R. Scot Johns is a life-long student of ancient and medieval literature, with an enduring fascination for Norse mythology and epic fantasy. He first came to Beowulf through his love of J. R. R. Tolkien, a leading scholar on the subject. As an Honors Medieval Literature major he has given lectures on such topics as the historical King Arthur and the construction of Stonehenge. He owns and operates Fantasy Castle Books, his own publishing imprint, and writes the blog Adventures of an Independent Author, where you can follow his progress as he writes The Jester’s Quest, his second novel.
You can visit his website at www.fantasycastlebooks.com.
Welcome to Beyond the Books, Scot. Can you tell us whether you are published for the first time or multi-published? Can you give us the title(s) of your book(s)?
The Saga of Beowulf is my debut novel. It is the first complete novelization of the epic 10th century Old English poem Beowulf, based on a screenplay that I wrote some years ago. At the time I was studying medieval literature in college while working in a video rental store, and it occurred to me that there had never been a film made of this earliest of English action adventure tales. So I spent several years researching and writing one. Unfortunately, so did Neil Gaiman, whose version sold before mine could. However, this turned out to be an advantage when it came to write the novel, as it left me free to explore and expand without the constraints required by adhering to the film’s structure.
What was the name of your very first book regardless of whether it was published or not and, if not published, why?
The first book I set out to write was called The Jester’s Quest, which was never published, as I never finished it. After working on it through a first rough draft I decided that if I were going to approach writing seriously I needed to learn the craft. So I stuck it in a drawer and went to college for six years, during which time I became enamored of Beowulf, and spent the subsequent ten years working on both a screenplay and a novelization of that story. However, my intention is to now go back and complete that first book, drawing on what I’ve learned in the intervening twenty years.
For your first published book, how many rejections did you go through before you either found a mainstream publisher, self-published it, or paid a vanity press to publish it?
I sent out queries to nearly sixty agents and three publishers. Two of the publishers rejected it, but I have yet to hear back from the third after nearly a year of waiting and a follow-up inquiry. Of the agents roughly half rejected it outright, while about a dozen asked for partials or full manuscripts. Half of these rejected it, and I’ve never heard back from the rest. While I was waiting (im)patiently for replies, I began to learn about print-on-demand technology, and the new possibilities it opened up in self-publishing. Having always been of independent bent with a tendency toward doing things myself, I decided to start my own publishing company, so that I could maintain control over my own work. Beyond researching and writing the book, I also edited and typeset it, did the cover art and illustrations, created and corrected the proofs, undertook all the necessary document filings to establish business accounts both in the US and UK, created ebook versions in five formats, sent out review copies and have done all the marketing myself.
How did the rejections make you feel and what did you do to overcome the blows?
Rejections never bothered me in terms of my writing or the work itself. By this time I was wholly satisfied with the quality of my writing and knew that I had created something well above the average. What concerned me about the tradition submission process was how geared toward the mainstream (read: average and mediocre) they were. The Saga of Beowulf falls well outside the bell curve, being a fairly intellectual work, written in an upper college level prose, and in a narrow niche genre the vast majority of publishers won’t even look at. But more importantly, I realized rather quickly just how overwhelmed the agents and publishers were with submissions, which allowed them very little time to evaluate each potential candidate. This means that manuscripts must inherently conform to a pre-determined set of criteria to pass their first audition, only one of which is good writing. In general, decisions are made solely on the basis of the query content, and not the work at all, since there’s no time to give anything a thorough read, if it’s read at all. This means that if the story premise is intriguing enough (i.e. it seems potentially commercial), the agent will read a paragraph or two, but rarely more than a page or two, in which time they have to make a decision without benefit of getting to know the story or the characters. I fully understand the necessity of this in the highly competitive, and costly, modern market. It just rapidly became apparent that my 618 page novel would never be read by anyone involved in trade publishing, as they simply didn’t have the time, and consequently I determined to publish it myself. This has since proven to hold true for reviewers as well, who are inundated with free books from authors and publishers, the majority of which they will never read.
The Saga of Beowulf by R. Scot Johns can be purchased by clicking here. Leave a comment for Kimberly and you could win a free virtual book tour for yourself or a $50 Amazon gift certificate!
When your first book was published, who published it and why did you choose them?
As I said, I started my own publishing company, Fantasy Castle Books. To do this all you have to do is file a D.B.A. and purchase a block of ISBN’s, which gives you a publisher code that is registered with Bowker in the U.S. and Nelson Book Data in the United Kingdom. I’ve given some of the reasons already, but another significant factor was the fact that by publishing the book myself I gain a vastly greater share of the profits from each sale, although, of course, there is no advance, and I have to pay for all expenses and marketing. I had approached the three major fantasy publishers that accept direct submissions without an agent, but as I mentioned, only two replied, while the last has not responded to this day. I might think this was a reflection of the novel’s merits, were it not that the book has since garnered rave reviews across the board. You can read these reviews on both my website and blog, as well as Amazon.com for most of them.
How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?
Initially it was incredibly elating to see and hold a copy of my book for the first time, and see it spread out across the web. This was tempered, however, as I held my breath and waited for the first reviews to come in, and of course to see how sales would go. Reading the first review, with its glowing praise, was as much or more uplifting than seeing it in print. To celebrate the novel’s publication I bought a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream and savored it while barbequing in my back yard by myself as the sun went down. Then I got back to work.
What was the first thing you did as promotion when you were published for the first time?
Built a web presence. Since this book was self-published there was little chance that it would ever see the inside of a brick-and-mortal store. Because of its size and cost to print, I can’t offer the standard 65% trade discount that bookstores demand to stock a book. This meant that I had to focus all my marketing efforts on the internet, focusing on Amazon as my major retailer. But the first thing to do was to establish a strong web presence. So I built a website and began a blog. The website as developed over time to include a wide variety of fun and useful resources to help readers find and enjoy the book, including sample chapters to download, audio readings and promo video, high-resolution artwork for wallpaper and bookmarks, extensive author’s notes on the writing and adaptation process, a Norse Rune decoder, study guides, and even a deleted sequence that was cut from the first chapter. You can now also buy the book directly from the website, both in print and for immediate download in several formats.
If you had to do it over again, would you have chosen another route to be published?
Possibly. Knowing how the novel as it is would be received by the industry, I would cut the book in half (it has a natural breaking point roughly halfway through), and excise everything from the first chapter that isn’t dialogue or action, saving all the expository narrative for later. This seems to be what agents want, but whether this is the best thing for the story is questionable. But I’ve discovered that there are two distinctly differently audiences that an author must write to: the final readers, and the agents and editors you have to win over to get the book in print, and they have very different agendas. Unfortunately for me, I love long books that develop over time, and which a reader lives with for quite a while. When you pick up a 600 page novel you know you’re in it for the long haul, and are not rushing through to find out what happens next and finish it as quickly as you can. It’s a savoring experience, like fine wine, which grows with you as you progress. But that’s not what trade publishers are looking for, so I would have to drastically alter it from what it is, for good or ill.
Have you been published since then and how have you grown as an author?
No, I’m still working on marketing this first novel, and haven’t yet started working on the next one. Much of what I’ve learned as an author has to do with things I’ve been speaking of, more from a business perspective than that of a writer. My writing has been highly praised and universally applauded by readers and reviewers, although there’s always room for growth. Quickening my pacing in the early chapters (particularly the first) is something I plan to work on, but again, this is due more to what I’ve learned about the business than it is about the craft. And it’s still up in the air as to whether I’ll even bother to submit the next book to the trades.
Looking back since the early days when you were trying to get published, what do you think you could have done differently to speed things up? What kind of mistakes could you have avoided?
I could have written a much shorter book! That would have sped things up a lot. But going way back it would have made things much easier if I had started writing as a kid, before the burden of working nine to five consumed the better part of my time. Having to write on evenings and weekends only has been incredibly difficult for a work of this length and complexity. I have no “platform” on which to promote myself, which seems to be what major publishers are really looking for. If you’re an actor or a lawyer or someone with a public presence it’s much easier to get your story published. But I’ve worked in the unglamorous profession of a retail manager for most my life; and having never joined any official organizations or garnered awards for anything, I have only my manuscript to offer. I’ve always been an avid reader, but I never wrote stories as a youth. I just decided one day I wanted to write a novel, so I did. I would recommend prospective authors join writers groups and submit everything they write to magazines and competitions to start building their career. But in the end you just have to write what you feel compelled to write.
What has been the biggest accomplishment you have achieved since becoming published?
It’s hard to top being published itself, but achieving consistently excellent reviews has been the highlight of the whole experience, since it is the readers who ultimately determine the value of your work, and to whom you write. As far as statistics are concerned, having The Saga of Beowulf hit #4 on Amazon UK and #6 in the US in the Historical Fantasy category was pretty cool.
If you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?
Rock musician. That’s what I was focused on throughout my teenage years and well into my twenties. I played acoustic and electric guitar in several bands during the seventies and early eighties, and I miss it. Recently I’ve played acoustic guitar in a Neil Young tribute band, which was a lot of fun. But unfortunately I’m a bit of an introvert, and I can’t sing for beans, so my stage presence isn’t exactly stunning, to say the least.
Would you give up being an author for that profession or have you combined the best of both worlds?
No. Being an author is much better. There are no ego conflicts to deal with, and it’s less a popularity contest than a work of art. Besides, music is temporal and fades with time, but books live forever. I would like to write for films, though, in order to enjoy again the camaraderie that comes with working in a larger group. I’ve always thought that a film production is very much like putting on a rock show, complete with lights, camera and action.
How do you see yourself in ten years?
By then I’d like to have a half dozen books written and built up a reasonably sizeable readership, enough to provide a meager living so that I can write full-time. I’m not looking for fame or fortune (although I wouldn’t turn them away), I just want to be able to make a decent living doing what I love instead of making money for someone else. I’d like to travel as I research locations for the historical fiction novels I plan to write. But I’d settle for a vacation sometime.
Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?
Just keep writing. Write all the time. Write and read. Read and write. In and out. You are what you read, so to speak. Reading is food for the mind, so read what’s good and cultivate an appreciation of good writing. But just keep writing and writing and writing. And send your writing out for publication wherever and whenever you can.