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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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Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing (“Indie Publishing”) Breakdown

eBooks and Publishing

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of traditional publishing compared to self-publishing with writer friends for some time now. Self-publishing would not have been something I gave any real thought to a couple of years ago, but the game has clearly changed now that eBooks have kicked into high gear. While eBook quantities sold are still a fraction of physical book quantities, they represent such a different approach to publishing and so much more profit per volume–even when sold at lower prices–that they have become rule-changers both in terms of the economics of publishing and in terms of writing itself. eBooks can easily accommodate varied forms, lengths, and sub-genres; slow sales; and small niche audiences in a way that physical books generally are not able to do to.

But there are many advantages to traditional publishing as well, by which I mean the process of writing a book that can be marketed in bookstores, getting an agent (usually), and selling the book to a publisher, who then produces the book and gets it out to distributors, who in turn get them to bookstores.

“Tradpub” and “Selfpub”
We haven’t needed a special term in the past for traditional publishing, but since the need to distinguish has arisen, I’ve found “traditional publishing” the most comfortable and easiest to communicate. An alternative I like for its brevity is “tradpub.”

A writer friend pointed out that apparently, PublishAmerica has used the term “traditional publishing” in a pejorative way and suggested that “commercial publishing” might be a better term. However, PublishAmerica has some serious credibility issues, and using the term “commercial publishing” for large publishing houses kind of implies that selfpubbing isn’t a business, which in many cases it very much is. Perhaps this argues further for the relatively baggage-less “selfpub” and “tradpub.”

“Self-publishing” is a term that has a bad taste for many professional and aspiring writers, as self-publishing in the past has been a refuge for many, many books that were simply not good enough for traditional publishing, along with a small minority of good books, often ones written for small, niche markets. Again there’s a short version I like, in part because it doesn’t carry all of the baggage of the longer term: “selfpub.” Some people use the term “indie publishing,” and while I find this perfectly acceptable, I don’t often use it myself because it feels like a euphemism, in part because “indie” movies and music tend to involve a group of people, whereas “indie publishing” is generally just a single person publishing his or her own work. As much as I like the idea of an indie author being like an indie filmmaker, I don’t think the comparison is quite apt.

Choosing tradpub or selfpub
These days, the difference between tradpub and selfpub could easily be mistaken for the difference between physical books and eBooks, but thinking this way is misleading, since of course many traditional publishers are beginning to embrace eBook editions (or at least to permit them), while selfpubbers have access to POD (print on demand) services that make their books competitive with other physical books.

Here are some of the advantages of each approach to publication, all from the writer’s point of view. Note that the tradpub section refers to large publishing houses; small press publishers are a bit different.

TRADPUB

  1. Often some promotion is provided by the publisher, including access to review venues, bestseller lists, awards, etc. that won’t include selfpubbed books
  2. Professional design services at publisher’s expense
  3. Sales and fulfillment done by publisher
  4. Book is more reputable with review venues, booksellers, the small percentage of readers who care, etc.
  5. Better pricing and availability of physical books
  6. Sometimes, editing at publisher’s expense
  7. Gatekeeping–the traditional publishing process at its best can prevent books of yours that aren’t ready from being published prematurely, while validating books that are ready.
  8. Sometimes, other rights sell (foreign, film, etc.)
  9. Assured of making a minimum amount of money
  10. Library distribution
  11. Sense of accomplishment and validation
  12. Externally-imposed deadlines helpful to productivity for some writers

SELFPUB

  1. Much quicker time to market
  2. No long period of waiting to see whether or not the book will sell
  3. No agency 15% taken off writer’s income
  4. Much higher royalty rate paid to writer
  5. Accommodates unusual and niche books well
  6. No need to connect with some specific agent’s and editor’s tastes (as well as the marketing department, management, etc.)
  7. Control over process: no covers you hate, no misreporting or non-reporting of royalties from publisher, no unnecessary publisher delays, etc.
  8. Stay in print longer
  9. Rights not tied up or snatched by publisher, as can sometimes happen in non-writer-friendly publishing contracts
  10. Ability to update book after release
  11. Much quicker payment and possibility of steady, comparably reliable income
  12. Much better reporting on sales and money earned
  13. Books can be commercially viable with a significantly smaller readership and/or much slower sales
  14. Satisfaction and confidence arising from self-reliance
  15. No risk of series being canceled before they’re completed
  16. Don’t have to sell the idea of the work; can focus on selling the actual work
  17. Selfpub (especially self-ePublishing) seems to be on the rise, whereas tradpub’s future is uncertain and not rosy: in theory, some publishers might even go out of business between the time they buy your book and the time they intended to publish it
  18. No danger of agent having rights to something they didn’t sell (as happens with certain kinds of unfavorable-to-author agency contracts)
  19. Not constrained or rushed by publisher timelines

I’d offer the caution that the fact that there are more items in the selfpub list doesn’t necessarily mean that selfpub is better; I believe strongly that this depends on the individual writer’s circumstances.

Another caution I’d offer, one that will bear repeating, is that simply because a book is ePublished doesn’t mean anyone will buy it. Based on numerical analysis writers I know have been doing on Amazon, for instance, the great majority of ePublished books are selling very few to no copies. There appear to be a huge number that have never sold at all. In this arena, the confidence of a publisher and the strength of the traditional marketing route offers almost a guarantee of at least a small audience, while selfpub offers nothing at all like a guarantee.

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