I like to get interviewed. It gives me spotlight, which, in turn, gives me pleasure. But I also like the other side of the coin, which is to let other people talk about themselves and their writing experience, or even career, those few, lucky few, those band of brothers. One such person is Michael J. Sullivan, a famous name in the self-published fantasy arena. Today, he’s agreed to tell us his story.
1. If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, how would it read?
Independent to a fault.
2. All right, now a proper intro please.
I’m Michael J. Sullivan author of twenty-six novels. I’ve published nine and have finished the first three books in my new series tentatively titled, The First Empire. I’ve had several “runs” at publishing, some more successful than others. My biggest breakthrough came when I stopped writing books I thought would sell and instead wrote books I wanted to read. I had no intention on publishing my Riyria stories (Revelations: six books; Chronicles two books) and ironically those were the ones that got picked up. To date they’ve sold more than half a million copies and have been translated to fourteen foreign languages. All my success in publishing is due to my fabulous readers who tell have done such a great job getting others to read the books, and my wife, who made it her mission to get them “out there.”
3. Reading your blog, I found your posts to be simple, clear and highly practical, and I have carefully applied your advice to my own book writing and selling journey, especially when it comes to the marketing part. What prompted you to write and keep writing those posts? Do you also find them useful to your own experience?
I’m glad you found the posts helpful. Writing is my passion, and making money allows me to live my dream. I’m fortunate to be a full-time author, and I want as many people as possible to be able to do that too. It’s not an easy business by any stretch of the imagination, so I do what I can to help others. Because I’ve done so many different types of publishing (self, small-press, big-five, print-only deals, launching a book with Kickstarter), I’ve learned a lot. If I can help people find a path that works for them, well I’m happy to do so. As for useful to my own experience, I’m writing about things that I’ve already put into place, so yeah I wouldn’t write a post for anything that failed…except as a cautionary tale. I’m trying to share what worked (or didn’t work for me). Publishing is very much a “your mileage may vary” profession, so just because it worked for me doesn’t mean it will work for others, but I think it’s good to have some shoulders to stand on.
4. What is your best work, in your own opinion?
Wow, that’s a tough one, because it depends on how you define “best.” Percepliquis (which is the second book in Heir of Novron and the last book in the Riyria Revelations) is by far my most “satisfying work.” I think it wraps up the series in a pretty incredible way, and in many respects the other five books were just “setup” for this literary spike of a volleyball. When I got done with that book, I pushed back in my chair and thought, “Now that was good!” It’s not my ego making me say that, I was just so pleased with how it came out. Based on feedback from readers, I’d say that they seem to agree.
But then there is Hollow World, which is a serious, thought-proving book. I wrote it in the style of classic social science fiction that asks the reader to explore their opinions on things such as individuality, fulfillment in a world of post-scarcity, and what is love. Whereas my other books are more “escapist fun” Hollow World is designed to be a kind of mirror, and as such various people will see different things. It’s controversial, and elicits pretty emotions (both positive and negative), but it accomplishes exactly what I wanted. I think it is a much more complicated book and has more layers than Riyria. They are very different, so in some ways you can’t compare the two. But even though I’m dealing with tough issues in Hollow World, I do so in my same light, fun, and entertaining way as the Riyria books. In this way, it doesn’t feel heavy or weighed down. Writing that book was difficult to do, and I’m proud with how it turned out.
5. What about the worst work? Anything you regret writing? Anything you wish didn’t exist out there?
Oh, I have a lot of “bad books,” especially when I was starting out and learning how to write. I don’t regret writing any of them as they were great learning experiences, sometimes we learn more from our failures than our successes. But no, I don’t have anything “out there” that I wish wasn’t. If I’m not happy with a book, I won’t release it, which is one of the reasons why I write an entire series before releasing the first book. I don’t want to paint myself into a corner and then have some lame way to get out of it.
I have one book that I’ve written twice, and a huge amount of research went into it, including research trips to New York and Death Valley. When it got to my wife (my alpha reader), she wasn’t thrilled. After her critique, I decided there was more wrong than right with that book, so it’s in a drawer. It’s hard walking away from a novel I put so much time into. I have done a triage and figured out what could save it, but given all the other projects I have in my queue, it’s not worth the time and effort. So it’ll probably never see the light of day. A shame as there are some things about it I love, and as I said I probably put more hours into that book than any I’ve written to date.
6. Who influenced – or keeps influencing – your own writing style the most?
I don’t know how best to answer this as I’m not really influenced by other writers, per se. In other words, I don’t try to write like Steinbeck or King or anyone else. When I read books, I’m impressed by various authors and what they do and how they do it. But while I appreciate their talent, I don’t want to emulate it in any way. I want my own style. I’ll give you an example; I think Ayn Rand does an amazing job painting with words. There are scenes she has written, which I can still picture in my head. But I tend to go “light on description,” so I can focus on character and plot. So while I love her style, I don’t emulate it. I’ve come up with a style that is very much my own, and I’m good with that.
7. All right. Name your favorite book or author. Three if you can’t narrow it down to one.
Well, pound for pound, I really enjoy a great number of Stephen King’s books, and they are always high on my lists of favorites. That being said; he usually has disappointing endings (with a few exceptions). His characters, and how he gets into their heads is something I really appreciate…and I still “know” characters that I read twenty years or more ago—that’s pretty impressive writing.
J.K. Rowling is responsible for me giving writing another try after a ten-year hiatus. Her Harry Potter books (especially early on) were so fun and well-constructed. She was great at building her world in an entertaining way, and I wanted to visit Hogwarts, and wished I was Harry’s age so I could hang out with him, Ron, and Hermione. This more than anything else got me to write a story that had been bouncing around in my head.
Then, of course, there is J.R.R. Tolkien, who is the author that turned a kid that hated books into a reader. Prior to reading The Hobbit, I hated books and spent an entire summer trying to get through my first chapter book, just so I could say that I read at least one book in my life. When I finished Lord of the Rings, I was so saddened that I had to write my stories so I could continue adventuring.
8. What is the one thing the author must NEVER do, under any circumstances?
That’s an easy one: never give up. Publishing is a profession that rewards persistence. I spent more than a decade writing, revising, submitting, and riding the query-go-round. I quit because I figured I just wasn’t good enough. I thought all that work was a colossal waste of time. As it turned out, that time wasn’t wasted. I was finding my voice and building my skills. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any task, and Stephen King says the first 1,000,000 words should be looked on as practice. I think those numbers are about right. So when you start out, you probably will suck, but if you keep working at it, and learning, and striving to do better, you can improve. Just don’t get discouraged. The only sure way to guarantee failure is to stop trying.
9. Do you have a writing routine? Any tips on productivity?
I write every day, 365 days a year (yes even Christmas). I’m best in the mornings, so after a coffee and reading the news (and a bit of whatever book I’m on), I’m ready to go. I write until lunch, which usually produces 1,500 – 2,000 words. I may write again later in the afternoon or evening, but only if I’m into something a scene. I spend a lot of time walking around and re-running the plot through my head, or sometimes aloud by talking to myself, and that helps me figure out any problems with the story I might be having. I don’t suffer from needing to force myself to put my butt in the seat. Writing is my favorite pastime, so I awake excited to sit and write. It’s like asking a child how they get motivated to play their favorite game. The hard part is pulling them away, not getting them to do it. So my best tip is to love what you’re doing, and then it’ll never seem like work.
10. Recently, there’s been a storm of stories and rumors about the big houses, Amazon among them, fighting and hurting the small publishers and independent authors. You have even blogged about it on your own site. Do you have an idea how this might unravel, and what would you suggest to those caught in the fire?
The big issue right now is the dispute between Hachette Book Group (one of my publishers for the record) and Amazon as they negotiate their next contract. There is a lot of speculation as to what the “issues of contention” are, but no one knows for sure. Because of that, it’s difficult to say who is in the right and who is in the. I do think it is funny that people seem to be rallying around Hachette as the “David” to Amazon’s “Goliath” considering they are both multi-billion dollar organizations, so I see Goliath versus Goliath.
I don’t like the strong arm tactics, and yes it’s hurting my sales, but it’s just a fact of life that the party with the strongest position gets to exert pressure on those with less power. The ironic thing is publishers have always strong-armed authors, and yet I don’t see the same kind of outcry against them. The sad truth is that the writer is the creator who provides income to a host of parties: agents, publishers, booksellers, distributors, editors, cover designers, sales people, marketers, and so on, but we get the smallest cut and wield the least amount of power.
11. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
There are a lot of debates these days about which is the “right” path to publication. Both sides make excellent points and are adamant that the “other” choice is a poor one. Having done both, I can the pros and cons of each. I don’t care which path an author takes as long as it is an informed one. So much is changing, and so quickly, that I recommend authors stay abreast of what is going on so they can make smart choices. I do think now is the best time to be a writer, but it also is not as simple a decision as it used to be.
12. Can you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?
I’d love to. As I mentioned, I’m three books into a four book series. I’m a bit odd for a fantasy writer as I complete the whole series before I submit the first book for publication. That way I don’t have to worry about where it will go or how it will wrap up. This series explores the difference between myth and reality. In my Riyria stories, there is a religion based around a great warrior from 3,000 years in the past who formed the original first empire. His heroic deeds are the stuff of legend. In reality, it was a small band of “ordinary” people whose acts were usurped by those in power to create a hero. The series is meant to be standalone. The reader doesn’t need to have any prior knowledge from my Riyria tales, but for those who have read those books, they’ll understand the history of Elan in a whole new way. Basically, I have lied to them, and this will remove the scales from their eyes—fun stuff.
13. Anything else?
Well first off, I’d like to thank you for asking me for the interview, allowing me to introduce your readers to me and my work. For those that are curious about my writing, I have a few short stories available that introduce them to Royce and Hadrian with no monetary investment (they are free) and because they are short the time investment is small. On Audible.com, there are two short stories: The Viscount and the Witch (later this became the seed that grew into the Riyria Chronicles. Eventually, that story became a chapter in The Rose and the Thorn book. Then there is The Jester, which was a story I submitted for the Unfettered Anthology. Both are narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds, who is excellent. For those who prefer ebooks, they are usually free from all the various sites (Amazon, B&N, ibookstore, etc.). Some sites have minimum pricing ($0.99), and if they are not free where you shop, you can still get them for free. Just shoot me an email, and I’ll send you free copies in whatever format you want.
Other than that, I should mention that you can find my blog at www.riyria.com, and I’m on twitter at @author_sullivan. If your readers have any questions, they can ask them in the comments, and I’ll stop back to answer. Or just reach out to me at one of those contacts.
Closing words: Thank you, Michael. Useful advice and a fun read. Carry on!