Michael J. Sullivan Portrait

Michael J. Sullivan is one of fantasy’s most prominent self-publishing success stories. His debut series, the Riyira Revelations, sold 90,000 units before Sullivan sold the publishing rights to Orbit Books in 2011. Since then, he’s been a poster boy for Hybrid Publishing, an approach that allows authors to leverage the strengths of both the traditional publishing model and self publishing to their advantage and the advantage of their readers.

Yesterday, Sullivan announced that he’s sold The First Empire, a new epic fantasy set in the same world as the Riyira Revelations to Del Rey. The deal includes the first four volumes of the series: Rhune, Dherg, Rhist and Phyre. I caught up with Sullivan to chat about the new series and his half-million dollar deal.

The First Empire series is based in the same world as the Riyria books, but it takes place several thousand years in the past,” Sullivan told me when I asked what the new series had to offer old fans.

But, you don’t have to be an entrenched fan to be excited about Sullivan’s new series. “It’s designed such that readers won’t need to know anything about Riyria, so it should appeal to both new and existing readers. That being said, for those that have read Riyria, they’ll learn that certain aspects of Elan’s past aren’t exactly true. I’m enjoying exploring the differences between myth and reality, and hopefully that exploration will be fun for existing readers as well.”

Sullivan spent years working in the world of Elan, the setting featured in The Riyira Revelations, and had to shift into a different mindset when it came time to delve into its history for The First Empire, to explore the origins of magic in his world. “That part was easy because I had already done it when writing Riyria,” Sullivan said.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

“Before I started those books, I had a history of Elan going back 8,000 years. I had extensive notes about the various classes and technology and knew that magic was much more prevalent back then. An important plot element of The First Empire is showing what happens when magic enters into the world, and how it disrupts the power structure. I did all that as background for Riyria, but most of it never appeared on the pages of those books. So, for the new series, all I needed to do was to tap into that existing cannon. For me, it was nice to see that stuff I had previously come up with have its day on the stage.”

Sullivan first made a name for himself among fantasy fans when he self-published The Riyira Revelations to much financial success before signing a more traditional publishing deal with Orbit Books However, The First Empire is being published not by Sullivan but from an new traditional publisher: Del Rey. What prompted this switch?

“I’m a huge fan of self-publishing and know very well about how financially lucrative it can be,” Sullivan admitted, addressing the surprising move to a new traditional publisher. “For my traditionally published works, my reason for signing has always been to take my career to the next level.”

While happy with Orbit’s dedication to the Riyira novels, Sullivan recognized that their vision for his next series was diverging from his own. “I think Orbit did a great job with The Riyria Revelations, and it has made both of us a lot of money, but I saw The First Empire as an opportunity to raise my profile yet again. To that end, I had one requirement, which was to release in hardcover. Orbit didn’t agree with that vision. Fortunately, the other publishers making offers did. Trying to do a hardcover release through self-publishing wouldn’t have been easy, but if none of the publishers agreed, I was prepared to do exactly that.”

And the new book deal, a “major deal” from Del Rey covering four volumes of The First Empire series, is no slouch, either. Sullivan is set to make a minimum of $500,000 for the book/eBook publication, and another $100,000 – $250,000 in a separate deal for the audiobooks. Those are major numbers. “The term ‘major deal’ comes from the deal categories used by Publisher’s Marketplace,” Sullivan explained. “It’s more of less the industry standard for talking about publishing advances in ‘broad terms.’ The ‘major deal’ category is the highest there is and represents deals that are at least half a million dollars.


The ‘major deal’ category is the highest there is and represents deals that are at least half a million dollars.

“Beyond that, it’s also a major deal for two other reasons. First, Del Rey felt strongly enough about the series to offer a 4-book deal. In general, they prefer not to go beyond three books so this speaks volumes about how they feel about the series. Secondly, the deal was a preempt which means a high bid meant to prevent opposing players from bidding. When Del Rey’s offer came in, I didn’t need to see any more offers. I already had a) the publisher I wanted and b) an offer that I thought respected both me and my work. Even if someone else came in higher, it wouldn’t have changed my mind.”

Sullivan adheres to a rigorous writing schedule, drafting out the entirety of the series in manuscript form before selling even the first book. “Like Riyria, I want to write the full series before publishing the first book, and I expect to have the fifth and final book finished in April or May,” he said. “I’ll need some time to make some minor modifications to the first book based on things that have happened in the last one.” Sullivan is nearly done writing the fifth and final book in The First Empire, but don’t let that fool you into thinking a release date for the series is just around the corner. “The full details of that still have to be worked out. So far, we have been talking about releasing Rhune in the summer of 2016.”

What does that mean for the rest of the series? Sullivan says the details are still being worked out. As for the subsequent books, I don’t know the exact spacing. What I do know, is it won’t be the same way Orbit did them. For one thing, books #2 – #5 have to go through a full editing cycle. The “alpha read” can take several months and at least a month to implement the changes. Plus I have to incorporate changes based on things that occur later in the series. Then the “beta read” starts, and that is a three-month cycle (at a minimum), and then finally it can go to Del Rey for their editing. So while all the stories are written (or soon will be), there is still a lot of work to take them from manuscript to final book.”

Sullivan understand the pressure to publish on a regular schedule, so he has a few other projects on the back burner to fill the time, including a sequel to Hollow World and more Riyira stories. More news about the publication schedule will be available once the ink dries on Sullivan’s new contract with Del Rey.