked for me, they probably won’t work for anybody else.
Bryan: Yeah. I mean, I used Scrivener for years but, the last project I worked on, I found it could be a little bit overwhelming with all the options and so on. So these days actually I like using the minimalist writing apps, not sure if you tried those, Ulysses or iA Writer, I find them quite good.
Guy: I’ve heard of them, but the thing is, I have a system that’s currently working, however kind of clunky and Rube Goldbergy it looks on the outside, it works, and I find that people I know such as you share this, “Oh, there’s this cool app, if we could do that,” and I look and I go, “Oh, that looks brilliant. That looks fantastic,” and I might even open an account and maybe doodle around a bit and then I just forget about it and I go back to doing what’s currently working for me. I think that’s — there’s a kind of like pressure, if you like, in the writer space in the Internet to be using the specific right tools for things, as if there was any such thing. And given my historical models, so most of the authors I spend most time with have been dead for several centuries and they managed to write really stunningly good books using a quilled pen and some paper and then they got somebody professional to write it out by hand and draw pictures or what have you or even print it, if they’re a bit newer than that, and they seemed to manage with sort of the equivalent of paper and a pencil. So, well, with swords, it’s easy to sort of obsess about the tool itself and not about how you’re using it so, for example, when I travel to teach at various places, I don’t normally bring any weapons with me, just because they’re a pain to lug around, and when I’m teaching in class, I’m doing some flashy, cool technique and I’m using somebody’s sword from the class. So I’ll just ask some random person to lend me their sword and we do the same and I hand the sword back and I’ll use like six different swords during the course of the day, none of them belong to me, I haven’t chosen any of them particularly, they’re just the closest one to hand. And the subliminal message to the students there is it’s not having a fancy sword that counts. That’s not what makes it work. Because, of course, my own swords are beautifully fancy, this is my job and they are tax-deductible business expenses and so I have really nice swords and I really liked using them. But if you have a flashy sword, it can give students the impression that they need a flashy sword to do the thing or even having a flashy sword is sufficient when, in fact, it’s not really a consideration. So, I prefer to think about what we’re doing rather than the tools that we’re using to do it.
Bryan: Yeah, use what works rather than obsessing about finding the right tool.
Bryan: I personally like trying writing software but, at the end of the day, you just need to pick one and get to it.
Guy: Yeah, it’s very easy to confuse finding the right writing software with actually getting a thousand words down.
Bryan: So your books have like hundreds of great four- or five-star reviews on Amazon. But I imagine for what you’re covering, it’s a very specific niche market. So is it your students who are buying the books or are you able to target people with advertising?
Guy: It’s a bit of both. So, I have my core readership and my email list and they are the people I market to directly. And they’re the people I write the books for. And so I will also, before I release any book, I will send it out to a couple of dozen, perhaps, of my advanced readers and I’ll take on board whatever criticisms they have and adjusting so I know that when it goes out into the world, the people it’s intended for will like it. I know it’s up to standard for them. So that means that if I do get a bad review, and everyone gets bad reviews, it means I have a marketing problem. I have sold the book to the wrong person, because the target audience are liking it and they’re giving it four- and five-star reviews. So somebody comes along and gives it a one or two star, I have simply sold the book to the wrong person so I need to adjust the blurb, I need to adjust how my ads are targeted. I don’t use a lot of ads. I’ve played around with them but, honestly, I think to use ads effectively, you need to have a spreadsheet brain.
Bryan: Yeah, I would agree. You need to track your cost per click and your investments.
Guy: You need to track what’s working, do A/B testing, all that sort of stuff. So, I have in the past had various people who have done Facebook ads or Amazon ads or whatever for me but I don’t have a spreadsheet brain. So, anything involving spreadsheets, I always hire out to other people. And the problem with doing that, of course, is that it makes ads, which are already expensive, even more expensive. But, actually, you’re interested in the business model side of things, right?
Guy: Okay. Book I produced in about 2013 called The Medieval Longsword, which is, basically, if you want to learn how to fight with a longsword, that’s the book you should get. And the problem with selling books on Amazon and elsewhere is you don’t get any of the data. You don’t know who’s bought the book and so you can’t go and tell them to buy the next book. So what we did is I hosted the book as an eBook with a bunch of bonus material on my course hosting platform, which is teachable.com, and then we ran Facebook ads to the eBook on the Teachable platform. And the reason we used the Teachable platform rather than my Gumroad web shop is because on the Teachable platform, you can do things like upsells and order bumps. So we had this lovely little funnel going, where people would buy The Medieval Longsword eBook, get a bunch of bonus material, and often upsell to my medieval longsword course or medieval longsword footwork course or various other things we could upsell them to. And so those ads were quite profitable. We were getting about twice as much revenue as we were spending in ads. But, and this is the really weird thing I was not expecting, my unexpected consequence of this was actually most sorts of people who like swords tend to like physical books and so I sold about five times as many print copies of that book in that month as I would normally expect to sell so it had this extraordinary and extremely lucrative side benefit of selling the print books. So, the question really is, is getting the material to the right people in the right format in a way that allows you to track what’s going on and so you know when somebody comes onto your mailing list because they’ve bought something, you know that, okay, they’re interested in longsword stuff, because I do a breadth of material, so the earliest system I teach comes from a manuscript written in the middle of the 14th century and the newest stuff, like the super modern, state of the art, brand new stuff was written in the late 18th century so I span about 500 years but most of my students are either into a specific period or a specific weapon or even a specific historical source. So, telling the people who are mad about Fiore dei Liberi from the 15th century in Italy doing nightly combat, telling those students about my latest rapier thing from the early 17th century is probably not — they’re not interested. So, I need to be able to segment my list, which means I need to know when people come onto my list what route they have come on through so I can send rapier stuff to rapier people and longsword stuff to longsword people and so on.
Bryan: And are your typical students and readers, do they tend to come from martial arts classes elsewhere or they have a background in some sort of historical workshop or classes?
Guy: It massively varies. So, I have vastly more people reading my books and taking my online courses than had ever showed up to my classes so, obviously, I’m hitting a much bigger pool because they don’t have to get on a plane and fly to wherever it is I’m teaching. And they’re coming from all sorts of backgrounds. So, for instance, there was one woman in her mid-60s living on the East Coast of America took up swords during the pandemic because she found one of my books and she really liked it and so she emailed me about some things, she had some questions or whatever, and so she became part of the sword school family, if you like, by finding one of my books. Other people have come through online courses, maybe one of their friends has said, “Oh, there’s this online course, you should try it,” and they’ve come that way. People find me. I mean, I think of Amazon as basically outreach. I have loads of stuff up on Amazon because people find stuff on Amazon. It’s one of the biggest search engines in the world. So I’m not actually that concerned about making money selling stuff to people on Amazon, what I want to do is get them off Amazon and onto my mailing list and into my own ecosystem. So I treat a lot of the stuff on Amazon as basically marketing materials that kind of pays for itself.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s the way a lot of nonfiction authors do it. I could see how that would work. Quite a good approach. So you’ve been doing this since 2004 for your first book and, before that, you were working in the area in the 90s. How have you sustained your interest in the topic over the last 20, 25 years?
Guy: With no effort at all. Some people are mad about football, some people are mad about keeping bees or breeding dogs or whatever. I’ve been into blades since I was little and nothing has changed in that regard. Blades are just my thing. And, I mean, my interests changes over time so I’m not just doing one specific historical source, one specific period, one specific weapon. I have a breadth of interests. But, fundamentally, the thing I like to do is stand up in front of a class with a sword and we’re all sword people and we start swinging the sword around and that’s just magic. And that started out as magic and it’s still magic now.
Bryan: Fantastic. The practice of martial arts, is there any comparison between that and writing or creative work?
Guy: Yeah, I would say — okay, discipline is a massively overrated virtue. Thing is, martial arts do require discipline. You absolutely have to maintain your focus and attention and obey the safety requirements and be careful and it requires undistracted focus because you’re holding your partner’s life in your hands and if you make a mistake, somebody can die. There’s nothing more serious. So, there’s a certain amount of discipline required because there will be distractions, but what you do to create a safe training environment is you take away the distractions. So I don’t generally do serious training in a public space because random people wander by and make stupid remarks or ask interesting questions or whatever but that’s a distraction. And if you’re trying to actually train something that is potentially very dangerous, you can’t afford to have those sorts of distractions. So, likewise, when writing, for me, it takes discipline to edit the book. When I’ve written the first draft, sort of, which is never really the first draft, it’s collect and edit as I go, so it’s really like the equivalent, I guess, of the second draft, when I’ve written that, I want nothing more to do with a bloody book. I’m done with it. But, of course, it has to be edited and go to layout and the layout has to be checked then it has to go off proof printing and all that sort of stuff and that requires a certain level of discipline, much of which I outsource to an assistant who is very sort of strict and disenchanted and ordered. Yeah, she’s great. So, I mean, discipline is a finite resource. If it requires lots of self-discipline to do the thing all day every day, eventually, you will fail because you can’t be applying discipline all the time. So, with the writing and with the martial arts, I find I create an environment in which I don’t need self-discipline to get the job done. So, in a sword fighting environment, I’m the person in charge, usually. It’s usually my class and so it’s my job to keep everybody safe and maintain that environment. And, for some reason, that doesn’t take any self-discipline for me, I’m just in the zone, focused and that’s that. It sometimes takes self-discipline, for example, if we’re at an event and I’m teaching the next day and we’re all out in the pub the night before, it takes a bit of self-discipline to go, “No, no, no, I’m working tomorrow and I need to be on my game because I’m responsible for everyone’s safety so I’m gonna go home sober at 10 o’clock.” There’s a bit of self-discipline there, but with writing, you hear it a lot, writing requires discipline and you got to get your butt in the chair at 9 AM and work for three hours, whatever it is, and my feeling, honestly, is if it requires discipline to get you to sit down and write, you have to wonder why you want to write.
Bryan: So it should feel easy or enjoyable.
Guy: Right, yeah. I mean, I do swords because they’re great fun and I write books because I like writing books. So it doesn’t take any self-discipline for me to actually produce the first full draft of the book. That’s not what takes discipline. What takes discipline is just finishing up at the end. Now, I guess for some people, it may be the other way around and so they have to have the discipline at the beginning because the bit they really enjoy is the editing, but then I prefer things like external constraints rather than sort of internal discipline, because, again, internal discipline is a finite resource. So, for instance, I also do a lot of woodwork and it’s good for my mental health to get into the workshop regularly. So I have a dehumidifier in the wood workshop basically to keep the wood at the right kind of moisture content for using inside houses. Because, of course, if you just leave the wood in a shed, it picks up moisture from the atmosphere and it’s too wet to be used for furniture that you’re going to put inside a house. So, I have a dehumidifier, the dehumidifier is running most of the time, and it fills up a little reservoir. Now, there is a tube that you can plug in and I can rig it up so it will just drain away but I haven’t done that. Instead, it fills up the reservoir, which means that I have to go to the workshop every day to empty the reservoir. Which means I’m there in the workshop and while I’m here, I might as well reach out for the chisel or…do you see what I mean? It’s an external constraint that gets me into the place where I could very well get on and do the thing I know is good for me.
Bryan: Yeah, it’s a good tip. If I’m here, I might as well write 300 words.
Bryan: Exactly. Or you could have like having a bet with a friend, like, I don’t know, if you got to write 500 words a day, for instance, five days a week and you meet up in the pub on Friday and if both of you have made your goal then you go round for round but if one of you has not made the goal and the other one has, the one who hasn’t made the goal buys all the drinks. For instance. Nothing too serious or heavy, but just that little bit of external constraint, just makes it easier to get yourself into the space to do the thing you actually know you want to do.
Bryan: Yeah, I’ve read a few books about habits and they talked about a similar idea. Another approach was, if you don’t hit or achieve whatever it is you’re trying to do, you have to give money to a charity that you disagree with or it’s a political cause that you’re against.
Guy: That’s another option. See, my problem with that sort of external constraint is that I just get stubborn and like, “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” or like, “Past guy, shut up. I’m not gonna do that.” So, again, as with everything else, it’s a question of finding out what works for you and just doing that. And there are a million options and there isn’t one correct approach. There are as many different correct approaches as there are people to follow them.
Bryan: Is there anywhere else readers or listeners should go if they want to learn more about you or your work?
Guy: Honestly, everything’s at swordschool.com and there’s links there to other sites that I have and to my card game and my books and my audio books and all my blog and all the various things. So, yes, if you want to find out more about historical martial arts, that’s probably the best place to start.
Bryan: I’ll put the links in the show notes. Thanks for your time, Guy.
Guy: You’re most welcome, Bryan. Nice to see you.
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