After attempting to publish 13 novels, Michael Sullivan had given up on writing altogether by 1994. But by 2002 he had beguncreating stories for just family and friends. The result was the rich fantasy world of Elan and the six books of the Riyria Revelations series. Sullivan tried publishing one more time, but after struggling with a small press, he released the books himself. He soon saw sales rise and signed a deal with Orbit, the sci-fi/fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group, to rerelease the entire series in 2011. Since then, Sullivan has continued experimenting with different publication strategies, even using a Kickstarter campaign for Hollow World and the upcoming Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter,stand-alone novels, and entries in new series that have allowed Sullivan to expand the mythos of Elan into a full 120,000-year history.
Had you always wanted to create such an epic fantasy world?
No, it wasn’t my intention to explore as much of Elan as I’m doing now. When I finished the Riyria Revelations, I never expected to write any more in this world. But when I was writing Riyria Revelations I utilized the “iceberg method.” Basically I wanted to have a rich background that I could “hint at” to give the world depth, but I only exposed to the readers a very small amount of the information I had amassed.
You struggled in your early career. How did that affect your writing?
I really had enjoyed writing, but felt I had given it my all, and further effort in that direction would be just throwing good time away. I was able to “go cold turkey” for about a decade, and when I started writing again, I had just one condition: that I wouldn’t seek publication. In that first go at publishing I was trying to create books that I thought would sell. My second bite at the apple ignored the market completely. I focused only on telling stories I wanted to read. Ironically, these are the books that became published.
What helped you turn your self-published series into a success?
I think the most important factor was my goal to release books with the exact same quality as those produced by the big five. That meant attractive covers, enticing back of the book marketing copy, professional editing, and a compelling story with great characters. No matter how you publish, word of mouth is going to be what you live or die by. So, to me, a “good book” is one that people enjoy so much that they recommend it to others.
Why do you continue to use so many different approaches to publishing your stories?
Today’s publishing environment is a constantly shifting sea of possibilities. By embracing the “hybrid model,” I have the ultimate flexibility and can use the techniques that will benefit me with both audience-building and income maximization.
Would you use crowdfunding again?
Absolutely. I knew several traditionally published authors who had abandoned projects because they couldn’t attract a traditional publisher. These authors told me they couldn’t self-publish because they didn’t have the money for cover designers and editors. My postulation was you could use a Kickstarter to raise that money, and the Hollow World project proved that to be the case.
What can fans look forward to from the upcoming The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter?
The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter is unusual in that it can be a starting point to the Riyria books even though it’s the fourth book in the series. At the heart of the book is the missing daughter of a wealthy whisky baron, and an Easter egg for people who have read Riyria is they’ll see the backgrounds for two popular characters that show up in the fifth book of the Riyria Revelations.
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.