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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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