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Brandon Sanderson is the 40 Million Dollar Man
The fantasy and science fiction author paves the way for other hopefuls.
ON JULY 7, 2020, BRANDON SANDERSON launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a 10th anniversary leather-bound edition of "The Way of Kings," the first book in his popular "Stormlight Archive" series. It accumulated $6,788,517 in pledges from 29,778 backers, an average of $228 per backer. The campaign was celebrated as a prosperous model by indie authors in an industry still dominated by traditional publishers.
While Sanderson was lauded for the accomplishment, a correlation could be drawn to the campaign’s popularity and an established book in the fantasy genre. Could a genre author attract readers to a new series with the same results? It took less than two years to get an answer from the same author.
Sanderson launched a surprise Kickstarter on March 1, 2022, through his company Dragonsteel Entertainment. Four books would be sent to backers, one each quarter throughout 2023, which ended up accumulating 185,341 pledges and earning a whopping $41,754,153 — more than $40 million over the $1 million goal. As of this publication it is the largest funded Kickstarter in the company’s history.
His rise to fame and fortune is a mysterious phenomenon to insiders, perceived as a long-shot fluke, as witnessed by the media coverage after the campaign finished. Outlets were left pontificating, including Wired, which a year later published a piece titled Brandon Sanderson Is Your God. The article has been maligned for its arrogance and surface observations, trying to find an angle on Sanderson himself, instead of focusing on how he became so successful.
Other outlets like the New York Times, which published a piece only days after the campaign started, titled Fantasy Author Raises $15.4 Million in 24 Hours to Self-Publish, took a conservative approach, choosing to highlight the indie author’s relationship to traditional publishers and his business acumen. According to the article, even Sanderson admits he’s not dumping traditional publishers any time soon and is apparently grounded in a reality the New York Times can understand.
“I am an artist who was raised by an accountant and a businessman. For a lot of authors, this would be a bad idea because there’s a lot of management.”
~ Brandon Sanderson
Harris, Elizabeth A., "Fantasy Author Raises $15.4 Million in 24 Hours to Self-Publish" The New York Times, 3 Mar. 2022, NYTimes.com
Both outlets touch on his relationship with his fans, but beneath the surface is a deeper strategy, honed over 20 years of writing and publishing. By all accounts it’s as complicated and nuanced as the magical systems in his books, but it can be understood, studied and replicated. In some sense it’s tangibly boring, lacks mystique, and may be the primary reason why he isn’t a catchy household name. Sanderson on any given day can slip into obscurity, a contradiction to his stories, which are remembered by the masses.
BRANDON SANDERSON SPENDS MOST of his life writing. He began in his teens and studied English literature at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. His first published novel "Elantris" was released by Tor in 2005. After releasing the book at age 29, Sanderson’s publication frequency became borderline neurotic. Fans new and old are inundated with options, yearly, sometimes multiple times, which keeps his name at the forefront of their minds.
“The other thing is to just write. Know that you don’t have to be perfect when you start. Nobody sits down and expects to be able to play the piano the first time, but a lot of writers it seems get frustrated when they try to write their first book, that it’s not capturing the vision in their head. Don’t be afraid to be bad at it long enough to get good at it.”
~ Brandon Sanderson
The writer’s bibliography is astonishingly deep for a writer not yet in his 50s, and Sanderson recognizes it can be difficult to know where to start. On his website, BrandonSanderson.com, he introduces new readers by stating, “I’ve written a lot over the years. It can be a little daunting to get into my work, but it doesn’t have to be. Most of my series can be read independently of one another, and although many of them are connected behind the scenes, references to these things are generally easter eggs or other small-scale connections.”
Aspiring authors with day jobs and families can find writing a single novel a daunting enough exercise, but writing frequently is a necessary component of longevity. The thought of writing volumes of published works vast enough to require guidance illustrates that both quality and quantity is appreciated, not to be mistaken simply for frequency.
IT HELPS THAT SANDERSON HAS been open to collaboration and is respected by his peers. Robert Jordan, who was an epic fantasy author, wrote 11 volumes of his popular series “The Wheel of Time” before dying of heart disease. Tor, a publisher familiar to Sanderson, tapped the author to finish Jordan’s series with the blessing of his widow Harriet McDougal. Because of Sanderson’s love of the series and respect for the fans he honored the completion to the best of his ability.
"I'm both extremely excited and daunted by this opportunity. There is only one man who could have done this book the way it deserved to be written, and we lost him in September. However, I promise to do my very best to remain true to Mr. Jordan's vision and produce the book we have all been waiting to read."
~ Brandon Sanderson
Tor Press Release
Collaborations don’t always end well or guarantee increased popularity or relevance in the genre. What mattered most is Sanderson’s commitment to Jordan’s legacy in service to his fans and work. There’s no doubt it earned him a larger fan base and demonstrated his appreciation of fantasy and magic as a reader and writer.
The best way to approach a collaboration is to consider the unique experience it can provide to readers. There should be reciprocal benefits to the authors, but the experiment will fail if it doesn’t serve the existing readership.
Entertain Your Readers
KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE IS THE predominant unwritten rule of publishing. It requires a careful balance between telling a story that will hold the author’s interest and captivating an audience. It also demands adhering to expectations inherent to the genre in question, which can include a long list of requirements by loyal readers. This is the case with fantasy and science fiction, where world building, a strong cast of characters, and palpable science and magical systems are necessary to captivate and entertain.
Speculative fiction also takes great care with political and social commentary, a longstanding examination of how power structures impact people and culture. Authors must remove personal commentary and use characters and plot to examine societal struggles, a feat achieved by Sanderson, and a welcome change in modern times, when drawing a political line in the sand using fiction continues to divide readers. If you want to be successful, and appeal to a wider audience, there needs to be a more careful study of the execution. Readers detest authors who preach. They are hungry for entertainment without a stilted message.
“Stories exist, in part, to explore emotion. If the story is built well, and handled expertly, the reader will be SATISFIED with the ending even if it’s tragic.”
~ Brandon Sanderson
That’s not to say that Sanderson doesn’t have detractors. Of his hundreds of thousands of ratings and reviews, there are several that question how he characterizes women or the working class. With such a volume of work, there’s also the complaint that Sanderson is formulaic, an average literary talent that uses the same tricks to keep fans buying his books. Yet, this is primarily what keeps the author out of the spotlight, keeping the focus on his novels, and discarding the now conventional melding of personal politics with the craft.
Engage Your Fans
ONE OF SANDERSON’S GREATEST STRENGTHS is that he is incredibly engaged with his fans, often interacting with them on social media, answering questions, and attending conventions and book signings. This has helped him grow his readership, who feel a personal connection to his work because of his availability. Reading interviews and watching videos, it’s easy to see that Sanderson casts off any notion of celebrity. He’s too busy interacting with fans to rise above them, illustrated by the innumerable avenues where he connects with his audience.
“I really enjoy talking with fans, and I find their feedback to be incredibly helpful. They help me see things from different perspectives, and that can lead to new ideas and approaches to my writing.”
~ Brandon Sanderson
"Brandon Sanderson on Writing, and the Business of Writing." Interview with Michael J. Martinez. Tor.com, 7 March 2011
Officially, he runs a blog, a website, a YouTube channel, is on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, has a book club, is active on Reddit, launched a fantasy convention and is still teaching. Many of these interactions are no longer a singular effort but the careful tending and curating of his team at Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC. The key takeaway is that the author is accessible and helpful, a contradiction to the disheveled, emotionally distant angst often associated with authors of mainstream literature.
It’s certainly not possible for everyone to engage at this level, but there are opportunities to build a fanbase by offering knowledge and industry insights, discussing the works you’re writing and sharing accomplishments and failures. Writing is a mysterious, lonely affair and allowing readers exposure to the process is appreciated. Find at least one avenue beyond the writing itself to engage, and it will satisfy other writers and readers on a personal level.
Teach Your Peers
ONE OF THE ATTRIBUTES OF an experienced author is the ability to teach other less experienced writers about the craft, not just the core constructs of literature, but the nuances associated with a particular genre. Teaching is a gift that few can use with ease, a gift that Sanderson uses to help amateurs understand the perfect recipe for solid storytelling. Previously this was only available if a student attended his lectures at BYU. Those classes are now available on YouTube, giving generations of aspiring writers an opportunity to learn from the best.
“One of the things I love about teaching at BYU is that the students are passionate and hardworking. They care about their work and want to learn, and that's a joy to see. Teaching also helps me to become a better writer, because it forces me to articulate and refine my own ideas about writing and storytelling.”
~ Brandon Sanderson
Farrell, John. "Brandon Sanderson Is One Of The Most Prolific And Popular Fantasy Authors Of His Generation." Forbes, 20 Dec. 2018
There is an entire section of writing advice on Sanderson’s website that links to the playlist, but also provides an interesting overview of magical systems as well as a link to Writing Excuses, a website that provides snippets of instruction for the budding writer. Sharing tips and tricks with other writers may not necessarily sell books, but it does demonstrate the capacity to understand fiction and especially science fiction and fantasy. When readers who are not writers can better understand how a plot unfolds, what makes for interesting characters or how worlds are built, they come to a story with greater appreciation.
Videos or classes aren’t the only way to teach. Highlighting decisions made during a story’s birth and development can help provide context that readers are sure to find interesting. It may take a few years of experience before you’re willing to share and teach your peers. Giving back to the community is recognized and appreciated, something that Sanderson has been known to do, and which contributes to his notoriety.
THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT Brandon Sanderson will continue to entertain his fans for decades. Indie authors who want to understand his popularity can study the tactics he employs to entertain readers and gain a following. Sanderson proves more than anything it takes commitment to the craft, but also an understanding of the business behind writing and a dedication to the audience who supports his endeavors.