Guest Post | When it comes to publishing it pays to think outside the box – Michael J. Sullivan

The other day I had a conversation on Twitter with Michael J. Sullivan regarding the unusual publishing of his upcoming book Hollow World. I thought it was rather fascinating, and I was incredibly interested to learn more about what he’s doing and why. I also figured that if I am interested, someone else probably is, too. I asked him if he’d like to write a guest post for my website to elaborate on the topic. I figured not having a 140 character limit would help express ideas and thoughts. I feel very lucky that he agreed.

Without further hubbub, dear world, get excited. Michael J. Sullivan is here for some education.

When it comes to publishing it pays to think outside the box

Yesterday I sent Sarah my soon to be released book Hollow World for review. Afterward we had a discussion via twitter about the unusual way it is being published (more on this in a moment). She thought it was interesting how the publishing industry is changing, and she thought others might be interested in learning a bit about what I’ve done and why. So here I am.

First, let’s start with a bit of background. I’ve been published in just about every way that exists. I started out by releasing The Crown Conspiracy (first book in the Riyria Revelations) with a small press, and when they didn’t have the money for the press run of the second book (Avempartha), I switched to self-publishing as it allowed me to meet the already announced release date. Because I wanted the other books in the series to come out every six months, I continued self-publishing. As the series neared completion, I wondered if these books had gained enough momentum to attract the attention of New York publishers. Turns out I was right, and the books were picked up by Orbit (the fantasy imprint of big-five Hachette Book Group). The six-book series was republished as a trilogy (two novels in each volume) titled, Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heir of Novron. When I finished my next series, I had planned to self-publish them (for reasons I’ll speak of in a minute), but my publisher made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse, so I traditionally published the two books of The Riyria Chronicles through them.

Having done all three paths, I know the pros and cons of each. While traditional publishers are great at print distribution, they don’t really offer any significant advantages for ebooks. In fact, there are a lot of problems with their system. Some examples:

• I got less distribution with traditionally published ebooks then when self-published. This is because of territory rights and infrastructure issues that made it so countries that used to get my books, couldn’t any longer. After nearly two years it looks like this might be straightened out now, but it was very frustrating month after month to tell readers in certain countries there just wasn’t any way for them to legally obtain copies of my ebooks.

• An adherence to DRM. For those that don’t know DRM is digital rights management. Its purpose is to stop piracy by ensuring an electronic file is tied to a particular device. The idea is to stop piracy, but in the end,all it does is hurt those that buy legitimately. Pirates have tools to easily strip DRM, but those that legally purchase the book can’t read the same file on their ipad, kinde, and nook. A few publishers, Tor for example, have adopted a non-DRM policy but most publishers, including my own, are woefully behind in this regard.

• No control over release dates. When the last Wheel of Time book came out Tor delayed the ebook release which angered fans. They didn’t want to wait, and I don’t want to see my books in a similar situation. When you transfer rights you give up all say to such things, and unless you are a huge seller, your voice on the matter is not taken into consideration.

• No control over pricing. So far I’ve been lucky. Orbit has, in my opinion, done a good job on pricing the ebook versions. They are neither too high, nor too low, and they occasionally put them on sale for an added boost. But pricing of ebooks is critical and constantly evolving. I don’t like living in constant anxiety about having no say in this important issue.

• No control over library distribution. The publishing industry is really struggling with how to handle ebooks and libraries. For years my publisher, Hachette, kept all their titles out of the libraries. They now are letting in certain titles but do so at a rate that is far above what I think is reasonable. Other publishers have policies where new ebooks have to be ordered after a certain number of loans. Bottom line, publishers are trying to squeeze as much revenue out of libraries as possible, and this is against my policy. To me, I want to make it easy and inexpensive (I’d even go for free) to get libraries to have my ebooks, as I see this as a way of stemming Piracy and helping with author discoverability.

• No control over new program implementations. For years I’ve been saying publishing should bundle ebooks with every print purchase. So I was thrilled a few months ago when Amazon announced their MatchBook program. That elation was quickly deflated when I realized that my publisher would likely not take advantage of the program, and I had no say over such matters. There are other changes a foot as well such as Oyster (Netflix for books) and who knows what tomorrow will bring. Bottom line, participation in such cutting edge technologies is at the sole discretion of the publisher, who is not known for embracing change, and certainly not quickly.

• Unfair (in my opinion) profit sharing on ebooks. If you look at the profit of a print book the publishers get around 57.5% and the author gets 42.5%. Not too far off from 50/50 so I think that is a reasonable share. But with ebooks, the publisher gets 75% and the author 25%. So they make $3 for every $1 I earn, and I don’t think that is reasonable. When ebooks were a very small percentage of the total sales, no one was really paying much attention. Getting $10 when the publisher gets $30 isn’t a big deal. But I sell 68% ebooks versus 32% print, so now we are talking about serious money. Losing that much to the publisher really makes it hard to earn a fulltime living.

So those are the problems, but what are the advantages? Well publishers are better at getting access to certain online store programs. For instance Theft of Swords was the Kindle Daily Deal twice and the books have also been featured on the main page of the fantasy section of ibookstore. These promotions produce nice shots in the arm and increase visibility, but they are often short lived. It should b noted that some self-published authors have also selected for the Kindle Daily Deal, but the bulk of the titles have been traditionally published.

The other thing to note is that from a distribution standpoint self-published authors are treated equally as traditionally published authors. In other words, I have the same stores available to me (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, ibookstore, etc) and the books coexist side-by-side. Many people won’t even know a book is self-published unless a low price or bad cover gives them away.

Okay, time to get back on subject. During our Twitter conversation Sarah asked, “forgive me for being nosey. It looks like you’re self publishing this one. Why not traditionally publish it?” I couldn’t explain all those issues above in 140 characters, but even if I could, the answer is further complicated because I’m actually doing both. And this is where “thinking outside the box” comes into play.

My original intention was indeed to self-publish Hollow World. But I wanted to use the same caliber of talent as those who work on my traditionally published books some examples:

• Betsy Mitchell for structural editing – she was the editor-in-chief with Del Rey for over a decade and has 30 years experience editing fantasy and science fiction. She’s worked on New York Time Bestsellers and over 150 titles.

• Marc Simonetti for cover design – he was the artist that produced the French edition covers for my Riyria Revelations and they are by far my favorites of all the various versions. He’s also had done covers for the French editions of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle books (The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear ) as well as the Mexican version for George R. R. Martin’s Game of thrones.

• Copy editors who work for the big-five publishers such as Macmillan, Tor, St. Martin’s Press, Del Rey, Putnam, and Ballantine Books. I picked two: one has two master’s degrees (one in English and Writing and the other in Creative Writing and English). He has been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Tiptree awards. The other has edited Naomi Novik’s Victory of Eagles, a number of the books in the Star Wars franchise, and two New York Times bestsellers for Steve Berry.

As you might imagine, these people don’t work cheap (nor should they…they are very good at what they do and deserve top dollar). I figured it would cost about $6,000 to hire them, and I decided to do a Kickstarter to help raise some of the funds. I set my goal at $3,000 so that half of the money would come from me and the other half, hopefully, from supportive readers. As it turned out, it brought in more than $31,000, something I never thought was possible.

During this time, there were some crossed wires with my agent (she didn’t realize I had already decided to self-publish the book), and she submitted and received a nice five-figure offer for the title. The problem is that it was a standard publishing deal that required me signing over print, ebook, and audio rights.

I’m going to do a quick side note about audio. Many publishers don’t do these themselves, instead they sell the rights to an audio book producer (in my case Orbit sold both of my Riyria series to Recorded Books). In such an arrangement, the royalties paid are split 50/50 between the publisher and author. The end result, my publisher gets 50% of all the audio sales for doing nothing more than signing a piece of paper. Normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal as audio advances are only a few thousand dollars and usually author’s don’t earn out (start producing additional money from royalties), but in my case I’ve sold over 74,000 audio books (in just over a year and a half) so this represents a significant hit to my pocketbook.

Most authors would jump at the chance to sign a five-figure offer for a single book, but because of all the things I said earlier, and because the Kickstarter proved to me the book had merit, I decided to turn it down…but it did get me thinking…why couldn’t I have my cake and eat it too?

What I really wanted was to keep the ebook, sell the print rights to one publisher, and sell the audio rights directly to an audio producers (so I would keep 100% of the royalties). The problem is that this is easier said than done. I knew of only four authors who had received “print-only deals” and they are all million copy sellers they are: Hugh Howey, Bella Andre, Coleen Hoover, and Brandon Sanderson.

One of Brandon’s print-only deals was with a smaller, but well-respected organization: Tachyon Publications. They’ve had books on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best of the Year list, multiple nominations for awards such as the Hugo and Nebula and have won four awards (Nebula: 2006, 2012, 2013 & Hugo: 2013). Their founder, Jacob Weisman, loved the book and was forward thinking enough to agree on a print-only contract (the only deal I would consider). Sure, the advance wasn’t nearly as big as I had been offered for full rights, but as I plan on earning out anyway, and had already received a nice sum thanks to the Kickstarter, this wasn’t so important. What was important is that Tachyon has a great eye for award-winning speculative fiction and a proven distribution channel. I’m not sure how many copies of The Emperor’s Soul have been sold to date, but I know it is in excess of 30,000 units.

Audio books are growing in popularity and audio publishers are being aggressive about acquiring titles, even when the book isn’t attached to a big publisher. Recorded Books jumped at the chance to sign Hollow World and Audible Books was disappointed to hear they missed the window.

Writers really need to retain their audio book rights. For my two Riyria contracts, I tried and tried to get the audio books taken off the table, but wasn’t successful either time. Now, I’m taking a different tack and signing audio book rights even before approaching traditional publishers. By doing it this way, they have no choice but to remove that right (as someone else already has it signed). I’ve already completed a contract for my next series (The First Empire) and I have two audio producers vying for preemptive rights on any future Riyria books.

In our twitter conversation, Sarah mentioned, “I think it’s really inspiring how you’ve totally taken control of your career like that.” What surprises me, and what I hope this post will do, is encourage other authors to act similarly. Today there are all kinds of wars waging between those supporting self-publishing and others convinced that traditional is the only way to go. But to me it’s all about maximizing both worlds.

Traditional publishing of my Riyria books has expanded my readership immensely. At the start of September 2011 (about 2 ½ months before my big-press traditional debut) goodreads users had shelved my books 5,170 times. Today, just over two years later there are 74,959 books shelved…an increase of 1,450%! I’m also translated into fifteen foreign languages which has earned me double the advance as my English language edition of The Riyria Revelations. But with so much of my income coming from ebooks, and the huge profit sharing disparity, can I afford to do this exclusively? Will traditional publishing require me to have a day job, like many other others authors?

By keeping my ebook rights (and receiving 100% of the audio royalties) I anticipate making significantly more money than if I had signed that five-figure contract I was originally offered. But it’s not just about money. Publishing Hollow World as I have will allow me to better serve my readers. Those who enjoy print will still find the books in their local bookstores and libraries. Plus, they can also receive free ebooks (regardless of where the print book was sold). For the ebook only crowd, they get DRM-free editions, a cheaper list price, and I’ll even provide ebooks in multiple formats so they can read the same book on their kindle and nook without having to buy it twice.

In the old days, there really was only one choice for authors who wanted to write full-time: traditional publishing. A few years ago, self-publishing proved to be a worthy contender which provided the means for thousands of authors to quit their day jobs. But the savvy author has a wide range of possible tools at their disposal: Kickstarter, self-publishing, traditional publishing, self-produced audio books (ACX), selling audio rights for bestselling self-published titles, pre-emptive audio right sales, and yes…even print-only deals are a possibility (and not just for the million sellers). The moral of this story is take control and think outside the box. The old rules have been washed away and the slate is now clean. It’s time for authors to shape their careers in ways that makes the most sense for them, even if it isn’t something that hasn’t been done before.

About the Author

After finding a manual typewriter in the basement of a friend’s house, Michael inserted a blank piece of paper and typed: It was a dark and stormy night and a shot rang out. He was just eight years old at the time. But the desire to fill the blank page and see what doors the typewriter keys would unlock wouldn’t let him go. For ten years Michael developed his craft by studying authors such as Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck…just to name a few. During that time he wrote twelve novels, and after finding no traction in publishing, he quit and vowed never to write creatively again.

Michael discovered that never is a very long time, and he ended his hiatus from writing after a decade. The itch returned when he decided to create a series of books for his then thirteen-year-old daughter, who was struggling in school due to dyslexia.

Michael is one of the few authors who have successfully published through all three routes: small press, self, and big six. He has been named to io9’s Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors list as well as making #6 on EMG’s 25 Self Published Authors to Watch. As of January 2013, he has sold more than 250,000 books, been translated to 14 languages, and has had books appear on more than 65 “best of” or “most anticipated” lists including:

* 2013 Audible Award Finalist for Fantasy
* Fantasy Faction’s Top 10 Anticipated Reads of 2013
* goodreads Choice Award Nominees for Fantasy in 2010 and 2012
* Audible’s 2012 5-star The Best of Everything List
* Library Journal’s 2011 Best Books for Fantasy/Sci-Fi
* Barnes & Noble Blog’s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011
* Fantasy Book Critic’s #1 Indie Fantasy for 2010

Today, Michael continues to fill blank pages and has several projects under development: Antithesis (modern fantasy), Hollow World (a science fiction thriller), and The Nibor Trilogy(traditional fantasy).

Contact Information

Facebook Riyria, Author Page
Read a sample of Hollow World here.

27 Responses

  • Thanks, Michael.

    Its a “Wild west” of publishing out there, and I suspect that once we are on the far side of this era of experimentation, the old models will look alien to us.

    One might even call it a Singularity.

  • Thanks Sarah, for requesting the guest post…the times they are a changing’ and I’m more than happy to answer any questions that people may have about the post or other publishing related questions. In today’s world of flux, no one has all the answers, and I don’t claim to. I’m just trying to find a way that works for me and have tried a lot of things and so I can, hopefully, speak semi-intelligently on the issue.

    • Hi Michael. That’s v. interesting. I am in a similar boat, though a few years behind. I had 3 novels published traditionally by Titan Books, and then took the self-pub path via Kindle. However, the month before i released my novel onto Amazon they bowed to pressure and broke the link between published authors and self-pub. ones. Hence, my new book is not being promoted alongside my old ones to those good people who have purchased my work previously. It’s very frustrating. Have you encountered the same problem at all, and if so, how did you get round it? I have since packed in my exclusivity with Amazon and have just moved onto Smashwrods etc.

      All the best – and good luck with it all! Tom.

  • It’s amazing how quickly the publishing landscape is changing. Thanks for writing this: it gives us self-published authors a lot to think about and a lot to look forward to, I think! =)

    • Glad you found it helpful. It seems with each project I finish I’m always having to run a number of scenarios on which is the best way to go – so far I’m happy with the paths I’ve taken. I wish you success!

  • Loved the post, extremely informative. Thank you!


  • This is some wonderful information, looking at both sides of the coin quite fairly, and I thank you for being so open and honest about it all.

  • L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    This is a really excellent article, Thank you! I have been watching the advent of print-only rights with interest and am delighted to hear of your contribution/experience!

    Maybe Sarah will have you back in six months or a year, to report upon your progress.

  • Wow… one hell of a detailed post, Michael! Splendid stuff!

  • I’m always on the lookout about print-only so if you hear of any – please drop me a line ([email protected]). I’m glad that someone in the midlist like me could manage one – let’s hope it’s the start of a trend and not a one off occurrence.

    I’d love to come back 6 months after Hollow World goes live to report on how it did, etc.

  • Peggy :)

    Michael, I LOVE what you’re doing!! All those snags you mentioned with traditional publishing, I’m right there with you. 🙂

    The professional quality editing (content & line), covers, etc. is something I am seriously interested in. However, I spoke with several professionals who work in traditional publishing at World Con and found that every single one of them wanted to talk me into traditional publishing, rather than being willing to discuss fees with someone who wanted to self-publish.

    Yes, I know there is a lot of self-published garbage out there that the professionals don’t want to be associated with. But you’d think that the editors would at least be willing to quote a price to consider a work. (No one looked at anything I had, it was just the idea of working on a self-published work that seemed to be the problem.)

    Any suggestions on how to find professionals willing to work with someone who wants to self publish, but isn’t a known name?


    • Peggy, I could have sworn I answered this early today – I must have messed something up. I think what you were seeing was looking for apples in an orange crate. The editors at World con are “acquisitions editors” (who also usually do structural editing) and they work directly for the big publishers as a full-time employee. They have no time (and are probably contractually prohibited from doing freelance work). They are there to find new talent to sign – so no they would not be interested in any self-publishing aspects.

      Finding freelancers for copy and line editing is an easy thing. You can do some googling, go to one of the professional sites such as the American Copy Editors Society, or make a post on sites such as Elance or In general this is a more quantitative type of editing and while there is some flexibility in some rules, most copy editors will find the same types of problems.

      Finding structural editors is harder, as it is a very subjective type of edit and if you get someone who is new or inexperienced, they could just as likely make the book worse than better. The “professionals” who do this are very expensive…probably prohibitively so. So I would recommend getting your structural feedback through beta readers, critique groups, and doing swaps with other authors. If you do want to hire someone – then be sure to checkout the books they have structurally edited in the past. If all they have done is a few self-published works, then it will be hard to judge as you’ve not seen the book in the original state…or they may have mad recommendations and the author didn’t take them. But if they have done several traditional works then you know that a third party believes in their talents and has hired them. Even better if they have done several projects with the same publisher.

      My recommendation is if you think your book needs substantial structural editing – try to get that from other authors, beta readers, and critique groups. If you have no access to that, or have done all you can on your own and still think it needs more help, then traditional might actually be a route for you as they still do have resources at their disposal and will foot the bill. That being said….if the work is “too rough” they won’t be interested. So there’s that.

      Hope this helped in some way.

  • This is an excellent post. It is very informative and very helpful. It is definitely interesting to see the perspective of a seasoned veteran.

    I just recently decided to jump in the turbulent waters of self publication and put my novel out there for the world to see. I obviously haven’t established much of a web presence yet being an unknown author so I’ve only sold about a dozen copies, but I’m working on changing that.

    It is definitely very interesting to see the perspective of someone who has both worked with traditional publishers and self published. I honestly thought the percent of sales you receive for print copies from traditional publishers was much lower so it is good to see that I had a false preconceived notion about that.

    I plan on setting up my print version through CreateSpace. I was on vacation for the past two week so I haven’t set it up yet, but I will be setting it up this week.

    Thanks again for the excellent article. It definitely is a lot to think about.

    • I’m glad you liked the post – and wish you great success with your writing.

      • Thanks. Right now I’m doing research on the best way to expand my web presence without spamming people with “please buy my book” and shoving it down their throat. One thing I started doing before I published the novel and plan on pushing harder now that I have it on Amazon is writing guest blogs from the POV of one of the characters from my novel. The archdemon Azrael is one of the main characters in my novel and I have a lot of fun writing guest blogs from his perspective.

        • L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

          I have the demon Azreal in my novel, too. He gets around. LOL

          But…more seriously, Michael, do you have any tips on web presence? I feel I am behind the ball on this and wonder if I’m missing some important tip. Particularly, do you have tips on reaching reviewers or finding out which reviewers have a large readership? (I suspect Joe would appreciate tips, too!)

          • hehehehe, it does appear that he gets around doesn’t it? I know the things I plan on working on to increase my web presence, but take them with a grain of salt because I’m new to this.

            I established a Facebook page for the book. I made a Google+ account and attached it to my blog using Google Authorship. I’m going to try to do as many guest blogs as people will allow me to do and I think I’m going to try Blog Link Up to help achieve that. I’ve been on a podcast where I talked about my book and I plan on doing more. I have been considering paying to have the ebook version of my novel advertised in a bargain ebook newsletter and have those dates coincide with the Kindle Select special price dates.

            I want to do as much writing as I can from the persona of characters from my novel where people can see it whether it’s guest blogs, posts on my blog or them “posting for me” on the book Facebook page. As unknown authors it is all about getting our name out there as much as possible. There’s a character in my novel that goes by Izzy and has a somewhat involved back story. I plan on writing a short story as a brief back story for him, posting it on Kindle for free and making sure that I make it very clear in the description that it is a tie in to the novel that I already have posted.

            As I said before, I’m a unknown author as well so take everything I say with a grain of salt, but those are techniques that I plan on using.

          • Sure….I have a few posts on reviews that you might like:

            * Dos and Don’ts or getting reviews for your book (

            * How to get book bloggers to review your book. (

            check those out and if you still have questions – just ask.

        • L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

          Can’t figure how to reply to your second post. I am restarting my blog, Wright’s Writing Corner, which I used to keep some years ago, starting this Wednesday. I will need some weeks to get going again before anyone will be reading it. But if you’d like to guest blog this winter, let me know!

          My email address is at gmail. The username is arhyalon.

          Here you can see some of the kinds of posts I used to do:

          Sorry for hijacking your comments, Sarah!

          • Sure, I’d love to do a guest blog …. assuming of curse you are talking to me. I sent you an email.

        • Most important thing to remember is be a contributing member of the community first. Spend time helping others and being an all around “cool guy.” People will be attracted to that and you won’t have to tell them to buy your books they’ll go out and look into them on their own. Here is a link to an article that should help.

  • Heather

    Hey Michael, thank you so much for the informative interview–I agree with all the points you listed, and I’m really excited that this new hybrid way of doing this is taking off. I’m traditionally published and when this book (under contract) is finished, I would like to go hybrid too. Do you think publishers would be more open to buying print-only if, instead of offering an advance, they just did royalties? (I hope this doesn’t sound like a naive question).

    • Hey Heather,

      Not naive at all. I don’t think there enough print-only deals to be able to extrapolate anything. I know I took a much lower advance to go print only, but I would be willing to give up my six-figure advances that I typically get with the big-five to do a print only deal.

      For now I think print only is going to be

      1. When done through a big-five publisher will only be offered to the really big authors (1,000,000+ sales0

      2. For midlist – you’ll have to go to smaller publishers who would rather get some then none.

      I think is more likely is that ebook royalty rates will rise, as an incentive to stem the move from trad to self.

      • Heather

        Thank you for the thoughtful answer! That makes a lot of sense.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.