Brandon Sanderson talks the Cosmere and his record-breaking Kickstarter

Brandon Sanderson, from his "It's Time to Come Clean" YouTube reveal video.
Brandon Sanderson, from his "It's Time to Come Clean" YouTube reveal video. /

We’re around halfway through March, which means that Brandon Sanderson’s record-shattering Kickstarter is halfway to being finished. In case you missed the news, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson launched a Kickstarter at the beginning of the month for four novels he had written in secret during the pandemic. It has long since surpassed the benchmark for being the highest funded Kickstarter of all time, and continues to climb at a rate that would fill many a corporate CEO with envy. As of this writing, the Kickstarter has been backed by over 125,000 people, and is sitting at over $29.2 million. Who knows where it’ll be in two more weeks time?

Sanderson isn’t resting on his laurels. In addition to continuing his work on the fifth book of The Stormlight Archive and cruising through revisions for the next Mistborn book The Lost Metal, he’s been making press rounds and doing interviews to keep the Kickstarter’s momentum up. This week he appeared on Fantasy News host Daniel Greene’s YouTube channel to talk about this historic Kickstarter, the future of the Cosmere, and a bunch of other stuff. The interview is very much worth the watch, but let’s talk about some highlights.

The success of Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter surprised even him

Sanderson was already a household name before all this began. In addition to finishing Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time after the original author’s untimely passing, Sanderson has written a slew of his own novels — many of which are set in a shared universe called the Cosmere. His books have an enormous following, but the response to the Kickstarter surprised even him and his team. “We went into this thinking two to four million, hoping for five, and we’re sitting at like 27. So I mean…that’s pretty great.”

The Kickstarter has gotten so much attention that it’s broken into the mainstream news cycle, which is a rarity for anything related to science fiction and fantasy books. Large traditional media outlets like The New York Times and CNBC have written articles about the Kickstarter’s unprecedented success. Did that kind of mainstream attention surprise the author as well?

“Yes and no at the same time. So I’ve always had big goals, big aspirations. I felt this sort of attention would come. I thought it would take until I had films and television shows, right? One of my kind of sneaky goals is to slowly become Stan Lee-esque, where I get a lot of things adapted and you get to see me in each of them. My whole goal is actually that I will die in each of the shows in different ways as recompense for killing off characters,” Sanderson said, laughing. “I look forward to the day where I can go to Comic-Con and sit with all the you know movie stars in the line where they’re signing autographs, and the autographs, the pictures that people are getting of me are my various death poses.”

"Fantasy in general, nerd culture in general, has become mainstream pop culture, right? I assumed at some point, the mainstream media attention would be like, ‘wait, who’s this Sanderson guy that everyone’s talking about. I didn’t think the Kickstarter would be what got me there."

Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter is a “wakeup call” for publishers

Another angle to this whole Kickstarter business is that it’s gotten a lot of people asking if it could herald the end of traditional publishing. Sanderson hasn’t had a lot of people asking him how to replicate what he did with the Kickstarter, though he’s well aware those conversations are happening.

“From most people who are in the know, people who are working professionals, they realize that this is not something that’s easy to give any tips for,” Sanderson said. “How do you have a giant Kickstarter like this? Well, the answer is you start with an enormous fanbase…and you build that over 20 years’ time and become a leader in your genre, and then you can do a giant Kickstarter.”

That said, Sanderson did have some specific goals in mind when he set out to release these four secret novels in this untraditional way. “Part of the reason — there are a lot of reasons I did the Kickstarter — but part of the reason was I wanted to say to [my company], ‘hey, let’s see if we can do direct fulfillment on an actual Sanderson novel…and see what that looks like.'”

"There are still things that traditional publishing offers. Like, my Kickstarter, my biggest regret and the reason why I wouldn’t for instance take a Stormlight book and do it this way, is Kickstarter cuts out the bookstores. And I feel the bookstores are our best current hedge against Amazon’s dominance in the market. And I worry about Amazon. I would love if there were one or two big good competitors for Amazon. And right now those are the bookstores and my career was partially made by bookstore employees sharing my books with people. And I think that bookstores are really important…the more we lose the bookstores, the harder it is for new authors to break into the industry.I don’t want to cut out the bookstores, but I do want to send a bit of a wakeup call to publishers, right. Like this is not me breaking up with them, I told them ahead of time I was doing this, I told them they couldn’t have these books. But I made very clear to Tor and to Delacorte, my two main publishers, Gollancz as well, that I really like them. That I know they’ve done some difficult things that I’ve requested of them, and I still intend to keep publishing books with them.So it’s not a break up, but it is a wakeup call. There are some things about traditional publishing that I think are backward-thinking, and I wanted to kind of prove to them a bunch of things I’ve been saying, for many years."

It’s pretty safe to say that those points were proven. All 29 million of them.

Sanderson’s opinion on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

There’s plenty more good stuff in the interview. One thing that particularly caught my ear was the discussion about Amazon’s upcoming fantasy series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. It’s one of the most anticipated fantasy shows of the year, so of course he has to have an opinion on it, right?

“So I am not the most enormous Tolkien nerd out there,” Sanderson admitted. “I have never gotten all the way through the Silmarillion.”

"I’m not sitting here, biting my nails worried about the adaptation. I hope it’s good. I hope it’s fantastic. I think excellent fantasy adaptations are good for all of us in the industry. I hope that it being really good helps The Wheel of Time also, as you know the sister project at the same company. And so I am cautiously optimistic."

We’re all in the same boat here with The Rings of Power. We just have to hope that the spaceships full of money that Amazon is hurling at the project are enough to help it achieve greatness.

The future of the Cosmere

Sanderson also touched on the future of the Cosmere, the shared fantasy universe that where most of his adult fantasy stories take place. Most of those stories began as somewhat traditional epic fantasy, but as time has gone on the various worlds of the Cosmere have evolved. Take the latest sequence of Mistborn books, for example, which sees an epic fantasy world evolve into a more steampunk era. Sanderson has talked previously about how this technological advancement is going to continue. “I’ve told fans for years, what I’m pushing toward is something a little more Star Wars-esque, in the larger worldbuilding where you’re going to many different planets…and there’s both a science fiction and fantasy mix,” he said.

"One of my favorite movies, despite how it’s aging worse and worse, is The Fifth Element. I like that blend a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I suspect that there will always be places where I’m doing straight up true fantasy in the Cosmere, that it will give me enough opportunities to go to planets where some of this tech just hasn’t reached yet, and do fantasy stories. But the main through-line of the Cosmere is pushing toward sci-fantasy."

Star Wars-style Cosmere saga where Allomancers go to other planets and meet Surgebinders or bring different magical technologies onto their space ships sounds pretty incredible. It’s exactly these kind of long-game series plans that have been able to keep so many readers invested for so long.

Brandon Sanderson’s Secret Project Kickstarter runs until the end of March. If you aren’t among the 125,000 people who have backed it, there’s still plenty of time to hop on board.

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