Michael J. Sullivan is an American writer of epic fantasy and science fiction, best known for his debut series, The Riyria Revelations, which has been translated into fourteen languages. In 2012 io9 named him one of the "Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors" as well as many other accolades for his novels, to many to choose from! He has written three series. The Riyria Revelations and The Riyria Chronicles were published by Orbit Books and The First Empire will be released by Del Rey Books as well as a stand alone Science Fiction Novel, Hollow World.
What attracts you to writing Fantasy and Sci-Fi?
The first book I ever picked up that I actually “wanted” to read was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. That got me into the genre and Asimov made me fall in love with Sci-Fi. I like that both mediums give you so much freedom and the ability to explore topics that might not “play well” in a novel set in our world.
Can you tell us a little about your current projects and what readers can expect to see from you in the future?
I’d love to! I’m a pretty prolific writer, so I have a lot going on. Let’s see if I can summarize everything in a reasonable space. I just finished the copy edits on Age of Swords (Legends of the First Empire #2). It’s being released June 20th, and is my favorite of that group of books. The rest of the series is written (books #3 - #6). I’m pretty much in a holding pattern with them until I get alpha, beta, and structural edits from various people (my wife, my agent, my editor, my publisher, and beta readers).
In the meantime, I’m currently writing The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter (Riyria Chronicle #4). It’s scheduled to come out in October or November, and I should be able to hit that schedule. Age of War (Legends #3) should be out in January 2018 and Age of Legends (Legends #4) later that year, hopefully in June. If you look at it from a perspective of release dates that’s 4 books released in 2 years, but one is finished, two are “written” and waiting for feedback, and I only have one that I’m actively writing now.
What challenges did you experience in writing such a complex story like the Legends of the First Empire series?
I did struggle with getting the right “feel” for the story. Usually I don’t let anyone read my stuff until after it’s done, but I suspected my initial start was rocky, so I let my wife Robin read the opening chapters of the first book. This was, if I recall correctly, in the fall of 2015. We were in New York for the recording of the audio version of The Death of Dulgath (Riyria Chronicle #3) and she read it in a little park not far from the studio.
“Yeah, I don’t like this,” were the first words out of her mouth. The good news is she saw immediately what was wrong. “I don’t know who wrote this, but it doesn’t sound anything like Michael J. Sullivan.” I explained to her how I was trying to be more like “real writers” and was trying to be “better.” She agreed that it was doing all that, but it “wasn’t me” and she likes my books because they have “my voice.”
I’m not sure if going back to “my style” made the books better or worse, but it certainly worked well for Robin, myself, and the first book is being very well received by those that have read it.
Last year you did a Kickstarter for a graphic novel version of The Death of Dulgath; how is that going and will we be seeing more Riyria novels being translated into this format?
Technically, I didn’t do a Kickstarter. That one was run by the publisher (Dabble Brothers Publishing), but I did, of course, promote it, and I helped them put it together. The two Kickstarters that I have run are Hollow World and The Death of Dulgath. I also want to do a Kickstarter for The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter, but I won’t run that until after I have the book written.
As for graphic novels…I sure hope so! The problem is with the “rights holder.” My first two Riyria contracts required me to sign over the graphic novel rights to Orbit, so only they can decide whether those graphic novels will be made. The only reason The Death of Dulgath was first, was because I own the rights to it. I definitely could do a graphic novel for The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter, because that will be self-produced. As for the Legends of the First Empire books, Penguin Random House has the graphic novel rights for the first two years, and if they don’t exercise them by then, they revert, so making graphic novels in the future for those books is definitely a possibility. Of course, all this assumes that the first graphic novel goes well. I have my fingers crossed.
Do you identify with your characters and do you have a favorite?
My favorite Riyria character is Myron Lanaklin, a monk of Maribor. He only shows up in books #1, #5, and #6 of the Riyria Revelations, but I love seeing him in each of them. For Legends of the First Empire…man that’s hard, as I have several favorites. Certainly from the first book it’s Suri, and from book #2 I really love Moya, Brin, Roan and Gifford. That series was written with an ensemble cast, but only I (and Robin) have met all the characters and knows what they will become, so I’m working with more data than most.
As to whether I identify with the characters. That’s a better question to pose to others. In other words, do they see any Royce or Hadrian characteristics in me? Robin would say yes, and it depends on the situation. I’m Hadrian most of the time, but if my loved ones are in trouble, Royce comes to visit. When she had a heart incident a few years ago and had to call me to come to the hospital she said, “Bring Hadrian, not Royce.” Royce showed up. The security guard wanted me to do “paperwork” before going to Robin…yeah, that wasn’t going to happen…and I move faster than he could
What, in your opinion, are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think one of the biggest mistakes is feeling that they have a bunch of information that is necessary for the reader to know before they get into their story. This is often manifested through a prologue or a wall of world-building before we even meet the main character(s). I think this comes from the fact that many speculative fiction writers spend a lot of time on their “world” and they want to show off just how much they’ve invented. To me, that stuff is “nice” but it’s window dressing. The real reason people come to a story is for the characters, the obstacles they face, and their character arcs. Figuring out how to dole things out a little at a time, rather than dumping everything too early, is a skill that is not often seen in early works.
What importance do you place on cover design and why?
I put a huge amount of importance on cover design. My background is in art, and I actually created an advertising agency that I ran for about a decade, so I know that “packaging” is important. Personally, I love the work of Marc Simonetti and that’s why I’ve used him for the covers of my self-produced works (Hollow World and The Death of Dulgath). I was also able to get Del Rey to use him for the Legends of the First Empire books. He’s currently working on Book #3 – and it’s looking fabulous. The first two were so good that they won reddit /r/fantasy awards for best artwork.
How important do you think reading is to a writer?
Well, you really can’t be a writer without being a reader first. Does that emphasize the importance of the relationship? Seriously, reading will teach you to write…if you read critically and look for why an author is doing this, or that, or the other thing. I spent about a decade reading, dissecting, and then applying what I learned from studying other people’s works before I started writing anything worth showing to others. But, then again, I might just be a slow learner. So, it may not take you ten years of studying books to learn what you need to know, but the more books your read, the more you’ll become familiar with the tricks authors have up their sleeves, and how we write to move people’s emotions.
What are you reading at the moment? Any favourites you'd like to share?
I’m reading Red Rising by Pierce Brown. The two of us share a publisher and a narrator, and I’m reading the book while listening to Tim Gerard Reynolds, whose narration I always enjoy. My two most recent favorites before that book include Uprooted by Naomi Novik and The Martian by Andy Wier.
Have there been any authors or books that have influenced you over the course of your writing career? Who and why?
Influence is a tough thing to pin down. There are many authors whose work’s I like, but their books aren’t “my style,” so it doesn’t seep into my writing. I can appreciate what they do and how they do it, but ultimately I have my own “voice” for lack of a better word. There have been some times when I “channeled” a particular author for a certain scene – usually Stephen King when I’m deep in a characters head. He has a really great way of showing you how his characters think. I’m not nearly as good at it as he is, but I have noticed myself using that technique in a few places.
What would you like people to take away from your books?
While I’ve received letters where people have said, “Your books have changed my life,” it’s not my intention. I’m writing books to provide a nice escape with “friends” you like to spend time with. So, I guess what I want is to entertain…to provide a respite (especially in today’s day and age) from the daily grind. My hope is readers will have a good time, and because of that they’ll be in a better mood after closing the book than before they started.
Your novels all have a very optimistic view of the world to them, it this a life view that you hold as well?
You noticed that, huh? You know, I’ve seen people in terrible situations that are happy, and people who “have it made” that are miserable. I think a lot of how we feel is because of perception. You can expect the worse of people, or you can expect the best of them, and you’ll probably see what you came looking for. So yeah, my glasses are rose-colored, and it makes my life a pleasant one. If I wanted to be pissed off and upset all the time, I could easily do that – but why?
What interests you the most about the art of writing?
Well, I think the intellectual stimulation that comes from analyzing the meter and structure of...huh…sorry…I had a slip there. What I meant to say is writing is fun. I’m not making “art” I’m spinning a tale. I hope people find the story worth their time. But when it comes right down to it I write because it’s what I have to do. When I’m not writing I get grumpy. When I’m writing, I wake up every day excited to get to my keyboard. To me, I get to do the thing I like the most, and I’m lucky enough to make a living doing that.
Is it art? Most critics would say no. There are certain people online who like to tell me how worthless and unimportant my books are. I don’t have a problem with that. We’re just on two different pages. They want to write an “important” novel (whatever that is). I just want to do what I like and entertain people along the way. Some will see that as pathetic, but I’m happy, my readers are happy, and so are my publishers. So, if we’re all enjoying ourselves, I’m not sure why they nay-sayers should care.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that “serious writing” shouldn’t exist. I’m just saying it’s not what I do, and there is enough diversity in reading habits that there is room enough for both.
What is one of the greatest lessons about writing that you have learned over the years?
My biggest lesson isn’t about “writing” but rather “the business aspects” of publishing. What I’m talking about is the importance of the audio rights. When I started, no one really cared about them, so they were pretty much given away without much thought or regard. Now, it’s a major focus for me, and for my two latest novels, the audio sales are outpacing print and ebook. Because the revenue to the author varies greatly depending on how the rights are exercised, it’s worth paying attention to, and becoming educated about.
For my first two series, the audio rights were transferred in the worst possible way. They were bundled into the contract (for no additional compensation), and the publisher sold them to a production company as a subsidiary right. This means I get pennies on books that have earned millions. Nowadays, I retain the audio rights and sell them directly to the audio producers. By doing this, I get a much higher percentage than I do for those early contracts. And because I work directly with the producer, there are less people with their hands in the pie and taking their “cut.” I think aspiring authors should definitely try to hold onto these rights, and I also think that publishers are going to be less inclined to let them go.
Besides writing what other interests and hobbies do you have?
I’m a very busy person with a wide range of interests and some depend on what time of year we are talking about. Reading, of course, I do year round. In the winter months, I enjoy online gaming: Subnautica and Everquest 1999 are where I’ve spent the most of my time as of late. For “creative pursuits” I enjoy oil painting, and do so in the spring or fall. Recently, I’ve taken up woodworking (a necessity due to a cabin we’ve built). For physical activities in warm weather, I like biking and hiking. Also, I’ve been an avid gardener in the past, but have been away from it as our house in DC doesn’t have the space required. The cabin I mentioned earlier has several acres in the Shenandoah Valley, so I hope to have a nice one this year.
Why have you have elected to continue self-publish as well as being traditionally published?
Oh, it would take several hundred pages to explain in detail why I’m a hybrid author, but the short answer is: Because I enjoy being in complete control, and since I make similar money either way, why not? Some people say self-publishing is hard, but for me, it’s actually easier. When I’m traditionally published, I have to hope that the book is released the way I want it to be, but many factors are outside my control. When I self-publish I can have the book exactly the way I want. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, my publishers have been great and have done an excellent job, but there are still some things that I might have done differently. The stress from not being able to make certain key decisions makes traditional publishing hard on me.
For you, what do you think is the biggest difference between being traditionally published and self publishing?
From a writing standpoint, there is absolutely no difference. Usually when I’m writing a book, I have no idea if it will be self or traditionally published, and the story is the same either way.
From a production standpoint, not much is different. I use the same cover artists that the publishers do, and I hire the same copy editors. The only real difference is I have “intermediaries” when traditionally published, and I talk directly to the freelancers when self produced.
From a sales standpoint, I sell more books for the traditionally published titles, but I get a much smaller amount of the money paid by the reader. With the higher income on the self-published titles, those books end up making about the same in the short run and a lot more in the long run. Of course, there is no advance with the self-published titles, but I do get paid each month for them, whereas royalties are paid twice a year for the traditional titles.
There are many authors who mention that they go traditional so they don’t have to market the book, and to those people I say you are setting yourself up for failure. I do the same marketing activities regardless of how the book is released. Sure, my publisher may do marketing as well (and both have actually done a great deal), but I consider their efforts as “gravy” and consider the responsibility for growing the audience to be mine. After all, the publisher has new books coming out each month and can only promote a title for a short time. But I have to be concerned about the book getting noticed all the time, and if I’m not working that aspect, no one will.
What tips can you offer for those who would also like to self publish their works?
Self-publishing success starts with one simple step: The self-published book has to stand toe-to-toe with traditionally published titles. That means excellent editing, enticing marketing copy, eye-catching covers, well-researched titles (for search engine optimization and genre identification). If you can’t produce a book that is 100% as good as (or better) than what is being put out through traditional publishing, then don’t do it. Too often people “slap together” self-published titles or “dip their toes” in the self-publishing waters. Both will usually end in failure. If you are going to self-publish then you have to “BE…A…PUBLISHER” and do everything they do. Which, by the way, starts by asking the question “is this book worthy of an audience?” Sometimes the answer is no, which is fine. In that case, treat that book as a learning experience and write something else. I have thirteen books that won’t see the light of day. They just aren’t good enough.
Which social media platforms do you use to market your books and which has proved to be most effective?
Anyone who has ever sent me a message on Facebook knows I’m not there much. All my replies start out with, sorry it’s been so long since responding, but I’m not here often. I also don’t spend much time on Twitter: it can be such a time sink.
There are two places where I can often be found socializing: Goodreads and the /r/fantasy sub of reddit. Now, I should say, that on both of those venues some of my time is definitely there for marketing – for instance I announced a price drop on Theft of Swords on both of those sites in the hopes of people getting a good deal on one of my books—or to lower the barrier of giving my books a try.
But most of my time, probably a good 85% - 90% isn’t for marketing at all. It’s just me out there where readers are talking about fantasy in general, my books specifically, or thanking someone for saying something nice. It’s my “socializing time”, and it’s not surprising that books (even those not written by me) are a big part of that. Do these posts get people to buy my book? Yes, I have had several people say, “Hey, I picked up a book because I see you posting here and you seem like a good guy.” But is that why I do it? No, not at all. It’s a happy byproduct. Some people would count that time as “marketing,” but for me, I’m just “geeking out” about books.
How did you eventually find a mainstream publisher?
Wow, it’s a really long story. I’ll try to be brief. I spent 10 years writing and after producing 13 novels (8 of which were just practice), I tried to get published and couldn’t even get an agent. So I quit writing altogether. A decade later, I decided I couldn’t stay away any longer so I started writing again, but only on the condition that I wouldn’t seek publication. That activity was just too painful.
After reading the third book of my Riyria Revelations, my wife declared, “These books really do need to get out there.” And since I wouldn’t do anything to that end, she took up the chore of writing queries. She eventually landed an agent, who shopped the books for about a year, but then she (the agent) was leaving the business because her husband’s leukemia had relapsed. So, Robin started shopping small presses and got a contract from Aspirations Media Inc. They produced The Crown Conspiracy and were going to release Avempartha but didn’t have money for the press run. To make the already announced deadline, we had to self-publish. Since we wanted to keep the books releasing on a six-month schedule we just kept releasing using that approach.
Somewhere along the way, Robin found a new agent to deal with the foreign offers that had come in. When the fifth book of The Riyria Revelations was released our sales were “good” but not “earth-shattering.” Still, Robin thought it might be enough to give New York another try. So she and my foreign rights agent put together a proposal and sent it out to 12 or 13 editors (I forget which). In just a few days, we had 6 or 7 (again I forget which) expressing an interest, and Orbit came in with a really good pre-emptive bid (an offer designed to make the author say yes right away so the book doesn’t go to an auction or get in a bidding war). We took their offer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Any parting words of advice for those reading this article?
Not that I can think of. It was a good set of questions and very comprehensive. I do want to thank you for thinking of me, and for taking the time to put this together. I’m pretty proactive about helping other authors, so if anyone reading this has questions, they can always drop me a line at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org. And to any readers out there, I just want to thank you for your support. It’s because of your “word of mouth” recommendations to friends that the books are doing as well as they are, and I’ll continue to strive to put out the best tales I know how.
Thanks again to all.
You can buy Michael's books from his Webstore and you can keep up with the latest new and his blog on his site - Michael J. Sullivan.
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