Kindle Author Interview: Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan, author of The Riyria Revelations, recently signed a deal with Orbit to publish his highly successful and currently self-published fantasy series. In this interview he discusses his books, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.

DAVID WISEHART: Congratulations on your new publishing deal! After your success as an indie author, why did you decide to sign with a traditional publisher?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: It’s true that we’ve (I tend to speak in the plural because my writing is really a partnership with my wife—I do the writing, she handles the business side) had tremendous success through independent publishing. In fact, I never expected my work to receive as much attention as it has. Going the traditional route was really Robin’s idea. She thought we had gone as far as she could take us and to reach the next level would require access to a larger distribution network (in other words print outlets). The system is really not designed for an indie to do spectacularly in that venue and the investments required are great, as are the risks.

DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about The Riyria Revelations?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: It’s a fast-paced read with characters that are just a lot of fun to hang out with. I wrote all six books before publishing the first, so I was able to build a longer story arc but did so through individual episodes that have their own conflict and resolution. The series would be considered traditional fantasy, a return to the roots of books like Lord of the Rings, but done in a very light-handed way. Where many fantasy books get bogged down in lengthy world building, I focus on the characters and plot, throwing in a fair amount of twists and turns that keeps you guessing along the way. It is a series that many fantasy readers give to their friends that are not fantasy fans and those are the people who usually love it the most. The work is very accessible. One other thing that many take note of is that it has no sex, graphic violence, or foul language. I definitely wrote if for adults (it is not a YA book), but most share it with their kids.

DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: My character development can best be described as a long, slow burn. Just as you don’t know everything about a person the first few times you have dinner with them, my readers are exposed to my character’s history and what makes them unique over the entire series. Plus, I really put many of them “through the ringer,” subjecting them to hardships that will either break or make them stronger. The reader sees their growth because they have been with them through the journey. This technique is a risk, by the way, as some people will read the first book and feel they don’t know enough about the main characters to feel fully invested, or will assume I can’t build depth. But, for those who continue with the series, I think they are rewarded with a greater intimacy with the characters and a greater appreciation for the events that have shaped what they have become.

As to differentiating…in real life, if you had a random sample of ten people stuck in an elevator, it’s a crap shoot as to what personality types would be there. As a writer, you get to orchestrate your environment. So I get to define each character and have them bring to the story what I need them to. I like my characters to have a transition. Myron starts off very wide-eyed and innocent, but by coping with loss he develops a Zen like appreciation for living. Having him interact with someone like Royce, who is a hardened cynic afraid to believe in anyone but himself, can create some interesting scenes. That’s the great thing about creating your own universe, you don’t have to accept “what you get” but instead “make what you need.”

DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: Interesting question...this can be taken in two ways. The first being who I targeted my book for, and the second is who I would like to see reading my book. I didn’t take the first into consideration when writing the series. In other words, I didn’t develop it for a particular audience or portion of the reading public. Frankly, I wrote a book that I wanted to read. It goes back to what I was talking about in the previous question. Being a writer means you are the master of your own little universe so you might was well fashion it to your liking. If you are lucky, there will be others that like what you do.

As to whom I like to see reading the book…I love reading reviews where it is obvious the person “gets” what I was doing. That on the surface it’s just a quick fun tale meant to entertain. But…if you look harder…you’ll find layers and interconnections that make the book much more than it first appears. I’ve carefully designed the story to be more than the sum of its individual parts. I’ve woven in themes about redemption, overcoming loss, and people deluding themselves into believing the end justify the means. I do this in very subtle ways and when I find someone who points these things out it always makes me smile. That being said, for those who just see it as a good fun read…I’m glad I created something that entertained them.

DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: Wow, to quote Princess Bride… “There is too much…I’ll sum up.” I started writing at like nine or ten and wrote ever since. After I had completed ten novels I tried to get them published and failed miserably. Looking back, I didn’t really go about it in a way that would lead to success. Achieving nothing, I got fed up and quit writing for ten years.

I have a dyslexic daughter, who was struggling with reading so I bought her the first Harry Potter book thinking she might like it. She didn’t really pick it up but I did and was blown away…mainly because it was just so much fun to read. I was whisked away and loved spending time with the characters in the book. The fact that it was multiple volumes with an overarching story arch was also something I found particularly fascinating. This is what got me to start writing again and my first project was the Riyria Revelations.

After hundreds of rejections I found an agent…she was a great person but really not very “plugged in” and she made some half-hearted attempts with the first volume. It never went anywhere. She had to quit the business for personal reasons and I didn’t want to go on another search for a new agent so my wife submitted the books to a few of the smaller presses…Aspirations Media produced the first book. It was mildly successful (sold out the first print run after 14 months) but AMI was constantly struggling with money problems and couldn’t afford a second printing, so when the rights reverted my wife started Ridan Publishing to put the books out. She also started finding other authors whose works she thought were worth a larger following and brought them on as well.

Sales grew steadily and with the release of book #5 (Wintertide) in October they jumped dramatically. My wife thought the iron might be hot to try traditional. I had a foreign rights agent who helped me with a small deal in the Czech Republic and we asked her if she wanted to shop it around. To be honest…I thought it would take twelve or eighteen months to see anything from this but she had multiple publishers interested in just a few weeks and a done deal in less then a month.

Sales in November 2010 through February 2011 have exploded. I went from 1,000 books a month to 10,000. It’s too soon to know what working with a big-six publisher will be like, but so far it has been great and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.

DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: Most of my books take shape over a long period of time. I have a habit of taking long walks and talking to myself…I have whole conversations as if I were explaining the book to someone and I play the devil’s advocate trying to poke holes in my plots. After I get that part over I create an outline, but it is very quick and uninvolved—just a sentence or two describing each scene.

I generally write in the morning, take an extended break at lunch, then start again in the afternoon. When I’m really into something I can sit at the computer for fourteen hours or more straight but most often I do it a few hours at a time.

Once the book is done I give it to my wife and she starts tearing it apart. She indicates scenes that have to be added or removed and sometimes will find flaws in logic or character motivation and then I go and do the rewrites. The basic story really never changes but how it is presented does. A good example is Nyphron Rising, where a peasant girl has been charged to make a catatonic puppet empress prepare for a speech. In the original version I pretty much summed up their meeting and the history of the servant in a few paragraphs. Robin saw their relationship as the keystone of the book and felt that the reader needed to spend more time with them. The result was my two paragraphs became a hundred pages and probably some of the best ones in that particular book.

DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: During the first part of my writing career, the first fifteen years before my ten year hiatus, I wrote in a number of different genres Everything from literary fiction to mysteries. The only ones I didn’t play around with were Romance or Erotica. I studied various writers and dissected their techniques. I basically absorbed what I liked from each and threw away what I didn’t. This is my short list: plotting from Tolkien; setting from Steinbeck; brevity from Hemingway; characterization from King; fun from Rowlings; trusting the reader from Hosseini; and character descriptions from Rand.

DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: Another question that is difficult to answer. Does it mean, what book did you like so much you wished it was yours? Or does it mean what book did you think could have been better if you had done it? Or does it mean which book was so successful you wanted the same fame as that author? Or what idea did someone come up with that you wish you had thought of first? Maybe the whole point of asking is a test to see how I would interpret the question. In any case, no matter how I consider what you asked I come to the same answer…none. If there is an idea that intrigues me enough to want to write about, I’d do it. If for instance, if I thought I had a fresh new twist on Frankenstein, then I would write that story, but that doesn’t mean I wish I had been Shelley.

DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: Wow, another simple question that would take volumes to answer…and it’s really Robin who did all the work so I’m not really the right person to ask. Here’s what I know. We’ve not spent any money on ads of any kind. Both of us tweet a little—and have facebooks but we really don’t devote much time there. Robin does utilizes the Internet because it’s free and spends most of her time at sites like Goodreads and forums about writing or reading. She doesn’t go out there with a bullhorn saying—buy this. Instead she is genuinely interested in reading and writing as a whole and engages as a participating member of the communities she is in. She is proud of my books, and their biggest fan, so of course they come up in conversations but she is just as likely to recommend someone else’s books that fits the topic being discussed. Most importantly she LOVES helping other authors and offers a lot of free advice.

The other thing she spends a lot of time on is cultivating book bloggers. She reads a lot of the sites and has been successful getting them to read and review the series (even those that usually won’t look at an independently published book). We’ve been very fortunate that most of the bloggers have loved the book and have promoted them not only on their sites but in forums. This has been, in my opinion, an integral secret to the success we’ve received so far.

DAVID WISEHART: What are your views on ebook pricing for indie authors?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: Wow, if you ask this of Robin you’ll get a multiple page dissertation. I’ll present my opinions (you should have her back for more on marketing in the digital arena as she knows SO MUCH MORE than I do on this subject). I think of myself as a reader and I’m not the least bit put off by any book priced $9.99 or less. Those above $10…I’d have to be VERY interested in and even then would not snatch them up right away. In general, I think half the price of a trade paperback sounds right to me. Somewhere around $4 - $7.

I know, from talking to Robin, that many authors are pricing themselves at $0.99 or $2.99 levels. I personally don’t get this. I think they do so more out of a “dream” of getting a big audience than a belief that this is what the reading public demands. I think many set their price this low because they feel like they have to because they are “new” or “unknown.” I wish they would have a little more self-confidence in their work and price their books at an amount that is more equitable considering the time they’ve spent and the enjoyment that the reader receives. Most of my books are priced at $4.95 and the latest is $6.95 and I’ve never heard anyone complain about that price…in fact, most of my readers thank me for making them so affordable. By pricing books so low authors are really self-fulfilling their own prophecy. They see big sales and think they chose well, but the reality is they never gave their readers anything else to choose from.

Personally, I think I write good books that are entertaining and most people will feel the time they’ve spent with my creations is well worth $5 - $7. I can’t imagine anyone getting done with one of my books and saying…yeah, that was good but I wish I had only spent $3 instead of $5. Anyway you look at it, ebooks are a bargain in the entertainment industry. Most cost much less than a two hour movie and provide much more enjoyment.

DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: It’s a no-brainer…and where I get most of my sales from. Amazon’s ability to use buying habits of many people to focus attention on other books you might like is pure genius. They are the ones that really got this whole e-revolution going…before the kindle there was no real adoption. Even with increased completion from Nook, iPad, and others I think they have a track record of being an innovator and leader that I’m betting will continue.

One such example is the way they think about indie authors. They make it easy for anyone to release a book on their platform while other companies like Sony mainly focus on the big publishers. Amazon's open door policy has developed an environment where indie publishers can thrive. More than any other company out there they have really embraced indies and I hope they continue to do so.

DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?

MICHAEL J. SULLIVAN: There was a time when conventional wisdom said if you self publish you’ll ruin your chances at traditional publishing. I think that ship has sunk. Through Robin’s networking she’s always telling me of this author or that author that just got signed, while my non-Kindle author friends are still waiting, stacking up rejections. Putting something out there and building an audience is a thousand percent better than having a manuscript sit in a drawer.

That being said…take pride in your work. Hire help in the form of editing and cover design. Don’t just throw something out there because you see an opportunity. Make not just a good book but a great book. Act like a publisher…because in this environment you are. Your goal is not to create a good self-published book, but a great book by any standard. You need to be better than the books put out by traditional publishers because your audience will be more critical of self-published work. A typo found in a tradition book is an “oops” that snuck by. A typo found in a self-published book is a confirmation of poor or nonexistent editing.

DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.


Born in 1961 in Detroit, Michigan, Michael Sullivan began his writing career when he was just ten years old. After falling in love with Lord of the Rings, he sat down at his sister's manual typewriter to create a similar tale and wrote seven novels before graduating from high school. Serious writing began in 1985 as a creative outlet while raising his children in rural Vermont. Over the next ten years, he wrote six-novels in various genres from mystery to literary fiction but obtained no traction in the publishing world. Disheartened with the process, he quit writing for nearly ten years.

Michael's writing spark re-ignited in 2004 when he read Harry Potter with his dyslexic daughter. He fell in love with the story and decided to write something "just for fun" with no intention of publishing. Drawn to the concept of a multi-book series with an overarching story, he started what would later become the Riyria Revelations.

Finding the project compelling and rewarding, he sold his successful advertising agency in 2006 to pursue writing full-time. He finished all six books before seeking publication, allowing him to weave multiple story lines told as episodes, each containing its own conflict and resolution.

Originally signed by independent presses (Aspirations Media & Ridan Publishing), Michael's popularity spread in large part due to book bloggers who found his work a refreshing change from dark and gritty fantasy prevalent with the genre. The blogging community praised the work as a fast, fun read that returns to the hallmarks of conventional fantasy.

In February 2011, Orbit Publishing (the fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group USA) purchased the Riyria Revelations and are currently scheduled to produce the series as three 2-book omnibus versions.

Michael currently lives in Virginia, just outside Washington DC, with his wife and three children. He is currently working on a modern-day fantasy entitled Antithesis as well as a three-book series based on Novron from the Riyria Revelations.

2010 Fantasy Book Critic #1 Indie Fantasy (Wintertide & Emerald Storm)
2010 Iceberg Ink Award Best Read (Avempartha)
2010 Fantasy Book Critic Top 25 (Wintertide & Emerald Storm)
2010 Bookworm Blues Overall Best Reads of 2010 (Avempartha)
2010 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fantasy (The Emerald Storm)
2010 Fantasy Book Critic Top 12 Novels as of First Quarter (The Emerald Storm)
2010 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Finalist (Avempartha)
2010 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Finalist (Nyphron Rising)
2010 Fantasy Book Critic Top 5 Novels of Second Half of 2010 (Wintertide)
2009 Winner of Book Spot Central's Fantasy Tournament of Books (Avempartha)
2009 Speculative Fiction Junkie's Top 5 Close Contender (The Crown Conspiracy)
2009 Top 10 Books by Dark Wolf Fantasy Reviews (The Riyria Revelations)
2009 National Indie Book Award Finalist (The Crown Conspiracy)
2008 ReaderViews Annual Literary Award Finalist (The Crown Conspiracy)
2007 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Finalist (The Crown Conspiracy)

The Crown Conspiracy (October 2008)
Avempartha (April 2009)
Nyphron Rising (October 2009)
The Emerald Storm (April 2010)
Wintertide (October 2010)
Percepliquis* (April 2011)

Theft of Swords (11/2011)
Rise of Empire (12/2011)
Heir of Novron (1/2012)

Michael's website:
Michael's blog:
Michael's twitter:
Michael's publisher:

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