Mark Robson is the author of several fantasy novels for young adults and is fast becoming one of the most popular writers in the genre. His Darkweaver Legacy series was a self-published success story before he signed a major deal with Simon & Schuster for the Imperial sequence of books. His latest novels form the Dragon Orb series.
Mark first made his name through legendary book signings up and down the M4 corridor. Here was an unknown author, self-published at that, who was shifting more books at his events than many of the big names. It was at one of these events that I first met him, although I will leave it to Mark to tell you about that in the following interview.
SP: We first met in the Windsor branch of WH Smith. Care to explain what you were doing there?
MR: ‘Flogging my wares’ is the honest answer! The Windsor branch of WH Smith is one of those stores which has virtually no frontage, but goes back into the depths of forever. The manager there had never met me before that day. Not knowing what I was like, she had stuck me and my books out of the way towards the back of the store, where I’m sure she expected me to remain until I got bored and went away. However, I’m never backwards in coming forwards – and I proved this quite literally on that particular day.
I was: walking to the front of the store, grabbing some poor unsuspecting customer, dragging them to the back of the store, selling them a book and then going back to the front to find the next victim … um, I mean lucky person! I distinctly remember the figures from that day – 123 books in total. A great result, but boy did I have to work for it!
SP: In those days you were a self-published author but now have two major series published by Simon & Schuster. How did you manage the seemingly impossible transition from one to the other?
MR: It’s fair to say the transition began with accosting you by chance that day and convincing you to take a look at my sales figures. I remember we discussed your recent discovery of G.P. Taylor and you agreed to take a look at my sales stats when you returned to work. From what I could tell, you were a little surprised to find that I’d sold around 1000 books through just three Waterstones stores.
Your introduction to my (now) Literary Agent resulted in my work being pitched properly to the publishers for the first time. I don’t think the team at Simon & Schusters believed my claims of averaging sales of over 100 book sales at each event I attended, so they sent one of their senior editors out to watch me at an event before committing to an offer on my freshly completed book, Imperial Spy. It seems they were impressed enough by my ‘one man sales army’ approach (and I hope, to some degree, my potential as a writer) to make an offer on my Imperial books.
I guess it’s not the typical way into the business, but it worked.
MR: To be honest, I make a lot more money from those titles than I do from the mainstream titles (about 5 to 8 times as much per copy, depending on the supply chain). It is also instant money in the bank every time a copy sells. In the early days of going full time this helped the cash flow situation. The Darkweaver series had sold about 20 000 units at the time I sold the Imperial titles to S & S. The series has now sold well over 50 000 units and it’s still ticking over nicely. It would have taken a significant offer to convince me to let them go.
SP: What are the key differences between being self-published and having books with a major publisher?
MR: On a personal level, working with an experienced editor has improved my writing no end. I look back now at my early books and can see why they were rejected. The Darkweaver books would have needed a lot of work to become acceptable. I’m not saying the stories were bad – far from it. I’m still very proud of them and they continue to draw five star reader reviews all over the place. I can see now, though, that they were over-written.
The second benefit is the international exposure. The chances of securing translation deals when self published were almost non-existent. Since signing with S & S, I’ve gained deals with excellent publishers in six other territories including France, Germany and Italy.
Working with a mainstream publisher has meant giving up some control over how my stories are presented, but I’ve come to trust the judgement of the team I’ve been working with. I made some classic mistakes when I worked alone as ‘Sword Publishing’. I’ve come to appreciate the experience and professionalism of the rest of the team, and I have felt my own experience has been valued through their inclusion of my ‘Jack of All Trades’ input into many areas of the publishing business that most authors do not venture.
SP: Before you were a full-time author you had a slightly different career did you not?
MR: I’d love to be able to say I was an entrepreneur, or a businessman, but the truth is I had no experience of retail or business (or writing!). I was a pilot in the RAF for 21 years.
SP: How to dragons compare to aircraft?
MR: Well, my dragons probably wouldn’t fare too well if pitted against modern fighters, but they are tougher than most would imagine. In my latest series of stories they inadvertently become involved in the air war over WWI France. Needless to say their involvement in the war was kept a closely guarded secret by the military leaders. In a flat out dive one of my dragons could reach speeds of 140 to 150 miles per hour and can cruise along at about the same speed as an average little piston aircraft.
SP: What are you working on at the moment?
MR: My current project is the Dragon Orb series – a quartet of dragon stories beginning with Firestorm, which launched last month. I’ve completed books two and three, which are due to launch in January and April, and am working on the final book, which is planned to release in the summer of next year.
If I were to describe the plot in one line, I’d say it was ‘Biggles meets dragons’. This is closer to the truth than I first realised, as I recently discovered that my main pilot character, Jack Miller, was inspired by the same real person who inspired the character of Biggles – Captain Albert Ball. Albert was a total eccentric, and a gifted fighter pilot – the perfect combination to generate stories.
MR: Definitely try Dragon Orb - Firestorm. Don’t be put off by the fact it’s about dragons. I shudder every time a reviewer mentions Eragon in the same breath as Firestorm. The only comparison is that they both contain dragons. Until I wrote this I always argued that dragons had been overdone and there was nothing fresh that could be done with them. As far as I was concerned Anne McCaffrey owned dragons and I would never go there. It was only when I felt I had something very new to offer that I attempted this story. I’m pleased to say that the reviews to date bear out my decision.
The characters are colourful (the heroine of this first book suffers several severe phobias as well as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and are probably one of the most disparate (and I hope, believable) groups of youngsters ever assembled for this sort of fantasy. I feel like I’m really hitting my stride with this series.
Mark's books get a thumbs up from Ethan who has particularly enjoyed the Dragon Orb proof he read earlier in the year. The author's website also comes highly recommended. It is a great resource for fans and newcomers to his work. It also has a cool game to play. Although his work is clearly aimed at teenagers the books appeal to slightly younger readers and grown ups as well. Certainly if you need to find something to encourage a younger male reader in the house to read more books then Mark's novels will almost certainly do the trick.