Maybe you think that novels set in Mediaeval Wales must be a minority interest? Sarah Woodbury would prove you wrong. With sales over a million books, she is a self-published phenomenon. Here she tells me how an American woman became so fascinated by ancient Wales – and how she turned that passion into a thriving publishing business…
My family had always had the tradition that we had Welsh ancestry, but until I started researching it myself, I couldn’t have told you how I was Welsh. The name Woodbury is very traditionally Saxon, derived from the Saxon god ‘Woden’ and mean’s ‘Woden’s Fort’, but further research showed that one of my ancestors, William Woodbury, joined the church in Salem, Massachusetts in 1638 self-identifying as a Welshman.
As it turns out, in addition to that tantalizing bit of information, I am also descended from a host of Morgans, Thomases, Kemries, Johns, Rhuns etc. The line I’ve researched most successfully descends from Llywelyn ap Ifor born around 1300. Many generations later, Anna and Robert Morgan, sister and brother, married into my family line, again in Massachusetts in the 17th century. Through that family, I am descended from Gruffydd ap Cynan, the great 12th century King of Gwynedd and his grandson, the Lord Rhys, ruler of Deheubarth until his death in 1197.
All of this I discovered once I started researching my ancestry, initially as a homeschooling research project with my daughter in the late 1990s. Ten years earlier, I had attended University of Cambridge in England. During one holiday, I was able to visit Wales for the first time. I have particular memories of going to Conwy Castle and walking along the battlements, astounded to think that seven hundred years earlier men and women had lived and died within its walls. To say I fell in love with Wales at that point would not be an understatement. From Cambridge, I continued in academia, ultimately getting a Ph.D. in anthropology. Though my research wasn’t initially directed at Wales, because my focus was on ethnicity and nationalism, it was easy to pivot to Welsh history and culture once I started writing novels.
You must have to do a lot of research. How do you go about that?
Because I have a Ph.D., I have an extensive background in research, and once I developed an interest in Wales, I read everything I could get my hands on, both fiction and nonfiction, about it. The internet has been a boon to access to obscure documents and books, and Google Earth can be a lifesaver if I can’t quite remember the dimensions of a place or a particular road or castle. We have also traveled to Wales for a research trip almost every year since 2012, though sadly it’s been over a year since we’ve been there due to the current pandemic.
Your Welsh pronunciation is remarkably good – even the difficult “Ll” and “Rh”. Have you learnt to speak Welsh? If so, how did you do that?
It’s really great to hear you say that! I have been learning Welsh since the fall of 2013, mostly through a website called ‘Say Something in Welsh’ but also during our trips there. Truly, I remain an abject beginner, but I try!
You make a lot of very interesting YouTube videos about the history of mediaeval Britain. Can you give me some idea of your video-making process?
My husband is the video taker and producer, and over the last eight years he has compiled an extraordinary amount of video. The idea of creating a series came from wanting to share all that research with my readers, above and beyond what can be culled from my novels themselves. I also wanted to give people the opportunity to delve a little more into British history, to understand the context of the books and why I love Wales and writing novels set in the medieval period. Procedurally, generally I write the script, we shoot me talking about the place, and then my husband shapes the footage around what I’m saying.
Do you know how most of your readers discover you? Is it by browsing Amazon, through your YouTube videos or some other way?
I don’t know for certain, but I think there are three primary ways: word of mouth from friends/family who’ve read my books, Facebook, and Bookbub featured deals. I would like to think that some people have found my books through the videos, but I don’t know how much that is true, and it isn’t their primary purpose.
Do you have a specific target audience in mind when you are writing? If so, how important is it to stick within the traditions of a certain ‘genre’?
When I first started writing, I had no notion of genre at all. The After Cilmeri series, in particular, crosses multiple genres. Honestly, I’m glad now I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I started out, because I think that’s part of its appeal. That said, there’s something to the idea of giving readers what they expect, which is why we have genres in the first place.
As to writing to a target audience, for my own work, I think it’s dangerous or can be the death of creativity to think too much about who’s going to read a book and if what you’re writing is what they expect. Clearly, there’s a balance here that every author has to navigate.
For a new reader, which of your books would you recommend reading first?
It depends! I have five series set in medieval Wales, so lots to choose from. Do you like mysteries? Start with The Good Knight or Crouchback. Time travel? Read Daughter of Time (the prequel) or Footsteps in Time (book 1) from the After Cilmeri series. Many of my books are appropriate for teens, and if they like historical fantasy, maybe they’d like The Last Pendragon Saga first. Or lovers of King Arthur should begin with Cold My Heart.
I’m not helping at all, am I?
Can you recommend any books by other authors (either fact or fiction) that give an insight into mediaeval Wales?
The go-to books for me are first by Edith Pargeter (The Brothers Gwynedd) and writing as Ellis Peters, The Brother Cadfael series. Second, I would read Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes Trilogy which includes Here be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning.
You obviously put in a lot of effort to keep in touch with your readers – not just the YouTube videos but also an active blog and a newsletter. If you only had time to do one of those activities which would it be? I’m interested to know which of those you think really helps most to attract new readers and build a solid fan base.
Only one? The newsletter is really important because it’s a definitive way to reach all the people who’ve read my books and asked to be notified when I have a new release. But Facebook is hugely important to me for community and to get to know readers personally, and for them to get to know me. I also can’t imagine functioning without a personal web page. And Youtube has become a big part of my non-novel content, and a way to engage readers.
If I was talking to a new author, I would say that at a bare minimum they need a personal website and newsletter, and then a Facebook author page as part of their outreach to readers.
Do you do anything else to promote or advertise your books?
I pay for ads at Facebook, Amazon, and Bookbub, plus various other small sites. It is an important aspect of my business plan.
How well does Bookbub work for you?
Very, very well. The first book in four of my series is free, and the Bookbub promotions for those free books bring in a significant percentage of my newest readers.
Your books have very striking covers. Can you explain the process you go through when getting covers designed?
How kind of you to say! Especially since I design them myself.
I started out the first year of indie publishing designing my covers myself, with ‘design’ hardly coming into it. I sold 30,000 books that year anyway, but that was because readers were desperate for content for their e-devices and overlooked how bad my covers really were. For several years, Flip City Media designed my covers, and thankfully when she stopped that part of her business, she gave me all my Photoshop files so I could learn on my own—which initially was just copying what she had done. But imitation is the purest form of flattery, right?
Since then, I have learned a lot and informed by the process of writing the book. At some point, usually about 1/3 of the way into the first draft, I start itching to create the cover, and start casting around for ideas. Some covers come quickly, and some have gone through a dozen permutations. I have also changed all my covers at least once, and some three or four times until I settle upon what I have now.
You also do audio books. Is that difficult (or expensive) to do? How do you pick a narrator? And do the sales fully justify the costs?
My sales fully justify the costs, but I sell a great many audiobooks. I first started out in 2014 with a royalty share through ACX with my first narrator. I then switched to paying outright for them, which is a much better way to do it and has allowed me to convert to non-exclusive contracts with Amazon for three of my series, so my audiobooks are now available at all retailers as well as in libraries. My husband found my new narrator, who is Welsh, online, and I feel super lucky to have him narrating my books.
Can you tell me why you decided to self-publish?
That is a very long story, but I decided to take the plunge in January 2011 because I had an agent who was unable to sell my books to a publisher. In fact, my books have, quite literally, been rejected by every publisher in New York!
What benefit is an agent to an independently published author?
At this juncture for me, none. I no longer say on my website that I have an agent, though if I ever wanted to submit a book to him, he would look at it.
In your writing and publishing career to date, what has been your biggest mistake?
Not viewing publishing as a business from the start in 2011 when I published my books myself. Earlier, I said it was good in a way that I didn’t understand genre when I first started writing, but that was five years earlier. Once I started publishing, I needed to understand better what readers expected in terms of covers and blurbs/summaries, and I spent years trying to get them right. Fortunately, they are something an indie author can change at will.
More recently, it was a huge mistake to enroll two of my series in Kindle Unlimited in the spring of 2019. It really damaged my sales worldwide.
If you had to start all over again, what would you do differently?
You can always wish you’d done things differently, but I am who I am and where I am today because of what I have done over the last fourteen years. So I can’t regret that.
What has been your greatest success?
Deciding to self-publish in the first place. In fact, I routinely say that having my books rejected by every publisher in New York was the best thing that ever happened to me.