Guest post: Judson Roberts author of the Strongbow Saga

For an inspiring self-publishing story, I’ve asked Judson Roberts to talk about his experience. Book 1 of the Strongbow Saga is free this weekend. Read this post and then go and download it.

Patty has graciously invited me to appear as a guest on her website’s blog, and write about why I decided to venture into the world of self-publishing. My name is Judson Roberts, and I’m the author of the Strongbow Saga, a historical fiction series set in the 9th century world of the Vikings.

In order to explain why I chose to try my hand at self-publishing, it’s necessary to provide a little history, both of my own writing career, and of the amazing transformation that has occurred in the publishing world during the last few years. I started somewhat late trying to become a writer. For most of my adult life, I worked in the field of criminal law, including as a city police officer, federal agent, and organized crime prosecutor. When I finally did decide to try my hand at writing fiction, my early efforts did not meet with success—it took almost ten years, and several unpublished novels, before I finally landed a contract with a big traditional publisher, HarperCollins, for the Strongbow Saga.

Initially I was ecstatic. I thought my dreamed-of new career as a writer was finally about to take off. But in my own case, at least (everyone who has worked with a big traditional publisher has a different story, although I have heard far too many similar to my own), what followed brought mostly disappointment, discouragement, and frustration. I’ll summarize briefly.
I had always intended the series to be adult historical fiction, and I wrote the first volume, Viking Warrior, as such. But the agent I’d secured ended up selling the book to the Children’s/Young Adult Division of HarperCollins. Her rationale was that the protagonist was teen-aged, and there is a strong coming-of-age aspect to the story. The editor at HarperCollins who purchased Viking Warrior, plus the next two books in the series, agreed. So my adult fiction series ended up being published as adult fiction.

I’ve spent years researching the Vikings, and one of my goals in the series is to try to portray their culture accurately, which has very rarely been done in fiction—although most people today tend to imagine the Vikings as brutish barbarians, they actually had a very unique, evolved culture, characterized by such things as a highly developed legal system and oral literature tradition. The real Vikings did not dress in rough animal skin garments, as they’re often pictured, but rather wore clothes made of linen, wool during the colder months, and sometimes even silk. In fact, the Vikings’ culture was in many ways quite similar to that of the Mycenaean Greeks, written about by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. But like the Mycenaean Greeks, the Vikings could at times be quite violent, and that violence often figures prominently, and is portrayed frankly and explicitly, in the story of the Strongbow Saga. Fortunately, even though HarperCollins elected to publish the series as young adult rather than adult fiction, I was never asked to tone down the violence in the story. But little else about the experience went smoothly.

For example, someone in the marketing division decided that the covers of the books should be designed with the particular aim of attracting the attention of teenaged girls, so they ran focus groups using various options, and ended up with a series of covers featuring close-up images of a brooding young man in Viking costume, making the books appear more like romance novels than serious historical fiction. Then, when the series was launched in 2006 with the release of the hardback edition of Viking Warrior, some other genius apparently forgot to ship out advance review copies, because none of the major review venues—which back then were critically necessary to bring attention and awareness to the existence of newly published books—covered the release and reviewed the book (my agent said she had never seen the release by one of the big-five publishers of a new hardcover series receive no reviews or coverage at all). So the only way readers had to discover the existence of the series was literally to happen upon a copy of Viking Warrior on the shelves of a bookstore, in the children’s/young adult section.

Traditional publishers, as well as the major bookstore chains, measure a new book’s success by something called sell-through. Basically that means how fast, in the first months of a book’s release, shipments of the book sell out and are reordered. Because new books are constantly being released, in the traditional world of book publishing and book selling if a new book does not become successful quickly, it falls by the wayside. If bookstores elect to continue carrying it at all, they will keep only one or two copies on their shelves, and return the rest of the copies shipped to them by the publisher for credit. And if the first book of a series does not meet that quick sell-through measure of success, the publisher will print far fewer copies of later books in the series.

Although both my agent and my editor at HarperCollins had predicted that the Strongbow Saga would find a large audience (my editor even went so far as to predict that over time the series might gain as large and loyal a following as The Lord of the Rings), needless to say, thanks to HarperCollins’ efforts and lack thereof, that did not happen. And because that did not happen, I made very little money off of the books beyond the original advances, which were not that large, and even before the third book was released HarperCollins decided to kill the series, rather than continue it.

Fast forward to 2010. HarperCollins began taking the three Strongbow Saga books they had published out of print. Meanwhile, Amazon was beginning a visionary campaign that would turn the world of publishing upside down. Prior to 2010, the market for e-books was miniscule. Most readers preferred real books. But Amazon predicted that the market would grow if (1) e-book reading devices, which heretofore had been fairly expensive, were priced lower, and (2) if e-books themselves were priced significantly lower than print editions. In order to expand the e-book market, and to carve out a dominant position in it, Amazon was willing to take a large loss up front. So in 2010, Amazon made the first of what has since been a series of dramatic price cuts for its Kindle e-book reader (and for personal computers, smartphones, and other devices it offered a Kindle reading app free), and it offered Kindle edition e-books, including current best sellers, at $9.99 or less, substantially below the cost of the same books’ print editions. Millions and millions of the lower-priced Kindle readers were purchased in the months before Christmas of 2010, and suddenly in January 2011 there were millions and millions of new Kindle owners eager to buy e-books for their new devices. E-book sales exploded.

Although it was Amazon, not the publishers, that ate the losses incurred by selling e-books below the publishers’ list price, nevertheless the big traditional publishers were not amused. They feared—correctly, as it turns out—that growing e-book sales would erode their sales of print books, and even more, they feared Amazon gaining dominance over the e-book market. A battle of wills followed, with the big publishers trying to force Amazon to price their e-books at the same list price as print editions. Apple, also fearing Amazon’s growing dominance in the e-book market, threw its lot in with the big publishers, and allowed them to set the price of their e-book editions sold in the Apple store for the widely popular iPhone and iPad. Faced with the possibility that the big publishers might pull their e-book editions altogether from the Kindle store, and offer them exclusively through Apple and other e-book sellers such as Sony and Kobo, who were compliant with the publishers’ pricing demands, Amazon conceded, and also accepted what is now known as the “agency pricing model,” under which the publishers set the price for which their e-book editions must be sold (ironically, the publishers’ short-term victory may prove costly—in the past few months Apple and several of the big publishers have come under investigation for conspiracy to commit price-fixing of e-books).

Amazon obviously had anticipated at least the possibility of its losing battle with the big publishers over e-book pricing, because also in 2010 they launched what would prove to be a brilliant flanking maneuver: a program, in Amazon’s Kindle Division, under which authors could directly self-publish their own books as Kindle e-books, without the involvement of publishers, agents, or any other middle-men who would take a cut of the author’s potential profits. When a Kindle e-book was sold, the proceeds of the sale would be divided between only two parties—Amazon and the author—and to encourage authors to join in this new venture, Amazon gave the authors the lion’s share, 70% percent of the sales price of each e-book sold, so long as the author agreed to set their books’ prices no higher than $9.99. This was in contrast to the 10% to 15% royalty typically paid to authors by traditional publishers to authors from the price of each book sold.

During the early days of Amazon’s self-publishing program (i.e., way back in 2010), a number of authors began experimenting with pricing the Kindle editions of their books at very low prices—typically ranging from $.99 to under $5.00—and many found that by selling their books at very low price-points, when combined with the 70% royalty rate, the much higher volume of sales they achieved more than made up for the loss of royalty per sale when the books were priced higher, but sold fewer copies. One such author, J.A. Konrath, began realizing some truly amazing levels of sales and income, and he made extensive efforts to publicize his own success and to encourage other authors to take control of their own writing careers by self-publishing through Amazon.

I heard Konrath speak at a writers’ conference in October of 2010, and decided, since the rights to my books were beginning to revert back to me, to take the plunge. I have since re-released the first three books of the Strongbow Saga as adult fiction, and am currently working on book 4 of the series. Although I’ve released them as e-books in other venues besides just Amazon, and have also released new print-on-demand print editions, it is in the Kindle editions where I’ve found success, and my books have finally found their audience. For the first time—at age 60—I can truly say that I have a writing career, one that allows me to support myself and my family, and has even allowed my wife to retire early.

There are many people who despise and revile Amazon, but I am not one of them.

This weekend, I’m offering the Kindle edition of Viking Warrior, book 1 of the Strongbow Saga, free on Amazon. I hope you’ll take a look—after all, at that price, what do you have to lose?

Learn more about Judson Roberts, the Strongbow Saga, and his free book offer at his website:

Viking Warrior (The Strongbow Saga) – direct link to the book

6 comments on “Guest post: Judson Roberts author of the Strongbow Saga

  1. Thanks for one of the few truly informative interviews I’ve read, though not an interview in the normal sense. No boring questions like what inspired you to start writing, what kind of music do you listen to when you’re writing, etc. I’ve downloaded the book and will leave a rating and review when I can get through some others in the stack. One Amazon reviewer compared it favorably to Bernard Cornwell’s work. High praise, indeed. I’m looking forward to it.

  2. Just read Book 1 of the Strongbow Saga, and I can’t wait to get my hands on tthe next. I read the book as part of a YA Lit course and can’t wait to hear what the others (we all educators) have to say. I will tell them about your experiences. It’s a shame you had such a dreadful time with your publisher and that they marketed your work as YA, a real turn off for most adults. Over 15 years of taking YA Lit courses, we’ve read several that were intended as adult but marketed for YA. It’s taken me a long time to convince friends, family, and other adult book groups to read some of them as adults take those labels seriously. Publishers clearly don’t know as much as they think!

  3. I just came across this interview by google-ing “judson roberts author stongbow saga”. I was trying to find if and when your 4th book was coming out. Now i understand. I agree with the previous post, as good as Cornwell’s best. I wish you the best and looking forward to purchasing your next book!

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