Hollow World and Hybrid Publishing: An Interview with Michael J. Sullivan

Author Michael Sullivan Profile Picture

Author Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan is author of the much-acclaimed fantasy series The Riyria Revelations, The Riyria Chronicles, and a number of short stories. He is also one of the few authors who has published via small press, self-publishing, and through a big-five publisher. Now, like other authors who are following closely the revolutionary changes happening in publishing, he considers himself a “hybrid” author.

Sullivan’s personal writing story is inspirational but also reveals the persistence and savvy that is required to be a success in the writing business today. For a number of years, he wrote novels that were submitted, without success, to traditional publishers. Finding no traction, he quit altogether. Then, a decade later, his youngest daughter (who is dyslexic) was struggling with reading, and he decided to write the novels that became the Riyria Revelations. Light and fun, the novels were inspired by Tolkien and Rowling and written to help foster a love of fantasy in his daughter. They were intended for friends and family, but his wife insisted on getting them published and took over the query and submission process. After much effort, a small press decided to publish Sullivan’s first two Riyria novels, but when the small press lacked funds to print the second book, Sullivan’s wife formed her own publishing company to self-publish the novels. That was early in 2009.

Theft of Swords Book Cover

Theft of Swords is the first book in Michael Sullivan’s The Riyria Revelations fantasy series.

After publishing the fifth book of the series, a second attempt at big-five publishing was attempted and Orbit Books (the fantasy/sci-fi imprint of Hachette) purchased rights to the series. During their time as self-published titles, the Riyria novels sold well online, especially toward the latter part of 2010. Reports are that Sullivan sold some 70,000 books. In 2011, Orbit re-released the six Riyria Revelations novels as a trilogy. Sullivan has since released two books (also through Orbit) in a prequel series titled The Riyria Chronicles.

As you can imagine, Sullivan has broad experience in indie publishing and has been open about sharing that experience with others on various aspects of the business, including being engaged in an online community (like Goodreads).

In April 2014, Sullivan will be releasing a new novel in the science fiction genre titled Hollow World. It begins with the main character Ellis Rogers being told he has an incurable illness, with little time to live. Ironically, though, he does have time; he has built a time machine that might take him to the future. I read an excerpt of the beginning of the novel. It flows fast and draws me in almost immediately and I am looking forward to reading the full novel in the near future.

Hollow World will be published in print by Tachyon Publications, an independent publisher specializing in fantasy and science fiction works. The audio book was sold to Recorded Books, the publisher that has released the Riyria novels. Sullivan, however, retained ebook rights, which suggests that hybrid publishing might be possible not only across different books an author writes but across one book.

Michael Sullivan was kind enough to spend some time with us to discuss his new book Hollow World, publishing cross-genre, and the world of indie, traditional, and hybrid publishing.

NS: Welcome, Michael, and thank you for taking the time to chat.

MS: Well thank you for having me.

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Hollow World, a science fiction novel by Michael Sullivan, is scheduled to be published in April 2014.

NS: What prompted you to write Hollow World? What about the work is most interesting to you as the author?

MS: Hollow World was a novel I never intended to write. At any given time I usually have anywhere from four to six novels sitting in a queue just waiting to be written, and when the idea came to me, it leapfrogged them all. There was no way I was going to be able to concentrate on anything else until I purged Hollow World from my head. It started with a short story I was writing for an anthology but upon reading it both my wife and I could see it had so much untapped potential that required a full novel to fully explore, so I ended up writing a different story for the anthology.

What interested me the most about this story was seeing the effects of someone from our time interjected into a world that may seem like a utopia to some or hell on earth for another. It provides a good canvas to explore a lot of thought-provoking topics on identity, religion, love, and how to find fulfillment in a post-scarcity world.

NS: You have had a lot of success with the Riyria Revelations series. How difficult is it from a publishing standpoint to publish in a new genre? Have you surveyed a sampling of your readers to see if they would follow you into a new genre? Is there a focus on having those readers follow you into Hollow World or do you think you would be building largely a new audience?

MS: Publishers would certainly prefer for authors to stay in one genre, and often require them to change their name (Rachel Aaron writes fantasy while her pseudonym Rachel Bach writes science fiction). I know my publisher would have preferred to see another fantasy from me, but I’m not sure how much the genre switch affected their decision to reject the project. Even so, I’ve had five other publishers make offers on the book, so their rejection wasn’t that big of a deal.

As for the readers, I’ve not sampled them. As I said, this is a book I just had to write, and even if it never sold a single copy, I would have no regrets. I wrote a book I wanted to read, and I’m proud of how it came out.

As far as audience for this book I think there will be a bit of both. There are some people who have said they’d read anything I write, so the switch in genre won’t give them pause. But there are many science fiction readers that don’t read fantasy (and vice versa), so I’m hoping to find some new readers as welcome old friends into trying something outside their comfort zone.

NS: Even though the characters and genres are different, are there elements that readers of the Riyria series might find familiar in Hollow World?

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Rise of Empire is Book Two in The Riyria Revelations fantasy series.

MS: Yes, I think there are a lot of aspects that are definitely “me,” which people will recognize. Even though Hollow World deals with some pretty heavy social and philosophical issues it isn’t heavy or dry. There are characters that have regrets from the past, but still rise to the occasion when needed to become “unlikely heroes.” I also use humor as a way to ease tension and lighten the feel of the novel. After initial reviews started coming in, I realized another commonality. Many cited the book as a “modernized classic,” and, in retrospect that makes a lot of sense as Riyria is also a return to “classic fantasy.” At the heart of everything I write is a novel I want to read and so there are obvious influences of Wells, Asimov, and Heinlein. A writer friend of mine mentioned that he thought Hollow World would do for science fiction what Riyria did for fantasy, which is provide even non-genre readers with a story they’ll enjoy. I hope he’s right.

NS: The way you are publishing Hollow World (which is to be released in April) is intriguing. You had noted on your website that you have sold the print and audio rights but retain the ebook rights to the book. How does that work? Are you then self-publishing the ebook version? What type of coordination is required between your own ebook release and the print and audio runs?

MS: Well, first of all, a print-only deal is REALLY hard to get. The authors I know that have them are all million plus sellers: Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Colleen Hoover, and Brandon Sanderson. I turned down a five-figure advance (which required print/audio/ebook) and moved to a smaller, but well respected publisher who was willing to accept my “print-only” stance. The advance was much less, but I think in the long run I’ll earn more.

Yes, the ebook is technically self-published, but Tachyon Publishing still took it through all the standard steps such as editing, layout, and cover design. They’ve had a really strong stream of pre-orders, and I’m doing all I can to promote the print and audio versions (even bundling in free ebooks). I want to make this type of arrangement successful so more publishers will experiment with the model. As long as publishers are being inflexible on ebook royalties and enrolling in inventive programs like Amazon’s MatchBook and the various “Netflix for books” the author needs to keep these rights. By utilizing Tachyon Publications distribution network for print, and Recorded Book’s high-end recording capabilities I get the best of all worlds.

From a coordination standpoint, we interact daily. I wouldn’t say that is because of the hybrid approach. I think it has more to do with being with a smaller press who is more hands on than a big-five.

NS: I understand that last year you also conducted a Kickstarter (crowdsourcing) campaign for Hollow World? How does that fit into the overall publication process for the book?

Plotlines - cartoon on editing

A “Plotholes” cartoon from Michael and his daughter Sarah. Copyright 2011 by Michael and Sarah Sullivan.

MS: When Orbit rejected the title, I just figured, “Well no big deal, I’ll just self-publish.” I’d done it before and knew how profitable it could be, so I really wasn’t fazed. But if I was going to self-publish I wanted to use the same caliber of professionals that I use in traditional. Like Marc Simonetti, who has done covers for myself, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R.R. Martin. I used Betsy Mitchell for structural editing, who was the editor-in-chief at Del Rey for over a decade. I also hired two highly skilled copy editors that have worked on New York Times Bestsellers and have multiple award nominations. I wasn’t operating on a shoestring budget and Kickstarter provided me the seed capital to hire these high-paid professionals. Doing the Kickstarter allowed me to “professionally publish” but without the publisher.

A side benefit of using Kickstarter was it provided a lot of “pre-release buzz.” Those who contributed to the Kickstarter got the book more than nine months before the general public and having them talking about the book has generated a lot of interest.

NS: Do you think crowdsourcing campaigns (at least for novels) are more appropriate for established authors who already have some following than for new unknown authors? I suspect this might be different for art or picture books where readers can more easily decide whether or not they will like the art work. What observations can you make on the viability of the crowdsourcing model for novels?

MS: I do think that Kickstarter works best for non-debut authors. Whether the author has previously self-published or traditionally published is, in my mind, immaterial. I’m always baffled that more traditionally published authors don’t take advantage of crowd funding – after all they already have a well-established name and readership. It pains me when I hear that they put a project they feel strongly about in the drawer because they couldn’t sell it to publishers and don’t want to try something like Kickstarter or self-publishing. There are a lot of great books that aren’t getting “out there” because of their short-sightedness.

NS: Given the changes that have occurred in publishing over the last few years, if you were still an unknown author who wants to publish a novel, where would you position yourself? Would you still pursue traditional publishing? Would you begin with self-publishing and see if you could find traction? Crowdsourcing? Some combination or hybrid path? What might be one or two important factors to consider? 

MS: The route I took I would do again. I actually find self-publishing easier in some ways than traditional because I can get everything the way I want without having to fight with others over things I’ve abdicated the rights to. That being said, traditional publishing has opened doors that were closed to me and grew my audience at a much faster rate than I was able to achieve on my own. Since both have so many pluses (and their own minuses) hybrid really suits as I can get the best of both worlds. Going from self to traditional (rather than the other way around) provided me with a much higher advance and more leverage when negotiating the contract. So yeah, I would repeat everything if given the choice to start again.

As for what others should do and what factors they should consider, I’m not partisan when it comes to publishing. So many are advocating one path or the other and denouncing anyone who “goes the other way.” I know why it is happening, but I don’t agree with the mentality. Just because I would choose self, then traditional, and finally hybrid doesn’t mean that I think others should do similarly. It really depends on the author’s capabilities and goals. I think each author needs to make a check list of what they want out of the publishing experience, and if they are well informed on the options, the path that is right for them will emerge. There is no right or wrong in this, unless of course they do so out of ignorance or prejudice.

NS: Riyria readers likely want to know more about where you are on the Riyria Chronicles and I understand you are also working on a new fantasy series called Rhune. Can you tell us a little about your current projects and what readers can expect to see from you in the near future?

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The Crown Tower | Volume One in The Riyria Chronicles (the prequel series to The Riyria Revelations).

MS: I’ve been really thrilled with the response to The Riyria Chronicles, and encouraged that even though there are now eight Royce and Hadrian stories, people are still clamoring for more. I’m really protective of the pair and don’t want to be “that guy” who doesn’t know when to quit and winds up spoiling something that used to be good. I’d rather have Riyria leave early than stay to long. I’ve been collecting feedback from the readers and while I’m not going to make an “official decision” about writing another Chronicle tale until I’m in a position to start putting pen to paper, but I think it’s pretty clear that I’ll do another and then take the readership’s temperature again.

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Rhune is scheduled to be the first book in a new fantasy series by Michael Sullivan.

Rhune is indeed the first book in my new series (tentatively titled The First Empire). I like to write entire series before publishing (or submitting for publishing) any of the books so it takes me much longer than doing a book at a time. While the time it takes is a pain, doing so means that I definitely know how the series ends, threads can be intertwined across the books, and the readers don’t have to become frustrated by open-ended release schedules. I would hate to get part way through a series and stall, or being on a deadline that made me release something I didn’t think would be the best it could be. Currently the first two books are written and I’m about 40% through the third. At one time I thought this might need to be four books, but my current plan is to write it as a trilogy. I’m hoping to have the whole thing done in April, edit during the spring/summer, and be in a position to write a new Chronicle tale in the fall.

Thank you so much Michael for taking the time and for the thoughtful answers.

(This interview was conducted by Nelson Suit for Inkspokes. We were given a free electronic copy of Hollow World during the process of this interview which we hope to provide a formal review on in the near future.)

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picture_michael_sullivan-featureMore information on Michael J. Sullivan and his writing may be found on his blog. Hollow World is available for pre-orders in print from Tachyon Publications or in print and audio book format from Amazon. The book is available in Kindle format here. You may also purchase the book (print or ebook) directly from Michael’s website. Michael’s Riyria novels are available at Amazon or via his website.

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