Michael Sullivan, a successful hybrid author in the science-fiction and fantasy genres, started out with indie publishing when the first small press he worked with went broke. Since then, the author of popular series including The Riyria Revelations and The First Empire has gone on to work both the indie and traditional models with success in what he describes as a “tumultuous publishing environment.” In June, Del Rey will release the first book in his new series, The Legends of the First Empire.
Can you describe your start as an author? What was your first book, and how did you go about publishing it?
I wrote 13 novels during the mid-1980s to mid-1990s and tried to publish four of them. Nothing came of that attempt at publishing, so I quit writing altogether. A decade later, I started writing again. After reading three of those new books, my wife, Robin, queried a few small presses, and one of them, Aspirations Media Inc.,released The Crown Conspiracy in October 2008.
Why did you decide to go the self-publishing route? How did that work out for you?
Before the book was picked up by Aspirations Media, Robin had researched self-publishing. As it turned out, AMI fell on hard times, and while they had planned on releasing the second book in the series, they didn’t have the money for the press run. We negotiated the rights back to that book, Avempartha, and self-published because it was the only way to meet the announced release date. To keep a growing readership well-fed, we desired frequent releases and continued self-publishing the next three books on a six-month schedule. At first, the sales were modest: 500 books a month with three titles and 1,000 books a month with four titles. When the fifth book released, sales had escalated significantly. We saw months where 9,000 to 12,000 units sold, which produced $45,000 to $55,000 every 30 days. By the time the self-published works were removed to make room for their traditionally published counterparts, we had sold more than 70,000 copies.
What are the advantages to indie publishing over traditional publishing? And vice-versa?
The possibility of incremental income from subsidiary rights is greatly improved for traditionally published titles. Yes, I did receive several foreign language sales when I self-published, but the larger foreign sales all occurred once the titles moved to a big-five publisher. Depending on the genre, the overseas income can be significant. In my case, the foreign translation advances for The Riyria Revelations [series] was more than twice the English language advance.
How different are the rules of the game today than from when you first started?
For online sales and digital copies, the playing field is pretty much level between a self-published title and a traditionally published work. Having the distribution channels opened up completely changes the equation and is what makes self-publishing as viable as it is. A lot of the gold diggers have now dropped out of the market. There are still poor-quality self-published books, but they are largely invisible and fade into obscurity. There are still opportunities for new voices in self-publishing, but they have to produce quality offerings. A marginal book isn’t going to be able to stand up against the works by people who have perfected quality publishing and been doing it for several years.
How do you market your books and your work? Is there anything else you do to distinguish yourself in the marketplace?
There is a commonly held myth that if you are traditionally published the author is relieved of all marketing burden. The responsibility for building an audience always falls on the shoulders of the author. Goodreads is a fabulous place for interacting with readers, and being active on that site has played a substantial role in the success of my works. That said, I don’t “market” myself there...or, more precisely, I’m not trying to. Instead, I’m interacting with people about books, all books, not just mine. So while I spend a great deal of time on Goodreads and receive a lot of readers because of my interaction there, I’m just a fellow bibliophile who just also happens to be an author.
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor with a passion for books.