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.
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.
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.