Any day now, and it might have already happened, someone’s going to purchase the 10 millionth copy of a Sanderson book. It could take place anywhere in the more than three dozen countries where his novels are sold, and in any of the more than two dozen languages they’ve been translated into. It might be a copy of “Elantris,” his first release in 2005, or maybe one of the books in the perennially popular Mistborn series, or perhaps it will be one of his Wheel of Time No. 1 New York Times best-sellers that, respectively, knocked Dan Brown and John Grisham off the top spot.
But one thing’s certain: It won’t be any of the first 12 books he wrote.
Because he never published them.
From the author who’s been called “an epic fantasy heavyweight” by Publishers Weekly, “one of the best writers in the business” by Forbes, “absolutely amazing at word building” by the RT Book Review, “one of the finest fantasy writers of our generation” by Fantasy Fiction, and “master of the craft” more times than even his agent can cite, here’s a fantasy story for you:
Kid grows up in Nebraska, writes in secret for 15 years, doesn’t even let his mom know what he’s doing, first in his bedroom as a teenager at home; later, away at college, while working the night shift at a motel, until finally — Finally! — he sells his first novel to a New York publisher, after which he locks up those dozen finished but unpublished manuscripts (all two million-plus words) and throws away the key for fear of his second book being worst than his first. He then proceeds to embark on an absolute tear, churning out, from his writing studio in his home on a quiet street in American Fork, Utah, an average of more than two books every year for the past decade to become, at 40, arguably the closest to a sure thing there is in the publishing business — in any genre — anywhere in the world.
Throw in some magic, mist, maps and dragons and sell that!
So how does a Mormon boy from Nebraska who first majored in chemistry at Brigham Young University become such a wildly popular author that the New York Times, never one known for gushing, declares on the occasion of the release of his 2014 book, “Words of Radiance,” “Brandon Sanderson’s reputation is finally as big as his novels.” How do you get to the point that lines at book signings spill out onto the street in Hungary?
Talent, of course, is part of it. No one sells thousands of books, let alone millions, without a certain level of innate ability. But for Sanderson — and he’d be the first to tell you this — it’s not just that he’s found something he’s good at, it’s that he’s found something he’d rather be doing than anything else, other than breathe. Writing for him is pure pleasure. He can’t quite believe he gets to do it — and that’s made all the difference.
Which explains one of his biggest dislikes: Saturdays and holidays.
“Awwwhhhh!” he says, just thinking about taking days off. “Everyone’s going to expect me to barbecue on Labor Day instead of work on my book. Why do we have these things?”
Nothing’s changed, either, since his financial bottom line changed.
“I could have retired five years ago. The house is paid off, the kids’ future is taken care of,” he says without pretense. “But you don’t become a writer because you want money; you become a writer because you have stories to tell, and being freed from financial obligations just means that I can tell stories without that stress.”
He can write what he wants when he wants, which for him goes like this:
“I’m a late writer — don’t be like me, kids — and usually get up around noon and write till 5. From 5 to 9 is with family. I go out and play with my kids, go to dinner with my wife. Writing is strictly off-limits. At 9 o’clock, once the kids are in bed, I can go back to work. Usually, it’s not until 10 that I sit down, then I’ll write till 2 or 3 in the morning. I’m not a fast writer. I’m a very consistent writer. I do my work every day.”
Injecting the trademark humor that is a staple of his books, he adds another, less rational, motivation to keep at it: “When I was younger, I imagined people chasing me and if I didn’t write my book, I had to go become an insurance actuary.”
Says Sanderson’s New York-based agent, Joshua Bilmes, “Brandon treats the idea that writing is his job much more diligently than many other people do. He just says, ‘You know, I’m going to do my hours every day and I’m going to do my word count,’ and that’s how he looks at it.”
The result is at least two books every year, usually a big one and a little one (the “little” ones are around 100,000 words, the big ones close to 400,000), and his fantasy fans, figuratively if not literally, camp out on his doorstep awaiting the next word.
Of the more than 30 books he’s published in the 11 years since “Elantris” made its debut, nearly half have made the New York Times Best Sellers list. That includes four at No. 1 in hardcover fiction and three at No. 1 in young adult hardcover fiction (the most recent was "Calamity" from his Reckoners series this past March). Among almost too many awards and accolades to count, he’s won the British-based David Gemmell Legend Award for best fantasy novel twice, the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice award for best epic fantasy novel twice, a Hugo Award for his novella “The Emperor’s Soul,” and the 2014 Indie Champion Honor Award.
Fantasy Book Review, to cite just one example of how critics look at Sanderson, ranks his “The Way of Kings” No. 21 on its list of best fantasy novels of all time. Fast company indeed: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is No. 1, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” is No. 11, Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” is No. 13 and George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” is No. 18, while “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, “Dracula” by Bram Stoker and “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman are all further down the list.
On Amazon, Sanderson currently ranks No. 7 on its list of top-selling fantasy authors.
And just last week, the movie world chimed in when DMG, the huge media and entertainment conglomerate, bought the film and licensing rights to Sanderson’s Cosmere novels, committing to spending $270 million to help produce the first three movies alone. In its exclusive breaking story on Oct. 27 of the “massive deal,” Variety noted that “DMG beat out several interested parties for rights to the series” and that the deal was long overdue for “one of the few top-selling authors without a produced movie of his work.”
“Sanderson’s library of present and future material provides one of the greatest story and character universes ever created,” DMG founder Dan Mintz said in the article.
The lines weren’t always snaking out the bookstore doors.
When Sanderson was an eighth-grader in Lincoln, Nebraska, he was, like any typical 14-year-old, a path-of-least-resistance kind of guy. He loved to read, always had, but he didn’t read anything difficult, and in school he chose the kind of books “that I could easily fake a book report about.”
That all changed when his English teacher — whose name was, for real, Ms. Reeder — challenged him to select a book she had read so she could quiz him on what was in it. She pointed to a stack of bigger books in the back of the room and gave him his choice.
He chose “Dragonsbane,” a fantasy book by Barbara Hambly.
“Something about the cover really struck me — cool dragon, that mist, that mystery,” Sanderson recalls. “I read it and absolutely fell in love.”
Not only did he begin wearing out buy-one-get-one-free punch cards at Cosmic Comics, the hybrid comic shop and bookstore in downtown Lincoln, but at night, after homework and dinner were out of the way, he’d leave his younger brothers and sisters, his businessman father Winn and homemaker mother Barbara, and stealthily make his way to his room, pull out a self-correcting electric typewriter (this was 1989), and write.
For two to three hours a day, he’d retreat to a fantasy world of his own making. He wrote short stories and started his first book — “it was terrible,” by his accounting, “but I did start it” — and didn’t tell a soul what he was doing.
“I was so shy, I would print out copies of what I wrote and hide them behind a picture in my room,” he says.
After high school, he enrolled at Brigham Young University in Utah, where he continued to write before and after classes, still undercover. He declared chemistry as his major — a solid, sensible choice.
After freshman year, at 19 he went to Seoul, South Korea, on an LDS mission. For the first time in his life, he was away from writing, and he found he missed it terribly. He also found he didn’t miss chemistry in the least.
“Sometimes you don’t realize what you have until it’s taken away,” he says. “I certainly don’t begrudge my time on my mission at all. I loved Korea, but I missed writing and I didn’t miss chemistry and that’s what convinced me — I should really be doing this.”
Back at BYU, he changed his major to English, signed up for Dave Wolverton’s creative writing class and got a job working as a night clerk at the Cotton Tree Inn near campus — because they were fine with him writing as long as he manned the desk.
Wolverton, who also writes under the penman David Farland, was a far cry from the stereotypical “those who can’t, teach” professor. He’d published dozens of fantasy and science fiction novels, including several best-sellers and books of the year, and had written a Star Wars novel. Sanderson sat on the front row and lapped up every word the superstar author uttered.
When it was time to turn in a first assignment, Sanderson handed in the opening chapter to one of his novels, “Elantris.” He’d finally outed himself.
Wolverton wrote him a note after reading the chapter: “If you keep writing like this, you’ll not only get an A in the class, I’ll give you a cover quote for your novel.”
“He kept writing like that,” Wolverton remembers. “A few days later, he came and asked me how to start a career in writing. I told him the next step was go across country to a convention and meet some editors and agents. He had a few concerns, such as money, but I convinced him to max out his credit card, take some time off work, and invest in himself. He took the trip and ended up meeting his (future) agent at that meeting, and I think that is key about Brandon. Many writers want to do what he does, but they aren’t willing to invest the time and money needed to start that career.”
Bouyed by the confidence from his teacher, Sanderson began sending the 13 novels he’d written (six from his high school days and seven while at BYU) to publishers for their consideration. Rejection letters flooded the room he rented in a house he shared in Orem with half a dozen other single guys. Undaunted, he kept at it, writing, revising, submitting and resubmitting.
In 2003, the tide turned. He received a letter from Moshe Feder, editor at Tor Books in New York, asking him for the rights to “Elantris” — No. 6 of his 13 work-in-progress novels.
Sanderson contacted Joshua Bilmes, the New York-based agent he’d met on his networking trip.
“Will you represent my book?” Sanderson asked.
Bilmes has been Sanderson’s agent ever since.
“I really wasn’t part of the process until after the train was already exiting the station I was able to grab onto the train,” Blimes says.
Tor wanted more novels, and since Sanderson wasn’t going to risk submitting anything he’d already written, that meant back to the drawing board. He responded with the Mistborn Trilogy, three books eagerly accepted by Tor and enthusiastically, if not overwhelmingly, received by the discriminating fantasy crowd.
Then, after all that work and dues paying, as so often happens, he got lucky.
Sanderson wouldn’t have been more surprised if it was the White House calling.
On the other end of the line was Harriet McDougal, the celebrated editor known for, among other things, editing “Ender’s Game,” Orson Scott Card’s legendary science fiction best-seller. Equally legendary was her work with the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan. Harriett not only helped shape the series into a worldwide phenomenon but also married the author.
For 17 years, from 1990 through 2007, every Wheel of Time book, 11 in a row, went to No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Then, in 2007, Jordan died from a degenerative blood disease. Before he passed away, he left extensive notes for the rest of the story yet to come in the epic; now they needed to be turned over to another writer to finish the task.
McDougal asked Sanderson if that could be him.
She had read a tribute to Jordan written by Sanderson on his blog that piqued her editor’s intuition. She contacted Tor Books in New York and asked if they’d send her some of Sanderson’s books.
Impressed by what she read, she decided he was the one she’d like to finish the series. Though they’d never met, she told him so on the phone.
“I could barely talk,” Sanderson remembers. “I’d picked up my first Wheel of Time book when I was 16. I followed the series for the next 17 years. I read many of the books multiple times. They had such a big influence on me and my career. They were foundational to epic fantasy for my generation.
“It’s hard to explain what being asked to finish the series meant. It was like being asked to finish Star Wars or something like that.”
Both honored and terrified at being chosen, Sanderson pushed aside what he was working on and dove right in on the Wheel of Time books.
“The Gathering Storm” was released in 2009 and replaced Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” at No. 1 on the best-seller list the week it came out. That was to be expected. Eager Wheel faithful would have bought blank pages at that point. Proof that Sanderson had indeed pulled off the transition — that he was a worthy successor to the king — came in 2010 when his second Wheel book, “Towers of Midnight,” replaced John Grisham’s “The Confession” at No. 1, and again in 2013 when “A Memory of Light” supplanted Tom Clancy’s “Threat Vector” at No. 1.
The benefit from the exposure and notoriety was incalculable.
“It was like being able to send my business card to several million fans saying, ‘Hey guys, I’m going to show you that I can do this,’” Sanderson says. “After that, my other books started selling really well. It turned me from a mid-lister to a best-seller.”
How much has it changed the kid who once didn’t want anyone to see what he’d written and now has 10 million of his books, and counting, scattered around the world?
Not one iota, in the opinion of Isaac Stewart.
“Same guy he’s always been,” Stewart says. “As grounded and generous as he ever was.”
Granted, Stewart is biased, since as art director he is part of Team Sanderson, and so is his wife, Kara, who serves as Sanderson’s shipping manager and CFO.
But Isaac Stewart’s also been around long enough to credibly compare then and now. He and Sanderson go back to the days when Sanderson's 1980’s Toyota Celica threw a rod on the freeway and had to be towed to Lehi.
It was Stewart who lined up Sanderson with Emily Bushman. (Isaac remembers his pitch to Emily at a church social: “Hey, do you like nerdy guys?” Turned out she did. Emily and Brandon were married within a year).
He points out that Sanderson not only still has the same wife, but the same friends, the same agent, the same editor and the same publisher he started with, and he’s stayed put in Utah County — although he’s traded in the house full of single guys in Orem for a house full of little kids (three of them) in American Fork.
And no one can argue he hasn’t stayed true to his school. That creative writing night class Sanderson took at BYU from Dave Wolverton? Sanderson teaches it now. In 2004, Wolverton moved to Southern Utah and the English department was going to drop the class.
Sanderson talked them into letting him teach it. Thirteen years later, he’s still at it. He teaches a three-hour night class once a week and donates his salary to a scholarship fund for writing students at BYU and UVU.
He teaches the class to help kids who looked a lot like he did not so very long ago, and also to keep spreading the word.
“People say why fantasy?” he says. “I get asked that a surprising amount. My response is well, everything great that’s happened in life is because somebody’s imagined a different world. Maybe that’s as simple as imagining a world where everyone’s truly equal regardless of the color of their skin; maybe that’s a different world where humankind has figured out how to make airplanes fly. But we don’t get anywhere looking at the world as it is; we look at it as it could be, and that’s the power of fantasy. I find it incredibly fulfilling to do this work, and I consider myself incredibly blessed because every day when I get up I get to do what I love.”
Sanderson's "Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection" is scheduled to be released Nov. 22. It is a collection of short fiction stories by Sanderson and will include "Edgedancer," a Stormlight Archive novella, which will appear in this book for the first time anywhere, according to Macmillan Publishers' website.