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We’re Giving Away a New Kindle Fire HD and 13 Engrossing eBooks

Luc's writing projects

I joined up with five other authors  (Judson Roberts, Ruth Nestvold, Del Law, William Hertling, and Annie Bellet) to start a contest that runs all this month. First prize is a brand spankin’ new Kindle Fire HD with 13 eBook novels and collections of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. There are also 10 second prizes of three eBooks from your choice of those 13.

You can enter the contest up to once each (so a total maximum of three entries) through Twitter, Facebook, and on our contest Web page by simply listing the three books that most interest you from the list. You can enter and get all the details here.

Contest books include my own Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories and my novel of Vermont backwoods magic, Family Skulls. Some of the other books are William Hertling’s two futuristic AI novels, Judson Roberts’ deeply researched and action-drive Viking trilogy, Del Law’s unique and engaging fantasy novel of humans and non-humans in overlapping worlds, Annie Bellet’s novel of crime in fantasy city called Pyrrh, and Ruth Nestvold’s Arthurian Romance-Adventure novels.

Winners will be announced on New Year’s Day, 2013. Enjoy, and good luck!

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Collaboration Leads to 1800’s Witchery: The Violin Maker’s Wife

Luc's writing projects

I met fellow writer Maya Lassiter (who writes an eclectic and highly entertaining blog about her yurt-living, kid-and-goat-raising, writing life) back in 2001, when Orson Scott Card ran his first annual writing week, called Uncle Orson’s Literary Boot Camp. The workshop was open to 20 of us, who auditioned with writing samples, and it was completely transformational to my writing. Scott Card was the first one to get me to understand that you didn’t have to wait for ideas, that you could go out and find them whenever you needed them. He was the one who explained that most of us write about a million words of garbage (literally) before we really start getting good. He was the one who explained to me the principles of writing clearly rather than prettily.

It’s not a great surprise to me that many students of that Literary Boot Camp have gone on to substantial success. Doug Cohen became a successful fiction writer and the editor of a major fantasy magazine. James Maxey authored multiple successful novels, including the Bitterwood and Dragon Age series. Jud Roberts‘ deeply-researched and adventure-filled Strongbow Saga has garnered eager fans for its first three books, with a fourth on the way. Ty Franck’s collaboration with Daniel Abraham (as James Corey), Leviathan Wakes, became a bestseller. I could go on.

In any case, I later founded a group called Codex, which many Boot Camp alums joined, including Maya, and on Codex we like to have fiction contests. When we held a collaboration contest, Maya and I got together and came up with a story about violin making and badly-understood magic, a novelette that was eventually titled “The Violin Maker’s Wife.” It won that contest.

A couple of months ago, Maya and I decided to put the story out where it could be read and published it for the Amazon Kindle. Note that Amazon Prime members can read it free by using their free monthly Kindle rental.

Maya worked with her regular cover artist, Ida Larsen to devise a cover, and recently we finished the formatting and took it live. Here’s the description:

“The Violin Maker’s Wife” is a historical fantasy novelette, set in 1870s Missouri, and is about forty pages long.

Nora Warren always knew there was something uncanny about her husband Tom’s work. What she didn’t know what that his enchanted violins could be deadly. Tom’s friend has one of the exquisite instruments, as does Tom himself. So does Garrett, Nora’s only son.

But Tom has looked too deeply into his own magic, and Garrett is in danger. Now Nora must find the answers Tom can’t give her, even if it means searching for spells hidden in his workshop, questioning a secret society of musicians, and following dangerous lights out into the wilderness. Tom has looked where he shouldn’t, but to save Garrett it’s Nora who must find who–or what–has looked back.

 

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Jud Roberts: Nook vs. Kindle

eBooks and Publishing

Here’s a guest post from Judson Roberts, author of the Strongbow Saga trilogy of Viking novels. Jud had given his assessments of these two eReaders in an e-mail discussion, and on my request kindly agreed to put his observations into a blog post.

You can see a larger version of any image by clicking on it.


Two years ago, digital books, or e-books, were something that relatively few people had any personal experience with. Although e-books had actually been around for a number of years, they’d never really caught on. But in mid-2010, that changed. In the months leading up to Christmas, Amazon significantly reduced the price of its Kindle e-book reader. Sales of the device took off, and in January, when millions of new Kindles became activated, the rate of e-book sales exploded. It has been growing ever since.

E-books can be read on a wide variety of devices, including personal computers, tablet computers, smartphones, and dedicated e-book readers. But the tremendous growth in e-book sales that has occurred in the United States (the rate of e-book sales in overseas markets has not yet seen the same level of dramatic growth) has been, to a large extent, driven by repeated price reductions over the past year of the two most popular and widely used dedicated e-book readers: the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, particularly the top of the line Color Nook. In this column, I will offer my personal opinion and experiences with both devices (Why, you might wonder, would I own both devices? I’m an author and have published some of my books as e-books, so I use both devices in part to review my e-book editions prior to releasing them.).

First, their similarities. Neither device is intended by its parent company to be an open source e-reader. By that, I mean that each device is tied to its parent company’s store, and designed to most easily access e-books sold through that store. Unless the user is willing to undertake some work-around steps (which admittedly are not that difficult to do, and which I’ll address in more detail below), a Kindle can easily load and read only Kindle e-books purchased from Amazon; a Nook only Nook books purchased from Barnes & Noble. The actual process of purchasing an e-book is fairly similar for both devices: either on a computer, or directly from the device, you access the parent company’s website, select a book, purchase it (for the devices to be activated when purchased, both require an active account with the parent company), and the book will be sent to your device.

In addition to the parent company’s e-books, it is possible to load documents in various formats, including Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF, onto both devices. The Nook also accepts EPUB files, the mostly widely used e-book format (which Nook e-books are in), and the newer Kindles accept Mobi format files, another e-book format. Thus, if a user acquires or already possesses e-books in the PDF format, they can be manually loaded on either the Kindle or the Nook. Additionally, non-B&N EPUB e-books can be manually loaded onto the Nook, and non-Amazon Mobi format e-books can be manually loaded onto the Kindle. For the present, at least, Kindle readers do not accept EPUB files or books, and Nook Color readers do not accept Mobi files or e-books, or Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format (which is derived from the Mobi format).

Documents and non-Nook e-books are loaded onto the Nook by connecting it via a USB cable (supplied with the device) to a personal computer, and transferring or copying them from the computer to the Nook. Documents and non-Kindle e-books may be loaded onto a Kindle using the same procedure, but Amazon also offers a far easier procedure: each Kindle is assigned an email address, and some formats of documents can simply be attached to an email sent to that address, after which they will appear on the device within minutes. [Luc adds: there’s a free way to do this if you’re willing to receive your documents or eBooks through WiFi only and not through Amazon’s cellular Whispernet by sending it to a @free.kindle.com address: see your Kindle documentation for details. Also note that purchases from Amazon for the Kindle are automatically downloaded to the device.]

The Nook is WiFi only, which means that it cannot connect to the B&N website and acquire and load new books unless it is connected to a WiFi network. The Kindle is available in two different connectivity options: WiFi only, or an always-available connection via 3G cell phone networks. The latter does not require any additional charge or plan for network access and use, but the 3G versions of the Kindle device are more expensive than the WiFi only versions. Both devices, when connected, offer some degree of web browsing capability.

The two devices differ most markedly in how they operate. The Color Nook is a touchscreen device that looks much like a tablet-style computer, and runs on a version of Google’s popular Android operating system, which is widely used in non-Apple smartphones and tablet computers. Indeed, Barnes & Noble has even advertised the Color Nook as the least expensive Android tablet available. That is a dangerous claim to make, although not because of the price. Compared to other Android devices, the Color Nook is either extremely underpowered or its capabilities have been grossly limited by Barnes & Noble’s restrictive control over the device.

Barnes & Noble’s Color Nook

As a touchscreen-controlled device, the Color Nook has almost no manual controls: just an on/off power button on one side, manual plus/minus volume control buttons on the opposite side—all of which are very discreetly built into the side edges of the Nook–and a “home” button at the bottom of the front screen. Other than these functions, all other navigation and use of the device is controlled via the touchscreen.

Touchscreen devices can be extremely easy and intuitive to use. Unfortunately, the Color Nook is not. In fact, I’ll be blunt: it is the worst touchscreen device I have ever seen. When reading e-books on the device, for example, you can, in theory, advance to the next page by either tapping the right side of the screen or by making a swiping motion across the screen from left to right. Similarly, to go back to a previous page you either tap the left side of the screen or swipe from right to left. In my experience, however, only the swiping motions are consistently reliable. A significant percentage of the time the Nook’s screen is so unresponsive that the tapping technique produces no result.

Many functions on the Nook must be performed through one of two onscreen menus. Neither of the menus are always visible. One menu appears at the bottom of the screen when a U-shaped on-screen symbol at the screen’s base is tapped. The other, which controls functions within a book or document, such as word look-up or highlighting, appears only if you touch and hold the exact center of the screen. Why, one wonders, could the menus not be consolidated, and who thought it was a good idea to require completely different methods and locations for accessing them? And even the few mechanical controls leave much to be desired. For example, to completely power off the Nook, one must press and hold the on/off switch for several seconds, then tap an onscreen confirmation button that appears, asking if you really, truly mean to turn the device off. More than once, I’ve thought I had powered the device off, when it actually was still running (to save power, the screen goes black after a very brief span of inactivity). That’s a problem, because the Nook has a relatively short period of battery life between chargings to begin with. Having it go dead when you erroneously think it is turned off is exasperating.

My personal dissatisfaction with the Nook stems in no small part from the fact that I have seen how delightfully easy to use an Android e-book reader, when well designed and executed, can be. I own an Android smartphone (a Galaxy S phone made by Samsung). In addition to the actual Kindle ebook reading device, Amazon offers free Kindle reader apps for a wide variety of devices, including smartphones, tablet computers, and personal computers. The Kindle app came preloaded on my phone, and I love it. Now, when I’m out and find myself in a situation where I have time to fill on my hands (waiting at the doctor or vet’s office, etc.), I can just pull out my phone, fire up the Kindle app, and read a bit on a book—it even automatically synchronizes to the last page I read on my actual Kindle. But most importantly, it is—unlike the Nook—SO effortless to use. The screen may be smaller than the Nook’s, but the font size, background color, and brightness are all easily adjustable, so I find the reading experience to be at least as comfortable as on the Nook’s larger screen. Both the smartphone and the Nook are backlit screens, though, so reading on them for an extended time can be more tiring to the eyes than reading a printed page.

The B&N Color Nook versus the free Amazon Kindle app on a smartphone

The Nook versus smartphone comparison raises another flaw with the Nook. One of the great things about smartphones is the numerous apps you can load and use on them. Their variety and functions are almost endless, and there are countless Android based apps available. As an Android device, the Nook should be able to use them, too. But no—Barnes & Noble does allow a few apps, sold through their store, to be installed and used on the Nook, but the selection is limited and is strictly controlled by B&N, in their own inimitable style. For example, Epicurious is an excellent cooking website with numerous recipes that are well organized, easy to search, and are even rated by users. There is a free Epicurious app available for Android smartphones—my wife loves it, and uses it all the time. Barnes & Noble now offers the Epicurious app through their store for the Color Nook, too—but they charge $5.99 for an app that is available free for other Android devices.

The actual Kindle e-book reader is a completely different kind of device than a touchscreen Nook or smartphone. It is controlled entirely by a manual keyboard below the screen and by various manual buttons, all of which are clearly labeled as to what function they perform. While the result may not present as sleek and elegant an appearance as the Color Nook, it works well and is easy to use. If I want to access the menu, I simply press the button labeled “Menu,” then navigate the options than appear onscreen using the multi-directional navigation and select button. If I want to go to the home page, where all books currently loaded on the device are listed and accessible (and from where I can access other Kindle books I’ve purchased, but which are not currently loaded on the device), I press the “Home” button.  If I wish to advance to the next page, or go back to the previous one, I press the forward or back buttons located on both sides of the device. The Kindle is like a good tool whose design is based on considerations of function first, and appearance second. I liken it to a hammer that so perfectly fits your hand and is so well balanced that you strike true with it every time. It’s a personal preference, but give me function over flash.

The Amazon Kindle, shown here mounted in the optional leather cover which includes a pull-out reading light for nighttime reading.

The Kindle uses e-ink technology, which offers several advantages and one disadvantage. The advantages are that the technology uses very little power, so the Kindle can be used for very long periods without needing to recharge the battery. And because the screen is not backlit, it is as easy on the eyes as a printed page—or in some ways, even easier, because you can increase the font size if you wish. Plus it can be read outside, in bright sunlight, something most backlit touchscreen devices manage poorly or not at all. And the Kindle is mch lighter in weight to the Color Nook, too.

The Color Nook does have one area of clear advantage: color. At the current time, e-ink readers such as the Kindle (Barnes & Noble also offer less expensive e-ink Nooks) are only black and white—or more accurately, multiple shades of grayscale. This means that a book’s cover, and color illustrations inside if the book has any, appear in black and white tones. If I intended to purchase an e-book with color illustrations, I would probably choose to buy it in Nook format from Barnes & Noble, since I do have a Color Nook. But for any other kind of e-book, the Kindle is my hands-down favorite and go-to e-book reader choice.

And it’s not just the devices themselves, although I do prefer the Kindle device over the Nook. I also think Amazon is a better store, and I much prefer dealing with it than with Barnes & Noble. Their search engines do a much better job of recommending new books to you, based on your past purchases and search efforts in their store, and Amazon has a well-established policy of trying to encourage, attract, and satisfy its customers. Barnes & Noble, in my opinion, does not. For example, they flood my e-mail inbox every week with new book recommendations and coupons (remember that you have to set up an account with the parent store to activate the device? This is what B&N does with your e-mail address that you must provide them). But the recommendations aren’t personalized to my reading history, they’re just whatever book(s) B&N is pushing that week (and pushing probably due to “placement” payments from the publishers, just as they do for prominent shelf placement of print books within their actual bricks and mortar stores). And what’s worse, the small print on all of the special “sale” coupons included with these emails specifies that Nook e-books are specifically excluded –they’re always full price. Talk about a turn-off!

In conclusion, if you want a good, easy to use e-book reader, backed by the best e-book supplier in the business, m advice is to get an Amazon Kindle. If you really have to have a flashier, state of the art color touchscreen device, I‘d suggest paying extra and getting a fully functional tablet device such as an iPad, and installing the free Kindle app on it. Or better yet, just wait a bit. Rumor has it that Amazon may be coming out with its own color e-reader by the end of this year. Based on their past record, they’re likely to get it right.

Judson Roberts is the author of the historical fiction series The Strongbow Saga (which is available in both Kindle and Nook e-book versions, as well as in print editions).

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Learning to Hate Google Books

eBooks and Publishing

Today’s guest post about Google Books is by Judson Roberts, author of the Strongbow Saga. You can find him on Amazon.com, and his Web sites are StrongbowSaga.com and JudsonRoberts.com.


Jud says: I don’t actually hate all things Google. Google is still the Internet search engine I use more than any other, I love Google maps and Google Earth, and the free Google Navigation app on my Android phone is a wondrous thing, indeed.

But I am learning to hate Google Books. Let me explain.

I’m an author and, like many other authors, have been, over the course of the past year, republishing, as self-published books, some of my titles that my original publisher had taken out of print. So far, that’s been a mostly very pleasing project. The Amazon Kindle e-book versions are doing very well–much better than they ever did when published by HarperCollins, their original publisher–and the new print-on-demand print editions are selling steadily, too. They’re now for sale as Nook books at Barnes & Noble (and that has been a much less happy experience, but the problems with B&N I’ll leave to a separate rant). So I decided my next frontier would be Google’s relatively new e-book store.

I think I can honestly say that I have never–NEVER–dealt with a more user unfriendly operation. How can an organization that prides itself on creating intuitive, user friendly programs and applications have created such a monster?

An author cannot get to the Google e-book store, to place his books up for sale there, unless he first becomes a “partner” with Google Books. What does that mean? Well, I confess that I’m not totally sure. There are pages and pages and pages of legal mumbo-jumbo you have to wade through and agree to. I’m a lawyer, and usually actually read that kind of thing, but the Google Books disclaimers, agreements, etc., etc. left my head spinning. Hopefully I have not granted Google exclusive rights to the first born child for the next three generations of my family.

Then, you have to give Google Books a copy of the print version of your book. That’s the heart of their whole plan: Google is trying to create a vast digital library of every book in print, and many now out of print, and if you want to sell e-book editions through Google, you have to give them the right to add your book to their digital library (what rights do they have over it once it’s there? I don’t know, which is scary). One option is to mail them a print copy, so they can disassemble the book and scan it into their database, but the alternative they strongly encourage is that you save them any effort by just uploading a PDF version of the book.

Okay–I do want to place my e-books in the Google e-book store, so I did. Or at least I tried. But the Google Book Uploader would not work for me. After an hour or more of digging through multiple layers of “help” pages, I discovered why. Google requires you to rename any book files you submit according to their internal naming conventions. If you do not, their Uploader will not accept them.

Think about that for a minute. And to help you, let me explain how the similar process occurs with Amazon. You enter the relevant data such as title, author, price, etc., then click on the file(s) to be uploaded to give Amazon the actual text, cover image, etc. Since you’re uploading the file within the framework of all the other data about the book you’ve provided, there’s really no possibility that the book file(s) will somehow get lost. But with Google, after you enter the title, author, etc., you also have to correctly rename any book files you upload, or they will not go through. It perhaps would be only a minor irritation if Google simply told you that up front, but when you have to dig through layers of unhelpful “help” pages to discover that fact, it’s infuriating. Plus, the Uploader guidelines say check back regularly, and within a week they’ll let you know whether your upload was successful, or you have to try again. I’m still in Google Books limbo.

And then there’s the pricing issue. Google’s e-book store sells internationally, as does Amazon’s Kindle store. With Amazon, all an author has to do is set the U.S. price in dollars, and the price in other currencies, such as British pounds or Euros, will be automatically set to correspond. With Google, you have to “activate” each individual territory, and part of that process includes setting the price there. You can either accept Google’s default option, which will set the e-book price at 80% of the print edition’s price–a price I personally feel is too high for e-book editions in most cases–or you have to manually set the price in each given territory’s currency. Thank you so much, Google, for being so author-friendly and helpful.

Photo by iansand

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The Strongbow Publishing Saga: Part II

eBooks and Publishing

Judson Roberts is a former organized crime prosecutor and current full-time writer living in Texas. His series of historical novels set among the Vikings, The Strongbow Saga, was originally published by HarperCollins and is now finding even greater success published through Roberts’ own Northman Books. This Codex Blog Tour interview follows up on an earlier interview about the writing of the books, following the Saga‘s sometimes difficult path through the publishing world and out the other side to readers. It was preceded by part I.

Has it been a great advantage to have an existing readership or fan base for the series? Are there other advantages you felt you had, coming into the self-publishing arena? Any special disadvantages?

This sudden upward jump
When we’re talking about the first two books of the series that were taken out of print by HarperCollins, whose rights reverted back to me, and that I republished myself, I’m not sure to what degree, if any,  having an existing readership or fan base was a measurable advantage. Existing fans of the series who had already read books 1 and 2 aren’t likely to be the purchasers of the new editions of those same volumes. But since they were republished in December, sales of those two books, in their new Kindle editions, have taken off to a really surprising degree─and sales of the Kindle edition of book 3, which HarperCollins still owns the rights to, have increased along with them. So the real question is when I did republish books 1 and 2, self-publishing them myself through Amazon, what has caused this sudden upward jump in sales, after some years of very low figures while the same books were under HarperCollins’ care?

And to be perfectly honest, the answer is that I don’t know. Over the years, the books─and especially Viking Warrior,  book 1 of the series─have accumulated a significant number of 5 star reader reviews on Amazon. I have to think that that strong base of positive reader reviews helps sell the books to new readers. But that doesn’t explain how or why so many potential new readers are now going to the books’ pages on Amazon, where they may be influenced by the reviews there.

“Low e-book prices boost sales”
There are several reader reviews of Viking Warrior that specifically recommend the series to readers who enjoy Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden, two very widely read authors of historical fiction. In recent months Amazon has apparently linked the Strongbow Saga in their search engines and customer recommendations to those authors, plus some other popular historical fiction writers, so I suspect that kind of product recommendation is sending many prospective new readers to the series. And finally, there is the issue of pricing. Like most traditional publishers currently are doing, when HarperCollins owned them they priced the e-book versions of all three books close to the cost of print versions (and the e-book edition of book 3 is still priced that way). Publishers do this because they fear that if they price e-books too low, e-book sales may “cannibalize” sales of print editions, on which the publishers make a majority of their profit. But the conventional wisdom espoused by authors who have considerable experience self-publishing through Amazon and other e-book venues is that lower priced e-books sell much better, and the higher sales volumes generated by low pricing more than compensates for the price differential, particularly when Amazon’s 70% royalty rate to authors is factored in. In accordance with that theory, I priced my new e-book editions low, and the greatly increased sales volume they are experiencing would certainly seem to support the argument that low e-book prices boost sales.

But to reiterate, I really don’t know exactly what factors have raised a series that was given its last rites and declared dead by its original publisher not only back to life but to a new level of popularity that it had never achieved before. Maybe it’s just fate─that would certainly be fitting for a series about the Vikings.

 

In that case, what will be your strategy going forward? Are you just concentrating on the short term for now, or are there things you’re doing for the long-term success of your career, too?

“Long-time fans have been kept waiting too long”
I guess I’d answer that by saying I’m focusing on the short term─meaning by that what I hope to achieve over the course of the next two to three years─but my short term plan should have long term effects. My most immediate goal is to write book 4 of the Strongbow Saga, and publish it myself in e-book and print format. Long-time fans of the series have been kept waiting for the next installment of the story too long, and now that Amazon has made self-publishing such a viable and potentially profitable option for authors, there is no reason to delay further.

“A specialized agent is still needed”
Another short term career goal is to try and get HarperCollins to release the rights to book 3 back to me, so that I will own the entire series. Considering how badly they mismanaged the books, it’s galling that they still control one book in the series. Once I achieve that, I plan to look for an agent who specializes in foreign and subsidiary rights. Although I can now handle getting the series out in English language print and e-book formats─and through Amazon, can sell the English language e-books internationally, reaching markets they’ve previously not been able to touch─I’d still like to make the books available overseas in translated versions, so readers in Europe and other areas can read them in their native languages. I’d like to make audio book editions available, too, and of course would love to see the story on film, if possible. All of those things are the kind of subsidiary rights a specialized agent is still needed for.

Once I finish writing and publishing book 4 of the series, I intend to return to The Beast of Dublin, the stand-alone historical thriller that’s set in Ireland about five years before the Strongbow Saga begins. It sets up a new character who will play a major role in the fifth and final book of the Strongbow Saga, so it needs to be completed, too. At this point in time, I’m leaning toward self-publishing it, too, but so far am willing to keep my options open.

My last career goal, for the short term, is writing book 5, which will wrap up the Strongbow Saga. After that, who knows?

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The Strongbow Publishing Saga: Part I

eBooks and Publishing

Judson Roberts is a former organized crime prosecutor and current full-time writer living in Texas. His series of historical novels set among the Vikings, The Strongbow Saga, was originally published by HarperCollins and is now finding even greater success published through Roberts’ own Northman Books. This Codex Blog Tour interview follows up on an earlier interview about the writing of the books, following the Saga‘s sometimes difficult path through the publishing world and out the other side to readers. It will be followed by part II this weekend.

I gather there were some publishing problems with the original editions of your Strongbow Saga books, including things like the publisher not sending out any review copies (a major concern!), the covers seeming to suggest a romance rather than a historical adventure, the publisher not picking up the fourth and fifth books, and other issues. Despite these kinds of problems, though, for a long time traditional publishers have been pretty much the only game in town. So what made you feel it was worth putting your full efforts into republishing the books yourself?

Unfortunately your relatively simple question does not have a correspondingly short and simple answer. Let me explain.

The original Viking Warrior cover

“A stealth event”
Initially it was not so much a case of me rejecting traditional publishing as it was traditional publishing rejecting me. As you have very succinctly summarized, I had many problems with HarperCollins, the original publisher of the Strongbow Saga. The way they handled the series—decisions they made, things they did and things they didn’t do—had the practical effect of making the first three books’ publication a stealth event. It’s hard for bookstores, librarians, etc. to become enthused about books and encourage readers to try them if the booksellers and librarians have themselves not heard of them. Since the publication in 2006 of book 1 of the series, Viking Warrior, the series has slowly—very slowly─but steadily developed a devoted fan base, but slow and steady is not a model that traditional publishers consider successful any more. Even before the publisher released book 3, they had pretty obviously decided to abandon the series. But in the original contract I’d signed with the publisher, they purchased not only the right to publish the first three books of the series, but also the right to buy the rest of the series. Book 3, The Road to Vengeance, was published in 2008, but for two years after that the publisher refused to buy the rest of the series, but also refused to release their option on those books.

Sometimes I tend to be stubborn”
Both my primary editor at HarperCollins (who has since jumped ship and moved to another publisher) and my agent─now my former agent─said essentially that they were dumbfounded by the series’ failure to catch on, but that, unfortunately, “these things occasionally happen,” and I should just move on. My agent even told me that given the series’ relative lack of success with HarperCollins, one of the largest publishers, there was virtually no chance that any other publisher would be interested in picking the rest of the series up. Sometimes I tend to be stubborn, though. I was unwilling to give up on a story and characters I’d invested so much of myself in, and had come to care so much about. Plus, by this time I was getting emails every week from readers who had stumbled upon the series, fallen in love with it, and were anxious to find out what was going to happen next to Halfdan. I felt like readers were seeing something in the books that the publisher had missed, and that I owed it to them, and to myself, not to give up.

“A long-term, patient plan”
So I came up with a plan─a long-term, patient plan─to resurrect the Strongbow Saga series. And that original plan was still based on the traditional publishing model. I decided to set as my goal writing a stand-alone thriller, in a historical setting, that would hopefully attract a big publisher, become a best seller (or at least close to it), and develop a large audience of new readers who would be hungry to read more books by me. I would set the thriller in the period and world of the Strongbow Saga, and many of its characters would be from that series, so it would naturally tend to send readers to the series. And that, I hoped, would be enough to interest some traditional publisher in finishing the remaining books of the Strongbow Saga.

My plan became the book-in-progress now titled The Beast of Dublin. It’s set in Ireland around 840 A.D.─five years before the Strongbow Saga begins, and the year when Viking invaders established the armed encampment that eventually grew into the city of Dublin. It’s a complex story that weaves together multiple story lines involving various Viking and Irish characters, and because it sets up part of the eventual final novel of the Strongbow Saga series, in some ways it’s a prelude to the series. The thriller element involves a reworking of the Beowulf legend, with a twist─9th century Vikings would have been very familiar with that story, so when a mysterious creature begins raiding their camp at Dublin and slaughtering their people seemingly at will, they come to fear that a Grendel, similar to the beast that Beowulf fought, is attacking them.

The Beast of Dublin has proved to be a difficult book to write, and two years into it I still have a long way to go before it’s finished. The historical research has been very challenging─available original Irish sources give a confusing, muddled picture of what was happening in Ireland during this period─and trying to coherently tell so many different characters’ stories, from their varied viewpoints, has also been a major learning curve for me. In the meantime, lots of change was occurring in the world of publishing, and with the Strongbow Saga.

“A victim of this shedding process”
The recession hit the publishing industry very hard. As traditional publishers found themselves losing money, they began shedding most of their so-called mid-list authors─ones whose books never reach best seller status, but who have a devoted fan base and sell steady but modest numbers of books─and putting more and more of their efforts into seeking out and investing in books they hoped would be best sellers, which tend to produce rapid pay-offs and profits for publishers. The Strongbow Saga was a victim of this shedding process: during 2009 and 2010, the first two books of the series were taken out of print by the publisher, and a formal decision to drop the series─thereby releasing the option clause on it─was finally made.

“Over seven million new Kindles”
Meanwhile, Amazon, with great prescience, was aggressively moving into the publishing marketplace by carving out for themselves a huge market-share advantage in the, at that time, nascent e-book market. The various ploys and tactics Amazon put into play are too numerous to detail here, but their strategy was, in my opinion, brilliant. Because Amazon’s e-book market share dominance is predicated in part on offering e-books at a substantially lower cost than print versions─something traditional publishers have fought tooth and nail against─it also instituted a policy of trying to persuade authors to bypass publishers altogether and publish their works directly through Amazon, by offering them an incredible 70% royalty rate on e-book sales for books that authors self-published and priced between $2.99 and $9.99 (by contrast, most traditional publishers pay authors royalty rates between 10-15%, sometimes lower, on print editions, and even on e-books, at most 25%). Then, in the fall of 2010, Amazon cut the price of its Kindle e-book reader to $139. During 2010, mostly during the months of October, November, and December, Amazon sold over seven million new Kindles.

For the first half of 2010, e-books were still a pretty insignificant segment of the overall publishing market. Even so, I began to hear stories of authors who were making significant income self-publishing their books─whether previously published books that had reverted back to them, or new books that had never been published─as e-books in Amazon’s Kindle store. At a Novelists Inc. conference in the fall of 2010, I heard one of these authors, J.A. Konrath, talk about his own experiences with Amazon self-publishing, and at the same conference a number of industry executives, including from some of the big, traditional publishers, all agreed that the e-book market was suddenly, rapidly expanding much faster than anyone  in the industry (with the exception of Amazon, of course) had expected. All of the speakers expected a huge surge of e-book sales beginning in January 2011 when the millions of new Kindles being given as Christmas gifts came online.

“As easy as pulling teeth”
After several months of struggling with HarperCollins—the process was about as easy as pulling teeth from someone with tightly clenched jaws─I managed to get the rights to books 1 and 2 of the series, the volumes that had already been taken out of print, reverted back to me. The obvious next step for me to pursue at that point, given what was happening in the publishing world, seemed to be republishing them myself through Amazon as Kindle e-books.

The Saga of The Strongbow Saga continues with the next post, to come.

Photo by kodomut

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Judson Roberts: “A slave … set upon the path to becoming a great warrior”

Interviews

Judson Roberts is a former organized crime prosecutor and current full-time writer living in Texas. His series of historical novels set among the Vikings, The Strongbow Saga, was originally published by HarperCollins and is now finding even greater success published through Roberts’ own Northman Books. This Codex Blog Tour interview considers violence in novels, Roberts’ fascination with Viking culture, and young adult versus adult fiction.

Your book series, The Strongbow Saga, follows the fortunes of a Viking thrall-turned-warrior. What spurred your fascination with this time period and character?

My first efforts at a novel, which spanned a number of years but did not result in anything publishable, were focused on writing a contemporary mystery/thriller, trying to follow the advice “write what you know”–I’d spent most of my adult life working in law enforcement. After hearing novelist Bernard Cornwell speak at a conference, though, I started thinking about writing a historical novel. I’d been fascinated by the Vikings as a child, and at the time there was very little fiction out there set during the Viking period, so that seemed a likely period to focus on.

I devoted about a year to in-depth research before I even considered beginning to write. That led me to realize that my childhood perceptions of the Vikings, based on such sources as the old Hollywood movie The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, had been quite inaccurate. Although many Viking-age Scandinavians did engage, at least occasionally, in organized piracy, they were far from the primitive, fur-clad barbarians of popular perception. I came to realize that they in fact had a highly developed culture that in many ways resembled that of the ancient Mycenaean Greeks of Homer’s Iliad. Moreover, I discovered that much of what we consider today to be concepts, rights, and heritage derived from medieval England had in fact originated with the Viking–things set down in the Magna Carta like the right to a trial by jury, a belief in an individual’s right to freedom, and the concept that even the king (or other central government) was subject to and must obey the law. My plan to write a good story set in a historical period grew into a desire to use that story to portray the Vikings in a more realistic, favorable light than had been done in the past.

Of course, there were challenges in trying to make the Vikings sympathetic to an audience of modern readers, because they did have their dark sides. The Vikings were heavily engaged in the slave trade, for instance. How could the hero of my story have distaste for, and even choose to avoid being involved in, some of the unsavory aspects of Viking culture that the typical Viking would not even question, without making him unbelievable by giving him modern sensibilities? I decided he had to be both a member of the Vikings’ culture and society but at the same time an outsider–a technique that James Clavell used so effectively in Shogun. So Halfdan, the protagonist of The Strongbow Saga, begins the story as a slave, a victim of the Vikings, but through a twist of fate is freed and set upon the path to becoming a great warrior among them.

Did you come up with a particular plan for handling the violence in the books early on, or did you play it by ear?

I didn’t have any plan specifically about violence. It’s very important to me, in this series, to try and portray Viking society and culture as accurately as possible. One of my major research sources has been the Viking sagas. Most of them were put into written form during the early Middle Ages, after the actual time of the Vikings, but they were derived from the Vikings’ strong oral literature tradition. Again, there’s a strong similarity to Homer’s Iliad—both were put into the written form that has survived to the present time centuries after the original stories were first created as oral literature, but archeological and other research has confirmed that there’s a great amount of underlying truth in both the Iliad and in many of the sagas.

What is striking in reading the old sagas is that extreme acts of violence could erupt so suddenly in the Viking culture. It was a fairly violent period of history anyway, and when the Vikings’ touchy sense of honor was added into the mix, it seems that frequently it did not take much of a spark to ignite a deadly confrontation. To draw another parallel, the strong coupling of honor and violence are strikingly similar to the medieval Japanese samurai culture that Clavell evokes so effectively in Shogun. To portray Viking culture accurately, the violent side cannot be ignored, but I tried never to insert gratuitous violence into the story.

Your books were originally marketed by HarperCollins as young adult novels, although my sense is that the series is written with adults in mind first of all. What are your thoughts about the series as young adult versus adult? Is this a meaningful distinction for your work?

When planning and writing the series, it was always my intention to be writing adult fiction. The agent whom I signed with, who was the first agent I’d been able to interest in the book (I had completed book 1 at the time, and had an outline and a very rough, early draft of the next two in the series) after a long and rather demoralizing search, specialized in children’s and teen books, but she assured she handled adult fiction, too. She proved unable to interest any editors of adult fiction in it, though, so after some months asked my permission to try selling the book to young adult fiction editors. I’d never even heard of the term “young adult” before then, but I agreed, and fairly quickly after that she made the sale to the Children’s Division of HarperCollins.

Had my editor there asked me to rewrite the books to make them more suitable for children, I’m not sure how I would have felt or responded. Fortunately, though, she didn’t—she said she felt older teen readers were perfectly capable of reading the books as I wanted to write them, so I continued to write books 2 and 3 of the series as adult fiction. So the “young adult” designation did not in any way affect how I wrote the story of The Strongbow Saga, but it certainly had a major impact on the series in other ways.


Roberts has made an impressively successful transition from traditionally published author to indie self-publisher. In a follow-up interview, we’ll talk about his tactics, expectations, and results in supplanting HarperCollins as the publisher of his own works.

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eBooks: What Will Happen Over the Next Decade?

eBooks and Publishing

In a discussion of eBooks on Codex, an online writer’s group I started seven years ago, the subject came up of market saturation: with more and more eBooks hitting the market as the readership expands, will there come a time when there are too many books out there for many of them to make more than a little money? In response to that question, here are some predictions about the eBook market over the next decade, based on thinking about social and technological trends.

One reason I’m as interested as I am in this topic that I have friends on Codex who are beginning to see real success (measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars) through eBook publishing, primarily for the Kindle, especially Judson Roberts with his compelling and exceptionally well-researched series of Viking novels and James Maxey with his inventive and emotionally complex novels about dragons, dragon hunters, and superheroes. (See also Jud’s Web site at judsonroberts.com and James’ at jamesmaxey.blogspot.com.) Also fascinating is the POD success of Maya Lassiter with her free audiobook, Conjuring Raine, which to date has been downloaded more than 2,000 times.

Many more eBooks coming
I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet in terms of number of eBooks available: people who are putting out eBooks now are still early adopters, but before long publishers will be putting out every last book they have rights to, many more writers will take books out of the submission cycle of traditional publishing and try to get some juice out of the eBook market instead, and the majority of authors (and authors’ estates) who have rights to their backlists will make those books available as eBooks too. Why leave money on the table, after all? Most things that have gone out of print ever will reappear, along with many things that were written over the past few decades but never made it into print, making the field much more crowded.

By the way, I’m suspecting there will be at least a few amazing finds among books that have been lost in slush–along with lots and lots and lots of garbage.

Many more readers coming, and not just the ones we already write for
At the same time, over the coming decade the market for English language eBooks will continue to expand, not only as eReaders are adopted by an ever-increasing percentage of the public in English-speaking countries, but as eReaders and smartphones reach more and more of the world’s population. In the past almost all English-language writers have been writing mainly for native English speakers. As China and India and the Middle East and the rest of the world adopt eReaders, barriers to books from here reaching English speakers in other countries will fall. How many of your books are available in India, for instance, a country that has very nearly as many English-speakers as the United States? Or Nigeria, where English-speakers number almost 80 million? Or even in Australia, for that matter?

Further, as English language materials become more widely available, and as communication across national boundaries continues to expand, especially over the Web, many more people will learn English than have in the past. If you live in Mongolia, for instance, ten years ago English would have been of little use to you. Today if you know English and have any kind of Internet access, you have access to the largest  single-language collection of information and entertainment ever in the history of humankind.

So even though there’s going to be more competition, I think it’s still going to be boom time for English language writers for the next decade or so, and with the continued spread of English, some growth for another decade or two after that, and possibly even longer.

This growth in number of readers will not be matched by writers from those same areas. If you speak English well, you can be a reader of English-language books–but to write a good book in English, you have to speak the language like a native, which most readers from non-English-speaking countries don’t. Writers who write in English are likely to benefit from all of this at the expense of writers who work in other languages.

More readers means yet more eBooks
This in turn will lure more people to writing as more and more writers begin making a living through self-published eBook sales. Writing has always been alluring to a lot of people, but most would-be writers are scared off or beaten down by the process of repeated rejections, or else stuck in a decades-long pattern of submit-and-be-rejected. Lifting the barriers means not only removes practical obstacles to getting published, but also emotional obstacles. No longer will you have to be the kind of person who persists in the face of depressingly horrible odds to get your work out. (It could be argued that self-publishing has been an option for a long time, but I’d argue back that getting someone to print your books isn’t the same as having the opportunity to actually get them in front of readers.)

With an influx of less experienced writers who don’t have to get past editorial obstacles, there will be a lot more bad writing available. This, together with the increased use of eReaders and the overall rise in number of eBooks, will create a powerful push for better eBook finding and selection tools for the Web, eReaders, and smart phones. Exactly how these systems will work is a crucial question for writers, because it will determine whether or not our works can be found, the context in which they’ll be considered or compared, and ultimately how well they’ll sell.

In a near-future post I’ll make some predictions about how people will be finding and choosing eBooks, and about what that will mean for writers.

Photo taken in London by DG Jones

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