Wright’s Writing Corner–Guest Post from Best-selling Author Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan

Today we have a special treat, a guest post from best-selling writer Michael J. Sullivan. 

I came upon Mr. Sullivan on another blog and was really impressed with his grasp of the writing market today and his elequent explanation of them. Here, again, Mr. Sullivan shares his insights with the rest of us.


Why it’s such a great time to be a writer


At any given time there are plenty of Chicken Little wannabes proclaiming how the sky is falling when it comes to the business of books. I’m sure the scribes of Guttenberg’s days weren’t too happy about the disruptive technology of movable type. And despite much gnashing of teeth about the introduction of e-readers, ebooks are proving to be a boon for authors and publishers alike. Both of these technologies are making it easier for readers to obtain books, and significantly increasing the number of titles available. When the environment is good for the reader, ultimately writers and publishers thrive, but that’s just one of the reasons why now is such a good time for authors. Let’s look at some others.

The “which way is best” wars

Go to any forum where writers congregate and you’ll see plenty of posts where people debate self-publishing verses traditional with full-throated conviction.  Within those threads, you’ll find their opponents just as vehemently decrying why the posters assertion is emphatically wrong. I enjoy these exchanges, and having done both (with a good degree of success), I can see what they seem blinded to…that they are both 100% correct.


The good news is that there are two VERY viable ways to publish and there is no universal right or wrong, just one that is going to mesh better with a given author’s goals and abilities. I don’t know why there’s so much controversy. Choice and opportunity are good things, and having a choice doesn’t mean the traditional no longer has merit.

The one piece of advice I’ll give to those seeking success through the self-publishing path, is to produce a book that is indistinguishable from those released by New York. This means an attractive cover, captivating “back of the book” copy, professionally looking layout, error-free editing, and a killer opening (as people certainly are going to be sampling before they buy).

For those going the traditional route, I suggest they learn as much as they can about the business before putting pen to paper.  Contracts have always been a landmine of explosive clauses, but now more than ever it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into.  Pay particular attention to things such as non-compete clauses and under what circumstances the rights will revert. Also be aware about rights you may sign over thinking they’ll have no “real worth.” Always consider a contract under the “worst case scenario” and never sign something unless you are 100% positive that you can live with yourself if things go badly.

The proliferation of formats

            Whether you are self-published or traditional, there has never been so many ways to increase the income of the author. In the past, all sales came from printed books and they required large print runs the required a substantial investment on the part of the publisher.  I’m not one of the people who is predicting that print will ever disappear completely, but I can see that its days are numbered.  In my own sales I’m seeing a breakdown of 20% audio, 50% ebook and 30% print. I can envision a future where books are seen as collectibles, and at the very least, that the electronic rights become the predominant format signed and print may become a subsidiary right.

            Since we’re discussing print, print-on-demand has opened up huge opportunities for self, small-press and even larger publishers. My publisher, Orbit, has done some POD releases for a few titles, and there are thousands of small-presses that can now experiment with titles without a costly print run. For self-published authors, they can have a physical copy of a printed book in their hands for literally a few dollars plus postage.  And POD is not just something for writers and their friends and family. I’ve sold several thousand printed copies of my self-published books, all without shelling out thousands and having to fill my basement or garage with cartons.

            But the current king of publishing (at least in genre fiction, which I write) is ebooks.  With no print costs, and extremely low returns this format single-handily made self-publishing the viable option it is today.  I started out as a complete nobody…no twitter followers, no Facebook page, and a blog that launched when my books did, and yet there were times when I sold 10,000 – 12,000 copies a month.  That’s more books than many titles see in their entire time in print from a major publisher.  What’s more, I was selling them for $4.95 – $6.95 a piece and receiving $3.46 to $4.87 a book.  That’s far more than the $1.76 I make on my traditionally published books. While the press loves running stories on authors like Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking, because they singed seven-figure contracts when transitioning from self to traditional, the big news (which isn’t reported) is the thousands of authors who are earning five- and six-figure incomes. They aren’t household names, but they have gotten rich, mostly because of ebooks.  In fact, I know more self-published authors who earn a full-time living as most of my traditional author friends still have their day jobs.

            And then there is audio.  A format that I never considered much about.  My publisher sold the audio rights for my books for $2,000 each, an advance I never expected to earn back. In less than a year, the three titles of my Riyria Revelations brought in $737,427 of profit just from Audible.com alone! Needless to say my advance numbers are up ($30,000 per book for my latest offer) and I’ve earned out those advances in very short order.  The really cool thing is even self-published authors can have a professionally produced audio book available on audible.com and itunes. ACX (an Amazon company) provides a mechanism for this and they are offering self-published authors royalties of 50%-90% for exclusive deals and 25% – 70% for non-exclusive.

Hybrid Authorship

I’d like to close this post with a note about the inherent benefits of “hybrid authorship.” This term is used to describe an author who utilizes both self and traditional publishing. To me, this offers the best of both worlds. Traditional publishing offers legitimacy and significantly larger distribution channels (bookstores, libraries, retail outlets). In addition, there is a substantial segment of the reading public that shies away from self-published titles.  Self-publishing provides higher per book income and complete control.  If sales are falling, the author can immediately offer a sale which will infuse new readers. Plus, once a reader finds an author they love, they are going to consume all books by that person, regardless of how it is published.

On April 15th my newest novel Hollow World will be released. I was originally offered a nice five-figure advance for the print/ebook/audio rights for that title. After doing some calculations, I determined that I would earn more just from ebook sales, so I turned it down.  Still, I knew that the print edition would have limited distribution.  What I ended up doing was getting a print-only deal from Tachyon Publications, and then I sold the audio rights to Recorded Books.  Yes the advance was smaller, but I will still have the distribution power of a publisher, and the high profitability of the ebook. Between those advances, and the money I earned from doing a Kickstarter for that project (over $30,000), that book has already earned well and it hasn’t even hit the street yet.

Wrapping it all up

Authors today have a myriad of choices when it comes to how they get their works “out there.”  While self-publishing has always been around, it is a route that only recently has proven to produce high income potential for a large number of titles. Small presses can now utilize POD and put out more titles then their limited resources could allow for in the past.  For those with an entrepreneur spirit the only limitation is their own drive. Now that authors have all these opportunities it means they have to think carefully about how best to build their careers. It’s important to do your research and weigh the pluses and minuses of each (as there are many no matter which one you choose). I know many writers who say, “All I want to do is write.” I can understand that mentality, but the best way to obtain that goal is to get your income to a level where you don’t need a “day job.” And the best way to do that is to become educated on the “business side of writing” and find the path that will work the best for you.

I hope this post will help those who read it, and if you ever have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments here, or write me at Michael.sullivan.dc@gmail.com

Short bio:

Michael J. Sullivan is the best-selling author of The Riyria Revelations (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heir of Novron) and The Riyria Chronicles (The Crown Tower and The Rose and the Thorn) both series are released through Orbit (the fantasy imprint of big-five publisher Hachette Book Group).  His debut novel was released by a small press, and after they ran out of money for the print run of the second book, he reclaimed his rights and self-published five novels. He has sold more than 450,000 English language copies and his works have been translated into fifteen foreign languages. The novels have appeared on more than 85 best of the year and most anticipated lists including those compiled by Library Journal, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, and Audible.com. His latest book, Hollow World is releasing on April 15, 2014.