Brandon Sanderson’s first secret novel started out as a surprise gift for his wife Emily during the pandemic in 2020.

The Utah-based bestselling sci-fi and fantasy author was going a little stir-crazy during isolation and needed to do something different and exciting.

He started writing. He told only his wife and let her read the pages as he wrote them. He found the experience rejuvenating because he could write whatever he wanted when he wanted, with no deadlines, pressure from publishers or expectations from fans.

It was so fun that Sanderson wrote a second novel. Then a third, and even a fourth. It was his way of hopefully bringing a silver lining to quarantined readers and setting up a big reveal in the process.

“I’m a bit of a showman. I love keeping secrets. I love having twists in my books. I love reveals,” Sanderson told the Deseret News. “Knowing that is part of what drove me to write them, knowing that I would eventually be able to reveal it to them.”

Sanderson’s big reveal came on March 1 with a YouTube video and Kickstarter fundraiser that offered fans the four secret novels and swag bags throughout 2023.

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His fans responded in a big way — nearly 145,000 backers have pledged more than $33 million as of March 25, with another week to go. Sanderson’s project became the No. 1 Kickstarter of all-time when it surpassed $20 million in the first three days.

The popular author who teaches a creative writing class at Brigham Young University said he had no idea what to expect. He had only done one previous Kickstarter for a reprint leather bound edition of one of his most popular books. That Kickstarter pulled in more than $6.5 million and he hoped this one would at least hit $4 million.

“We were prepared to be successful at $1 million. We figured that would sell enough copies to be worth all the time and effort to put this together,” he said. “To hit $30 million is just mind-boggling. We didn’t set out to break the record, and yet here we are. I knew the potential was there because I have a lot of fans, but I didn’t know if I could reach them or if I could convince them to do a Kickstarter.”

Sanderson recently spoke with the Deseret News to tell the story behind the $33 million Kickstarter and how it has impacted his writing career.

Brandon Sanderson speaks during his weekly class at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Brandon Sanderson speaks during his weekly class at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Sanderson’s Kickstarter for his four new novels has raised over $33 million. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

‘The Princess Bride’ and the Kickstarter origin story

Warning: There is a small spoiler ahead for Sanderson’s secret novel fans.

Sanderson and his wife love the 1987 film, “The Princess Bride.” But as they watched it one day at home in 2020, something in the classic movie bothered them. 

“Princess Buttercup is really kind of useless,” Sanderson said. “This is a story where she falls in love with a man who goes off and gets captured by pirates. So her only recourse is to go and marry someone she doesn’t love?” 

Emily Sanderson asked the question, “Why didn’t she go save him? What’s that story?”

Those questions settled into Brandon’s brain and he started writing. A month later he sent his wife some chapters for a book about a young woman who falls in love but her man is taken by a mysterious figure known as the sorceress. When it becomes evident that no one else will, the young woman determines to go save her true love.

“It became the story that we could almost brainstorm together even though she didn’t know I was going to write a book about it,” the author said. 

His wife liked the story and encouraged him to keep writing. To be clear, it’s very different from “The Princess Bride” with different settings and characters, Sanderson said. 

When the manuscript was finished, he printed a copy, wrapped it up and gave it to his wife. She was thrilled to read the ending and said he needed to share it so she could discuss it with others. 

“That’s when the whole Kickstarter thing started to build in my brain,” he said. “And then I did that three more times. I wrote three more secret books for her. … We are both book lovers. It was a lot of fun. I love my wife and so being able to share the surprise with her was a little extra special.”

Brandon Sanderson poses for a portrait at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Brandon Sanderson poses for a portrait at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Sanderson’s Kickstarter for his four new novels has raised over $33 million. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

How Brandon Sanderson connected with his fanbase

As a young reader, Sanderson found it frustrating when an author wouldn’t reveal when the next book would be released, or at least provide an update on a series.

“Once I got published, I said, ‘I’m going to make sure that my fans are never wondering when the next book is going to be out or how far along it is,’” he said. “I started doing this weird thing where I put a percentage bar of how close to being done a book was, and that immediately created that bond with the fans.”

Sanderson also credits being part of the first generation of authors to engage social media and other platforms as a way to interact and connect with fans. He remembers going to book signings with friends who were of the “older generation” of authors. He was selling fewer copies than them, but his line of fans was three times as long. When his fellow authors asked for his secret, he said all he did was promote his events on social media, he said.

“I said, ‘Here’s where I am going to be.’ That might sound like a no brainer now, but in 2006, that was the big difference. I was talking directly to the fans,” Sanderson said. “I had a more ‘in control’ perspective of my career than a lot of authors did, and even still do.”

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How big is Sanderson’s fan base? He says he’s sold 20 million books worldwide.

When he releases a book through a traditional publisher, Sanderson can expect to sell between 300,000 and 800,000 in the first year in the United States.

“The last book in my best series sold 800,000 in the first year,” he said. “That gives you an idea of what the fan base in the U.S. is.”

How Amazon pushed Brandon Sanderson to test publishing options

In 2010, Sanderson said he learned a valuable lesson when Amazon turned off the ability to buy all of his books due to contract disputes.

“Them turning off my ability to sell books was devastating,” he said. “I was new in my career so it didn’t hit me as hard as perhaps it could have, but I’ve learned that lesson. I want to be in a position where nobody can ever turn off my ability to sell my books again.”

Sanderson has self-published is own leather bound novels and short fiction, but this Kickstarter is his first experience with self-publishing full-length novels. He still intends to publish with his New York publishers, who he says generally treat authors well.

“We have a good working relationship,” he said of his New York publishers. “My goal was less to be like, ‘Oh, I need that extra few percentage points’ and more that I want to be master of my own destiny.”

Sanderson doesn’t want to cut out book stores or booksellers. In this case, he only wanted to explore alternatives for selling his books.

“The biggest weakness of Kickstarter is that it cuts out the bookstores and I don’t want to do that. I like the booksellers. I enjoy having my books on bookstore shelves. I think it’s very convenient for the fans,” he said. “This is more about me and my team saying all right, ‘Can we do this if we needed to?’”

Students sit on the floor to participate in Brandon Sanderson’s weekly class at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Students sit on the floor to participate in Brandon Sanderson’s weekly class at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Sanderson’s Kickstarter for his four new novels has raised over $33 million. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

How will the $33 million be spent?

About half of the money will cover printing and shipping costs for the books. Kickstarter receives a 5% cut.

What comes to Sanderson’s company will be divided up in a few ways. He has 30 employees who are owed salaries, and he plans to give bonuses for their hard work.

Some funds will go to cover warehouse expenses and be reinvested into the company.

He used leftover funds from his last Kickstarter to purchase property in Pleasant Grove, and money from this Kickstarter will be funneled into building a “big Barnes and Noble-size” independent bookstore in the future, he said.

“I love community bookstores,” Sanderson said. “This is probably a bad time business-wise to be opening a physical bookstore, everything’s going digital. But I need a place to have a fulfillment center where my people are shipping out my books. The bookstore doesn’t have to make money, that’s the nice thing. We can just make it as a thing for the community where you can sell books, break even and I’ll be happy.”

How will this change Brandon Sanderson’s career?

Sanderson doesn’t see the $33 million Kickstarter as too much of a career-changer.

He has no plans to stop the “Stormlight Archive” or “The Mistborn Saga” with his publishers. He’s not going to stop releasing the “Skyward” books with Random House. He views them as “good publishers full of good people” who have helped him build his career and has no intention of walking away.

“It’s going to give me another tool in my toolbox,” he said.

The Kickstarter method allows Sanderson the opportunity to take books that may not be a good fit for New York publishing and still sell them directly to fans.  

“Part of what is fun about these four books is I wrote them in secret. I was able then to completely 100% control how the information got out. I could do the ad campaign, the viral video, all of these things 100% according to my vision,” he said. “These are all tools that I want to use.”

Brandon Sanderson speaks during his weekly class at BYU in Provo, Utah.
Brandon Sanderson speaks during his weekly class at BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Sanderson’s Kickstarter for his four new novels has raised over $33 million. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Is Kickstarter a good model for self-publishing authors?

Sanderson is a hot commodity. In recent days he’s received a lot of media attention and discussed several business opportunities. He is happy to offer advice, but is quick to admit he’s no expert.

Sanderson knows other authors who have experimented with Kickstarter campaigns more than he has. He would love for it to be available to more, but it’s better to have multiple publishing options.

“I would like authors to have multiple places where they are able to sell books.” — Brandon Sanderson

“I would like authors to have multiple places where they are able to sell books,” he said. “I think Kickstarter is going to be an excellent tool for authors. The more people who are willing to come over and sign up for Kickstarter accounts, the better it will be for all of us.”

Kickstarter is a good venue if an author already has an established fan base. Many authors have used Kickstarter to help publish ebooks, but it can be more difficult if the author is selling physical products, the author said.

In truth, all he knows is it worked for him and his plan is to keep writing.

“The core idea of just wanting to tell stories and get them into people’s hands, that’s the core of who I am and what I do,” he said. “I just happened to have a very loyal and dedicated fan base who is long-suffering in putting up with my shenanigans.”