Dealing with Success – A guest post by Michael J. Sullivan
Michael J. Sullivan is the author of the highly successful Riyria Revelations fantasy novels, a series of six novels featuring the thieving duo Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. The success of these novels is a simple and hard fact, considering all the awards and nominations that have come Michael’s way since he released The Crown Conspiracy, the first novel in the series. Once I was done reading the novels sometime in February, I got in touch with Michael about doing a guest post for the site and he obliged so I bring you Michael’s first guest appearance on The Founding Fields.
Dealing with Success
Michael J. Sullivan
I’ve done a lot of guest posts since the release of my Riyria Revelations (Thanksgiving 2011) novels and when Founding Fields asked me to write something on, “how you dealt with (and are continuing to do so) with the success of the series,” I must admit I was unsure how to respond. I think the reason is twofold. The first was coming to grips with the concept of “success of the series” and the second in examining how my life has changed.
For those that don’t know, I was originally published through two small presses, one based in the publishing capital of the world (Minneapolis, MN), and the other Ridan Publishing, which was actually started by my wife when AMI fell on hard times. In late 2010 I signed my big league contract when the fantasy imprint of Hachette Book Group (Orbit) bought my series to release as three, two-book omnibus versions.
For most authors, getting a multi-book contract from a big-six publisher is a life changing event, but for me it was actually quite anti-climatic. You see, I had already achieved what most would consider success. I had sold more than 70,000 books (including 4 months where I sold 10,000+ each). My books had already been on multiple Amazon best selling lists (science fiction and fantasy, fantasy, epic fantasy, and historical fantasy), received hundreds of reviews, and had been placed on multiple year-end “best of” lists.
Many of my fellow authors (both traditionally published and indie) questioned my decision to leave self-publishing. While many traditional authors need to keep their day jobs to make ends meet, I was able to support not only myself, but also made enough money so that my wife could quit her job. But to me self-publishing success is much like AAA ball success, and I wondered if I could make it in the big-league.
I must admit that my idea of success in the majors had the bar set pretty high. I was hoping that by going with a big-six publisher I would have a chance, however slim, that I could grab the brass ring…and make it to one of the major best seller lists such as the New York Times or USA Today. Unfortunately I didn’t make that…but could I still consider myself a success when compared to other traditionally published authors?
If I look at the release objectively I can honestly say the novels have done well. Each book has gone into multiple printings (Theft of Swords: 4, Rise of Empire: 3, Heir of Novron: 2), all of them dominated Amazon’s Hottest New Releases Lists (when they were eligible) and since early November they have been on multiple Amazon best selling lists. Even to this day all three are in the Top 20 Historical Fantasy and Top 50 Epic Fantasy Kindles. In fact when looking at the epic fantasy list (as of 3/27/2012) the traditionally published authors include: George R. R. Martin (6 books), J.R.R. Tolkien (3 books), Steven King (1 book), Justin Cronin (2 books), Patricia Brigs (1 book), Michael J. Sullivan (3 books), Robert Jordon (7 books), Brandon Sanderson (4 books), R.A. Salvatore (1 book), Terry Goodkind (1 book). That’s some pretty impressive company to be included with. When self published I was floored when I sneaked onto the cross sales list (in the last position, #16) on pages like Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson. For several weeks now I’ve amazed to find myself in the 3rd position just behind George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobbs.
So now that I’ve convinced myself that the first part of the question is justified, that the series can indeed be legitimately considered a success, let me address the second part, which is dealing with that success. Unfortunately the answer is going to be pretty boring…because the reality is my life really hasn’t changed much, so there’s not much to “deal with.” My work week when I was making barely enough to pay for a nice dinner out from time to time is pretty much the same now that I make what most would consider “serious money.” I work from 9:00 until lunch six days a week and use the afternoons for research, answering letters from readers, or writing guest blogs like this one. On Wednesday’s I take my “day out” in which I go to a coffee shop and think about my current work in progress. It might be trying to work through a particularly difficult plot sequence or reviewing where the book currently is and whether I need to adjust the outline I’m working from. So my day-to-day routine has changed very little. The only substantial difference is now Robin is home with me so we get to spend more time together. I must admit that being able to repay her for being the sole bread winner for years has been a much more satisfying experience than I had expected.
Success has brought a larger number of emails from readers, and they are still surprised that I actually respond. Some have even had little freak out fan boy (or girl) moments, which surprises me quite a bit. I find it humorous that many will start out with things like, “I’m sorry to disturb you.” or “I hope you don’t mind me writing you.” As if hearing someone say that they love what you created could ever be a bother. This does take more time than it used to, but it’s still one of my favorite activities and I’m hoping I’ll always be able to do it personally. I also get more requests for interviews and guest blog posts. In the past it usually required a query from Robin but these days they come in unsolicited. One recent change is requests for speaking engagements. I gave a talk at the Library of Congress and a local public library as well as participating on a panel for The Writing Show run by James River’s Writer’s Association. It was the biggest audience I had spoken to yet, somewhere between 100 and 150 people came out and paid $10-$12 a ticket! So these have helped to make me feel like a real boy author.
My lifestyle is as glamorous as it ever was. I own two cars, both Toyota Camrys. One is from 1994 and has 149,000 miles. The other was made in 1982 and has 250,000. It’s not that we can’t afford new cars, but parking where I live is extremely limited, and the cars are shared between five people three of which (my children) are inexperienced drivers. Both cars have dents and scrapes from multiple accidents and until their driving records improve I’m not going to risk them with more expensive models.
So what has changed? Well, the only substantial difference is how I approach projects. When I created The Riyria Revelations I had no intention on publishing. Now that I support our family with my writing, I’m conscious of the fact that paydays are few and far between. The entire amount of the Orbit advance has been paid, and who knows if I’ll ever earn out and receive royalties. Most authors don’t, and while sales have been strong, I do have a pretty steep advance to work off. In my budget planning I’m assuming no future income from those books other than the occasional foreign rights deal. To date we’ve had eleven of them, so the big markets have already been signed and from here on out the deals will get progressively more modest. So while I’ve made more money than I ever thought possible, I worry about how quickly it vanishes when there is absolutely nothing coming in. I’m in a race to get something new out there before it dwindles to the point where Robin or I would have to return to the “real work world.” I hope I’ll be able to pull it off. I’m too old and too independently minded to have a “boss” and unfortunately my feral ways are rubbing off on Robin. If our feet are held to the fire, she’ll go back to the corporate world, but I’m determined to keep that from happening.
So there you have it. I think the books have been successful and for that I’m thankful to all the people who have supported them and especially those that loved them enough to tell others. The success hasn’t gone to my head…at least I don’t think so. My routine hasn’t changed and I still feel like I have the best job on earth. Writing is what I do for fun, and I still have as much passion as I did when I was making nothing from it. I feel a bit more pressure to keep the word count increasing, but that’s a small price to pay for having Robin here full time. Hopefully people who liked the first series will buy future books and if that is the case I’m sure my life will continue to be the same old routine…which is just fine by me.
So there you have it, folks! You can find our reviews of Michael’s novels here:
If you would like more Michael J. Sullivan goodness, you can find him on twitter which he frequents as @author_sullivan or you can find him on his blog, Riyria, and you can also check out his Facebook author page, as well as the Riyria Revelations Facebook page.
Stay tuned for more author guest posts and interviews in the future!