AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Michael J. Sullivan

Tell us about your latest novel.

Hollow World released in mid-April, which is a stand-alone social science fiction novel in the tradition of Wells, Heinlein, and Asimov. It’s really quite different than my Riyria books, exploring concepts such as life in a post-scarcity environment, what the possible costs are to achieve a world without nations, disease, or material want, and even a bit about individuality and the meaning of love. My intention was to create a “thought-provoking” book, but to wrap it in a murder mystery with a good amount of action, some humor, and what I hoped would be some beloved characters. So in those ways it is like my Riyria stories. I’m extremely pleased with the reception of the book, and several bloggers have mentioned it as one of their favorite reads of the year. That part wasn’t expected. I just wanted to write a book I was really passionate about, but hearing from so many people how much they loved it really has made an already great experience something truly exceptional. I’m so glad I stepped beyond my comfort zone and wrote this somewhat unconventional book.

You originally self-published a series of books, then went on later to sell them to a traditional publisher. What happened with those, and why have you now moved on to funding via Kickstarter?

The books of the Riyria Revelations were re-released by Orbit (fantasy imprint of big-five Hachette) as three, two-book omnibus versions. So it breaks down like this: Theft of Swords contains The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha, Rise of Empire contains Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm, and Heir of Novron contains Wintertide and Pecepliquis. These books were published in three consecutive months from Nov 2011 – Jan 2012). Orbit then bought a prequel series, The Riyria Chronicles, which includes The Crown Tower (released in Aug 2013) and The Rose and the Thorn (released in Sep 2013). All five of these Riyria stories are still showing strong sales (more than half a million copies sold so far).

As to why I Kickstarted Hollow World, it was actually turned down by Orbit. Not because they thought it was poorly written, but because space operas were their focus for science fiction at the time, and they were afraid it wouldn’t sell enough copies. I did get a nice five-figure advance from another publisher, but they were offering a standard deal that included print, ebook, and audio rights. I wanted to do some really unique things with the ebook rights such as providing it free to people who purchased the audio or print editions, eliminating DRM, and even providing a version of the book without explicit language (for those that object to swearing). So I turned down that offer. Kickstarting just gave me so much more freedom and full control of my rights. I calculated that to self-publish “right” (using the same professionals that work on my traditionally published work) would cost about $6,000 so I decided to front half the money and see if the readers would back the other $3,000. I underestimated their enthusiasm as they ended up contributing more than $30,000. All in all the Kickstarter really opened my eyes to democratizing the creation process, and the backers were so supportive of the project and really helped to spread the word.

Are you planning to sell more books via the traditional route, or are you going to be funding novels exclusively via Kickstarter for the foreseeable future? Might you end up selling your Kickstarted novel to a traditional publisher too?

I’m really bullish on the entire Kickstarter concept, and would definitely do it again. I’m a hybrid author, which means I generally have my choice as to what routes my books will take. My approach is to consider each project as they become finished based on the publishing landscape, what offers are being made, and what I think the books earning potential could be. Money is just one factor, of course. I also consider contract terms, royalty rates, and the level of effort I’ll have to expend. It’s impossible to say at this time which way I’ll go for any particular project (I just finished three books of a four book series that my publisher hasn’t yet seen) but already I have several different paths for that project. The good news is that no matter what the project will be produced. That’s one of the reasons why this is such a good time to be a writer…lots of options.

As for selling my Kickstarter novel, I actually did do that. I sold the print rights to Tachyon Publishing, the audio rights to Recorded Books, and I held on to the ebook rights. So far that has proved to be a great way to go.  Hollow World released to the public at large in mid-April and in just six weeks the ebook alone earned more than that original five-figure advance I got for all the rights. The audio book has been selling great, too. In fact it was part of a “Humble Bundle” promotion done by Recorded Books which sold more than 18,000 copies in eleven days. I don’t have any figures on the print books yet, but the pre-orders were much higher than I anticipated and Tachyon paid some co-op fees to get premium placement of the title.

How do you think Kickstarter and self-publishing platforms (like Amazon’s KDP, etc.) are changing publishing?

Referring to the changes in publishing as a revolution isn’t just rhetoric. It’s entirely apropos. When I was self-published, I had periods were I was earning $45,000 – $55,000 a month. That’s more money than many traditionally published books will earn during their entire time in print. Also consider that publishers act like venture capitalists, investing upfront cash to receive the majority of the profits. With Kickstarter, the publisher is bypassed and it’s the readers who become the backers. They pool their individual contributions and provide authors with money for cover design, editing, production, and in my case, a nice advance. In exchange, they get a book, some nice bonuses, and the knowledge that they helped to bring a piece of art into the world. Quite simply, Kickstarter democratizes publishing. It also is responsible for removing a long line of middle men, leaving more income for the content creator. It reduces the players to just the essential parties: readers and writers.

What’s coming up next for you?

I actually have quite a few projects in the works. As I mentioned above, I’ve written three books in a new fantasy series called, The First Empire. It’s based in the same world as my Riyria books, but in the far distant path. It revolves around some historical characters and the “real” story about their deeds. As it turns out, much of what I’ve told in my Riyria books is a fabrication where the deeds of some ordinary people were usurped by those in power to create mythology behind a single individual. While these are “written” I’m waiting on feedback from alpha readers and will soon be getting feedback from beta readers.

While that process is going on I’m working on writing some other books. One is a standalone fantasy book that I outlined in detail about a year ago, when I was writing other books. It kinda “jumped the queue” (much like Hollow World did) in that it consumes my thoughts and the only way to purge it from my head is to get it down in writing. Then there is the third Riyria Chronicle book. Originally I wasn’t sure whether I should continue the stories of Royce and Hadrian, but feedback from the first two has proven to me that the two haven’t yet overstayed their welcome. So I’m working out the story on that and hope to be writing it “soonish.”