Interview with Michael J. Sullivan
Your road to publication with Orbit has been a story in and of itself. Although you’ve expounded upon it in prior interviews, can you give readers at SFFWorld a quick overview?
Sure. Switching from self to a big-six was really my wife’s idea. I had tried for more than a decade to get published and after failing miserably I gave up writing altogether for about a decade. When I started writing again, I had no desire to publish so I just wrote something I wanted to read. My intention was to share it with a few friends and that would be good enough.” My wife fell in love with the stories and became determined to get them out there. It took her a few years but she eventually found me an agent, then later a small press (AMI in Minnesota) to release the first book. That press had financial problems the whole time we were with them, and when they didn’t have enough money to print the second book the rights reverted. We already had bookstores and book clubs lined up for an April release (we were notified in March) so the only way to get it out in time was to self-publish. I really liked the one-book-every-six-month release cycle so we continued to put them out ourselves because going after another publisher would have disrupted that flow. When the first printing of The Crown Conspiracy sold out we got the rights back for it and it joined the rest.
When my fifth book, Wintertide, was released in October 2010 we saw sales more than double. Robin had noticed that my name was showing up on the big name author’s pages on Amazon. People like Weeks, Rothfuss, Abercrombie, and about 30 others. I was the only indie author on those lists so she thought that might attract some attention.
We already had a foreign rights agent and out of courtesy asked Teri if she wanted to submit domestically. I actually didn’t think she’d be interested, but she was quite enthusiastic. In mid-October she put together a proposal and sent it to seventeen houses with a three week deadline. Robin and I, really didn’t think anything would come of it, but we had seven publishers express an immediate interest. Orbit was always tops on my list and they put in a pre-emptive offer. After a phone conversation where they expressed their desire to fast-track the books and have them all out in quick succession made the decision even easier. We figured that even if another publisher offered with more money we would still want Orbit, so we signed a letter of agreement in mid-November. The rest, as they say is history.
One thing I’ve seen in a lot of your interviews is how fresh you were to the fantasy genre when you wrote these books. In particular, the comparison to Fritz Leiber continues to crop up – this is a good thing since he was one of the genre’s best. Would you say that, based on what you’ve heard anecdotally about his Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories that you were approaching the same archetypes in the protagonist duo?
Well first off, I’m glad to hear that “this is a good thing” because I’ve not read Leiber. While I would really love to I’m afraid that a) I’ll get depressed after seeing just how much better he was than I am and b) find myself trying to avoid being like him. I don’t want either of those things to effect my writing so I stay in self-imposed ignorance.
From an anecdotal standpoint, what I’ve heard is his stories revolve around the adventures of a small thief and a larger fighter and includes a fair amount of humor. That certainly resembles Royce, Hadrian, and The Riyria Revelations. I personally like tropes and archetypes as by definition they are familiar and easy to relate to. When it comes to books my first priority is entertainment, and for me that is easy to accomplish when you really like the characters you are spending time with.
As for the duo aspect…I wrote the stories long before I ever heard about bromances (my daughter actually introduced me to that phrase). I really like the idea of two people with really different personalities that are steadfastly loyal to one another. Because they have such different personalities it lets me explore issues from two very different mindsets and that provides for some interesting situations.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you had the books completed before even considering publishing them or submitting them. How long did it take to complete all six books and how many rounds of edits/rewrites?
So the spark of the idea started around 1990 but I was working on other stories at the time. Then I quit writing, but I still turned it around in my mind, adding plot points and characters. To me it was like creating a movie and I would “watch it” whenever I was bored, which was often, but I never wrote any of it down, not even notes.
I actually put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard as it were) starting in September 2004, and I had so much stored up that it just poured out of me. I basically wrote twelve to eighteen hours a day and finished the first book in about a month. Book two was written at pretty much the same pace, and then I stared slowing down to something like six to nine months for each one. I finished the last book the same month that book the first book was officially released, October 2008. So from start to finish was four years.
As for rewriting/edits that occurred from Oct 2008 to Oct 2010. There really weren’t rounds per say. What I was really doing and asking myself, “How can I make this better. Could I raise the stakes, add some twists, weave some additional threads.” With enough time, and contemplation some pretty amazing ideas would spring fourth and because I knew the whole story I could easily see how to make new ideas fit seamlessly into the existing story. That sometimes meant changing more than one book simultaneously, so I would move back and forth between them.
The Orbit phase started when I got their first set of edits in mid-December 2010 and I signed off on the final printer proof in June 2011. So I guess that adds up to: fourteen years conceptualizing, four years writing, and two and a half years editing.
How have you found working with the folks at Orbit? (Right, because you’re going to say they were mean nasty people.)
Actually, I’m brutally honest, so you’ll get the true low-down. The thing I was probably the most afraid of was the editing process. I had carefully constructed the series and changing even something minor in one place might have huge ramifications elsewhere. I sweated bullets waiting for the first batch of changes and when I got them I was…both concerned and perplexed. Some were easy to address, others I didn’t understand, and then were those that would take a tremendous amount of heavy lifting to do anything about. What I didn’t realize is they were just comments and suggestions and not mandates for changes. All in all the books are almost identical to the originals. Yeah there were some areas that got a bit more description, and I added a new introduction that starts with Royce and Hadrian (originally they didn’t show up until page twenty-one) and there was some nice polishing performed.
As for copyediting and proofing, I can’t say enough good things about the people who worked on that part of the process. The books had, over the course of years, been through many editors and yet we still got complaints about homophone or comma placement issues. I was constantly impressed by the little nits that Orbit’s eagle eyes uncovered. Their work was truly topnotch and I don’t think I could reproduce what they did even with an army of hired freelancers.
From a business perspective they have gone the extra mile on every occasion… especially with regards to accommodating the existing fans. Orbit is putting out a Percepliquis only version as an eBook, so that people can complete their sets (with my art on the cover) and a print/POD version I’ll be printing/selling. And ebook buyers don’t have to re-buy Wintertide as part of the Omnibus version. We’ve also just completed an amendment to the contract so that I can sell copies directly from my website. This means fans can still have books signed as they have in the past. None of this is standard so it makes things more challenging for Orbit and yet they still step up to the plate. This is just further proof that they were indeed the right choice.
While all that is great, I think the most impressive thing so far has been from the marketing department. I had read articles and heard stories from other authors saying that publishers don’t do much in regards to marketing these days. That has definitely not been my experience with Orbit. It would take several volumes for me to detail all the things they have done, are doing, or plan to do. They have some really talented, savvy, dedicated people. I love seeing them share in our successes…for instance just the other day Theft of Swords was named a Top Ten Best Book of 2011 by Library Journal. This would have never been possible when I was self-published.
Now that you’ve been hearing the comparisons between the Riyria Revelations and some other authors, are you curious about their work or would you rather keep your distance to not flavor any future stories you’ll be telling?
Yes and yes. I am curious but I also tend to keep my distance. It also probably doesn’t help that I tend to be a slow reader. I already spoke about Lieber, but in many ways I think all of us are influenced by books we’ve read or movies we’ve seen. Sometimes I deliberately tap into those sources. For instance there is a scene in The Emerald Storm where Hadrian makes some toast for a seasick Royce. To coax his friend to eat, Hadrian says, “It has raisins in it…you like raisins.” It’s an obscure reference (a special gold star to anyone who makes the connection) but I got a kick out of inserting it. Other times influences leak out without conscious thought on my part. Often after reading something my wife might say…you know where you got that from…it’s a combination of x and y” and upon reflection I see that she might have a point. But that never occurred to me as I wrote.
My wife’s publishing company put out the ebook of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and in the front material is a letter from John Scalzi where he recants why he never read Joe’s book and his thoughts when he finally had. He said, “As a writer I have an ego, and I wouldn’t have wanted to step in your footprints, and walked a path you had, even if it were better for my novel to have done so. I would have been self-conscious of it; I would have danced around certain footfalls, and I suspect my own novel would have not been the better for it.” I feel exactly the same way. I want to be able to write without consciously editing myself because of what someone else wrote.
You’ve got some other stories in the works, do you want to let us know about any of them?
Well some are older pieces that I’ve resurrected, which means a complete rewrite from the ground up, but the seed of the story remains intact. If I try to talk about my books I end up rambling, so I’ll give you the “back of the book blurbs” which do a better job than I would if I just talked about them. The first is Antithesis:
Have you ever wondered about how the world would end?
No, well don’t sweat it, most don’t and those that do figure it will come about due to a dramatic change in climate, a widespread disease, or war. That’s what we’ve been taught to believe and our brains are always eager for a rational explanation, but our minds weren’t always so logical. There was a time when people believed in myths and magic, but in today’s scientific age if it can’t be proved, well it doesn’t exist.
I was the same way until I met Winston Stewart. That was the day I learned to believe in much more than I could see—not the least of which is fate. Fate is an amazing thing. It put Ghandi in South Africa, Nelson at Gibraltar, Newton under the apple tree, and Winston Stewart on that train in Alexandria Virginia. You don’t know who Winston Stewart is? You will.
I also have literary fiction piece which, in many ways is the antithesis of The Riyria Revelations. It’s the book that made me quit writing when I couldn’t get it published. Riyria is fast-paced, written in a simple style, and contains a sweeping epic involving likeable characters. A Burden to the Earth is a very simple tale about a complex man and his very small life. In this book I concentrated on constructing the prose and so it reads much differently than the simple, straightforward style I used with Riyria. Here is the blurb for it:
He learned values from Gunsmoke, ethics from Father Knows Best, and his place in the world from Ozzie & Harriet, but his life turned out much different.
A child of the fifties, Elliot Myers believed his parents, his teachers, his priest, and television when they promised him the American dream. Now at forty, and still living in his mother’s tiny condominium, he knows they all lied. Embittered by a world that moved ahead and left him behind, Elliot finds one last chance to free himself of forty years of waiting and makes his first, and final, grasp at life. Set in the early 1990’s A Burden to the Earth explores regret over lost innocence, nostalgia for the past, and the cost of dwelling on both.
I have many, many, more…more than I’ll ever get to write before I kick the bucket, but those are the two that will be published next, one way or another.
If you were to cast your characters onto the screen, who do you picture as your characters? Or would you rather let readers come up with their own ‘images’ of them?
This comes up often, and in the early days I had very definite choices for characters. Only my wife knows who they are, even though many people have tried to pry them out of me. In many ways those choices are nullified because it’s now been so long they are all too old, and I never came up with replacements for them.
In general, I do like people to form their own impressions of what characters look like or who they should be played by. Many people share their choices with me and some of them are really unusual. Seriously, Steve Buscemi for Royce? One of the book clubs that has been reading the entire series since the early days discuss this topic at every meeting, even those that don’t involve my books. If there ever is a movie I’ve told Danielle I’ll try to get her hired as casting consultant.
Any plans for short stories, either in the world of the Riyria Revelations or otherwise?
I’ll confess that I’m not very good at writing short stories. It takes a special type of writer who can work with such a limited amount of words and I’m not one of them. I have one other short story which is published in an anthology called Twists and Turns (available as an ebook) and most of the other stories in that anthology are much better than my contribution.
I do like the idea of telling the rest of the story—to explore in detail some events that are only hinted at in The Riyria Revelations. When I wrote The Viscount and the Witch I had a whole list of ideas for other little shorts…four of five of them come immediately to mind, and with a little brainstorming I could easily come up with several dozen more.
But now I wonder whether it would be better to do that back story as part of a full length novel. Right now I’m in a kind of wait-and-see mode. A lot will depend on how well the series does. If it flops, then doing a few shorts for the truly devoted would be easy to write. If it becomes popular, then I’ll spend the extra time to make full length novels. I just don’t want to overstay my welcome with this world and characters and tarnish what has been written so far.
You come across as very open and communicative with readers. How important is keeping your virtual presence active, in terms of cultivating readers?
I can’t think of anything better than chatting with people who enjoy what I’ve written. Every time I read a fan letter that starts out with, “I’m sorry to bother you,” or “I hope you don’t mind me writing,” I’m amazed. The thought that runs through my head each time is, “Seriously…you’re taking time out of your busy day to thank me…and you think this is somehow an imposition?” This is what I live for! Writing is actually a very solitary endeavor, so my true reward comes when I hear about a connection being made. It is this, more than anything else, that rewards me for what I toil over.
I don’t, or at least I hope I don’t, cultivate readers. That is to say I don’t think about how I can grow my audience, or what I can do to maximize exposure. I write books. Books that I would like to read, and hopefully there are those that like them as well and will tell others. When I’m online, I’m sharing in a collective experience…and yeah I sometimes, often even, I talk about my books or share some new milestone…but that’s because I’m just so excited. Most of my online time is spent thanking people for saying something nice or showing an interest. I think doing so is simply common courtesy.
I also spend a fair amount of time posting about writing techniques or sharing my thoughts and experience with publishing. There is a lot going on in the industry, and I wish I had had a behind the scenes resource when I started all this. This is my way of giving back and lending a hand to those that are now where I once was.
Now, that’s not to say that I’m oblivious to the needs of promotion. No book, no matter how good, can find an audience if no one knows it exists. I’m fortunate to have a great publisher and supportive wife, both of whom spend countless hours spreading the word. So in many ways, I’m freed from that responsibility, permitting me to do just the fun part—which is connecting one-on-one with readers and other authors.
Your background as a painter/artist came in very handy when the Riyria novels first published with Ridan. Do you continue to paint and would you ever paint character pieces of any of your characters?
I do one painting a year using traditional oils on canvas. I’m working on a whole series on places related to Washington DC, where I live. So far I’ve completed: a scene riding on the Metro, flying kites at the Washington Monument, and bike riding down the canal trail (a path that runs from Georgetown up to Cumberland Maryland). About thirty years ago I did two portraits: one of myself and the other of my wife. As you might have noticed, my original covers don’t have characters on them, because it is very hard to do well. People’s eyes will immediately notice any mistakes related to proportion or placement. It’s been so long since I even tried to do a portrait that I wouldn’t be able to produce anything decent, so I’ll stick to landscapes that are much more forgiving.
What has the transition been like going from primarily being published in eBook format to traditional published format?
It’s really hard to say…ask me in another year ;-) The books are just now showing up in stores and I’ll admit it was fun seeing how excited Robin was as she checked various Barnes and Nobles to see who had the books in stock. We were having breakfast together and she kept typing in various zip codes from around the country. (Davenport Iowa didn’t have any books on that day, but I see they do now.)
There has always been one dream of mine that probably never would have been realized when I was self- or small-press published. I’ve always wanted to be on a train, bus, or airplane and find someone that I didn’t know reading my book. Considering the odds, it still may never happen, but at least I now have a shot at that. If it ever does, I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to go up to them and say, “What do you think of that book you’re reading.” A negative comment would be soul crushing…but in my imagination that meeting always has a happy ending.
What was the process like, in terms of pairing up with Orbit vs. other publishers?
I really can’t say. Not because I’m being tight lipped, but because I don’t have much experience with other publishers. My wife’s company obviously doesn’t count and the only other publisher I was with was a very small press, and comparing AMI to Orbit is really like apples and baseballs. My wife is the one that follows the publishing market, and I do read blogs that seem to indicate other authors don’t feel they have been well treated…but for me, that has definitely not been my experience.
Each book, author, and publisher is a unique combination. So it may be that my books are getting more attention than others, or that Orbit treats all its authors exceptionally well. I don’t know as I’m not privy to what goes on behind the scenes with other books. All I can say is that I don’t think any other publisher could have given the books a better launch than Orbit has.
In comparing the Orbit version against the original versions, what do you see as improvements. For example, although I haven’t seen the Ridan versions, from browsing the series and Ridan’s Web site, it seems Orbit’s carried over some of the iconography into the chapter headings and such.
Well the biggest difference is obviously changing to three books instead of six. At first I was resistive, but they made some good points about the difficulties of trying to keep all the books stocked in bookstores. Also fantasy readers seem to prefer thick books, so they may be more attractive to that audience in the new format.
Orbit also added an extensive glossary, and some front matter that that lists the various regions, political systems, and religions. Many people have asked for this information over the years, so I think that was a good call on their part. I also like that they added an interview and are enclosing sample chapters of the next book as bonus material.
I am glad that they kept my maps and the book icons. Actually a lot of the interior design is similar to mine which makes the books feel very comfortable and familiar to me. Sure, it’s a little thing and I’m not sure if they did so for my behalf, but I appreciate it in any regards.
What role do you have at Ridan Publishing, your wife’s publishing house, aside from designing some very impressive cover art?
The company really is 99.99% Robin’s. Cover art really is the only contribution I make. The interior layout was originally designed by me, but it’s a template and others apply it to new books. In the past she has asked me for my opinion on a submitted book, or to help an author with developmental editing, but I’ve not done any of that in more than a year.
There has always been a divide of sorts between self-publishing, some might say vanity press publishing, and traditional publishing. This divide has become more complex with the rapid growth of digital publishing (Print-on-Demand and eBooks). Michael Stackpole has been making some interesting comments (http://www.michaelastackpole.com/?p=2510 and http://www.michaelastackpole.com/?p=2702) about the shift traditional publishing in the wake of budget crunching and eBooks and digital publishing / self publishing. You seem to be at a relatively interesting position, a crossroads of this argument, in that you are making the opposite move – digital publishing to traditional publishing. In your opinion, does Mr. Stackpole make a valid argument and do you feel digital/self publishing is more viable than traditional publishing for somebody such as yourself? (Right, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it?)
It’s a great question, loaded or otherwise. The landscape is quite different today than when I started self-publishing in 2009. At that time there really wasn’t much money to be had. Print on demand is great for books you sell from your website, and I’ve sold a fair number through Amazon, but you can’t live off of that distribution model.
About a year ago is when a major shift occurred in relation to ebooks. From April to September 2010 I had 4 books out and was selling about 1,000 a month. In October I added my fifth book and sales jumped to 2,600, then 9,500, 10,500, and 11,500 for November, December, and January. Monthly sales at that level are good for any type of publishing— self or traditional. But the most amazing thing to me is that I was not alone. Indie authors like H.P. Mallory, David Dalglish, B.V. Larson, J.R. Rain, K.C. May, and many more have all benefitted from the explosion in ebook popularity. Note that the people I mentioned are not the big names in self-publishing like Hocking or Locke. As far as I know, J.R. Rain is the only one from above who has ever hit Amazon’s Top 100 list (my closest was 102). Most readers have never heard of these authors, and yet they’ve sold more than 100,000 books each!
The real important thing to understand is there has never been more choices for a new author. Even small press publishing, which used to make an author only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, is now viable. I’ve watched my wife write royalty checks to individual authors for more than $60,000 and that’s just a single quarter. Most of her authors are earning five-figures a year, and others are making six-figures. I can say from firsthand experience that self, big six, and small press publishing all have positive and negative aspects to them. There is not a one-size-fits-all. What each author has to do is figure out which one aligns most closely to their goals.
Many of the people leading the charge to self-publish like Stackpole, Mayer, Eisler, Crouch, and Konrath have all been traditionally published before. They have an existing fan base, but more importantly a seal of validation that can’t be bought at any price, nor can it be removed from the minds of readers considering a purchase. They sometimes dismiss the importance of this validation, but that’s easy to do when you’ve never been on the other side of the fence.
I have no doubts that some of their experiences have been less than ideal, but the important thing to remember is they signed when there really wasn’t any other choice. It’s not surprising to me that their contracts and business practices were weighted toward the publishers, but in today’s environment I think the shift will go the other way. Publishers will have to work harder to attract and retain talent.
I’ll give you a real world example. When I received my contract there was some standard boilerplate language that could limit my future writing. The clauses in contention are industry standard, and both my agent and an intellectual property attorney assured me that they have been signed by thousands of authors over the years. Because I had options, namely that I could continue to make good money with self-publishing, I didn’t have to sign that contract. Orbit worked with me until we got the contract reworded to meet both of our needs.
Now, I’ve already said that I’m very happy with my treatment from Orbit…but it may be that not every author is getting the same things that I am. All I can speak to is my situation, and for me I can say that switching to traditional publishing was 100% the right choice. When I made my decision, I did so because I thought my books had a good chance at doing better than just a mid-list release. My goal was to reach a larger audience, even if that meant lower income on a per book basis.
But if we talk purely about the “average author” in other words what might be referred to as the mid-list. I think it may be true that they get only limited attention and their advances are not high enough to live off of. For these people, if money is their primary motivation, then I think they can definitely do better with self-publishing.
There are those that criticize my decision to go traditional (something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago). For me, I’ve already deemed the choice as the right one and the books are just hitting the street. Orbit has provided me everything I wanted, and more. They’ve put out a professional product and are working hard to get it noticed. Where the series goes from here is largely dependent on how good the books actually are. If they fail it will be because I didn’t write something that people wanted. Hopefully that won’t be the case.
So, Michael, thanks for your time, best of luck with the Orbit editions. Any final words?
Well first, I’d like to thank you for such great questions and for giving me an opportunity to share all my ramblings with the people here at sffworld. I’m extremely excited to live during a time when such opportunities exist and authors and readers can connect with one another. It’s been a long hard road to get here, and in many ways I’m still just taking the first steps in what I hope will be a long journey. I’ve always found that the greatest rewards come from challenges, and being able to overcoming them—and choosing to write for a living provides plenty of both. I’m one of those fortunate people who get to do what I love th most, and as long as there are those out there that seem to enjoy my work I’ll hold up my end of the bargain and keep striving to put out the best writing I possibly can. To paraphrase Casablanca I hope this will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.