EP29: Kate Harrison | Bestselling Insights

Kate Harrison is a rare breed. A fiction and non-fiction award-winning author who used her insight experience with the BBC to produce a huge bestselling series of non-fiction diet and lifestyle books. We discuss with Kate about her phenomenally successful 5:2 Diet series, how she straddles the life as both a fiction and non-fiction author, and how her experience on shows like Panorama have shaped her storytelling.
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In this episode you will discover…

  • How to channel your personal experience and passion into your work
  • How to use search results to discover a market for your book and connect with your readers
  • How you can apply the classic hero’s journey to your non-fiction writing
  • How writing your book’s blurb first will help you stay on track
  • Some great tips for newsletter content

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)

Kate Harrison is the award-winning novelist of The Starter Marriage, Brown Owl’s Guide To Life, The Secret Shopper’s Revenge and more, but when she discovered a diet regime that changed her life, she used her insight experience with the BBC to produce a bestselling series of non-fiction 5-2 diet and lifestyle books.

How did the first 5-2 diet book come about?

It came about partly because of being an author, and sitting at my desk and using biscuits to reward myself. Although, I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, ever since trying out hideous cottage cheese and pineapple on crisp bread regimes in my late teens, thinking I was much bigger than I actually was. Then eventually I did become bigger than I had been then and I hit my highest weight just over five years ago now, and I was feeling really stressed out about it, and I watched a Horizon programme about intermittent fasting and thought maybe that could work, and tried it out for a short while. I saw the programme, but there weren’t any books explaining the latest science and how to do it, so I kind of made it up as I went along and I set-up a little Facebook group with a few friends who were also doing it, about six of us, and it really to started to work for me. For the first time in years of trying every diet going I thought that maybe this could work, and maybe I could stick at this?

And I thought I’m a writer, and it’s working, and there’s not a book about this, there’s a gap in the market, perhaps I could write a book about it, and it all went from there.

 

You were already published as a novelist. Did you approach a publisher for this?

I talked to my agent first of all and she thought it was a good idea and then we spoke to Orion and they had their doubts. They said who are you really to do this? You’re not a scientist, you’re not a doctor. I said, yes, but I am somebody who’s been through it, I have had that experience. So they said we’re not really sure about this idea, thanks, but no thanks.

I’d already worked on the idea and how I might like to do it and I know that I’m somebody who gets really enthusiastic about ideas and new things, so I thought maybe now is the time — with Kindle becoming a big thing about five years ago — to see if I can write this book anyway, put it out there, no harm done.

What were your expectations?

I didn’t know for sure, all I knew is I had found things out that I wanted to share. I also wanted to write it as a proper book. I knew that people had read my fiction, and I was a journalist before that, I didn’t want to rush something out that would be nonsense, so I approached it exactly the same that I would a conventionally-published book. As for my expectations, I guess I hoped people would buy it. I took some time away from the fiction to do it, so I hoped that I would make back the money from the time that I had given up to do it, and I also sensed that there were a lot of people out there who wanted to find out more about this, so I thought I could make it work. It was a bit of an experiment. I’m curious how things work, I was curious how intermittent fasting works, and I was curious about what we could do in terms of getting involved with the publishing process, getting behind the scenes, the nuts and bolts.

How much about the nuts and bolts did you know going in?

I knew quite a lot about pitching and reaching an audience and refining what you were offering to somebody, because I had worked in television and my most fun job that I did in television was working in programme development, which is coming up with the ideas for the wacky and weird and wonderful factual shows that were going to appear on BBC1 and BBC2. That was dream job really, apart from being an author. There was lots of sitting on bean bags and brainstorming and coming up with the wildest and wackiest ideas you could.

From that, I had also come to think in quite a lot of detail about the audience for a book. Specifically who you were aiming at, and how you would position that book, how you would think about what the title would be, what it would look like, specifically what areas you would look at, and the tone of voice, which is really relevant for fiction and non-fiction.

 

So, I think I understood about the marketing side. I’ve always had ideas about my covers, you won’t find an author who doesn’t have a strong idea about their cover when it’s given to them, but I’m not much of a designer. As for the actual getting out there and selling it through Kindle, we didn’t know much about it, but I did have a friend who had started writing erotic fiction. She had done some really interesting work on Amazon where she had gone in, and where you type something into Amazon it predicts what it thinks you’re going to want next — could be quite a dangerous thing with erotic fiction! — but she started typing in ‘Erotic fiction’ and then saw what came up. What were people actually looking for? It would tell you what people were actually searching for, and she worked out that people were looking for a student-teacher kind of thing. Not my scene! And we are talking about consenting adults here! She had worked that out and she designed a whole brand around that and it sold — not quite Fifty Shades-levels — but it sold incredibly well. And she was a conventionally-published fiction writer, who started making more money from her dirty books. She was doing really cool stuff, she talked me through it, she told me about an eBook that I could buy. I think it was called Making A Killing On Kindle, and it had a lot of the techniques that you could use. So, with my agent, we just embarked on this not knowing if we were going to make it work or not.

So your agent was completely on board?

Yes, she was, and she had actually started doing some experimenting with publishing direct already, but this was our big attempt at doing a non-fiction book, which in some ways is easier to do, I think, because you are offering something quite specific to people. You are saying, here’s how you can learn to lose weight, speak French, sell lots of books. You’re offering something that people are likely to Google. Whereas they’re unlikely to put into Amazon, ‘I’m looking for a book that makes me cry by the end of chapter thirteen, and then want to go off and travel the world by the end of chapter twenty-six.’

When did you start thinking about non-fiction?

I lost the weight in 2012. I was still losing it when I was writing the book. I guess my background in journalism (helped). I had written a lot of things. I had written the BBC’s guide to development and brainstorming techniques, so it wasn’t quite my first attempt, but certainly for a mass market audience it was my first go.

Do you find that people have connected with your books because it’s you telling your story?

A hundred percent. One of the things that I decided to do when I was planning the book originally was to include my own diary of trying this out. You won’t find that in a lot of diet books. An awful lot of health books come from a top-down approach. A doctor or a professor saying to you ‘This is what you should do.’ Sometimes that’s slightly patronising and it comes across as ‘You little person who can’t manage to lose weight, or sits on the couch all day and needs to learn to run.’ I was very much speaking as somebody who is an intelligent person — I like to think — but couldn’t find a way to lose weight, and wanted to talk about the pros and cons, so I wanted to talk about my bra being a bit too tight, and I showed this to my partner and said this is what I’m putting in, and he said, ‘Some of that’s a bit personal,’ and I said don’t worry, probably no one else will read it. It didn’t turn out quite like that.

Do you find a lot of fiction writers tell you they want to write non-fiction?

I get quite a lot of people who say ‘I wished I’d done that!’ on the diet. We (authors) write a book to understand something. When it’s fiction you might be thinking I really want to understand what goes into making a certain decision, or why somebody is the way they are, why they do extraordinary things, whether that’s good things or bad things.

I approach fiction and non-fiction the same way. It’s going through that journey of understanding and change.

 

If you’ve got a diet book, you are talking about; somebody’s got a problem, they are fatter or less healthier than they want to be, they have to go through a journey, a quest, a classic hero’s journey, and at the end of it you’re either going to have success, which might be a comedy or an uplifting book, or you’re going to have tragedy; they’re worse than they were when they started out. So whether you think about that in terms of a non-fiction story, or a fiction story, they are both offering the same thing. We read and we write, I think, to go through a journey vicariously. The only difference with this is I actually did it in real life as well.

Not all of your fiction readers would have followed you into non-fiction, so how did you build your readership? Was it through the Facebook group?

I set-up the Facebook group as a tool for me before I even had the idea of writing a book. Five years ago nobody had really got across the idea of Facebook groups and I had just started doing it, and I realised you could create a group that would bring people together, where you would have all the functionality of Facebook, the instant chat, being able to see people’s real names and so on, but it still could be quite private, so people would’t necessarily be seeing everything that was going on. We started that, just a few of us who were doing the fasting, and then once I’d had the idea for the book I thought this can be two things: a source of information, I can talk to other people about what they do. Do they skip breakfast? What are their favourite fast day meals? And, as the group grew, which was happening organically, I also had a great focus group of people who were doing the diet, and I also knew, from looking at what questions they were asking, what to address in the book. Of course, once the book was then out there, I could then say if you’re interested, I’ve written this book, it includes some of our experiences… That was a gift from a marketing point of view, because people wanted to read about people like them and to see what had been added, and I think that really helped.

I don’t think there’s much crossover between my fiction and non-fiction, in fact a lot of members of my groups will suddenly go, ‘I hadn’t realised you were that Kate Harrison! I have actually got your Brown Owl’s Guide To Life.’ Now, if you put my name into Amazon, the 5-2 Diet comes up first. It’s not what I imagined would happened, but when I get emails from people saying this could be my story, and reading how you were feeling low and unhealthy and worried about your health and your future, it makes me think I could do what you’ve done.

You started a podcast, too… That’s a foolhardy endeavour!

Because I loved broadcasting when I was working in TV, I saw this — and again it’s about the nitty-gritty of getting into something and thinking how can I do this and make it fun and learn to edit — my problem is that I am a real butterfly. I will land on something, and love it, and then want to move on. So, I did do my podcast, and I think there are 17 episodes, and I haven’t done one for about six months. In fact, it might be a bit longer than that. The thing is, I’m saying a lot of the same things, so if you listen from the first one right through to some of the interviews, you’ll still get a lot of the same information.

Did you ever think about using a pseudonym for the non-fiction?

I couldn’t really see the benefit of using a pseudonym. There are lots of challenges if you are trying to market fiction with having lots of different genres, and I have been a terrible pain to my publisher, messing around with my genres, and I’ve written YA as well, under the same name. It’s not easy. I like trying new things. For the non-fiction, the audience isn’t that different. They face the same struggles as I do. People who like cake, and like to eat out, and they’re not necessarily that different from my readership for fiction, which is predominantly women from the teens to retirement and beyond, and so it didn’t feel as if I was doing something so radically different. And many of them didn’t make the association anyway.

Do you think there are similarities in narrative in fiction and non-fiction books?

I know there’s been a huge amount of academic work on how we learn through story, and how we’ve learned right from sitting in front of the camp fire and being told not to go near that vicious animal that’s out there in the woods. I think it’s true; storytelling makes fact much more digestible. It’s something I did loads of in TV, writing a news story — there’s a reason we call it a news story — it’s not packaged just as fact, it’s packaged with a beginning, a middle and an end. We intrinsically and naturally relate to something that starts with a difficulty or or stage at that we’re at where we want to go to something new.

I think with fiction you’ve got that conscious goal, versus the unconscious need, and so your character wants something, but actually what they need to change in their lives, to come to the end of that story, might be something quite different.

 

I think we can all relate to that, because none of us quite know what our life story is going to be, we’re living it. And when a character is doing that, and is lost, that’s something we really empathise with. It’s the same with non-fiction. Your conscious and unconscious needs might be quite different. You might imagine that losing weight is going to change everything in your life for the better, actually it might just be the start of the journey. It might be about confidence, it might be about addressing some of the issues you have around food, but it’s still about coming through something, an experience, and being able to relate that to somebody else. As they live vicariously through it, they will either want to do something similar themselves, or they may want to do the opposite.

Even a recipe. You’re offering a hook, which is the title of the recipe, you might be writing a couple of lines to set the expectation, and then you’ve got your list of ingredients, your method, that’s the challenge to over come, and then the serving is your happy ending.

When you sat down to write fiction, did you borrow some of those non-fiction techniques?

They definitely have things in common, and I’m using a lot of the experiences that I had in TV, for example, so that when we used to sit down and plan a programme idea we would have this acronym: ANABC, which would be the answer to planning and to pitching a programme idea, and I think the same could be applied to fiction and non-fiction.

AN stands for Audience Need, which you could then see as reader need as well: what is it that they want to have delivered? In the non-fiction approach, that’s quite straightforward: they want to lose weight, they want to feel healthier, but I think it relates to the reader need as well, because if you look at what somebody wants from a crime book — they want to be on the edge of their seat, they want to enter into a scary world, they perhaps want to be afraid, or challenged, they want a resolution where they’re going to feel either all is good, or sometimes they want one where it says life is more complicated. So that’s your need. A romance book is quite different; you’re going to hopefully be ending up feeling that true love is out there in whatever form.

ABC is Approach, Benefit and Competition. Approach is your style. What is it that your idea and your writing style and view of the world is going to offer? How is that going to come out during the book?

Your Benefit is more about the emotional need with a fiction book. How is that person going to feel while they read the book and when they put it down. Is it going to be one that fills them with evocative sensory moments? Or is it going to be that they can’t stop reading? They’re flipping the pages and wishing it wasn’t over, but they need to know.

And Competition: what is already out there? I talked about the diet books. There are a lot of books wth people talking top down, there aren’t that many of people experiencing things. In fiction terms, competition is about saying have there been too many books with ‘Girl’ in the title? Is there too much thriller out there? Well, no, because people will always love a thriller. But what can you do that hasn’t got ‘Girl’ in the title? What can you do that hasn’t got missing children in it, which is the theme that seems to have been there for the last year or so? And if your book is about missing children, how can you flip it so that people still think it’s different enough that they haven’t read it all before.

And you do that at the beginning of writing a novel?

What I always do before I write a novel is to write the blurb on the back of the book. I always sit and think about the title. The title may change, the shoutline — the subtitle underneath, which is enhancing the title and saying to the reader ‘What’s the story question here?’ — and then the blurb on the back. I might not even know what the ending is myself, but I’ll know what the tone is. I know what it is that I’m offering to somebody. Am I going to thrill them? Am I going to make them cry? Am I going to make them laugh?

I check back quite often in the process of writing, because I get quite carried away. It’s like a little touchstone. I can come back and I can say, ‘Is this book delivering what I thought it was going to deliver at the beginning?’

 

If it’s going in a different direction, it doesn’t matter, actually. Because I can change the blurb far easier than I can change the story, but in terms of the emotional experience you’re offering the reader, and ultimately you’re going on yourself as a writer — you are your first reader — that’s the thing that’s as important.

The thing that I’ve learned from being a writer as well as being a reader is that it is the story every time, and it is the emotional content of the story that matters far more than the sentences.

 

There are, frankly, some books out there that are written in the ugliest sentences imaginable, but you cannot put them down. Movies, TV, factual programmes, it all has to be about the transformation, the jeopardy. What are you doing to your character? What are you therefore, by default, doing to your reader? Messing with their head. You have to be really clear on that. And that’s what the blurb does, that sums up what you’re offering.

How did you use insight at the BBC?

We used to brainstorm trends when I worked at the BBC. And you don’t think of the BBC as being particularly forward-thinking, you think of it as being stuffy old Auntie, but actually the development side of things was really quite far advanced.We would talk about brainstorming, idea showers and watering holes! Have you come across a watering hole? I think it came from Stanford University, so it’s very California-trendy. It’s the moment in the evening where all the big beasts of the jungle come together with a common purpose in mind — to drink water — without killing each other. In BBC terms this was about bringing together the big beasts, the commissioners, but lots of different backgrounds to try and build an idea. As mad as it sounds, it was just about getting people from different disciplines together to market and build an idea. We would look at a trend, we would say baking is trend, what can we do? When I came to have my first novel published in 2003, I remember talking to editors and the blank looks I used to get, ‘Oh, you couldn’t possibly be thinking who the reader is!’ I would ask, ‘Who do do you think is reading women’s fiction?’

‘Oh, I don’t know… Women? Who like fiction?’

Well yes, but what is it emotionally that they are getting out of it?

I don’t believe in writing by numbers, because for a TV programme or a novel to work it still has to have a heart to it, it still has to have a drive that the programme-maker of the writer wants to explore. It can’t be totally cynical.

 

I like the way that publishing is moving a bit closer towards understanding what people are getting out of a book. And I’m not just talking about demographics, I think you can number-crunch till the cows come home and it won’t give you a bestseller, I’m talking about who are the readers reading this? And what a lot of publishers and TV people don’t appreciate is just because I’m reading Bridget Jones one day, doesn’t mean that I’m not going to pick up Ian Rankin or a great American novel, or a history of the Romanovs the next day.

People read according to their moods. I don’t think you should put them into boxes.

 

Like, my reader is Charlotte, she’s 32, she commutes every day from Peckham Rye to this, that and the other… That’s wrong. I think it’s about the mood of your reader in that specific moment. What are you going to deliver to them?

If you’re on holiday, for example, you’ve got a completely different need. I’ve started listening a bit more to audiobooks recently. Certain books really work so well as an audiobook, and certain ones don’t, and I think even that comes down to — another awful word I hated from the BBC — ‘granulation’. When I first heard that, I thought what the hell does that mean? Granulated is sugar! But, really, going down to which books work as an audio experience, what your narrator needs to be like, is so interesting and I think we’re going to see more and more about what emotional response people are getting. Maybe even brain science: what bits are firing up when they’re listening to an audiobook versus reading a thriller versus and romance.

How do you plan a non-fiction book?

I sit down and think about those questions: who is going to be picking this book up, and what do they want to know? And then I might get loads and loads of Post-It notes and write those subjects all over; each different subject and sub-question on a different note and then have a bit of a fiddle around. There’s something quite nice about doing something physical. Actually writing something down, in handwriting, with lots of different colours, with a big board, and moving things around can feel like playing again, and that’s a lovely feeling. I’ve just been planning to do a course looking at some of these things. I did it the same way, thinking; What is my student going to want to know? Does this topic naturally come under that chapter? At what stage are they ready for each bit of information? How do you divide it up so it’s not too stodgy? I do actually use Scrivener more for non-fiction than fiction, because I find that ability to be able to have your virtual Post-It notes and move them around is very liberating. I tend to edit in Word, in more detail, but to get a first draft down (I use Scrivener). Even when it comes to recipes — I’ve written three recipe books now as part of this — what sections are going to go where? Is this a brunch or is it more of a salad? Where does it go and how should I structure it? Scrivener is so good for that, because it doesn’t tend to then freeze as Word often does if you’re trying to do a bit too manipulation of text.

Do you have a go-to book for how to write non-fiction?

Not especially. There isn’t as much devoted to that. I will read other non-fiction books for inspiration, by which I don’t mean diet books, but other books that are dealing with popular science, for example. There’s quite a lot of science running through what I’m dealing with, and I might read a really good food book if I’m trying to write better recipes. So it would be much more subject- or mood-specific again, rather than thinking that I need someone to tell me how to structure that book, because it all comes back — as I am saying ad nauseam — to story again!

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Mark D

Mark Desvaux (coach, bestselling recording artist, entrepreneur and author) is living the life of his dreams and works with people looking to live to their true potential and make a difference in the world.

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