An Interview with Hybrid Author Michael J. Sullivan

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan was one of the early indies who signed a traditional contract when the big-six came knocking. Orbit (fantasy imprint of Hachette) bought his Riyria Revelations series and republished it as three, two-book omnibus volumes. He recently announced a return to self-publishing with his new novel, Hollow World, which will come out January 20, 2014. As more and more authors go the hybrid route, I wanted to hear Michael’s take on his transition and what he thinks of the publishing environment in general.

So why self-publish now?

The plan had always been to be a “hybrid author” even before that became the current buzzword that it is today. To me it just makes the most sense. If diversification is good for investments, why wouldn’t I want to diversify my career, especially given how volatile publishing is right now. Early on I learned the incredible earning potential of self-publishing, but there was still a pretty substantial portion of the book buying public that was left untapped. Libraries and bookstores are still important for discoverability, and while it is changing rapidly, there are still some who would never consider reading a self-published book. I estimated that my readership tripled in the first year after my transition. If I had stayed self-published, I think my growth would have been more along the line of 10%-20%.  So, signing Riyria was absolutely the right decision for me and my career. I actually had planned on self-publishing my next work (The Riyria Chronicles), but Orbit made an offer that was higher than I thought I could make through self-publishing, so I signed. When I submitted Hollow World, I had some caveats regarding contract terms and advance amounts. When I got the news they passed, I was actually excited because it opened the door that I have been wanting to go through all along.

Will you be approaching self-publishing differently now than you did originally?

In some ways yes, in other ways no—it’s important to me that regardless of how my books get to the market they must be identical with regards to quality. When I originally self-published, I operated on a shoestring budget, and that meant I had to do everything myself.  Yes, I hired some freelancers for editing, but I needed to keep my expenses down to ensure a positive return on investment, so I had to spend a lot of time shopping around. The people I eventually found were excellent, but I still felt a need to check and double check their work.  So it took a lot of time away from writing new material.

Traditional publishing spoiled me. As far as producing a book is concerned, I have a whole team of highly trained professionals doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and all I needed to do is review and approve. This meant that I could concentrate on writing new stuff while they were taking care of the books I had already done my part on.

With Hollow World I’m actually operating exactly as I do when traditionally published, the only difference is I get to choose the professionals I’ll be working with.  I have many foreign language versions, so there are many versions of my covers. I’ve hired Marc Simonetti, who created the French edition covers for The Riyria Revelations. For structural editing, I’m using Betsy Mitchell. She’s been in the science fiction and fantasy business for thirty years and spent more than a decade as editor-in-chief at Del Rey.  I’m still in the process of choosing my copywriter and proofreaders, but I’m interviewing people who work for the big-six, so I’ll have enough confidence in their results to not micro-manage the process, as I did when using editors with less credentials.

That sounds pretty expensive, do you think this is an approach that other authors going hybrid can use?

Well, it is expensive, these professionals don’t come cheap, but their skills are worth having. But we have something now that didn’t exist when I originally self-published and that is crowd funding with companies like Kickstarter. Authors transitioning from traditional to self already have an audience that love their work, so all they really need to do is shift the emphasis.  Instead of the publisher providing the up-front funding and the advance, the readers can step in to fulfill that role.

I recently completed my Hollow World Kickstarter and originally I calculated I would need $6,000 for my “A-team.” I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t earn that much, so I placed my goal at $3,000—figuring that was probably “doable.” I planned on taking the other half out of my savings. Well I hit the $3,000 in just 17 hours, and it earned $30,857 in less than thirty days. So not only did I get the production costs covered, but a nice advance as well. In this case, the readers have assumed the roles of both “gatekeeper” and “financial backer.”

So does that mean publishers are irrelevant now?

It’s actually pretty amazing that traditional publishers are in a position of having to explain their relevancy.  My own publisher, Hachette, put out a letter last year to all its authors explaining why they were still necessary. The fact that they felt they needed to make a case speaks volumes about how impactful the self-publishing revelation has been.  There are a lot of people who are pretty partisan about which route is “the best,” but my stance has always been that there is no universal answer. Each author has different goals and abilities and there will always be a place for traditional publishing (at least for the foreseeable future). Because I’m such a huge supporter of self-publishing, many think I’m anti-traditional, which I’m really not.  I just want people to be well informed before they make their decision on which way to go.  Also, I think all authors should constantly re-evaluate their paths because things are changing every day.

Sullivan coverSo what about your future works? Will they be self- or traditionally published?

It’s impossible to say.  As I mentioned earlier, I signed a second contract with Orbit because my evaluation indicated that would produce the highest income.  With Hollow World I probably could have gotten my advance and term requirements with another publisher, but to be honest I was so excited to get back into self-publishing that I didn’t even try. I’m going to evaluate each project as they complete and weigh the pros and cons given the market at that time. The most amazing thing, though, is now authors have legitimate options. In the old days, having a publisher turn down a work was cause for depression and despair. Many perfectly good titles were shelved and the author wasted months or years of effort. I’m hoping my example will cause authors in such a position to re-evaluate those projects.

But if a work is turned down, doesn’t that mean it’s not worth being published?

There is only one group of people qualified to make the determination of whether a book is worthy of publication…and that’s the readers. There are many reasons why books are turned down, which have nothing to do with the quality of the work. They may be pushing the envelope in such a way that it’s impossible to find comparable works to calculate the necessary profit/loss calculations. It could be that the house is over committed with other titles. Maybe the author wanted more money than the publisher is willing to spend. Or it could be as simple as the publisher being wrong about a book’s potential.  Every major publisher passed on The Riyria Revelations when I first submitted them (before self-publishing).  They have sold more than 250,000 copies between self and traditional and the series is still on Amazon’s bestsellers lists more than a year and a half after its release.  The books didn’t change between the rejections and Orbit’s acceptance, the only difference the second time I submitted, was that the readers had vetted it.

 How do you think the hybrid movement will affect traditional publishing?

My hope is there will be a shift of power toward authors. For years, traditional publishing has had a veritable monopoly on determining what books made it to the market, hence contract terms are heavily weighted in the publisher’s favor. However, at the end of 2010, self-publishing came along and proved that authors could bypass publishers and still be successful.  I think one of the biggest secrets in the industry is just how well the self-publishing mid-list is doing. The media loves to focus on outliers like Hocking, Locke, and Howey, but the truly amazing thing is all the indies who are quietly making five and six-figure incomes. I actually know more self-published authors who earn a full-time living than I do traditionally published ones.  A recent survey by DBW & Writer’s Digest indicated that 1/3 of traditionally published authors are interested in self-publishing their next book.  Once publishers start seeing an exodus of titles, they’ll need to adjust their contracts to entice authors to stay. Because of this, even those that plan on staying traditional will benefit from those that go the hybrid route.

Is there anything you want to say to those who are thinking of making the leap to hybrid?

Yes indeed—my best advice is to learn from the experts…the successful self-published authors.  I find that this group is very willing to share what has worked for them and are generous to those asking for advice.  I’d look at the bestseller list for your genre, find the self-published authors who are selling well, and glean everything you can about what they did. Follow their blogs, add them to your twitter, and watch their facebook activity.  The Writer’s Café at kboards is filled with hundreds of industry experts that really know how to self-publish professionally.  If these people can sell thousands, or tens of thousands, without the backing of a traditional publisher, then they are definitely worth listening to.  Too often I see traditional published authors “throwing something up to see if it sticks” and that usually doesn’t work. Success comes from expanding the readership so paying attention to categories, writing marketing copy, learning about good cover design are all the other things that self-published authors have taught themselves are the same skills that the traditional published author needs to get educated on. I’ve seen some who have made a half-hearted self-publishing attempt, and when it fails they conclude that self-publishing isn’t viable.  The truth is that they just didn’t do it right. As with most things,  it’s all about execution. If you do that well, and have a compelling story, then it’s almost impossible for you to fail.

Michael’s Web page

Author’s note:  as part of the hybrid movement, I’m releasing The Green Berets: Chasing the Lost on 7 Mayer from my own Cool Gus Imprint and Nightstalkers: The Book of Truths from Amazon’s 47North imprint on 30 July.  I am seeing a jump in the number of traditionally published authors I know, privately querying me about how to “self” publish.  As Michael notes, to do it right, you need a team, an experienced team.  The most experienced people in this field are the ones who started early and have been successful in self-publishing.

2 thoughts on “An Interview with Hybrid Author Michael J. Sullivan

  1. Arlene Valle

    That was a great article from Mr Mayer. He relayed a lot of helpful information.
    Everyone needs to read this article before deciding.

    For me, I didn’t join twitter until I knew my book was being published, therefore I think I missed out on aquiring a lot of helpful information from so many different people.
    I first sent my manuscript to Ellora’s Cave. One reason was that they are close to home for me, and I thought the genre would be find also. Unfortunately and fortunately I received my rejection notice but with a helpful critique of what it was lacking. I thought in a way that was fantastic and the rejection didn’t bother me at all. I revamped my novel and sent it out again this time to Samhain. My rejection came back and it also had sugestions on how to improve. I took this as a good thing and went to work on revisions. Later I subitted it to another publisher and received a rejection with no explanation and I decided I was too old and life for me was too short to do what we know so many great authors have endured….10+ rejections. I decided to vanity publish.

    I researched on line and found a website that gave Alerts for bad publishers. Using that as a guideline, I chose Trafford. Now before you say anything I want to give you my reasons.
    They originally were a Canadian publisher actually one of the largest for Self-publishers. They are now part of the umbrella of Author Solutions and AuthorHouse ( I know they are experiencing problems with authors and renigging on promises) they are also with iUniverse, xLibris and Penguin. That (Penguin) made me sit up and take notice. They are also part of self-publishing Harlequin and HarperCollins and now Simon & Schuster with the self-publishing arm. I know these individual companies are separate from each other, but my hope is eventually to be accepted by one of the arms of these traditional publishers. Even the Trafford people have said that this can happen.

    Now for the guts of it. These people were extremely nice to me. Of course, you say because they have your money. Well that is partly the reason I am sure, but I believe I received prompt service from them. Since publishing I have read horror stories of people that have had trouble with my group of self-publishers. I have not experienced any of their problems, but if the way they typed their complaints on the web-site are any indications of what they were trying to publish, I can understand their problems. Horrendous spelling and terrible sentence structure when trying to explain their problems.

    Now back to me. I submitted my manuscript the end of November and within 3 weeks I had it back for editing approvals. Two people had reviewed the manuscript and everthing was easy to see and correct. They made one suggestion for the tense of a word and I rejected it and that was that. In otherwords I didn’t have a traditional editor trying to tell me I should leave this whole paragraph out or shorten or lengthen any part of my story. That part I liked.
    I made the corrections and approvals and received another copy to approve. Their rules for editing. 1st round you have 50 errors before they return manuscript for you to do major corrections throughout. I only had 28 and I consider them all to be minor. I used towards instead of toward. British vs American. Things like that.
    After approval of the manuscript they sent me a link to select a cover. I had no problem finding just what I wanted. The picture had a white background and I asked for black and what I got was spectacular. I am absolutely in love with it. I think the cover and back are very professional looking. All this took place within an couple of weeks. I approved everything and my book was released 1-31-13. I keep trying to figure out the meaning of this unusual date.
    At this point I realized the marketing was up to me unless I wanted to pay more money, which I didn’t. I then realized that I should have been promoting it even before it was released. Live and learn and because of that I have had problems finding bloggers and reviewers who want to read it because for them it is too late once it has been released. I think this is a shame since there are so many good books out there. Like I said live and learn. I still hope for more good reviews as the year goes on.

    I have had good communication with all the people at Trafford throughout my process and they have been very polite and helpful. I know what you’re thinking, sure I paid them to be nice and they want you for another book, that may be true but for now right now, they are doing what I need them to do. I received 18 books for myself plus 50 e-book stubs plus postcards, bookmarks and business cards, they also set up a FBfanpage and website.
    Like I said I absolutely love the book and even the inside chapters etc. look very professional and easy to read. The beginning of each chapter has a little flair and looks very professional.

    I think my money was well spent. I wanted to be published and I am. That alone makes me happy. Whether I make any money or not is the million dollar question. I didn’t write it to become rich but I would never say no. All I need is one good important review and things could take off especially because of the somewhat current topic throughtout the novel.

    To end, I would say my experience was fairly effortless because eveything was all in one place. I got help when I needed it and the end product was beyond my wildest dreams. It is available on Amazon and B&N and Kobo. It is available in English in Germany, Spain, France and of course Canada and England. What more could I ask for at this stage. Since publishing I have heard of problems with people that have self-published with Amazon so I don’t think there is any one answer for all people. You just have to go with your gut, and do lots of research.
    thanks, Arlene Valle

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