Michael J. Sullivan is one of the few authors who has successfully published his books all three ways—with a traditional Big Five publisher, with a small independent publisher, and as a self publisher. Michael is the bestselling author of the Riyria series and several other novels.
In today’s show, he shares some inspiring stories and tips for new and established authors.
Michael took a long and circuitous route to becoming a successful writer. He wrote 13 novels that no one had an interest in buying and decided to give up on the idea of becoming a published novelist.
Michael worked in advertising for 12 years before deciding to write again. He wrote a series of books for his daughter because she was having trouble reading. He wanted to write something that would be fun to read with her. He ended up with a six book series, and he made them available on the Internet for free.
Several of his readers said these books should be published, so he tried to sell the series to a traditional publisher. Again, there wasn’t very much interest.
Michael’s wife got involved and got him an agent. They were finally able to sell the Riyria Revelations series to a small publisher in Minnesota. The small publisher had economic problems because of the crash of 2008, so Michael bought back the rights to his series and began to self publish them.
The first three books sold modestly well. The fourth book caught on like wildfire. Michael was selling 10,000 books a month. That’s when he and his wife decided they should try to sell the series to one of the big six traditional publishers.
Orbit bought the series, repackaged, and redistributed it. The Riyria Revelations series was supposed to be a six book series, but Michael’s customers wanted more, so he decided to write some prequels.
Michael didn’t realize that you aren’t supposed to let a series end. He also didn’t realize prequels don’t generally sell well. The prequels for his series seem to do just fine. Michael has found success going against conventional wisdom.
After the success of his Riyria Revelations series, Michael decided to write a science fiction novel. He showed the novel to the people at Orbit, and they passed on the book because they didn’t think it would sell in the current marketplace.
Michael’s Experience with Kickstarter
Michael decided to run a Kickstarter to fund publication of his sci fi book. He figured it would cost him $6,000 to publish the book, he asked for $3,000 on Kickstarter thinking he’d put up the other $3,000 himself to get it done.
Michael’s Kickstarter campaign ended up funding at over $30,000 which was a big surprise to him. He credits the success of the Kickstarter campaign to the Kickstarter community.
His campaign got a lot of visibility because it funded so quickly. That allowed a lot of traffic from the Kickstarter community itself to see the project.
After the success of Michael’s Kickstarter campaign he decided to sell the print rights to his sci-fi novel Hollow World to Tachyon publications. Tachyon publications handles printing and distribution for the print version of Hollow World. Michael retains the e-book rights, and he still gets 100% of his e-book commissions.
The Journey to Bestselling Writer
Michael began writing his first novel when he was in eighth grade. Michael wrote three fantasy novels in three years starting in eighth grade.
He drifted away from fantasy after that. He began exploring other genres, notably science-fiction and horror. His writing habits mirrored his reading habits. He went from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien to Dune by Frank Herbert, and finally to the works of Stephen King. He imitated the authors that he liked.
Michael had no formal training as a writer. He simply read books and imitated the authors who caught his imagination.
Michael wrote 13 novels before he came up with a novel he felt was publishable.
Authors You Should Study
John Steinbeck has fantastic descriptions of setting.
Ernest Hemingway will teach you how to write concisely.
Stephen King has a fantastic ability to get in the minds of his characters.
John Updike has the ability to describe things without naming them. Somehow his descriptions are more vivid because he describes things without naming them.
Michael’s first artistic outlet was as a painter and illustrator. He learned to paint and draw by mimicking other artists and learning their techniques through the practice of copying their work.
He took the same approach to writing. That allowed him to get a lot of practice. It also led him to have gaps in his knowledge. When Michael’s first agent told him that he had a “show and tell problem,” he didn’t have any idea what they meant. Once his agent explained what “show, don’t tell” means, Michael immediately understood how the concept could make his work better.
Show, Don’t Tell
Many beginning writers have a problem with the difference between show and tell. As a storyteller you want to show your character doing something rather than explaining what your character did.
It’s the difference between writing about a character in a grocery store, and having your character tell another character what they bought at the grocery store.
When you write stories you want to write about characters experiencing the world through their five senses, and their opinions of what they perceive.
One of the pitfalls of becoming a better writer is Michael finds less enjoyment in stories by other writers because he naturally takes stories apart now to analyze them.
Keys to Writing Success
There are two major factors that led to Michael’s success as a writer.
- Learning the skills of being a good writer through copying the work of other good writers and trial and error.
- Working hard to get all of his content out there in a timely manner.
- Being open to feedback from other writers, agents, and publishers.
Michael feels that self-publishing his work is one of the important factors to his success. Self-publishing allowed Michael to control all aspects of his creation, from the story itself to the packaging, and marketing.
Having complete control allowed Michael to try different things and observe the results.
Promoting Your Book
Promoting your indie book is an art unto itself. Successfully promoting your book is about using the power of social networks effectively. Many authors don’t know how to do this. A lot of indie authors will use their social media channels relentlessly trying to sell themselves. That turns a lot of people off.
Another misconception many first time authors have is that traditional publishers will promote your book for you. Traditional publishers will market you, but they aren’t marketing you to readers. Traditional publishers market authors to bookstores, because that’s who they sell to.
“Every author has to learn how to sell books to readers.” – Michael J Sullivan
How Successful Authors Build Their Fan Base
You build your fan base one fan at a time. That’s the only way you can do it.
You attract the attention of someone who likes the type of books your writing, they decide to read your book, and if they like it they’ll tell their family and friends.
When you’re just starting out no one knows who you are, so you have to sell your books one book at a time. You can’t just put a website up and expect people to come to it without doing any work.
You can’t just go on to social media sites and say, “Buy my book!” because no one knows who you are. But, if you’re a member of an online community, and people happen to notice you’re an author, you can naturally tell them about your book, and they might go and check it out.
Michael has a regular bar he goes to. He’s had several conversations where he explains that he’s an author of fantasy novels. Quite a few of these conversations have led to people finding his books online and reading them.
Michael’s first book launch was daunting. He thought people would just line up and start buying his book. When he did his first book launch at his local bookstore the only people lined up to buy his book were people he knew. But one person he didn’t know heard him speaking, picked up his book and bought it. Michael didn’t have any direct interaction with the guy, but he saw the guys post about his book on Facebook a few days later.
Becoming a successful author is a process. It takes time, patience and consistently putting out new novels. Every new novel you write is an opportunity for a new reader to find you. A certain percentage of your readers will buy your entire back list. The key is to consistently write and publish new words.
To be a successful author you have to learn how to sell to readers, but you can only do that after you learn how to tell a story. That takes practice and repetition.
Lessons for Writers
“I spent years and years and years writing, studying and learning how to write. It’s the same for almost everyone.” – Michael J Sullivan
- You have to learn how to write grammar.
- You have to learn good sentence structure.
- You have to learn how not to be passive.
- You have to learn how to load your sentence so that it has the kick you want either at the front or the back. You have to learn why that’s important.
- You have to learn how to break paragraphs.
- You have to learn how each paragraph should be a story in and of itself, so people don’t skip paragraphs.
- The secret to telling a good story is leaving out all of the stuff people skip.
- Describe the setting of the scene through the senses and opinions of the point of view character.
- Get your book to the point where almost everything on every page is worth reading. Then your book is ready to be published.
- Remove words that don’t need to be in your sentences. Michael can usually cut down a 10 word sentence to five words and have it still function as a sentence.
“When you know what you’re reading is better than stuff your reading from other published authors then you’re getting close to something other people will really appreciate.” – Michael J Sullivan
Marketing Books Online
“If I had more time I’d write a shorter letter.” – Mark Twain
If you just put your book on your website, no one’s going to look for it and find you. But if you give people a reason to come to your website, and your book is there, then people will find it.
Michael wrote a series of blog posts on tips for writers because he needed to generate new content on a regular basis. That content attracted readers to his blog who discovered his fiction because of it.
Michael gives tips on dealing with publishers and self-publishing on Reddit.
Another tactic that works is to put out free samples of your work. Michael doesn’t suggest putting out a full novel, although several authors have done that with success. He puts out short stories, and most of the time the short story takes place in the world of the series he’s writing.
This allows people to get to know you without any sort of barrier to entering your world. There are free samples at the grocery store all the time. They always give you a taste of what they want you to buy. This is the same principle.
One of the issues with traditional publishers is that you have six months to a year to sell your book because bookstores have limited shelf space. If your book doesn’t sell in that timeframe publishers and bookstores won’t buy your next book.
When you self publish a novel online it’s available until you decide to take it down.
With traditional publishing it can be helpful to have a platform before you release your book. Having a platform of people who already know you before you release a book makes it easier to sell books quickly.
Self-publishing is a little bit easier because you’re not required to sell books quickly.
The big five traditional publishers have the least flexibility when it comes to book sales. Smaller publishing houses have slightly more flexibility, and self-publishing has the most freedom when it comes to book sales.
The Downside of Traditional Publishing
A lot of authors want the prestige of being traditionally published. But there are several pitfalls to the traditional publishing route.
You have a very short time to be successful in traditional publishing. Traditional publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores want to see your book sell as quickly as possible. If you haven’t sold enough books within a year, traditional publishers and bookstores won’t do business with you again under your name.
There are several authors who never quite hit it big. This is a problem because you are judged based on your sales record. Often these authors will choose pen names and try to relaunch their career.
“I’m not the type of person who would say write whatever you want to write, throw it out there and see what sticks, because that’s not a good idea. Once you get branded as a bad writer, most people will not try you again.” – Michael J Sullivan
How to Start Building a Platform as an Unknown Indie Author
The first thing you want to do is make sure your writing is of a quality that you think will sell. Is the stuff your writing better than other writers you’re reading right now?
When you’re confident about the quality of your work, you should write and release three books.
When you have three books out, start promoting the first book, and gather readers one at a time.
Writing a Series
Book series aren’t necessary to be successful.
If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction a lot of readers feel like the first book is just introducing them to the characters. If they like your characters, they want more stories that include those characters.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people that don’t want to commit to a huge series. They just want an easy read that entertains them for an afternoon, maybe on the beach.
Another way to be successful is to write a series of books linked by the characters that are in them. Each book is a standalone adventure and uses the same characters. This allows people to start with any book, they can come in at any point in the series and enjoy themselves. It also gives them incentive to buy other books in the series if they like the series.
A pitfall of writing long series is that authors can feel like they’re in a creative rut.
The cure for this is to write different genres. Writing the different genres will pull in different fan bases and allow you to grow your platform faster.
Write Multiple Books
The key to being successful as an indie published author is to write as many books as possible and publish them. Every book available on Amazon advertises every other book you’ve published.
“The secret to success is not having a series. The secret to success is having multiple books.” – Michael J Sullivan
You need to have multiple books available in the marketplace in order to make a living from your writing. If you only have one book available to buy in the marketplace, unless you’re incredibly lucky, it’s not going to be able to support you on its own.
Every new book you publish is an additional income stream. When you have enough income streams, you’ll make a living from your writing. It’s going to take time and consistent book production, and gathering fans one at a time.
Resources and People Mentioned in This Interview
Michael mentions Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers when talking about putting in the work to learn the craft of writing.
Michael mentions Jim Butcher and the Dresden files when talking about a series of books that individually standalone but are linked by characters. This is true of the earlier books, but after book 12, the entire series is linked.
https://tachyonpublications.com/ – tachyon publications is a publishing company that offers to buy the print rights to indie published books.
Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.