Today I have an interview with Michael R Miller. He’s a former employee of a Big 5 publisher, a self-published author, and a co-founder of a small press which is absolutely crushing it with it’s first few titles (really, look ‘em up!). I think his Dragon’s Blade Trilogy is a good match for any of my fans, and his publishing insight is really interesting for anyone curious about how this book industry really works.
AC: Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to chat! First off, I think my readers are most likely familiar with your Dragon’s Blade trilogy. Can you tell us a little bit about that one?
MRM: Absolutely! The Dragon’s Blade Trilogy was a childhood dream, worked and re-worked in my head for over a decade before I started to write it. Much changed in the process of putting in down on paper. It was a challenging first series to write but I learned all the valuable lessons of being an author the hard way through doing it. It’s given me a great foundation to build upon.
In short, The Dragon’s Blade is a redemption story about an arrogant dragon prince who is reborn, raised by humans instead, and must learn to become the king his past-self never was.
AC: That sounds so familiar to my own story! I spent years thinking about the characters in Benjamin Ashwood before I ever seriously considered writing it all down. It was just a fun imagination exercise. Now that you’ve got that first story on paper, and this is your career, is brainstorming and story telling any different for you?
MRM: My process is very different now. It’s a lot more focused and streamlined, and I’m conscious of structure more than I ever was with Dragon’s Blade. That story – really one long story over three books – had a structure by accident. Instinct can take you a long way when you’re starting out. Over at Portal we workshop each book heavily with each author, sometimes starting from scratch, so I’ve got comfortable with discussing ideas with others and finding solutions.
While this is more efficient, I do think some of the organic texture is missing at times (from my current project). At the time of answering these questions, I’m proofing the new audio files for a re-record of the first Dragon’s Blade book. As that series was laid brick by brick, without a rigid plan in place, there were more characters, ideas and places than strictly needed but it gave the world a sense of being real. I knew so much about the world of Dragon’s Blade before starting, something I haven’t known with books since finishing that series.
It’s difficult to balance world-building (which can go on forever) with just getting your butt in the chair and writing the story. With Dragon’s Blade I found the world easy to write but the story hard to weave together. Now I’m finding the story easy but the world harder to paint as the backdrop. Hopefully one day I’ll find the perfect balance!
AC: In addition to the Dragon’s Blade trilogy, you have a really successful new book in the LitRPG genre called Battle Spire. What is that book like, and how does LitRPG differ from traditional fantasy?
MRM: Thank you! The short pitch for Battle Spire is World of Warcraft meets Die Hard – and it truly is like that. A guy gets trapped inside an online game by terrorists and only he is left to fight them off and learn something about himself in the process.
LitRPG stands for Literature Roleplaying Games. I suspect many of your readers are familiar with choose your own adventure books – LitRPG is not to be confused with this. In LitRPG we follow a character like in a regular fantasy novel except (generally) that character is playing a virtual reality online game (similar to World of Warcraft) and the story largely takes place inside the game.
For those who have read Ready Player One, LitRPG takes that online gaming element and add in actual numbers, game mechanics, damage values, level ups and character sheets.
Or put another way, it’s a bit like having your Dungeons and Dragons campaign novelized, numbers and dice rolls included.
It’s a hard genre to describe upfront. I had a hard time figuring it out myself until I started reading the books in it.
There are a few core concepts that I think excite readers. The first is having a unique character class which has never before been created in an actual game, either because it would be too overpowered, because it wouldn’t work in practice or because current technologies limit what can be done. But in a book the never-before seen class can be pulled off. Exploring cool new ideas in this way is very exciting.
The second is you get a comparable rush when reading a good LitRPG as you do when playing a role-playing game – gaining experience, leveling up, allocating stat points, unlocking new abilities, finding epic loot, and watching how the character develops in utility and power – and it’s just as addictive. I haven’t flicked through the pages like I have in several LitRPGs since I was a teenager tearing through a new Harry Potter novel.
Third, but by no means least, the virtual world angle allows for some crazy world building and colorful characters that would feel outlandish in a normal fantasy novel where the audience is supposed to believe this culture, land and the people in it could really exist. In LitRPG, you can have rocket propelled sheep bombs crafted through the engineering profession being a critical part of the protagonists take down of the villain. That’s wild and refreshing. I think LitRPG is the wild west of fantasy/sci-fi fiction right now, where a lot of doors have been opened to new creativity. Of course, a good LitRPG should still have rules. Once a game mechanic has been decided, it must be implemented consistently and intelligently. This is no easy feat and requires a major gear shift in how one writes but personally I love it!
AC: How did you get into writing LitRPG?
MRM: I kept seeing LitRPG books popping up in the fantasy charts. At first, I was confused by them and avoided them. Then I met some readers who had tried the genre and praised it. Then I met some fellow writers who had tried it, loved it, and I felt I should give it a go.
After my first book I could see what the hype was about. Ideas for my own story started spinning immediately.
I met Taran and Brook (my co-partners over at Portal Books) around that time. They too were excited by the genre and we decided to form Portal Books – a small press dedicated to LitRPG. After that we start brainstorming a ton of stories and game mechanics. It was only natural that I would write a LitRPG given all of that.
I’m glad I did. Battle Spire was the most fun I’ve had writing a book and I think it shows in the end product.
AC: For those who are not familiar with your background, you’ve had a job at a Big 5 UK publisher, you’ve successful self-published the books we mentioned, and you’re a founding partner in small press Portal Books. That’s an incredible breadth of experience across the various facets of the publishing industry. Can you tell us a little bit about why you’ve moved through the spaces you have, and where you think this business is going in the future?
MRM: I began publishing with my first book, The Dragon’s Blade: The Reborn King. My foray into the world of traditional publishing – as an employee – seemed natural for a new college grad who had a book out but still needed a day job at the time. I interned with a travel magazine and then got my job at Bloomsbury (the folks who publish Harry Potter) in early 2017. Although I always wanted to be a writer first and foremost, it seemed natural to me to work in the industry I was hoping to make my living from.
At the time I joined Bloomsbury’s digital marketing department I was learning everything I could about self-publishing, from production to marketing, and I thought learning the traditional systems could only help. I thought too that I might be able to bring some of this cool indie knowledge to the big houses. One could surely learn from the other. I managed to have some impact; Bloomsbury eventually changed their policy on selling ebooks based off a comment I made to the company CEO… a more nerve-wracking moment there has never been!
With all of that behind me, setting up Portal Books seemed the next step. I always wanted to be my own boss anyway.
As for the future of the Publishing industry, that’s a tough one. There are some obvious trajectories in play, however, there are still enough rigid policies in place to prevent the shake up many predict, at least in the immediate future. For example, brick and mortar stores reject self-publishers on principal and demand onerous wholesale discounts. Unless Barnes & Noble and Waterstones here in the UK rethink their strategy in this regard, bookshops - which are a good 40-50% of the market - will be closed off to self-published authors. Foreign Rights are generally closed off to indies too. We can’t get that wider reach and so indie authors hit a ceiling, to a degree. If these things changed, big publishers would lose a lot of their viability although the ability to scale is always powerful.
I could ramble on forever about where I think things are going. In short, I think authors will increasingly have to ‘prove themselves’ out in the wild as a self-publisher first before getting major deals. Why untested, unknown, never-before-sold-a-book debut’s get huge cheques is a business mystery to me. I think new niche genres and sub-genres will continue to be invented and flourish as nimble individual authors or small presses are able to cater to them – which will be great for readers. I don’t think the Big Publishers with the BIG MONEY are as endangered as everyone thinks. I think they are in danger of not being able to effectively acquire books the market genuinely wants, but they can gobble up self-publishers or smaller presses using their larger coffers; and as everything becomes more digital, advertising online will only become more important. It always has been in the past for physical books but for a while there folk could upload a great book to Amazon and get lucky. I think that will become less likely meaning having some money behind you will be useful.
Most importantly, I think the authors who can combine business and creative savvy will rise to the top. You need to understand the industry as a whole if you’re going to succeed in it. It’s baffling to me how many authors I meet who know so little about the business side of selling books.
AC: For someone fresh out of college looking to get involved in book publishing, what would you recommend?
MRM: Network. Sorry to say it but… network. Find young publishers’ events – in London there is the Society of Young Publishers – attend, talk to everyone, do your research on the imprints and the various roles, and patiently wait for a good opening. I got my job at Bloomsbury through networking.
There are usually job listing sites you can sign up to and receive weekly emails about new openings. The Bookseller in the UK offers this. Sadly, a lot of those jobs tend to be for more senior positions. I never saw much I could apply for starting out but there were a few and you ought to try everything. There are even head-hunting services you can sign up too, where people will go pitch you to the publishers looking for a candidate. Inspired Selection is one in the UK. I believe many publishers to go these head-hunting services just to sieve the number of applicants, like how many will only work with authors who have an agent.
Interning seems to be a necessity although it’s the classic ‘you need more experience for a role intended for people with zero experience vibe’. Keep applying. It’s a numbers game. There will be hundreds applying for that job.
If you can, show how you stand out in some meaningful, business way. Everyone who applies for publishing roles loves books. It’s not enough. The number of people I meet who don’t understand Amazon royalty payouts, the size of the audiobook market or what books are even selling well RIGHT NOW baffles me all over again. Having excellent IT skills – excel and some basic coding will help you stand out – is also worth investing in.
Listen to marketing podcasts or shows hosted by self-publishers, even if you want to work in the traditional world. There is a lot you can learn, and simply having all this extra knowledge and insight will again make you stand out from the classic English grad who ‘just wants to work with books’.
There are Masters and Post-graduate courses in Publishing. How helpful they are, I’m not sure. I think networking is more effective overall and you can learn a lot of this knowledge yourself. However, the courses obviously help with both of these elements if you’re willing to stump the cost.
AC: Since I’m the only one reading this who loves to nerd out about the industry stuff, perhaps we should get back into interesting territory? Tell us a little bit about what inspired Dragon’s Blade?
MRM: The series was inspired by a couple of key questions:
· What if in the Lord of the Rings, the elves didn’t leave willingly?
· What would happen if you took the memories from person X and transferred enough of them into person Y? When does Y become X, or at least cease to be Y entirely?
Gotta love fantasy for allowing exploration of impractical questions.
I also wanted to put some twists on old tropes and see where they took me. So I took dragons, and forced them into human form, keeping their arrogance, strength and stamina in tact to create a race of Captain America-esque super soldiers with swords.
Why do wizards always carry staffs? Because it processes the toxic side effects of magic like a liver processes alcohol, obviously…
I’m a student of history and love Roman and Scottish history in particular. I leaned on that for many elements of the world building, leading to an interesting mix of ancient Roman and medieval Scottish influences in the world – whisky, Praetorian Guards, sweeping mountain landscapes and, of course, a bit of tartan.
AC: You’ve got some really gorgeous covers, and both your personal and Portal Books websites have a lot of great concept art. Can you talk about the inspiration around that art? Do visuals drive your ideas for books, or do the books drive ideas for the artwork?
MRM: The look of the Dragon’s Blade was one of the earliest things I had nailed down in my head. My mum is an artist so she was drew beautiful early sketches which we passed to the cover designer as a guide. I think that helped greatly in nailing that first cover.
The art is created after the work, so in that sense the book ideas drive the art. Given my mum’s influence – and taking Art & Design for years at school - I think I have a decent grasp of what’s needed to make something ‘look good’. Having a good eye helps. I’ll often messily sketch concepts for covers and even roughly photoshop things around if need be to illustrate the point. Sometimes it’s far easier to show someone what you’re thinking rather than put it into words.
As for the Portal covers, Taran takes a lot of the credit there. He does a great job at finding top artists to work with, creating strong briefs, and has a clear vision for every cover.
AC: Since you mention Taran, we should probably go ahead and introduce your Portal Books to my team. My readers may be familiar with Taran Matharu, author of the very popular Summoner series, so tell us something no one knows! And there’s another guy I’m not familiar with named Brook Aspden? How did you guys get together, and what does everyone bring to the table?
Meeting Taran and Brook was a happy side effect of working at Bloomsbury. Long story short, there was a fantasy writers & agents master class day hosted in the London offices and I met the guys there. Taran came along to support Brook who at the time was beginning his first book (he’s since finished it and I can’t wait for the world to read it!). Luckily, we all got to talking. Somehow we landed on the topic of LitRPG, and then we started talking about digital advertising, writing in general, and then I found myself invited to have ramen with them. Before we’d finished eating, we’d started to joke about the idea of forming our own small press. It was kind of surreal looking back on it.
A real fork in the road moment.
I almost didn’t go to that master class. I was waiting on a call from the hospital to tell me they had space to admit me. A terrible chest infection had me exhausted and strained. But for whatever reason I picked myself up and went in for the day anyway. And thank goodness I did.
Taran has found great success in YA Fantasy with his Summoner series, as you say. One million sales in English and counting! He’s well versed in the world of traditional publishing, agents, bookstores and foreign rights. I rounded this out with all my experience in the self-publishing world. Brook is a marketer at Kraft Heinz and has experience with large scale campaigns, with budgets in the millions. He’s incredible at copy writing (writing blurbs and adverts) and has read more LitRPG than anyone else I know. Uniting us is a similar taste in story telling allowing us to confer on the projects we’re working on at Portal and bring a lot of passion and combined experience to make every story as good as it can possibly be.
AC: Tell us about what you’re working on, and what’s next from Michal R Miller?
MRM: Portal Books is keeping me very busy but when I’m writing now, I’m working on a dragonrider series. Hoping to take the best parts of Eragon and How to Train Your Dragon and make something epic!
Thanks, and that’s all I have for today! Happy reading,