“There’s certainly going to be a cyberpunk at some point…”
Occasionally you are lucky enough to interview your hero. In October, Beth and Adrian had the honour of speaking with fantasy legend Brandon Sanderson about his upcoming release, The Lost Metal, plans for the future trilogy of the Mistborn saga (including a little exclusive reveal about the future of the Mistborn series you won’t want to miss), and we dive into the production his epic, record smashing kickstarter.
We’ve also transcribed the interview below.
Beth: Thank you for taking some time out of your, I’m sure, extremely busy schedule right now!
Brandon: It is a little crazy these days, but I’m more than happy!
Beth: My first question is one that’s a little near and dear to my heart: now, I’m going to ask this, but I don’t think you’re going to remember me. But about ten years ago, 2010, you were in Portland, Oregon, and had set up at a Fred Meyer grocery store…
Brandon: Oh, man, the only one of those I ever signed at! That was a really interesting experience!
Beth: You had two people come up to you at the Fred Meyer grocery store: tall lady, short guy… I’m the tall lady!
Brandon: Well it’s good to see you again! Yeah, that was an interesting experience, because I’ve never sat and signed in a supermarket. Just, the publisher was like “hey, we have this deal with them so we want to send some authors,” so I did. It was not the best place to sign, for people showing up, but they did have nice chairs they found for me. Because, you know, they sell chairs, so…
Beth: It was cool, I got to talk to you! At the time, I hadn’t read any of your books yet and that was when you gave me Warbreaker. Warbreaker became near and dear to my heart, and that has kind of set me on the circuitous path of where I am now. I wanted to say thank you!
Brandon: I am so glad that signing accomplished something!
Beth: It was really cool!
Brandon: You never can tell, right? You do these signings where only, like, two people show up, and you weren’t the only two, but it still was not a great signing, and you’re like man, that signing was a waste. And then you find out ten years later that no, indeed, that signing was not a waste.
Beth: It absolutely was not!
Beth: So, I wanted to ask you about the sequel to Warbreaker. I know that you are crazy busy, I know! But is that on the radar for the next…?
Brandon: It is. So, I feel the way the Cosmere is outlined, Elantris is more relevant as a planet. The planet cell. So getting the Elantris sequels, I feel like responsibly, I need to slot in before Nightblood (which is the title of Warbreaker 2) but at the same time it is going to be more fun to write Warbreaker 2 just because, you know, the Warbreaker books are just… I mean, there’s dark stuff to them, but there’s also a certain fun to the style that I like to use in that book and the next one.
Beth: There’s a bit more whimsy.
Beth: And I love the magic system that you have, it’s one of my favorite magic systems that I’ve read about.
Brandon: Well, it is on the radar. I do get a number of requests.
Brandon: And with characters from Warbreaker being so integrated into Stormlight, people are like “come on! How did they get here? Fill in the blanks, Sanderson!” So, yeah.
Beth: And it’s crazy how big the Cosmere has gotten. I keep up fairly well with your books (the chonkers that they are) and I don’t even think I’ve even scratched the surface!
Brandon: I have a lot of fun with this, and so… yeah, it’s a thing I always wanted to do, right? And the publishers… when I was breaking in, before always told me it was a bad idea.: “Nobody wants this. Don’t do this, Brandon. Nobody’s interested in this.” And then, I finally managed to do it, and you know, Elantris came out in 2005 and Mistborn came out in 2006, which were the first two in the Cosmere, and then the MCU started in 2007 and it turns out I was very well positioned for doing the large-scale continuity between series, having already started that. Granted, both the MCU and me were being inspired by the people in the seventies who did it, right? Marvel, but also Michael Moorcock was doing complicated continuity between his series in the seventies, and of course Stephen King with Dark Tower has been doing his own weird thing all along! So we’re all kind of standing on the shoulders of giants for this, but it’s the sort of thing that the publishers are like “nobody wants this. None of this stuff ever sells,” but it turns out they were wrong in that case.
Beth: There are books that are specifically dedicated to figuring out the linkage between all of the books. And websites. It’s really exciting stuff!
Adrian: Hey, Brandon! I’m a massive publishing geek / Kickstarter nerd.
Adrian: I love running them, and the mechanics of them. As probably of all our listeners will know, you’ve just recently crowdfunded I think – if I remember correctly – the largest project in Kickstarter history, in any format?
Brandon: We doubled the previous [highest] Kickstarter, which I believe was the Pebble watch. Or I could be wrong, it might have been the cooler or something. In any case, it was one of those tech companies.
Adrian: So, you did pretty well, mate!
Brandon: It’s been wild! We just got, this week, ninety thousand boxes we have to make.
Beth: Ninety thousand?!
Brandon: Ninety thousand. For the first month. We have twelve months of this! Or, was it… it was over ninety thousand. It was a hundred and something thousand. It was ninety pallets. You know those pallets, that they put stuff on?
Brandon: They have ninety pallets of boxes that just arrived. We’re like “okay, we’re gonna have to fill ninety pallets of boxes to start shipping.” Which is both daunting and exciting! I don’t think people understand, you know, the logistics. I think many people would have hired someone else to do this, but my team and I are… we like to have fun with things, we designed the boxes, we spent a lot of time making them look cool, and now we have ninety pallets of them to build. So, my son, the teenager, is going to join us, and we’re going to have all sorts of people out there!
Beth: A fun family bonding moment!
Brandon: Yeah, exactly!
Beth: I have one of your sets coming, actually.
Brandon: Awesome! Oh, man, my team, the things they’ve done for the art on these books, I’m so excited! Isacc Stewart’s our art director, and he is just, ah, I can’t wait for people to get the books and just see how beautiful they are.
Adrian: Was there ever a time where you and your team were kind of watching in the publisher graph that tells you how many backers there are… was there a time when you were just sitting there rubbing your head going “oh, dear, this is getting big.”
Brandon: That would be day one. So we had ordered 25,000, from the publisher, of each book, right? And we thought 25,000 was pretty well covering it. We figured 25,000 copies, even if we don’t sell all 25,000 in the Kickstarter, it’s good to have some stock left over. So we were ready to sell 12,000 or 15,000 and have 10,000 left over. And then we sold over 100,000 of each of them. And so I went back to my team on that first day – because I usually get up late in the day, about 1:00pm, and it’d been going already, and they’d had a party, and they were all watching at the warehouse, and so I pulled aside my fulfillment manager, Karen, and I’m like “Sooooo…” And she’s like, “we’re gonna do it! We’re gonna need a new warehouse.” That’s what she said. “Gonna need a bigger boat.” So we went and bought a much bigger warehouse, or leased one, so we can store things like ninety pallets of just boxes. And, you know, the nice thing is we had done a Kickstarter before. We had done the Way of Kings leatherbound. And it wasn’t nearly as many, but we had done a big enough project that we had moved from small scale to large scale, right? And now this is still another order of magnitude, but this order of magnitude is in many ways a smaller jump. Even though, you know, it’s adding many more books, because we already have these processes down, we have a really good customer service team in-house that are just members of my team, and we have a ticket system for fulfilling those, and we have a warehouse, and we had to get a bigger one but we already know how to do stations in a warehouse for putting things together and sending them out. We already have the local post office, like, “alright, this is how you do it when you’re shipping this many things.” We did have to bulk up our teams and hire a bunch of people to fulfill, but we were where we could already do that, right? So we kind of eased into this over the last, ah, almost ten years. Starting with our leatherbounds.
Adrian: When I look at some of the people publishing through Kickstarter, so you know, Michael Sullivan, he and his wife Robin, hit 100,000 a couple of times. Shawn Speekman hit 100,000.
Brandon: All smart individuals, that really know their stuff. They’ve been helpful to me in the past, in things I’ve done.
Adrian: A massive shout-out to Shaun who has helped me a lot over the years.
Brandon: I love Shaun! Incredible resource, incredible human being.
Adrian: Definitely, both! With those, you know, hitting a hundred thousand is one thing. But hitting forty-one million is to me kind of Earth-shaking. I’m wondering, in the circles of people you work in, your colleagues, your publishing… what sort of conversations has this created around the power of Kickstarting in publishing, and hybrid publishing for authors like yourself?
Brandon: There are lots of good conversations happening, right? That I think are useful. I will say that everyone in the business who works with me, it was more of a “oh, Brandon’s doing his thing again,” right? Like, I’m the one that would get together with my friends, and we’ll be talking, and they’ll be like “Brandon, stop being such an adult. We all became writers so we didn’t have to adult. Why are you talking about adult stuff?” So, “of course he did this,” right? Publishing is a bit of a different thing. We did warn them ahead of time that this is what we were doing. They didn’t expect it to go this far, we didn’t either. But it has definitely become a permanent part of the conversation. And I am having lots of interesting conversations now. I didn’t do this in order to “fire shots” at the publishing industry, but I did this maybe to make a wake-up call. There’s a lot of things I’ve been saying for years that they haven’t been doing. I had a number of calls with John Sargent who was the CEO of MacMilllan which is the publisher that owns Tor. For years, I’m like “hey, there are things that are really consumer-friendly that we should be doing, and we will be rewarded in the long run if we look after our consumers. Things like bundling e-books and audiobooks and print books together, right? Like every other industry’s figured this out, John, why don’t we? Why are we expecting people to buy multiple copies of the same book? They’ll be much longer fans and support us more if we bundle these things together for them.” And it’s just so hard making any progress in the publishing world. There are a lot of passionate people who are wonderful and delightful but it is a very slow business to change. I think that we should have changed in many ways before now. So I’m hoping this will, you know, shake things up a little bit? Help me get some things changed, but at the same time… I don’t know? I mean, Amazon scares me. Again, Amazon is full of wonderful people that I really like working with on the publishing side. But they control such an enormous segment of the market that I think every author, including the indie authors, should be frightened of the hold Amazon has over this market. Do you want to be an indie author? Unless you want to go through Kickstarter, you’re going through Amazon.
Beth: And the indie authors that I’ve talked to, they are. They’re terrified.
Brandon: Yeah. I know that Amazon’s been pushing them around. When they added in so many things… for instance, Amazon limits their book prices at 9.99 in the U. S., right? But doesn’t limit the New York publishers. Amazon, if you’re really indie friendly, why don’t you let the indie author decide what the price of their book should be? Rather than, you let your publishers decide. Why are you charging so much for advertising, on your own platform, for indie authors to make their money? You’re basically just charging them another royalty in the form of advertising. There are all sorts of things that just make me worried because there’s no competition to force Amazon to back off on these things.
Beth: And with the connection of Goodreads. Goodreads is an Amazon…
Brandon: Goodreads is an Amazon affiliate. Audible’s an Amazon affiliate. Brilliance Audio is owned by Amazon…
Beth: There’s no other real choices, yet…
Brandon: There’s one thing I should mention. There is definitely the Patreon route, which is doing things for free. On, like, Wattpad on AO3 … there’s the Worm model, the web serial… but it’s basically, release the story for free, be supported by fan enthusiasts through Patreon and things like that. And that is a viable model also. I don’t want to imply that it isn’t.
Beth: Webcomics do that.
Brandon: The webcomic model, exactly. And if publishing were to completely collapse, that might become the primary model by which authors make an income. A lot of people on Youtube, that is how they make their income, and the webtoonists and things. So I’m glad that model is there, and we shouldn’t discount that and the people using that as their model. For the majority of us, it’s Amazon, and that’s frightening.
Beth: Let’s talk about your new novel: The Lost Metal.
Brandon: It’s taken me way too long to finish this series! I started writing… so these books, for anyone who might not be familiar: I had this idea, back in 2005, maybe 2004, when I was designing the Mistborn series. One staple of epic fantasy is this kind of unchanging world, where everything is kind of the same and has been for millenia. And this is fun, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. It’s okay that people have been locked in medieval society for thousands of years, it allows you to tell certain kinds of stories. Right? But I’d love to tell the story of an epic fantasy world that started actually moving through eras of technology. Where, you know, wouldn’t it be fun to do an epic fantasy trilogy and then jump forward and do another trilogy where that epic fantasy trilogy became the foundation for myth and legend and religion in an urban fantasy? And then jump forward and do a cyberpunk, jump forward and do a space opera, right?
Beth: I knew there was cyberpunk!
Beth: I was going to ask you!
Brandon: There’s certainly going to be a cyberpunk at some point. I originally pitched it to my editor as nine books: I was going to do an epic fantasy, then a 1980s urban fantasy style, and then I was going to do a space opera, far-future, Fifth Element-style thing, the idea being that the magic runs through it all in different ways. I added the Wax and Wayne series as kind of a jump between epic fantasy and 1980s, this is more of turn-of-the-1900s tech level. I love that era, and I realized I couldn’t leave it alone. The era in which we’re first getting electricity and stuff like that is just such an interesting era in history! And I also was working on Wheel of Time at the time, and I needed to jump to something else. I find that when I’m writing something enormous, it is really cathartic and good for my writing self to keep from being burned out, if I can jump to something that has a different pacing style than the three- and four-hundred thousand word books. So I finished a Wheel of Time book, and I wrote Wax and Wayne one as a hundred-thousand word detective mystery, set in the Mistborn world, hundreds of years after the first trilogy. And I enjoyed it so much, it became my go-to project to do between other projects. But that means it’s taken me, now, twelve years to finish this series of four books. Which I feel bad for, but it’s there to kind of keep in Mistborn peoples’ minds, but also to give me a break between series. Between giant books.
Beth: You know what’s really effective about this style, is that you’re hitting on all the different facets of the reader. Like, the “fantasy reader,” because you’ve got high fantasy, low fantasy, you’ve got urban fantasy, you’re going to have fantasy/sci-fi… you’re going to hit on everything, and it’s going to have a cohesive timeline, and all of these different people are going to get to talk to each other and get excited…
Brandon: It’s going to be a lot of fun!
Beth: It’s a really great idea!
Brandon: The difference between what I’m doing and what the MCU is doing is, my original concept for this was: this will be lots of cool character crossovers, right? But the goal is not the Avengers, the goal is Star Wars or more Star Trek. It’s getting to a universe where you can go between these planets, and there’s galactic politics and things like that, and that’s kind of my end-game. That was really an exciting concept to me. It’s fun to kind of see it playing out now. I was worried when I first started this because everyone was telling me, this is a bad idea. About doing crossover stuff. I had a very light touch in my early books, and I think this is a good thing. What the danger of continuity like this is, is that you don’t want someone to pick up a book they would otherwise love, and then they feel left out. They feel they’re not in on the joke, because so much of it is inside material. You want a story to stand on its own. Lots of people have tried to build these enormous, you know, the Dark Universe. I don’t know if you remember that? They were trying to build Universal Monster Movies Monster Universe. They forget to make the stories themselves interesting… they’re counting on the crossovers to be the interesting part and that’s a mistake. You need to make sure the story you’re reading is awesome in its own right, and that the connections are icing on the cake so to speak. You can’t have a cake of only icing – well, my children would like that, but most people would not. And so, early on, it was very, very light touch. As I’ve gotten further I’ve gotten a better feel for how much the fans want, how much I can get away with, and how much I want to have. And I like that it’s kind of a gradual ramping up. But Lost Metal is the most cross-over that we’ve seen, and I hope it’s not too far!
Beth: No, I thought it was great! I thought it was absolutely great, and it makes me so excited for when you get an opportunity to dive into the next…
Brandon: The next era, yeah.
Beth: I can’t call Wax and Wayne a trilogy…
Brandon: Because it’s four books, yeah. Have you heard how that happened? So this happens to me a lot. I write a first book as kind of a proof-of-concept to myself that the characters and setting are working, and I write it and when I get done with it, then I’m like “now that I know this is working, let me build a story with these characters.” And about half the time I go for two more books, but half the time I build a build a trilogy jumping off of that. And that was the right thing with Wax and Wayne. So it’s kind of like Wax and Wayne One is a stand-alone, then there’s a trilogy that digs deeper into things. This fourth book, I made sure to relate back to the first book as well, so they’re all pretty well interconnected.
Beth: One of the things I was particularly impressed with about Wax and Wayne books, generally, was how you spent detail on the female characters. As somebody who grew up reading male-stories with male protagonists, you know, it was just really cool to see how they were real people, warts and all!
Brandon: I appreciate that! I blame Anne McCaffrey, Melanie Rawn, and Barbara Hambly, they were my introduction to fantasy and they taught me how to do it right. So, Anne McCaffrey… I always want to be writing books, that if Anne McCaffrey were to read them, she’d be like “alright, you’re allowed to say my name as one of your inspirations, Brandon.” It’s hard for a lot of writers, but it’s more difficult for male writers, I’ve found, early in your career, to shake out of the idea of putting people into roles, and writing each character as an individual. With, you know, everyone is the protagonist in their own story. Shaking yourself out of that… you want to people in boxes when you start writing. You want to say, “this person is the love interest, so they can only do the things that love interests do in a story.” And instead say, “this is a person whose story is intersecting with my main character’s story – but it’s only intersecting. What would they be doing if the plot hadn’t run into them? Who are they? What do they want out of life, and how are they the protagonist in what’s happening to them?”
Beth: To continue on from that: your handling of characters who have mental illness, or any sort of disability: they don’t become defined by the disability.
Brandon: Yeah. My wife has depression, and when I started working on the Stormlight Archive, one of the things I was thinking is, “why are there so many books that are about peoples’ depression, where that’s the only aspect to them? That’s what you know about them: this is the person with depression. Defined by their mental illness rather than as a person with a mental illness, right? I know there’s some disagreement in the disability community, but a lot of people would rather be known as a person with a disability rather than as a disabled individual. And simply that phrasing, right? Realizing there are people who don’t want to be called blind, they want to be called a person with blindness. Because the person is the most important part. And again, there is a discussion here: no community is a monolith, and I’m not saying…
Beth: It’s nuanced.
Brandon: Yeah. But knowing that exists, makes you think “yeah… why aren’t there characters… I know depression is something a large number of people in our society deal with. And the more that I’ve learned about people, the more I realize that everybody’s struggling with something. Some aspect of their personality that they’re wrestling with. Some mental illness… it varies as much as people vary. But everybody, there’s no “normal,” right? There’s people. And I wanted to write stories about people. And if you’re going to write stories about people, then I think it’s kind of on me in the way that I’ve decided to do this, to do it as well as I can. So I really appreciate all of the beta readers who come on board to help me, to figure out how to get this right. Because writing about someone with autism, like, you can do damage. I feel like my first book, Elantris, I did the pop culture version of it, and didn’t do my research. And, you know… I’m glad that people don’t hold me to the fire for that, because it’s obvious I was trying, but I could do better. And I’m always trying to better.
Beth: It’s great. My husband’s on the spectrum, and Steris is… I saw similarities.
Brandon: Yeah, I have some dear friends. So, Peter Ahlstrom, who is my editorial director, and my VP of editorial, and Karen, who is my continuity editor, both are on the spectrum. Very different experiences with autism; there’s a reason we call it a spectrum. There are so many different experiences. They’ve been a huge resource, but I actually started writing Steris in the first place based on my experiences getting to know Peter, where I realized I was bringing all kinds of judgments and mis-interpretations to him, that I think is very common for people with autism. And my goal with this series was to lead the reader to having that same experience I had getting to know Peter, where your preconceptions in the first book melt away as you get to know the person and not the autism.
Beth: The way of being.
Brandon: The way of being. That’s a perfect way to put it.