Conor Kostick on Ready Player One, Epic and LitRPG

Conor Kostick, author of the brilliant sci-fi series The Avatar Chronicles, chats about imagination, online gaming and the growing popularity of LitRPG.

In 2003, I had an idea for a novel, which was inspired by a newspaper article claiming that the value of trades of virtual goods was sufficiently large (several billion dollars) that if it were a country it would rank greater than Bulgaria. What, I wondered, if this trend were to grow until your activity in virtual environments really mattered? What if the celebrities of the world were not sports stars and music stars, but gamers…?

I wrote Epic extremely quickly. In all the years and books since, I’ve never experienced anything like the same immersion in the world of my imagination. It was the summer between finishing my degree and starting a PhD and I knew this free time was precious. So every evening I would write until the early hours of the morning and during the day I would edit. So intense was my involvement with the book that my dreams were filled with it and I learned the value of keeping a notebook and pen beside me.

I’d wake up with an insight, jot it down, and fall back to sleep.

In just two months the book was finished. And I hadn’t even begun to think about agents or publishers when I sold it. Michael O’Brien and I were marching side by side on the huge 2003 anti-war march. We’d just collaborated in publishing Irish Writers Against the War, a fund-raising anthology which effectively paid for the costs of the Irish Anti-War Movement’s publicity for the march. Michael asked me was I working on anything else.

‘Oh, you wouldn’t be interested,’ I replied. ‘It’s Science Fiction, about a world where everyone plays an online fantasy game. And you don’t publish that sort of thing.’

‘Send it to me. Because we’ve just made the decision to start looking for Sci-Fi.’

And within the year, Epic was published and on its way around the planet. It caught the zeitgeist of the time and sold into twelve languages, picking up lots of nominations and awards too.

One thing we didn’t do was produce an English language audio book. Back then, audio books were not so important as they are today. In Germany, Oetinger produced a beautiful 5 CD boxed set, with over twenty voice actors playing the various characters (Pic Credit: Andrew Sherman). But the English version has had to wait until today. It is just out and I love it. With a wonderful, husky, narrative voice, Samuel Hoke casts an immersive spell on the listener.

And it is timely, too. Because in the intervening years, there has been a massive growth of online gaming. Young people especially are familiar with avatar creation and having adventures with thousands of other people in environments such as those created by World of Warcraft and Minecraft. And the real world consequences of this gaming have become more evident. There are YouTube channels exploring such games with millions of views. The virtual goods economy is now at $15bn and set to grow to over $40bn by 2025.

In the wake of this gaming activity have come more and more books exploring plots where characters have to be successful within a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) to solve a crisis outside of the game. There is even a name for this type of book: LitRPG. Literature – Role Playing Game. If you are wondering why the term doesn’t take the form of the more natural RPGLit, it is because it comes to us from Russia. The giant publishing house, EKSMO began running competitions in this genre and publishing the winners from 2014, under the label LitRPG.

And this whole genre is likely to get a boost from the release of Ready Player One on 30 March 2018. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, this film is an adaptation of an excellent 2011 book by Ernest Cline. One of the great opportunities of a story in which real world and virtual world collide is that of being able to contrast your identity in both. In Cline’s case, our hero, Wade Watts, is from a poverty-stricken district in reality, but inside the virtual world of OASIS becomes a major star (and potential millionaire) on leaping up the ‘Scoreboard’.

Wade makes some very cool (well, nerdy) friends on his way up. But also some powerful enemies. I’m confident the film is going to be worth seeing, so I won’t say anything more on the subject, other than I’m very much looking forward to it.

Some Science Fiction ideas have a short life-span. Technology can run ahead or in unanticipated directions that spoil the premise of the book. Sooner or later, that will happen for Epic. But because I was thinking about how hierarchies reproduce themselves, even in virtual spaces that have the potential to deliver an anarchist utopia, it will probably always have some value. And right now, with virtual reality and online gaming blossoming, I’m glad that the release of the audiobook brings Epic a new lease of life.

Conor Kostick, March 2018

Epic is available here and in all good bookshops!

The audiobook for Epic is available on iTunes, Audible and Amazon.

What did the Normans do for Ireland?

StrongbowThis is the question that Conor Kostick aims to answer in his new book Strongbow – The Norman Invasion of Ireland. Here he talks about the book’s journey to publication.


In a way, this book on Strongbow has been a lifetime in the making. I grew up in Chester, a town in the UK that in medieval times had a very strong connection to Dublin. My dad was a tour guide in Chester and being from Dublin, really explored that connection in depth. Our house had three or four shelves of academic books about the medieval period. And as kids, my brother Gavin and I would love to play in the ruins of the castles we were taken to on outings.

My raw enthusiasm for the subject was channeled in a more scholarly direction by my attending Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate and a postgraduate in Medieval history. TCD had – and despite suffering from the impact of austerity policies, to a large extent still has – a real concentration of expertise in the period (Strongbow came to Ireland in 1170).  I’m thinking of Katharine Simms, Terry Barry and Sean Duffy in particular, but also I.S. Robinson, who helped me considerably with my reading of Gerald of Wales, our main source for these events.

The book took solid form thanks to a remarkable stroke of luck. In the summer of 2010 I was writer-in-residence at Farmleigh, for my fiction writing. But there Julia Cummins, the librarian, knowing my interest in medieval history, showed me a Latin manuscript, a copy of the Topographia Hibernica by Gerald of Wales. Feeling like a character in a Dan Brown novel, I examined the document with growing excitement. It turned out that this was a version of the Topographia unknown to modern scholarship, due to the fact it ‘disappeared’ from view in 1969, into the private collection of Benjamin Guinness.

Marsh’s Library, which assumed responsibility for the Farmleigh Library in 2009, awarded me a fellowship in 2011 to work on the manuscript and this was really useful for getting to grips with Gerald of Wales.

Having said all this, I don’t want to give the impression that Strongbow is a book written for academics. It isn’t. Here, I’m writing for everyone interested in the story of Strongbow’s involvement in Irish affairs and while my narrative relates to the information we have from historical and archaeological sources, I didn’t want to fill the text with endless qualifications and justifications. For those who want that extra depth, I make suggestions for further reading in an afterword.

With Strongbow, I was trying to write the kind of history I love to read when I’m not seeking a specialist piece of research. I’ve tried to do justice to the passions and violence of the era and the qualities of the main personalities. In particular, I read Diarmait Mac Murchada’s feud with Tigernán Ua Ruairc of Bréifne as being so bitter that Mac Murchada is a kind of Captain Ahab figure, willing to set aside all the usual norms of the Irish aristocracy in pursuit of vengeance.

One last point worth stating is that the book does not take the usual view that the arrival of Strongbow’s army represented a clash of two rival ethnicities, the Saxon and the Celt, not least because Strongbow’s knights saw themselves as ‘Franks’ and spoke a variant of Norman French. Rather, Strongbow deals with what lay beneath the personal dramas, the clash of two differing social systems.


Strongbow – The Norman Invasion of Ireland by Conor Kostick is out now

Guest blog from Conor Kostick

The library in Farmleigh House, DublinI’m delighted to learn that I shall be taking up the Farmleigh writers residency this summer. It’s a beautiful house set in acres of garden and the atmosphere there is perfect for writing. When I was shown around the building the librarian, Julia Cummins, introduced me to the book collection that Benjamin Guinness (1937-1992) gathered. It is incredible. First editions abound, including Ulysses and collections of poems by Yeats, with annotations in his own hand. But what excited me most of all was a thirteenth century manuscript by Gerald of Wales. By happy co-incidence this is one of the major sources for the impact of the Normans on Ireland, something which is very relevant to my writing plans. As well as working on a series of stories based on a group of hedonistic self-aware avatars in a virtual world, I’m going to write a book for the O’Brien Press on the coming of the Normans. It’s a great story, full of drama, and deserves to be looked at again in the light of modern scholarship.

Farmleigh House viewed from the fountainWhile at Farmleigh I shall organise a few events related to children’s literature. I’m going to invite a prominent children’s writer to give a public talk. I’m also going to show local schools around the house and give them a reading from my own books. Included in these trips is St Joseph’s School for the Visually Impaired.  My baby daughter Maya attends their pre-school and they’ve been brilliant with her, so I’m really pleased to be able to offer them something in return. I’m hoping – though she might not know it yet! – that the new children’s laureate, Siobhán Parkinson will be involved in that event.

In August I will be giving two creative writing workshops for writers of children’s literature. Places will be limited but anyone interested can send 1,000 words of their work in progress to and we’ll get back to them.

Conor Kostick

Skype Hype

Author Conor Kostick, he of the critically-acclaimed Epic and Saga, recently gave a talk to a group of students, which he does regularly. The difference being that this time Conor was in Ireland, and the school was in New Hampshire in the US. Conor’s books are hugely popular throughout the US, and with the aid of Skype, he’s able to connect with his fans overseas and take part in events. Teachers and students at the New Hampshire school reported that their event with Conor was a great success and that it was a thrill for them to be able to talk to one of their favourite authors.

Conor is also the author of The Book of Curses for younger readers, and Move, for older readers. He is the recent recipient of the Reading Association of Ireland Special Merit Award 2009, not only for Move, but also for his overall body of work and his contribution to science-fiction writing for children. He looks forward to taking part in lots more transatlantic events in the future!

The Tail Wagging the Dog?

German edition cover

In the publishing business things tend to happen slowly, and in a certain order. A lot of the time it is easy for publishers to perceive rights business as a happy addendum to their main business (apart from those publishers for whom coeditions are a core part of their business model, but they are rare enough): publish the book for the home market first and then use the finished books to drive rights sales, using book fairs, the network of rights agents, websites etc to ensure that books get the best possibly chance of having a life in other markets: we have been very successful at this over the years, as our long list of foreign editions shows. As it is easier to sell from a finished book than a pre-publication description, this is usually the way we work. The majority of the time the revenue from volume sales will outweigh those from rights in any case, as many are small, but there are a significant number of cases where fights revenues, for author and publisher, are very significant — Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy has appeared in over a dozen foreign editions; Epic and Saga, for Conor Kostick; The Moorehawke Trilogy by Celine Kiernan; Eoin Colfer’s books — in children’s publishing these tend to be at the higher age levels, with titles for younger children so often met with a response of “we have our own authors for these books”, but even here there are significant exceptions: The Little Black Sheep sold over 250,000 copies in Japan!

We have had one delightful little series that has bucked the trend in an unusual way: The Witch Apprentice by Marian Broderick was published in our Forbidden Files series a few years ago. Marian used to work for us, and it’s always fun to work with someone who has jumped the fence from editor to author, as they really understand the process — quite apart from practically being family! Anyway, we showed this at Frankfurt and it was well-received: so well that Bertelsmann said that they would take the book on condition that it had a sequel, shortly after which they asked for a trilogy! We had thought of it as a stand-alone, but they had a good point — it was more than that.

We repackaged the newly-renamed Anna the Witch series when The Witch in the Woods came out last autumn, and now we are just about to produce the third and final installment: A Witch in a Fix.

So a big thanks for Bertelsmann for seeing the potential in Anna and encouraging us to develop these books largely on the back of rights potential, and to Marian, Francesca Carabelli (the wonderful illustrator) and Helen Carr (the editor) for seeing it through to a finish!

Two More Eastern European Epics

Please accept my apologies if all these foreign covers are boring you, but I just find them endlessly fascinating! It’s also a little unusual to get two new international editions of a book in within days of each other, so let’s celebrate!

To the left we have the Czech cover for Epic by Conor Kostick, one of my favourite O’Brien Press books of all-time, and one which has had a wide array of different cover approaches already. In this case they seem to have taken at least one element from each of the existing covers and put them all in there — there’s even a spot-UV layer (shiny stuff on a matt background, for those who don’t know the jargon) with extra elements, which does not show up on a straight scan like this! It’s also a nice, meaty hardback: if only we had a market for hardback children’s fiction in Ireland …

To the right is the Serbian cover, again with quite a bit of finishing — the dragon on the bottom-right is all in red foil, and the white panel for the type is embossed.

So Epic has now had hb, pb, gloss, matt, spot UV, foil (various!), emboss (several) and holograms on the cover: though thankfully not ALL at the same time! now, read the book and see why so many people felt it was worth translating — well, you didn’t think we’d get away without a blatant commercial plug from time to time, did you?