Friday, March 8, 2013

Hollow World

Cover art by Marc Simonetti

Wait till you see this. You think we're sleeping in Dusseldorf? You think we're taking a nap in Cologne? No, we're working at night. Each night, a new dial, a new knob, a diode.
–The Muppet Movie

I’ve heard authors describe their books as if they were children, especially when asked which one is their favorite. And like children, some are planned, and others…well…they just arrive by accident. Last summer I had a fling that resulted in an unexpected novel.

I had just finished writing the drafts for The Crown Tower (due out August 6th), and The Rose and the Thorn (due out September 17th). It was summer. I was taking a break. After kicking out two novels over the winter I thought I deserved a little rest. Then the flirtation began. As usual my wife started it.

She drew my attention to a proposed anthology to help talented, aspiring writers from SFFWorld get some notice by mixing their stories with anchor authors such as myself, Hugh Howey, and Tristis Ward. All I had to do was write a short piece about the end of the world. It had been a long time since I wrote science fiction and I’d filed all sorts of ideas away in notes, on napkins, in storage files on my computer marked “Very Old.” I sorted through them and rediscovered something that had always interested me: the idea a person’s perception forms their view of the world and two people can see the same thing but in very different ways. I played with this concept a bit in Riyria giving Royce and Hadrian opposing perspectives. I’ve always been amazed how some people see Royce as realistic, but Hadrian as completely unbelievable, while other readers view them exactly the opposite. Never do the readers appear to realize they are reflecting their own views by their choice. When I conceived the short story, I decided to take this idea up a notch.

If a person were to travel forward in time and see the future, what would matter more: what the future really was, or how the person from the past perceived it? Could someone find paradise and think it a hellish future and vice versa? I played with this idea, and wrote the short story Greener Grass. Turned out the anthology was supposed to be stories about the end of the world. Oops. I realized I needed to write a new short and ended up writing another story called Burning Alexandria that was a tribute to Ray Bradbury who’d just died.

Greener Grass had been a blast to write, and all this science fiction work left me with a desire to do something bigger, especially since Greener Grass wasn’t going in the anthology. There was a much larger story underneath that short and I found myself flirting with it, day dreaming about it, buying it presents in the form of notebooks.

Everything reminded me of the plot or the characters. News stories, articles, conversations. I found myself saying, “That’s a lot like a story I’m thinking of writing,” or “I’ve actually been exploring that idea.” Before long I was scribbling page after page of notes building a world, characters, and problems.

But I was supposed to be on vacation, so I held off. That fall, I had scheduled myself to begin a new fantasy series and I was supposed to be working on that, only this story just kept growing. By mid-July I couldn’t help myself. It was stupid. Everyone sees me as a fantasy author. No one was going to be interested in a science fiction novel, but I just couldn’t help myself—I was in love with this story. I threw caution to the wind and on July 15th I started writing—Hollow World.

Those that read Greener Grass had a number of comments centered around the point that the main character wasn’t likeable. He really wasn’t intended to be all warm and cuddly, but I listened to this feedback and knew that while readers could put up with Dan Sturges for the length of a short story, they wouldn’t take him for a whole novel. That’s when Ellis Rogers was born—a much more likeable guy.

Ellis who’s a 58 year old ex-auto factory worker lives in Detroit, Michigan. Some might think Ellis’s life has been awful, others might see it as pretty good. Again it will depend on who you are and your experiences and expectations. This idea amplifies as the tale moves forward.

Science fiction has been called a “literature of ideas.” And being a story about the future I couldn’t help but add my own take on how technology affects society. But while I was fascinated by these premises, I couldn’t get away from the fact that I like fun books. The reality is, I don’t really write fantasy or science fiction—not as a style. Those are merely categories that say more about the clothes the characters wear, than the story. I wanted this novel—like any other I write—to be exciting, fast-paced, and with characters readers care about. I’ve read a lot of great science fiction that made me think about the world, but few ever made me care about the characters. So in many respects Hollow World reads more like a murder mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy adventure, but at its heart is something of an old school science fiction tale.

My obsession with Hollow World continued through the fall even as I had to repeatedly stop working on it to go over edits on the new Riyria books, and I estimate that I wrote the whole thing in about six weeks. I gave it to my wife who was very skeptical about the whole project. She doesn’t really like science fiction and my descriptions of the story made her sneer like she smelled something awful.

She read. I waited.

The next day I was greeted with hugs and kisses and a request for a Hollow World sequel. That’s when I knew I had something special.

Off went the manuscript to my agent and my editor at Orbit, as well as to my most trusted beta readers. Responses were very positive. My agent loved the book, but while my editor also felt the book was great, she had a problem. Outside of Space Operas (a sort of fantasy set in space) no one was buying science fiction anymore. So Orbit passed on the book.

Other professionals cited the same thoughts. Good book. Great story. Won’t sell.

This just pissed Robin off. My job is to write the books, but my wife has taken it upon herself to sell them, and the idea that she couldn’t make a success out of Hollow World was something of a personal challenge.

Years ago I had written a book entitled A Burden to the Earth, which I thought was the best writing I’d ever done—and it may well be—but the book was rejected out of hand because it wasn’t sellable. The frustration from this caused me to give up writing for twelve years. I’m not doing that again.

So today I’m announcing that I will be self-publishing Hollow World—but I want to do it right.

Too often self-published authors are ridiculed for sloppy craftsmanship: errors, typos, poor layout, bad grammar, awful cover art. This scrutiny comes from the simple fact that many self-pubbers do skimp on these aspects of their books. I won’t be doing that.

Having been traditionally published, I’ve seen the process of how the big houses use freelance talent to produce books. There’s no obstacle that prevents any author from hiring the same professionals New York uses—except the cost. Hiring great editors and cover artists isn’t cheap.
Which brings me to the point of this post.

My wife, being the genius that she is, came up with the idea of running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of this book. I’m hoping to reach the stated goal of $3000 in order to pay for the skills of Betsy Mitchell, the long time editor-in-chief at Del Rey who has worked on the manuscripts of authors like Michael Chabon and Terry Brooks, and the talent of Marc Simonetti, the amazing artist who’s provided cover art for folks like George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and the covers of the French translation of the Riyria Revelations. The money will also go to paying for high quality copyeditors, known to authors everywhere as the miracle workers of the literary world.

What is a Kickstarter? In this context, it’s basically the same as an advance paid to the author for a book they are writing, only instead of it coming from a publisher, it comes from the readers. And instead of the money going into my pocket, it’s going to pay the production costs. You pay in advance for the book so I have the money to produce it, and when it’s done you get the book. For contractual reasons (which are explained in more detail on the kickstarter page) I can’t self-publish anything between April 6, 2013 and January 17, 2014. So the official release of Hollow World will be January 20, 2014.  But…the kickstarter will end on April 5th so those orders can sneak in under the deadline. I expect that Betsy and the copy editors will be able to work their magic such that the book will be finished in June or July, so anyone who buys during the kickstarter can get Hollow World 6 – 7 months before everyone else.

If more money is raised beyond the initial goal, then I’ll end up getting an advance, just as if it had been bought by Orbit and those who contributed will get some additional bonuses as well. For instance, posters of the cover art, and other things that I’m still thinking about.

So what began as a summer love has—nine months later—resulted in a spring baby shower for my unexpected return to self-publishing. So stop by the kickstarter and remember a good college education costs a lot these days.

Hollow World: a novel by Michael J. Sullivan -- Kicktraq Mini


  1. This is awesome! I can't believe a publisher wouldn't pick this up?

    I'll be sure to spread the word. Good luck!

  2. Well I'm not sure that it wouldn't have been. The only one I tried was Orbit...I didn't have time to show it to others and still be able to get it out as a kickstarter. My editor loved the book, it's just that right now Science Fiction is a "tough sell" and they are focused on Space Opera...which Hollow World is not and I had no interest into making it into one.

  3. I bought all three Riyria books on kindle, and gifted several copies to friends and family.

    So I just shake my head when I read about so much time and money spent on printing tree-books that I will never buy, own, or read.

    Seems to me in this era of disintermediation and democratization of publishing.. you're still livin in the past. Why not just produce ebooks and sell directly to us fans?

    Oh well, just my two cents. I still pledged you my ten bucks for the epub.

    1. I think the point of the Kickstarter is that Michael wants to put out a true professional-quality product and not just toss up whatever he can do himself (editing, cover art, formatting, etc.) like many indie authors have done. Contracting out with professionals to get the work done requires some upfront cash. While it looks like he'll be doing print copies as well, I think the number one reason to go this route is to give us readers the most professional product he can.

    2. I second Justin and also want to mention that Kickstarter rewards include DRM-free eBook (i.e. works on any eReader/app), trade paperback+eBook (signed or unsigned), and signed & numbered limited edition hardcover+eBook. Did you notice how ALL tiers come with an eBook? I think it's wonderful that Mr. Sullivan is being progressive and includes an eBook with a physical book.

      I'm more of an eBook person but many people still prefer regular books and there's nothing wrong with offering different options. Additionally, as of now, there's no way to do a collectible eBook (signed and/or numbered).

      I've backed my share of book Kickstarter projects and you'd be surprised at how many people end up asking for a physical book if that's not one of initial reward tiers. Offering paperbacks or hardcovers also allows authors to charge a lot more for those tiers. There's only so much you can ask for an eBook but all bets are off when it comes to physical goods because an author can do various things to increase their value: limited run, signing, sketching, numbering, and so forth.

  4. A couple interesting points on this post...first one was..Science Fiction doesn't sell? I never knew that whole genres themselves can become a trend. In my opinion, fantasy will always have its fans, science fiction will always have its fans, and erotic smut will always have their fans as well.

    Moving onto another topic, I'm very interested in the entire trend of "crowd funding." Kickstarter is the main place currently for this, but I've noticed that Smashwords has the option of "customers decide the price." I first heard about this entire business approach with Radiohead's last album (though I know they're not the starters of this per se) and have recently discovered that it's slowly catching on. What are your (or Robin's) thoughts on the entire concept of crowd funding? And will Amazon ever adopt this approach?

  5. Just pledged $10 to kickstarter to get the HOLLOW WORLD ebook early! cool!

  6. Thank you, Michael!! How exciting.

  7. Getting to help an author put out work in such a direct fashion is amazing. Thanks for the opportunity Michael. Go Team

  8. How great, I strongly agree with your defense of Sci-Fi Michael. This seems like a great project and I can't wait to see it in printing form. Great science-fiction is indeed very important, it's a speculation and vision of our future. Nowhere else can you see this.

    The tendency of the publishing world of focusing on one style of story get really tiring. The best example of this is the vampire and dystopian craze that is happening right now. They publish so much of one thing that people get tired of it, and in the end, future interesting stories fall into oblivion because when the craze is over, they stop publishing such stories. Your situation is one good example of this, publishers want to publish space operas and neglect story such as yours. At one point, people will get bored with space opera and the genre will be lost.

  9. Aewtech, I don’t spend any money on tree books. All the money I invested in the project goes to editing and cover art. I would have to do the same if I were offering an ebook only product. And thanks so much for reading and gifting!

    Iwpatricks, I agree all genres have their fans, but some genres have more than others, and that demographic shifts with time. Almost no one read fantasy when I started reading it back in the early seventies. These days it’s not only popular, it’s respected. I think science fiction has an older dwindling audience as the younger generations are more into paranormal fantasy. I expect this is cyclical and soon science fiction will be the next new thing. Obviously I’m thinking crowdfunding is a good thing. It allows authors to get their advance and the capital to put out a good novel. I have no idea what Amazon will do.

    Micael, I’m more optimistic about the future of science fiction. I think it will be revived. Authors are a stubborn bunch.

    Thanks everyone else for posting, and for your support

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