Michael 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.
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.