This is part of the BESTSELLING AUTHOR INTERVIEW SERIES hosted by Read Out Loud.
This interview was conducted by Kirtida Gautam, one of Read Out Loud’s first authors. You can find out more about her book here.
Michael J. Sullivan is an American writer of epic fantasy and science fiction, best known for his debut series, The Riyria Revelations, which is a six-book epic fantasy series. He got the first book The Crown Conspiracy from the series of six self-published in 2008. After two and a half years, the first five books sold more than 70,000 copies and ranked in the top twenty of multiple Amazon fantasy lists. In November 2010, he leveraged his success and received his first commercial publishing contract for three novels from Orbit Books, fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group, USA. In addition, Michael reached international status with more than sixty-five foreign rights contracts across twelve languages including books published in France, Spain, Russia, and Germany, just to name a few.
Michael’s work has been well received by critics and readers alike, earning him thousands of positive reviews, interviews, and articles. He has attributed much of his success to the fantasy book blogging community. Dubbed “the little indie that could” he found his books pitted as the only independent in major competitions such as the 2010 and 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy and the 2009 Book Spot Central’s Fantasy Tournament of Books, which he won. His traditionally published edition of Theft of Swords was short-listed for the 2013 Audie Award for Fantasy.
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Ritesh: I “met” Michael on a Goodreads group way back when he had just gotten his deal with Orbit, but the Riyria Revelations was still published as a 6-book series. I remember him to be extremely nice, approachable and willing to take the time to interact with readers. I became a fan instantly, and have remained one throughout, reading most of the books he’s written. A special mention to Robin Sullivan, who is surely the woman behind Michael’s success. She is herself a bestselling author and the duo are among my favourite authors.
Question 1: You once said, self-published authors get criticized twice often for their copy-editing mistakes than the authors who get their books published by large presses. Because people think with big publications, professionals are involved and hence they don’t tend to find mistakes. Whereas with self-publishing people expect editing to be poor and they love pointing out any little mistake and hold it up as proof of poor quality. So what difficulties have you faced with copy-editing your self-published book?
Michael: My self-publishing falls into two categories, the works I self-published before my contracts with the big-five, and then the ones I’ve self-published afterward. So let me talk about each. For the early works, especially the first few books, it was important to control costs as I had no idea how the books would perform) so that meant editing on a shoestring budget. What I would do is put out small ads for editors using sites like the American Copyeditor Society and I would get a lot of people responding (more than 200). I then took a few pages of the book, sent it to all the people who responded, and asked them to edit as much or as little of it for me to determine their capabilities. I analyzed each of these along with their costs and chose two editors that were reasonably priced. Having two editors meant things that one missed the other would catch.
Now, for Hollow World and The Death of Dulgath (the two books that I self-published in recent years), making sure the editing was top-notch was my highest priority. I didn’t want people to think the self-published work was released with a lower bar for quality. So, for those books I paid a great deal of money on copy-editing. For instance, Hollow World had two editors (both used by the big-five). For The Death of Dulgath I actually used three editors – the same two as with Hollow World plus a new editor who was actually a beta reader and very good. Each of these edits cost me about $1,000 so I spent ($2,000 – $3,000) for editing of those self-published books. Paying all that money wasn’t a problem because I ran successful Kickstarter campaigns for both projects. So, I had extra money that I could devote to them. Because my traditionally published books only have one copy editor, these are actually “better edited” than my traditional books.
Question 2: What do you think have changed in self-publishing these days?
Michael: I think self-publishing has matured and we now see a number of professional self-published authors. These are the ones that take great care in the production of their work, and release books that stand toe-to-toe with those published by traditional houses. These authors are highly knowledgeable on subjects of branding and marketing and make the necessary investments in editing and cover design. They ARE publishers just like their New York counterparts. These authors do EXTREMELY well.
What hasn’t changed, is there are still some authors who self-publish poorly. Those who don’t have that same attention to producing a quality product and just slap something together and put it out to the public. These authors have never done well, and never will. For the most part, they fall into obscurity as they never find any substantial traction or readership.
Question 3: Would you be going into self-publishing in future?
Michael: A lot depends on circumstances. For each project I write, I consider what would be the best path for that particular book. For instance, Hollow World (my first science fiction novel) was offered a traditional publishing contract, but the advance wasn’t that great. I figured I could do better by self-publishing, so I did. Sure enough, I made about three times the advance in the first few months of it’s release. So that was the right way to go with that book.
For my next project, The First Empire (a five-book epic fantasy series) I had intended to self-publish, but then Del Rey came in with an advance that was much higher than I thought I would likely make through self-publishing. This combined with the fact that they were releasing me in hardcover was a big draw. So, I decided to sign that series with them.
For the book releasing right now, The Death of Dulgath (ebook went live in October and the hardcover and audio book will be released in December), I went the self-publishing route because I had to get it out before the end of 2015 (so that its release date wouldn’t conflict with the release of Del Rey’s Age of Myth (first book of the First Empire series scheduled for June 2016). I didn’t even bother submitting that to publishers because none of them could meet the deadline requirement.
Will my future books be self or traditional? Well it depends on what is being offered and whether I think I can do better on my own or not. I’ll evaluate each one as the books complete.
Question 4: At one point in your life, you gave up on publishing your novels, but then after 10 years you chose to walk on the road of getting them published for your 13 year old daughter, who was then having reading difficulties due to dyslexia. How did your books help your daughter’s reading?
Michael: I’m not sure who benefited more from that decision – myself or my daughter. Yes, she got to read a book that turned her into a long-time reader, but I got a whole new career. So here is a part of that story that isn’t widely known. I wrote the Riyria books for Sarah, starting with The Crown Conspiracy. I enjoyed writing it so much that I dug right in and wrote book #2 (Avempartha) right after. When I gave her the first book, it was created from a standard printer – and on 8 ½” x 5 ½” paper that were all loose pages. Because of her dyslexia she finds reading in this format to be very difficult. She said she could only read it if I had it in a book format – bound pages. So that is what got my wife taking up the task of getting them published. So because she wouldn’t read the book in manuscript format, I was forced to find a way to get it in published book form for her to be able to read it.
Question 5: According to you, what elements of your novel are specifically appealing for the young adults?
Michael: While part of the reason for writing the books was for my daughter (and yes she was a teen at the time), the books aren’t written for the young adult market. They are books written for adults but because they lack sex, graphic violence, and explicit language, they can be read by people with a wide range of ages. I will say one of the neatest things about the books is when I hear they are being read and shared between multiple generations. In some cases as many as three grand-parent, parent, and child. I think I get as many children reading because of recommendations from their parents as I do parents reading because of recommendation of their children. So I think the style of the books do have a broad appeal.
Question 6: We all know when you had your first child, you chose to be stay at home daddy and take care of your child. And that was the time when you wrote your 12 novels. Are your children your inspiration for you to write fantasy and adventure novels or the desire of writing fantasy novels had its roots in your early childhood?
Michael: Part of my reason for being a stay-at-home dad had to do with the income disparity between myself and my wife. She made more money than I did (she was an engineer, I was a commercial artist), so the decision to stay at home stemmed first from us wanting to be involved with our children’s early development (rather than day care) and the financial practicality. The writing came because of my desire to have a creative outlet while they napped or do have something to do in the evenings (because I don’t watch television). While my Riyria books were partially written for Sarah, all my books really are created to satisfy my own reading preferences. I’m writing books I want to read and because I’m creating them, they fit me like a glove. I’m often pretty critical of other books, not because other writers aren’t talented – as they certainly are. They just don’t often align with my preferences and by writing the books myself I can guarantee that they will be the type of book I would enjoy.
Question 7: Please tell our readers about how you were as a kid?
Michael: I didn’t have a great many friends…which may have a lot to do with writing, as I can create people to play with through my books. When I was young, both my father and sister had really bad battles with cancer. When my father was ill, my mother sent me to live with my sister and her husband at their farm so I got to ride horses and learned a lot about living in a rural setting. After dad’s death, I came home and then my sister’s fight began. This put a lot of stress on my mother, and so I had to be pretty self-sufficient in terms of taking care of myself. Escaping into fantasy worlds where there weren’t such problems and where I could be a hero, was the way I coped with what was going on in my “real life.”
Question 8: From the time you wrote Riyria Revelations to your recent works like The First Empire, what has changed in your writing craft or do you follow a particular method of writing for your each work? Please tell our young authors about the things you pay the most attention while writing your novels.
Michael: I think each author should always have a desire for constant improvement. Like any task that requires skill, you get better the more you do. I think the storytelling aspects are somewhat born into me – I’ve always been good at creating stories. But the “how” of storytelling is something that improves with each book. My process has remained the same, but now I’m much more sensitive about things that were “clunky” in my past works. At the time I wrote each book, it was the best I could write, but because I’m always working on improvement I think each subsequent book is more polished than earlier ones.
As for young authors, I think reading is essential for writing – but reading with a critical eye. You need to try to determine what the author did and why. You can learn a lot about writing by studying a book through reading.
Question 9: Would you tell our reader about your future works? Have you already thought about how the world will end?
Michael: I do something rather unusual when I’m writing a series…I write all the books before publishing any of the works. So, for instance, The First Empire (which started out as a trilogy and grew into five books) has been completely written and the first book for it will come out in June 2016. This series is set in Elan but 3,000 years in the past. It tells the true story of how Novron saved mankind and formed the First Empire. This series has been designed so that both new and existing readers should be able to enjoy it. Here’s the “back of the book” copy:
Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between men and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now, only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer. Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom. And Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over; the time of rebellion has begun.
Even past this new series, I do have ideas for other books based in my fictional world of Elan. I would like to tell the story of “The Fall of Percepliquis” (showing how the First Empire was destroyed). For those who have read my books this would be Esrahaddon’s backstory. I also have some books planned post Riyria Revelations that generally revolve around the two characters Yolric and Kile. Then, of course, if people want more Royce and Hadrian I’d be glad to write more Riyria Chronicles – so yes, plenty more coming!
Question 10: Any parting words of advice, encouragement for our readers and new generation of authors?
Oh, there is so much… but it could take days to go through it all. So I’ll try to hit the highlights. First off, publishing is in great flux right now. This means there are more ways than ever to get your books “out there.” There is no universal “right path” but there is probably a path that is a “better fit” for each author on an individual basis. So, do your research weigh the pros and cons and go after the route that is the best for you. But if that doesn’t work out, then explore other avenues. Persistence is the key in this business and the only way to ensure failure is to stop trying. At the heart of any success is a “good book” which I define as a book that people enjoy enough to tell others about. So keep your quality high and always work toward constant improvement.
I’d also like to say thanks for this opportunity. I greatly appreciate the interest in my work.
If you’d like yo know more about Michael’s works, you can check out all his books on Goodreads.