It was after midnight when Andrew Watts got the order to fly his U.S. Navy helicopter off its patrol route to a spot 100 miles off the coast of Somalia. Secrecy had been commonplace during his deployment, but the past few days felt more urgent. He soon learned that the U.S. Navy was responding to the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged cargo ship.
Through his night vision goggles, Watts spotted a group of Navy SEALs who had just parachuted into the ocean a few miles from his ship. Four pirates were holding the ship’s captain hostage on the Maersk Alabama’s lifeboat, now surrounded by two U.S. Navy warships. After a four-day standoff, the SEAL team Watts supported overpowered the pirates and saved the captain.
Time aboard Navy ships can be high-stress and include very little sleep. “There’s an incredible amount of work to do,” said Watts. But those deployments sometimes include stretches of time with less demand. During his 2012 deployment on the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, Watts used his free time to work out and read books.
Then, he decided to try something new. He wrote 50 pages of a novel.
After that deployment he put those pages away. He was honorably discharged from the military, and decided to settle into a more predictable role of corporate employee so he could spend more time with his family in Cincinnati, Ohio. He worked on new product development—overseeing 20 projects, only to see 19 of them get shut down. Seeking a hobby, and wanting to launch a business of his own, he edited those 50 pages he had written in his past life, and in 2015, published them as a novella on Amazon, with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
What is a novella?
Novellas are generally between 17,000 and 40,000 words—longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.
He sold a few copies and got four reviews in the first month. One review was from his mother. The former schoolteacher did not give him five stars. “Sorry honey, I’d love to, but you know… keep trying.”
“I didn’t know how bad what I was writing really was," Watts said, looking back at that first effort. "I was just writing for fun—I wasn’t aware of what good writing was.” Serendipitously, his employer sent him to a two-week course on how to build a television commercial—underscoring key elements like giving the customer a reason to believe.
Buoyed by his newfound knowledge and those few sales and reviews, he wrote and published a few more military novellas. But it turned out his readers, typically older men who also read Tom Clancy novels, didn’t really like novellas. They wanted an ending to the military suspense and drama. So Watts packaged those first four novellas, and sold them as a book.
As his book sold, he continued to write, even as he transitioned to a new role at work. Moving from marketing to supply chain management, he found better balance and more time to write.
He jumped headfirst into advertising his books, learning about analytics tools, social media marketing, digital ads, and email acquisition. During his first year of self-publishing, he spent more on advertising than he earned in sales. He kept learning and testing, and applying those learnings to improve his efforts.
Then, in 2017, he “jumped off the cliff" to go into writing and publishing full-time—perhaps a bit sooner than recommended, because he felt that the skills from that job—analysis, business concepts, capacity operations—would help him run his own small business, and, also because, “I believe in myself.”
Military service gave Watts an advantage over writers who are merely relying on their imaginations. He drew on his experiences to “amp up” the realism in his books. Fans of the military thriller genre love authenticity.
Watts has been able to successfully publish more than six books, and has since started a publishing company, Severn River Publishing, which was founded by military veterans and family members who shared a love of story. The publishing company is made up of mothers and fathers, authors and bookworms, soldiers and aviators. And most importantly, military spouses. His publishing company now has 11 authors under its wing. They're all focused on thrillers and mysteries. Some are indie authors, and still others are traditionally published authors with literary agents.
“KDP is allowing me to grow a business with limitless opportunities,” Watts said.
Watts employs two military spouses, a former Army officer, and a Navy reservist. “Military folks, I can trust implicitly,” he said, adding that they all have a strong sense of duty, persistence, flexibility, and drive. “Military spouses are the great untapped resource of the world. They’re sharp and capable. They support their military service members traveling around the world serving our country, and to do so, often make sacrifices with their own careers. We’ve been lucky enough to hire and train a few military spouses and they have been able to start a new career.”
Watts offers this advice for would-be authors struggling to write, “Just write a bad book—start with something that’s subpar, and learn. It’s extremely fulfilling, and once you’re confident enough to start that journey, KDP is the way to go. It’s a lot of opportunity, especially if you can shore it up with good marketing and branding.”