Bestselling author Michael J. Sullivan on self- versus traditional publishing: The Trials and Tribulations of a Modern Day Writer


It’s amazing to me just how much publishing has changed in a relatively small time since I’ve started out. I initially signed with a small press for my debut novel, The Crown Conspiracy, which was released in October 2008. The small press was well-intentioned, but always strapped for cash, so I never earned anything from that publication, even though the books sold out their initial print run of a few thousand. When they didn’t have money for the print run of the second book, I reclaimed my rights and self-published that title and the three following books. (I did eventually get the rights back to that first book which was also self-published).

My first self-published title, Avempartha, was released in April 2009. At that time, self-publishing was still considered the “last resort” for authors who couldn’t get picked up by a major publisher. The series had been shopped around to a number of publishers without success. I didn’t expect to make any money…all I wanted was to get my books “out there” and that was enough for me.

I released More titles as time went on and saw my readership grow. With one book out I was selling about 100 copies a month. By the time, the fourth book came out that had increased to 1,000. Just as I released the fifth book, I decided to give New York another try and the series had a much better reception.

My agent (who was handling my foreign sales), contact seventeen of the big traditional publishers and about half expressed an immediate interest. My “top pick” made a six-figure preemptive offer which I agreed to in mid-October 2010.

While waiting for the final contract, my books took off in ways I never expected. Sales for October turned out to be 2,600 copies but then November came in at 9,500, December 10,500, and January just shy of 12,000. I couldn’t believe it.

When the contracts finally arrived (in March) I got a good education about “industry standards.” I was shocked that the rights transfer would be for the “life of the copyright” (unless they sold poorly), a non-compete clause could severely limit what I could write in the future, and I had no say over things such as title, cover design, or other aspects of the books. I almost didn’t sign, but we eventually got the contracts ironed out and for the sake of my brand I did sign, even though I thought I would earn less money in doing so).

Giving over control to the publisher can be frustrating at times. For example, I think my books would benefit from a mass market paperback release. I’d also like to see the prices of my ebooks reduced, and I’m saddened that my books aren’t enrolled into some of the new more innovative programs such as subscription services (Netflix for Books) or systems whereby ebooks are bundled with print copies. Still, all in all, my publisher has expanded my audience, gotten the books distributed in places I can’t and as I’ve actually ended up earning more than I ever expected (and probably mor than if I stayed self-published).

Recently a new bump has occurred in the road. My publisher, Hachette is in a contract dispute with Amazon and as such my books are not being stocked like they have been in the past, all discounting has been removed, and if I had a new title out, there would be no pre-ordering of it. These actions have led to decreased sales for my titles and a lot of frustration on the part of my readers. Ironically, expanded distribution is one of the reasons why an author signs with a big publisher. And if my books had remained self-published, they wouldn’t have experienced any of these problems.

One of the things that has made me so successful in my publishing endeavors is the ability to remain agile and to adjust when possible. My most recent novel, Hollow World had a nice five-figure advanced offered for it, but I turned it down in order to keep the ebook rights. Keeping these rights allows me to do some of the things I mentioned earlier…bundle the ebook when people buy print or audio copies, and include the book in subscription services such as Oyster, Scribd, and Entitle.

I think any author publishing today needs to keep up with what is going on in the industry, and ensure they have flexibility in what and how they publish. At this point the only constant in publishing is that it will change, and those who can quickly adapt to changes are the authors who will be the most successful.


Michael J. Sullivan is a best-selling author whose originally self-published books “The Riyria Revelations” were purchased by Orbit (The Fantasy Imprint of Hachette Books) and translated for: German, Russian, French, Italian, and twelve other languages. He’s one of the few authors that has successfully navigated small-press, self-publishing, and big-five traditional. He’s sold more than half a million English copies between The Riyria Chronicles and The Riyria Revelations and recently has crossed over to science fiction with Hollow World a book he self-published through ebook, but sold the print and audio rights to traditional houses. He’s currently working on the fourth and final book of his next fantasy series, “The First Empire.”