Apr 28, 2011

Riyria Revelations Redux: An Interview with Michael J. Sullivan

Earlier this month, I got a glance at the Orbit Fall 2011/Winter 2012 catalog and I was quite surprised to see Michael J. Sullivan amongst the featured authors. Not because he's incapable of writing new books (I assume he isn't), more so that Orbit plans on republishing his current series, The Riyria Revelations - a series which has yet to be completed.

Sullivan began publishing The Riyria Revelations with Ridan Publishing back in 2008 with The Crown Conspiracy. It wasn't an overnight success but thanks to an aggressive release schedule, a grass roots marketing campaign, and a bevy of strong reviews, the series eventually did the improbable and joined the exclusive ranks of the small press success stories.

Like the series itself, that success story hasn't wrapped up just yet. With the new Orbit deal, Sullivan has the opportunity to get his novels in front of the thousands of casual readers who don't scour the internet looking for new recommendations on review blogs and message boards. Michael (and his wife/co-conspirator Robin) have done a great job getting the book out there. At the same time, there's no denying the benefits of a major publicity department.

After I heard the good news, I was curious about how everything fell into place and what the new deal meant for the sixth and final book, Percepliquis, which was originally slated for release later this year. So I did what any mediocre blogger would do, I asked him.

Here's what Michael had to say.

SoY: I understand that Orbit is publishing the series as a trilogy. Is it going to be two Ridan books to each Orbit book or will they be broken down in a more complicated fashion?

MJS: Yes, Orbit’s books break down as follows: Theft of Swords (Volume 1) will contain The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha; Rise of Empire (Volume 2) contains Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm; Heir of Novron (Volume 3) will contain Wintertide and Percepliquis. For those reading in print, they can get the entire series for half the price. If given the choice, I would prefer more readers than money so making the series affordable is very attractive to me.

Orbit is also doing something really great as the three books come out in consecutive months: November 2011, December 2011, and January 2012. They already have pre-order pages up on sites such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Usually books in a series come out once a year, or sometimes longer, and the fact that they were fast-tracking the series was one of the things that really drew me to their offer. I was originally concerned about the inevitable delay in the final installment (originally due in April 2011). With this release cycle, people only have to wait an extra nine months, which is short in comparison to many delayed fantasy books and much quicker than if the books were being put out as six staggered books.

Cover Art Not Final
SoY: Will there be any updates to the text of The Riyria Revelations which has already been published?

MJS: All the books have already gone through editing, which was a frightening time for me. I had worked so hard to develop the arc of the series that I waited on pins and needles afraid of what Orbit might want different. Orbit assigned their senior editor to the project, Devi Pellai, and I had heard from others in the industry that she is one of the best in the business so I was willing to keep an open mind on any changes she might require.

To my great surprise and relief, there weren’t any major changes. Most of the comments concerned adding additional detail about places, the political system, and clarifying minor characters. That being said, having a whole new series allowed me to make some minor changes. For instance, there will be a new starting chapter for the first book, which will immediately introduce the main characters, Royce and Hadrian. This wasn’t something Orbit required, but Devi wanted to get to them faster. I’ve also had some readers who thought Archibald Ballentyne (a very minor character) was the focus of the book as he was the first person who was originally introduced. The fact that Archie is a disagreeable fellow turned a few people off of the book as they thought it might be about him. One other little tweak I made was to rewrite history with regards to one of my characters. Originally, he was forced to kill someone in self-defense and that never sat well with me regarding his character, so he’s been saved from such a hardship, for which he has expressed his gratitude.

One thing I would like to point out about editing. There have been people who have complained that there are a number of errors in the original books, typos, misplaced commas, and the like. This has led some to think the books were not edited, which was not true. In fact, they each have had multiple editors and proof readers. That being said, the copy editing of Orbit has been superlative. Their attention to detail has been astonishing and I’ve been totally impressed.

SoY: Reviewers have been saying great things about the self published Riyria Revelations for years now and I believe they've been fairly successful as far as independent/small press books go. How does it feel to have your writing (and other people's reviews) validated by a major publisher?

MJS: I’ve always thought the series was good, but then again I wrote it primarily for myself and my family. Because they were tailor made, it is no surprise that I like them. For me, the real validation came when sales started to take off on their own. This told me that people were referring the books to others and that made me think I had written something that had a wider appeal.

With the release of the fifth book, Wintertide, my sales went from 1,000 books a month to more than 10,000. I was impressed, but really didn’t have anything to compare that to until I was at a recent fantasy/scifi convention and talked to some other traditionally published authors. I discovered that I sold more in one month, then many did over their books lives.

Of course almost every author wants validation from a major publisher. There is always a twinge of pain when some naysayer says, “Well if the books were any good, why did he have to self-publish.” It never occurs to these people that I hadn’t submitted them—that I chose self-publishing. They just assume the books were turned down and self-published as a last resort. When we finally did submit, I was floored that we had multiple publishers immediately interested. That was a real kick in the head. Especially since this was before I started selling so well. At the time, my sales record was a respectable 1,000 books a month but nothing like the explosion that occurred later in 2010 and early 2011.

Cover Art Not Final
SoY: Five books in, what made you decide to finish your series with Orbit? How did the entire process happen?

MJS: Well, it wasn’t intentional. I thought any contract would come long after the last book was released. My wife, Robin, spends a lot of time studying various aspects of Amazon, like the fantasy bestsellers lists and the people also bought listings. I appeared on many fantasy lists but so did a lot of other self-published indie authors. But at some point, Amazon added a new feature where they showed buying habits on an author by author basis instead of book by book. If you look on the author’s page, or at the bottom of a books page, you’ll see sixteen authors whose books sell well with the audience of the author you were looking at. Robin noticed that on pages such as Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, V.S. Reddick, Brent Weeks, and about thirty others, mine was the only self-published author listed. There were even a number of places where I was number one or two. This was a real eye opener, which demonstrated that I was selling very well against major authors in the genre. Seeing this made Robin think she could leverage this success.

I had a foreign rights agent, and we asked her if it would make sense to make a try in the US market. She agreed and put together a proposal and sent it to seventeen houses. Usually publishing moves very slowly, and I figured it would take years before we saw any results. I figured that when the last book was out, and hopefully selling well, that we could get generate some interest. I had no idea it would snowball so quickly and seven houses immediately expressed an interest. I really like the choices Orbit has made and how they are growing their brand so we agreed on a six-figure deal with them just a few weeks after the original submission.

SoY: If you don't mind me asking, do you prefer the Ridan covers or the Orbit ones? Did you have any input as to the content?

MJS: The Orbit covers are very professional and much more in line with other books in the genre. They each depict the major characters, Royce and Hadrian. In general, I don’t like seeing the faces of characters on book covers. I prefer the reader to come up with their own idea of what they look like. That being said, I fully understand that Orbit is developing covers from a marketing perspective and they feel showing the characters is a good idea. I will say that if I saw both theirs and mine on a shelf I would be drawn to Orbit’s over my own.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the covers I did are pretty good and I get a lot of compliments on them. But in a lot of respects, the covers reflect what I’m capable of producing. I didn’t choose the scenes and landscapes motif because I thought they would sell best, or to try to put out something different. To be honest, I selected something that I was capable of producing well. I could never have created anything like what Orbit did. So, for the most part, I made the best covers I could with my limited resources.

As for input on the content, in general authors usually don’t get much say in the cover designs and many have a problem with this. I have a background in marketing, so I understand that the cover design is one that is selected to maximize sales. We talked about various ideas, but until I saw them I really didn’t know which way they had decided to go. If the covers had turned out badly, I suspect I would have had a lot to say. Luckily for me that wasn’t necessary.

Most authors don’t have the advantage of producing their books with their covers. Because I already had released them with my vision I really didn’t have a desire to interfere with Orbit’s ideas. In general I have like the covers they’ve done for other books, and I trusted them to do whatever they felt was best. The result was a very positive one and I’m very pleased with what they came up with.

Cover Art Not Final
SoY: Will book collectors ever be able to get the Ridan Press edition of Percepliquis or will their book shelves remain forever incomplete?

MJS: They will be able to complete their sets. We made a deal with Orbit that when their last book is released (the one that has Percepliquis in it) Ridan can also publish a limited edition of Percepliquis for a limited time with my covers and formatting. I think this is an exceedingly generous offer for Orbit to allow them to complete their sets and is just one of the reasons that I’m confident that I picked the right publisher to work with. Oh, and for those who prefer digital, Orbit will be putting out a Percepliquis only ebook version (using my cover), which will be half the price of the two-book set so that people who already paid for Wintertide won’t have to purchase it again.

For those people who are interested in the Percepliquis only version you should send an email to riyria6@gmail.com and we’ll email them a buy link as soon as it is available.

SoY: What's next after The Riyria Revelations?

MJS: I’m about forty-percent done with my next book entitled Antithesis. It is a complete rewrite of a book I originally wrote in 1984. Unlike The Riyria Revelations which is set in a medieval time period, Antithesis takes place in modern day Washington D.C. and explores the duality of good and evil. This is as a stand alone novel and not part of a series.

I also have a completed literary fiction piece entitled A Burden to the Earth that just needs some copy editing. It is nothing like my other works and I’m not sure how I should market it which is one of the reasons that it keeps just sitting there. The Riyria Revelations is a very fast-paced, plot-driven story with lots of twists told in a fairly straight forward writing style. Burden is almost the exact opposite. For this piece I focused on the craft of writing, taking great care to craft each sentence. This work is a character study of a man slipping into madness so the pace is much slower. Everyone who has read it loves it but they also note how different it is from my other writing, so I’m not sure if my current fans will be interested in this book.

As for The Riyria Revelations, this was very carefully designed to end at six-books. To tack on additional adventures to the end has zero interest for me, as I think it ends on the perfect high note and I don’t want to have anything that messes with that. But I did leave myself some threads and plenty of opportunities for spin offs. Some of them I can’t discuss because it could spoil the last book. In addition, there are several prequel s that intrigue me. I’m fleshing out a story that explores the truth behind the mythology about Novron, the original savior of mankind. The idea that he was exactly different than what they have been taught is an interesting notion to me. I’m actually really excited to write this and it feels like a trilogy to tell that full arc, but I’m not sure it makes sense to start until we see how the first series does. There are also possibilities to explore more of Royce and Hadrian’s pasts. Some of this comes out in the last book, but there is a lot more that can be further detailed. My wife is always bugging me to do “Royce and Hadrian, the Earlier Years” so I might give her a present and tell the full story someday.

Orbit's first collection of Sullivan's stories, Theft of Swords, is due out November 23rd with Rise of Empire (12/14/11) and Heir of Novron (1/31/12) to follow shortly thereafter.

Thanks again to Michael for talking the time out of his increasingly busy schedule to answer my questions.


  1. Really looking forward to these! I like the (not final) look of the omnibus editions.

  2. Looking forward to the last book, and I must say I do like the new covers. I will have to buy the original cover of Percepliquis to complete my collection, though! Congratulations to you, Michael!

  3. Thanks for the great interview. Somehow I missed The Riyria Revelations series. I'm glad that the books will be reissued as omnibus editions. I ordered copies of them all in advance.

    Congratulations to Michael J. Sullivan for his bood deal. I'm sure he will get a lot more readers and I'm one of them.

  4. Thanks for the interview - they were great questions and your site is the first place for the covers to show up - congrats! They aren't "final yet" (as you noted) but Orbit says the finals will be ready in a couple of weeks.

    Robin | Michael's Blog | Website


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