Michael J Sullivan – Book of the Month Theft of Swords- Ask the Author Review

Michael J. SullivanMichael writes classical fantasy and science fiction with unlikely heroes and epic adventures. His books have sold more than three quarters of a million English language copies, been translated into 12 foreign languages, and appeared on more than 150 best-of or most-anticipated lists.

Last year we chose Theft of Swords, part one of the Riyria Revelations as our Fantasy Book of the Month for October and Michael J Sullivan was kind enough to do an ask the author thread for us.

Here I will show some of the questions and answers from the thread including a really interesting comparison of his upcoming series Age of Myths to his other work.

Also keep an eye out for an upcoming interview by our own Sir Lancer with the author, where Sir Lancer asks a more interesting variety of Questions.

Michael J. Sullivan

Member -“Will your upcoming First Empire series be in this same style, or is it a more “serious” take on epic fantasy?”

Michael -Funny thing…when I started The First Empire, I was trying to go with a different style. I wouldn’t say more “serious” – but more akin to some of the other fantasy I’d been reading lately. Usually I don’t let my wife read any of a book until it is all done, but for some reason I gave her chapter one of that one. She was…well let’s just say she was “less than pleased.” “This doesn’t sound anything like you,” she said. I responded with “I’m trying to write better…you know like the real authors do.” She insisted that she wanted to read a “Michael J. Sullivan” book so I went back and re-tooled. When I gave her the new version she signed with relief. I honestly think for a minute that I forgot how to write.

That said, it’s not a repeat of Riyria…which does benefit a great deal from two (or four depending on you count) very interesting and capable main characters. My challenge was to come up with a whole new cast of characters that will be just as interesting, and I think I’ve done that. The really interesting thing about this new series (which may backfire), is that the people you think are the ‘main characters” after the first book really aren’t. In a lot of ways it’s kinda a group of misfit toys in that there are ordinary people doing extra ordinary things that end up changing history. I’m really happy with how it came out and can’t wait for people to read it.

Member -“Also, any plans on releasing, or retooling, any of those previous novels you had written, now that you have a “name” backing them?

Michael-Yes, and no. Some of them were never meant for publication. They were just me learning how to write. So I’d say the first 8 – 9 really have no value to retool. I got out of them what I was looking for.

Book #12 – I did plan on retooling and releasing. I tore it down to the studs, built it up again. I put a lot into it. Even took trips to New York and Death Valley (two of the places that are featured prominetnly in the books). When I got done, Robin (my wife) deemed it “fine.” Which isn’t good enough for me. I showed it to a few authors whose opinion I trust and they deemed it, “good but not great.” I spent a lot of time thinking about what was wrong with it and I finally figured out how to fix it. The thought of writing the same book for the the THIRD time given how many other ideas I have just seemed a less than productive use of my time so it’s permanently on hold. If I ever run out of ideas (which isn’t likely) I might write it again, but I kinda doubt it.

Book #13 is something I’m really proud of. And to do this day I think it is some of my most impressive righting (from a strictly prose standpoint). Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever release it. The problem is it’s also an “anti-sullivan” book. What do I mean by that.

1. It’s literary fiction rather than popular fiction.
2. It’s more about the prose than the story – having a very simple plot
3. The main character is purposefully “not likable.”

So, it would have little appeal to the set of readers who like my witty, fast-paced likable character work. And I think they might actually be disappointed to the point of turning them off my work as a whole.

The logical thing would be to release that under a pen name. But there is a lot of work “building a brand” and considering I don’t have an itch to write more in that style, it would be a “one off” and the amount of trouble it would take to promote it just wouldn’t pay off because there would be no more books from that “person” for them to read. Besides, pen names always get exposed – and when they do, people try books from the other “person” and then there would be that whole disappointment thing again. Lastly, I’m a really upfront and honest person and trying to manufacture a separate identity would be really foreign and I just wouldn’t be comfortable with it.

So that’s a long way of saying. The works did what they were supposed to at the time, but it’s harder (and more problematic) to work with them then something new…especially because I have more of those “something new” books than I’ll likely have to time to write before my days are over.

Member-“Thanks so much for Royce and Hadrian!! Very refreshing in a genre now seemingly divided between Grimdark and YA! “

Michael – Thanks! I’m just writing the books I want to read, and happy that others have similar tastes. Riyria is a bit unique in that it’s written for adults, but the lack of sex, graphic violence, and explicit language makes it readable by people of all ages. I get a lot of emails from parents who turned on their children to the books and the other way around. I even have some three generation readers where the grandparent, parent and child are all reading the books. That’s really satisfying to hear.

Member – “Thank you for giving us some of your time Michael. I’m quite curious about your approach to publishing. You’ve adapted easily book to book to different publishing models, main stream , indy and self publishing. I even had the fun of backing you in a kickstarter. Do you have a preference or are you happy to decide book to book what will suit that release. “

Michael -Thanks for having me. I guess you can describe my approach to publishing as “Doing whatever it takes to get the books out there.” My wife, Robin, who handles a lot of the business side of things is one of these people who will climb over, dig under, or go around any obstacle that is before her. If you look up “tenacious” or “capable” in the dictionary, you’ll see her smiling face.

Publishing today is an industry in flux, and the key to success is agility. I’m fortunate in that I have the ability to do either. For most authors they are tied to one path or the other. For instance, some can’t get a traditional contract (which, by the way doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t talented). It could be that they are writing something too “niche” or something the publishing company doesn’t feel will sell so that path becomes closed to them (unless they want to write something that does fit the mold of what the publishers want to release). Others, try the self-publishing route (because they think it will be easy), and discover it is anything but. What they don’t realize is you have to put out a book with every bit of quality that a New York house would. It has to stand to stand toe-to-toe, or it’s not worth putting out. And THAT is very difficult indeed. Much harder than traditional publishing in fact.

So, which do I prefer (since I can do both) and how do I decide? The answer is “it depends.” Each has its own pluses and minuses. Let’s start with control. I really hate having no say in matters such as price, cover design, title, or special programs. For instance, I feel that if people buy a print copy of my book, they shouldn’t have to re-buy it in ebook. For books I release myself (currently just Hollow World and The Death of Dulgath), I can enroll them in Amazon’s MatchBook – where a purchase of the print gives them a free ebook. I’ve asked Orbit to enroll my books in these programs an they won’t. I’ve also asked them release the books in mass market paperback (which would also trigger a decreased price in the ebook, but again they won’t. And I’ve always been disappointed in the “characters” they put on the covers.

So this lack of control makes me a bit nuts. But, it also has advantages. I receive much more “credibility” being published by two of the biggest publishers in the world (Machete Book Group for the Riyria novels and Penguin Random House for the First Empire books). There also is a whole team of people doing stuff for me, and since they are professionals, I can pretty much just sit back and trust that they know what they are doing. Yes, we might disagree on cover design, pricing choices, or titles of the book. But while I may not agree with all the choice, they have good reasons for their decisions so it’s not that they are “wrong” but more they have different opinions than mine.

So, how do I chose the path for a book? These days every book I write I assume is going to be self-published, because I can guarantee it will be produced when and how I want. But that said, I’m willing to listen to any offers the traditional houses make and might change my mind for that. Let’s look at some recent examples.

First two books of Riyria Chronicles. Because they were prequels (and prequels don’t generally sell well). My publisher made, what I considered to be, a low-ball offer. Especially given how well the Riyria Revelations had and were selling. To be honest, I was insulted. The money didn’t bother me nearly as much as the signal that it represented, which to me meant “I don’t respect you and what you bring to our organization.” So I turned it down. My agent went back and told them how I felt and they came back with a much better offer (and actually higher than I would have originally accepted). Which said to me, “We are sorry…it was a boneheaded move – we do value you.” So, I signed it. And the Rose and the Thorn and The Crown Tower was released by them.

My next book, Hollow World…my editor loved it, but being “classic science fiction” she couldn’t get the finance department to buy-in. They were only interested in publishing space opera and this wasn’t that. So they had to pass on it. We hoped it around and another publisher came in with what I would term a “solid” offer but when I ran the numbers, I thought I could do better through self-publishing. So I went that route…the only problem, bookstore shelf space. So Robin did something really interesting, she went to a small but respected publisher (Tachyon Publishing) and got a print-only deal with them. The advance was really small, but I didn’t care about the upfront money, I wanted their distribution, and sure enough Hollow World books were in the stores. in the first three months of it’s release I earned about double (off of the ebook sales) the advance that had been offered, so for that book it was the right way to go.

For my next project, The First Empire. I had two”career goals” for this book. The first was to move from paperback to hardcover. The other was to retain the audio rights (I lose 50% to the publisher when they keep them). I had a meeting with Orbit and told them and explained these as non-negotiable and they couldn’t agree. They would be doing trade paperback like the Riyria books. And as I tried, but failed, to keep audio rights for the books, that was probably a factor as well. So I said no. My agent sent it around to the other publishers – and we got a few offers…all of which were willing to meet my requirements. Del Rey’s offer was, VERY generous and excited. The money, was nice, but, again, it was what it represented which was, “We respect your work” that made it a no-brainer to sign that series with them.

After accepting, a snag arrived that nearly killed the deal. Although I had been clear to my agent about the need to self-publish and traditionally publish at the same time, there was confusion about WHAT kind of books can be released simultaneously. Somehow wires were crossed and what I understood that to mean and what Del Rey understood that mean were two VERY different things. I was pretty sure we’d have to cancel the job, but then my wife, my editor, and my agent did some really crazy stuff that would make some concessions I could live with. This is already a long post so I won’t detail it here, but if people are interested, ask it as a separate question and I’ll explain fully. But one of the provisions was that if I wanted to have a Royce and Hadrian book before their first release (Age of Myth in June). It HAD to come out before the end of 2015. Seeing as how I hadn’t even started writing it at the time the deal was being brokered that meant that book HAD to go the self-published route, or not come out at all. No publisher could take a book that was finished in July and release it before December. Heck, I’m really fast with such things and we are going to just barely make that deadline. The ebook came out mid October, the hardcover will hit early December and the audio mid December. Again, this post is too long to go into all the details about what had to happen between July and October, but if people are interested, just ask it as a separate question.

Wow, this is a a really long post. Probably the longest I’ve ever written on goodreads. It may be more than you wanted to know. But I tend to want to be complete in my answers.

Member -“It is rare for me to read an entire series back to back but that’s exactly what I did with Riyria Revelations/Chronicles. “

I love it when people get hooked and consume the books back to back. Since you have finished HEIR OF NOVORN I wanted to mention that I have a little afterword (a behind the scenes kinda thing) that you might like. Just send me a direct message with your email address and I’ll send it out (or email me at michael(dot)sullivan(dot)dc(at)gmail(dot)com – with a subject of Riyria afterword and I’ll send it over. It’s riddled with spoilers, so I don’t send it out until people are done with HON.

Memeber –  “Another series like this is the Tales of the Ketty Jay by Chris Wooding.”

Michael – I’m not sure if it was you, but someone recently brought this series to my attention…and I immediately downloaded it and moved it up on my TBR pile. Definitely looking forward to it. I write the books that I do because I have problems finding similar ones out there. So the prospect has me nearly giddy with excitement.

Member -“Just wanted to say I hold your writing and style in a very high esteem and am looking forward to what comes next.”

Michael -Thanks! It’s funny, but I still think of myself as “the new kid” and wouldn’t dare to take a seat at the “big kid’s table.” Not sure I ever want that feeling to go away, because if it does I might lose my drive to “try harder.”

A lot of stuff is coming. I do something really weird in that I write an entire series before publishing the first book. This allows me to go back and make adjustments to earlier books when a great idea occurs to me late in the series. The way in which Revelations wrapped up was, in my opinion, extremely satisfying…but part of that was because when I finally found “my perfect ending” I was able to go back to previous books and lay the foundation, and weave some threads so it would fit perfectly. To be honest, I don’t know how other authors write series without this ability to change early books, but I totally understand what a crazy approach it is and why they can’t give themselves the same luxury.

So, regarding “what’s next,” it’s a series called The First Empire. This book is based in Elan, but 3,000 years before the time of Royce and Hadrian. I wouldn’t really call it a prequel because the civilizations, technology, and people involved are all much different than Riyria. It’s more like what Sanderson has done with Cosmere where he has the Mistborn, Alloy of Law, and Way of Kings books in the same universe but with much different settings. For new readers it should be the start of a great epic fantasy…for existing readers, they’ll get an even better experience because they have their perceptions twisted. You see, the history you’ve learned about in Riyria isn’t “exactly true.” Basically what I’m doing is exploring the difference between myth and reality and showing how history is written by the victors. I really like the idea of monumental events being due to the deeds of ordinary people. I want to show how their “story” has been lost to time as those in power anoint and build the heroes. It might sound depressing because they don’t get credit, but it’s actually very uplifting, because even the most unlikely of people can make a real difference. I’m very excited about it.

All five of these books are already written. It started out as a trilogy, then grew to four and ended with five. Again, another good reason for writing them all first. Now, thats not to say they are “done.” And I’ll still be working on these books until about April or May. Book #1 (Age of Myths) is just about finished, my editor has signed off on the changes she requested, and it’s in copy editing. I’m working on a second pass draft of book #2 to get it ready for Robin. She’s already read it once, gave me a bunch of feedback and once she reads the revised version (things are added now that the series is finished), she’ll have more. Then the book will go off to my editor, agent, and beta readers. While they are working on book #2 I’ll be finishing up my second pass on #3 – #5. So starting in April or May I get to start on something new – already noodling through plot points for it. Fun times!

Member -“REALLY excited about The First Empire now. I confess I didn’t do much research into its setting, and am giddy to hear we explore the history and myth of the world we hear of in Riyria, rather than a new one. Hinting at ancient, powerful worlds (or far off lands) has come up in a few series I’ve read, and I’m always irked that the secrets behind them are an itch that will never be scratched.”

Michael – Great. It’s funny because I just answered a question on my author page about the difference and similarities between the two. I’ll repost what I said there here.

* Both are multi-book series where I wrote all of the books before publishing the first so there is a lot of weaving of plot points across the series.

* Both have “episodes” with their own beginning middle and end but leave some questions to be answered later on as all the pieces fall into place.

* Both are fast-paced fun reads where entertainment is in the heart of them. Yes, bad things will happen, and there will be failures, but overall you should leave the books feeling better rather than worse after reading.

* Both have some great characters. They are definitely different (don’t want to cookie cutter people from Riyria but they have their own awesome aspects.

* Both have a mix of humor and drama. First Empire doesn’t have as much “witty banter” because that would be a retooling of something from Riyria – but there are characters who have great lines and interesting quirky habits that bring a lightness to the story.

* The cultures and settings are much different. Both take place in Elan (my made up world) but because The First Empire is 3,000 years in the past the technology is much different. For instance, in The First Empire mankind is pretty primitive (spears are the common weapon and few have ever seen, let alone used a sword). As the series go on they advance technologically as needed in order to survive.

* There is much more magic in The First Empire. Most of those who can practice “The Art” in Riyria are dead or hiding their abilities. So there isn’t much magic in those books. In The First Empire it is much more common.

* There is more diversity in The First Empire. The Riyria books see everything from the perspective of humans and we really don’t get any insight into he inner workings of other cultures. The First Empire has three main races and each one has a major part to play and we see the other cultures rather than being totally focused on mankind.

* The First Empire is much more of an “ensemble” cast. Although you won’t know that when starting out. I use readers expectations against them a bit in that who they think are the main characters really aren’t.

For the rest of the thread go to the following -https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/17605485-ask-the-author—michael-j-sullivan
If you haven’t I seriously recommend checking out Michaels work.
See his goodreads page here -https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2063919.Michael_J_Sullivan
and keep an eye out for Lancers Interview



2 thoughts on “Michael J Sullivan – Book of the Month Theft of Swords- Ask the Author Review

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