Simon King is the author of over 30 books across five different series, including the Sam Rader series, the non-fiction Prison Days series, and the MAX series.
Before he became an author, Simon worked in a maximum-security prison in Australia, and he only published his first book in 2018.
In this episode, Simon explains how he went from working a demanding day job, working nights and shifts, to publishing up to 12 books a year over three years.
Simon also believes that it’s essential to set a clear target for how much you want to write every day. He set a target to write 3,000 words every day no matter what, and he explains what that did for his writing career.
In this episode we discuss:
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Simon: It’s funny, I’ve never been an outliner, I’ve never been a plotter. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what that would be like. Writing, for me, is flying by the seat of my pants. So, yes, I’m what you call a pantser in the industry. It’s exactly as it sounds. I sit down each morning, I have no clue where the book is going, I have no clue about direction. I just write. I just write as I go.
Introduction: 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: Your next book will help you sell more copies of the last book. Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. I’ve spent the past few months talking to thriller authors and authors who’ve written a series of books and one lesson I’ve learned from them is that having a back catalogue is the fastest way to increase your book sales, because even if one particular book doesn’t sell, if you want to write something new, more readers will find the new book and then go back and read through your work.
Now, this week, I caught up with Australian author, Simon King. He’s the author of over 30 books across five different series, including the Sam Rader series, the non-fiction Prison Days series, and also the MAX series. Before he became an author, Simon worked in a maximum security prison in Australia and he only published his first book in 2018 so I was pretty impressed to discover that he was able to write and publish so many books in three or four years and that’s one of the topics that we get into in this week’s interview.
How did he manage to go from, you know, working a demanding day job where he worked shift work and night work to publishing 6 to 12 books a year over the course of three years? Simon explained that he started working on his craft towards the end of his career when he was working night duty or night shifts as a prison officer and while many of his colleagues, you know, we’re doing things like watching television or passing away the hours, he was using the free time while working night shifts to write and to hone his craft and it reminded me of years ago when I worked in a psychiatric hospital and I used to work a lot of night shifts as well.
Back then, I used that time to write fiction and also to study short story writing but I guess I lost that free time when I got a day job as a copywriter and a content marketer for a British software company. These days, I don’t have to write in the middle of the night, I can write during the day, but Simon did challenge me to say that I should write about my experiences working in a psychiatric hospital years ago, which isn’t really something I figured out how to do yet.
One of my other key takeaways from this interview is that it’s important to set a clear target for how much you want to write every day. Now, most new writers set a target of writing, you know, for just 15 minutes or writing 500 words, but Simon went hardcore and his target was to write 3,000 words every day no matter what, and, in the interview, he explains what that did for his writing or indie career.
If you enjoy the show, you can, of course, support it by becoming a Patreon for a couple of dollars a month and I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, software, and books. Or, alternatively, you can leave a short review on iTunes or share the show on Stitcher or Overcast or wherever you’re listening.
Now, with that said, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Simon, and I started by asking him to describe his background and how it helped inform his thriller books.
Bryan: So, Simon, I’m fascinated to hear how you managed to write so many different books, but before we get to that, would you be able to give listeners a flavor for who you are and how you got into writing in the first place?
Simon: Yeah, sure. I think writing has been on my horizon for as long as I can remember but it was just one of those things that just never eventuated. I was always too busy and always had other things going on so I didn’t actually start writing until I was 47. I think it was my 47th birthday that finally gave me a tap on my shoulder and said, “I think now’s the time you might wanna start,” and I’m pleased to say that once I did, I haven’t been able to stop and I think my readers thank me on a daily basis with the number of books that I managed to churn out.
Bryan: So, did you write your first book at 47?
Simon: Correct, correct. I turned 47 in April of 2018 and I realized that the dream was never gonna happen unless I pulled my finger out and I did and I researched a little bit about how to get the book published and it was all systems go once I made the decision and I’m pleased to say that, by July of that same year, I published my first book, which was the first Prison Days.
Bryan: So, up until that point, you had a day job. Would you be able to describe what that was and how it helped your writing?
Simon: Yeah, sure. I was a prison officer. So, I was a correctional officer in a maximum-security prison and I knew that from the moment I walked in there that the experiences I was gonna see and was going to watch unfold were not likely to be anything I could ever forget. The things that happened are just things that people just don’t see every day —
Simon: — and I think that was my inspiration behind writing not just the first book but all the subsequent books. It wasn’t until that first book really started selling that I realized that so many people really did wanna find out what happened behind the walls.
Bryan: So, when you sat down to start writing, did you have notes that you could reference or were you drawing on your memories of what happened?
Simon: Well, the way I write the books is I used to call them my diary entries and that’s technically what they are. They’re my own experiences and I try to share with them as cleanly as possible so I try not to include any feelings that I have, I try not to sway the reader into whether things are right or wrong. It’s just a raw, unedited look at what happens behind the walls and, you know, some of the events I experienced, some of the assaults and murders and all the rest of the things, it’s quite confronting when you read about it and I’ve gotta say that the e-mails that I’ve had from across the world have kind of helped me along to releasing book 11, which was published last week. So, it’s come a long way —
Bryan: From the Prison Days series?
Bryan: So, when you were writing the Prison Days series, did you have an ideal reader in mind?
Simon: It’s funny, Bryan, when I first started in the prison, it was almost like having fish and chips on the beach, the amount of people that would surround me and pick my brain and wanna hear the stories. Every single, you know, social event I went to, I was surrounded by people wanting stories and it just fascinates people, you know? You think about all the prison shows that you see on TV, all the documentaries, people just absorb that type of stuff because, to them, it’s almost taboo.
You’re not really quite sure if it’s real and you’d never wanna experience it yourself and, yet, you still wanna see it and you still wanna watch it and I think that’s what sort of drew me to writing that first book. The reader I had in mind is the same person that I had, you know, chewing my ear off down at the local barbecue.
Bryan: Yeah. And when you sat down to write the first series, I mean, had you been doing any other type of writing while you were working or did you feel like you were writing this book from scratch and that you were to learn everything about the craft?
Simon: I dabbled in the idea of writing a book over many years but I never actually sat down and started a book that I said, “Yep, this is gonna be my book.” I’ve written poetry through the years but never anything more than a few hundred words. When I sat down for this book, I knew that this was going to be the start of my author career, you know?
I’m the kind of person, Bryan, I don’t let anything stand in my way. It’s not a question for me personally, and my kids will sort of tell you this because I’m forever in their ear about it, but I’m not the kind of person that asks the question, “If I can do something,” I’m the type of person that will just say, “How? How can I do that? I wanna be a writer, how can I be a writer?” And then I’ll investigate and I’ll research and, thankfully, writing that first book came naturally. I think it had very brief editing from a beta reader and I released it and the reviews were positive right from the start so I continued on from there.
Bryan: Yeah, I’m looking at it here on Amazon, it has like over 360 something positive reviews, which is fantastic. When you say about instruction, did you read any books about the craft or did you just fire up page one and start writing or did you outline your book?
Simon: It’s funny, I’ve never been an outliner. I’ve never been a plotter. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what that would be like. Writing, for me, is flying by the seat of my pants. So, yes, I’m what you call a pantser in the industry. It’s exactly as it sounds. I sit down each morning, I have no clue where the book is going, I have no clue about direction. I just write. I just write as I go. And, for me, it eliminates that dirty word that some authors have, which is “mind block,” which is where they just —
Simon: They just get stuck and I think that comes from when they try and force a story or try and force words. For me, that never happens because I don’t plot. I don’t put myself into that category, if that makes sense.
Bryan: So, do you start with a character and go from there?
Simon: It’s funny, I actually go with the ending. I actually know how a book ends and that ending gives me a direction. I know where I’m headed, I just don’t know how I’m gonna get there. So, for me, whether the book is 30,000 words or whether it’s 90,000 words, it’s the direction I’m going in and I just follow it and it’s almost as exciting for me as it is for my readers because I have no idea what’s gonna happen when I sit down to write. I’ll find that, at the end of any session, characters pop up that I hadn’t even known existed and yet there they were breathing life into this story. It’s incredible. I love it.
Bryan: So, at the time of recording this interview, there is nine books in the Prison Days series and you mentioned that the new one was just released. Did you set out to write a —
Simon: No, there’s — book 10 was released last week and book 11 —
Bryan: Okay, okay.
Simon: Book 11 comes out in two weeks.
Bryan: I’m looking at the UK store, that’s probably why. So, did you set out intentionally to write a series, or did it just evolve naturally?
Simon: Well, initially, it was just gonna be one book. I just thought, yeah, one book out, see how it goes, and then I followed the reviews and kept releasing them and then I released six and I thought, yep, that’s me done, I’ll move on to something else, at which point I released some very quick — well, I call them quick reads so they’re not too big. They’re called Prison Days Inmates.
Those five books focus more on actual prisoners so their story, how they came to prison, what they did in prison. Some of them eventually, you know, were released, some others passed away. It’s just — it’s all about the prisoners. And then I continued to receive e-mails from people just loving the Prison Days series and I thought, you know what, why not? So, I ended up releasing seven, and then, before I knew it, I’m in the middle of writing 11 now so — but I can definitely say that they finish at 12. Twelve Prison Days I think is more than enough.
Bryan: Okay. So, if you’re using — if it’s non-fiction, did you run into any issues with, you know, sensitive stories that you couldn’t use because the person’s still alive or because of maybe a contract you had at your old job?
Simon: No, no. What I did is I made sure that none of the names were real so I changed all the names and one of the things that I love about my books that I find intrigues readers a lot more too is that, up until a certain number of books, no one knew where the prison was located. And —
Simon: — there was a reason behind that and I think what I set out to do was whenever you watch one of the shows on TV, I don’t know, what’s one? World’s Toughest Prisons. You know it’s set in America. You know it’s distanced from you. So, reading about it or watching those shows, you kind of think, “Okay, well, you know, it’s a long way away. It doesn’t affect me. It’s never gonna happen to me.” But when you don’t know where the prison is, it affects you differently because, funnily enough, before I released where the prison was located, a lot of people assumed that the prison was in England so I had a lot of —
Simon: — I had a lot of English readers, a lot of Scottish readers e-mail me up and it was amusing because they could relate to certain things in the book. They could relate to certain situations, certain stories, and it wasn’t until they were told where the prison was located that they went, “Hmm, okay, I didn’t guess that,” and that was the reason behind it because I wanted to take that distance away from the reader. I wanted to put that prison right next door.
Bryan: So, it sounds like you changed a few details in the non-fiction books.
Simon: Correct, correct. So, it’s just the names and locations that are different but everything else, everything else is bang on.
Bryan: Okay. So, then you pivoted then to writing thrillers and fiction, like the Lawson Chronicles and the Sam Rader thriller series. Was that inspired by your non-fiction work or was that a direction you were always planning on going in?
Simon: Well, the Lawson Chronicles were really where my fictional side started so the first book, The Final Alibi, is about a serial killer and the inspiration came when I was sitting in the middle of a unit in prison watching an actual serial killer go about his day and, as I was watching him, a premise started sort of crossing my mind. Just an idea that sort of floated in the distance.
And what it was was, as I was watching this guy, I imagined him breaking out of prison but breaking out of prison in a way that no one knew, no one realized that he’d gone, and I thought if he could get out of prison and murder and then come back into prison without anyone knowing, would he do that? And the answer is yes, of course, he would because that’s who he is. He’s still that demon on the inside and that’s where the idea came from. The Lawson Chronicles is based around this serial killer who — the whole first of the book, you’re sort of curious, is it really him? Is it not him? Does he have a copycat? And it’s all based on this serial killer that I was looking after in this unit.
Bryan: So, I guess it’s the — it’s what you say in your tagline, it’s the perfect alibi if he’s in prison.
Simon: Exactly, exactly, because who’s gonna investigate him, you know? You’ll have a body but you’re not gonna go after someone that’s already in jail. You’re not even gonna investigate that person. So, is it his final alibi? Is it not? It’s — that’s where my curiosity started and that’s where my fictional side really sort of took off with that first book.
Bryan: Okay. So that’s quite a lot of books to write in three years. What does your typical writing routine look like?
Simon: Actually, looking across at my board, there’s one line that I like to stick to. It’s written across the top, it’s in black texta or black marker and it says, “3K a day.” Every day, every day, I have a goal of at least 3,000 words and, most of the time, I finish that before anybody else gets up in the morning. It’s whatever book I’m working on, 3,000 is my minimum, and that gives me a decent 20,000 words per week if I stick to that formula.
Bryan: So that’s seven days a week.
Simon: I write every day, correct.
Bryan: That’s impressive. Your output is very impressive.
Simon: I think if you have a passion and I think if you have a plan, a long-term goal, I don’t think 3,000 words is really that difficult to achieve.
Bryan: And does it take you long to write 3,000 words?
Simon: No. I think most days, I manage between 1,000 to 2,000 an hour and that’s editing as I go too. I tend to edit as I write. So, any sort of typos or mistakes or things like that, I change as I go so it ends up being a fairly clean manuscript by the time I finish, which makes the job easier for my editor.
Bryan: So, you get up early, it sounds like before everyone in your house, sit down at your desk and just go for three hours?
Simon: Correct, correct. It just depends. Some days, I’m up at four o’clock in the morning where I just can’t sleep and I grab my laptop and I head out, sit at the desk and start banging away and, before I knew it, it’s, you know, it’s seven o’clock, there’s, you know, 4,000 or 5,000 words written and I’m done for the day.
Bryan: And you mentioned that you edit while you write. Do you go through many rewrites of the books?
Simon: Actual rewrites? I don’t rewrite anything. I think my best work comes out naturally. I think some writers struggle to accept their work because they tend to overcriticize themselves. With me, that’s what I have beta readers for so I write the book as it flows from my fingers. Being a pantser, I don’t really think twice about which way it’s headed. And, once my beta readers get it, if they have an issue, then they obviously e-mail me back but —
Simon: — other than that, the story is as is.
Bryan: What about when they — you’ve sent it to your beta readers, do you spend long working with them before hitting publish?
Simon: No. Normally, it’s a couple of days. It’s not — they don’t take too long. They tend to absorb my work and, normally, they send me back a few typos that they may find and I always like to keep an eye on the reviews so if I do see anything that does need changing, then I’m pretty quick on the ball but, you know, today, touch wood, most of the reviews have been pretty positive.
Bryan: They have, they have. And did you find it quite a change from, you know, working shift work on your feet and, you know, it was probably a very demanding job to sitting quietly at a desk by yourself?
Simon: Well, the thing is, Bryan, I was already sitting at a desk by myself in jail. For the last two and a half years, I worked nonstop night shift so most of them are asleep and while most of the other officers were watching television or sleeping, I was sitting at a desk writing my books. So, I was following my dream while being at work and getting paid for the privilege.
Bryan: Yeah. So it’s kinda like your apprenticeship, I guess, working shift work or night work.
Simon: Exactly. Exactly right.
Bryan: So, your books have a lot of positive reviews from many different readers. What strategies are you using to promote your work?
Simon: To promote my work, I tend to follow a few different authors. When I first thought about Samantha Rader and which direction I was gonna take her, I actually started following Jack Reacher. I started following Lee Child and the things that I could see that his books had, covers and things like that —
Bryan: The cover is quite similar, yeah.
Simon: Yeah, correct. And what I try and do is I try and make sure that readers, I guess, follow not only just that series but follow all of my books. So, you know, there’s places where there’s crossovers. You’ll find that once my reader has finished Prison Days, it’s a very easy slide into the MAX series because MAX is obviously based in a maximum-security prison, it’s pretty confronting, the events that happen in MAX are very similar to the events that happen in Prison Days so they already have a feel for that style of writing.
And then, there are a couple of characters that cross over from MAX into the Lawson Chronicles and then, obviously, Lawson Chronicles is a prequel to the Samantha Rader series. So you find they’re all linked anyway so I find that when I have a reader pick up one book, generally, they go through the lot, which, I mean, 35 books, it keeps them busy for a while.
Bryan: I can imagine.
Simon: Yeah, but as for reaching more readers, I try and utilize Amazon as much as I can. So, I am in their Kindle Unlimited. All of my books are in their Kindle Unlimited plans, apart from the ones that obviously I give away on my website as reader magnets.
Simon: But I also like e-mail promotions. E-mail promotions work very well as well.
Bryan: So, do you work on that side of your writing business in the afternoon?
Simon: Correct. Yes. I try and —
Simon: — I try and do all my writing in the morning. Sometimes, I’ll even do some writing when I’m sitting up in bed at night, just before sleep —
Simon: — but, in between, I try and do a lot of things so I get involved with the covers, with the website, with the promotions. I kind of wear all the hats in this business. And I think that’s how you have to look at it. You have to look at it as a business.
Bryan: The other thing that’s quite impressive about your series is the branding, like they all have quite distinctive covers, like just looking at the Prison Days series, you know, stark black and white and dramatic photographs. Was that a conscious choice?
Simon: They weren’t actually the first covers. I think the Prison Days series, they’ve had three cover changes in the past three years. Those covers that you see live now, I think they’ve only been live for the last three or four months and they’re my most impressive. I think I prefer those over any of the past ones. But I think if an author treats their writing as a business, I think you need to update the product occasionally just so you can stay with the market and stay with the demand. You need to freshen up your stock on a regular basis. That’s just my personal thinking.
Bryan: So, when you say update the product, are you just updating the cover or are you making any other changes?
Simon: Sometimes I might go in and make some changes. I might change intros. I know I do change the back matter quite a bit and the front matter. At one point, I was giving away four books for free to —
Bryan: That’s quite a lot.
Simon: Yeah. I mean, when you’ve got 35, four isn’t that big. I mean, at the start, obviously, you don’t wanna be giving everything away but you need something to get those readers in and — at least until you start getting the reviews. That’s really important. But other than that, it’s a full-time gig. It’s a full-time job.
Bryan: Are you attracting reviews organically at this stage or do you still enlist reviewers or reach out to reviewers before you get ready for a launch?
Simon: No, I have never used that line for reviews. Never. All of my reviews are organic. Whether they’ve come through free promotions, through e-mail newsletters, or whether they’ve come through direct sales, all of my reviews have — I’ve paid for none of them. The only thing I do is just ask for a review from readers at the end of the book. That’s probably my most important question at the — right at the end, I ask them if they have the time, please leave a review, because, as you know, without reviews, books die.
Bryan: Yeah, they don’t sell. And speaking of selling, do you use Amazon or Facebook ads to sell your books?
Simon: I’ve used both. I can’t tell you which one works more because I really suck at both of them. I try my best but they just don’t seem to love me.
Bryan: So, you find it’s more that writing a series helps you, the last book helps you sell the next book.
Simon: Correct, and you know what, that’s a saying that I picked up from Craig Martelle, “Nothing sells the last book like the next book,” and it’s true and it’s one of the reasons why all of my books are in series because once you hook those readers with that first book, most of them tend to stick around and that’s what I love.
Bryan: And do you find the people who read your books tend to read a lot of thriller and mystery books or books by the likes of Lee Child or James Patterson or is the prison genre like a genre within a genre?
Simon: I find that most of my — I’ve actually e-mailed all my readers on my subscriber list and I have several thousand, and I’ve asked them the question, “Which do you prefer? Do you prefer my fiction or nonfiction?” and, funnily enough, at the end of the day, I had 40 percent either way and 20 percent who preferred both. So, it was a clean —
Simon: — straight down the middle. So, those that tend to like my fiction stuff also read my non-fiction stuff so it fills my heart when I know that a reader who picks up one book is gonna go through the whole series.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah, no, that’s — it’d be helpful as well for book sales and so on. What about in terms of managing your like creative workflow for the year, like you mentioned you have a board with “3,000 words” written on it. Do you have your projects mapped out for the next few months and do you work on more than one book at any one time?
Simon: Oh, I’ll give you a rundown of what’s written on my board. In January, I decided to fill up my planned releases up until June 30 and I have 11 books from January to June 30 that are up on my board.
Bryan: That’s — wow, that’s one every two weeks.
Simon: And I currently have published, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. I’ve currently published eight of them.
Bryan: You’re ahead of schedule.
Simon: I’m ahead of schedule.
Bryan: Are the books all of similar length or do you write vary between shorter and longer books?
Simon: In the beginning, I tried to judge what a reader accepted so the Prison Days series are all around sort of 20,000 to 25,000 words because they’re nonfiction, because they’re based on diaries. I really didn’t need them any longer than that and I’ve never had issues with the readers. Readers just tend to love them so I try to stick to the same sort of number count for every series. With the Prison Days Inmates, the books are only 10,000 words. They’re very short. I even have quick reads on the cover just to let people know, you know what, this is something that you can read while you’re, I don’t know, taking a bus trip from work to home. They’re just very quick reads.
With my Lawson Chronicles, they’re all around sort of 80,000 to 90,000 words. They’re a little bit longer. With my Sam Rader, they’re all sort of around 50,000 words. So, it just depends on which series I’m talking. I don’t think I’ve ever had, you know, any sort of review or message from a reader saying books are too short or books are too long so I think I just stick to one very important rule that I have which is the story is a story. If the story takes 50,000 words to tell, then, that’s what I use. If it takes longer, then —
Bryan: Good rule.
Simon: — I could write longer. Yeah.
Bryan: It’s a good rule to have.
Simon: I try not to force stories, Bryan. That’s probably one of my key suggestions that I can tell people. Just don’t force it.
Bryan: When I’ve experimented with shorter books, one thing I’ve wondered about is pricing. Do you adjust the pricing based on the book length?
Simon: I do sometimes, I do. Prison Days Inmates, they’re all 99 cents or 99p, whichever country you’re in. For the Prison Days, the first book is 99 cents but the rest are 2.99, which only sort of went up in the last three or four months. I used to have them just at 99 cents for all of them but I found that I think I lost quite a bit of money playing things that way. With the Sam Raders, they’re all 3.99, as — I think all of my fiction books are actually 3.99 which I think is a pretty fair price and people are happy to pay that.
Bryan: Yeah, no, it is. It is, indeed. It is, indeed. So, Simon, where can people find more information about you or where can they buy one of your many books?
Simon: All of my links are on my website, which is pretty simple, it’s just booksbysimonking.com.
Bryan: Great. Well, I’ll put a link in the show notes. Thanks very much. It was nice talking to you.
Simon: Thank you, Bryan. I really appreciate the opportunity.
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