After finding a manual typewriter in the basement of a friend’s house, Michael J. Sullivan inserted a blank piece of paper and typed: “It was a dark and stormy night.” He was just eight years old at the time and mimicking Snoopy, so we’ll forgive the use of that overused opening. But the desire to fill the blank page and see what doors the typewriter keys would unlock wouldn’t let him go. For ten years, Michael developed his craft by studying authors such as Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. During that time he wrote thirteen novels, and after finding no traction in publishing, he quit and vowed never to write creatively again.
Michael discovered that never is a very long time and ended his writing hiatus a decade later but with a condition: he wouldn’t seek publication, as doing so was just too painful. Instead, he decided to write books he wanted to read and developed a fantasy series for his then thirteen-year-old daughter, who was struggling in school due to dyslexia. After reading the third book, his wife insisted the series needed to “get out there.” After Michael refused to jump back on the query-go-round, she took over the publication tasks.
Since that time, Michael has sold more than 500,000 books in fifteen different languages. He was named to io9’s list of Most Successful Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors and has spent more than a year (and counting) on Amazon’s Bestselling Fantasy Authors list. His books have been named to more than 85 “Best Of” or “Most Anticipated” lists, including those of Library Journal, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads.com, and Audible.com. Michael is one of the few authors who has successfully published through all three routes: small press, self, and Big Five, and he helps aspiring authors determine the path that is best for them through his posts on publishing for Amazing Stories.
Today, Michael continues to write extensively and is working on completing the final book in his third series, tentatively titled The First Empire. His first science fiction novel, Hollow World, was released by Tachyon Publications in April 2014.
I was born to a typical blue-collar Irish-catholic family in Detroit, Michigan. Because I was the last child of parents who were also the babies of the family (my mother had eleven brothers and sisters), my grandparents were long dead before I was born. Dad died when I was nine, and my sister passed a few years after that (she was in her twenties). So we had a lot of pain and not much money. I was a shy kid without many friends, so I created some by writing stories. I’ve always been the kind of person to find ways to occupy myself. If necessity is the mother the invention, then boredom is the mother of my creativity. If I’m bored, that’s when I make up some of my best stuff.
If you had stuck to your vow to never again write creatively, what would you instead be doing now?
Great question and, to be honest, I just don’t know. Maybe that’s the primary reason why I picked up the pen again. I had been a stay-at-home dad, but by the time I started writing again, my children were all grown. I also had proven to myself that I could “make it” in the business world (I had created an advertising agency, but once that became successful, I lost interest). For me, the fun part was the challenge of getting it off the ground. I absolutely can’t work “for the man.” I’m too independent and although I’ve had only a few jobs like that I’ve hated every one of them. I guess it was a good thing the writing gig turned out so well the second time around.
Does writing come easy to you?
Writing does indeed come easy to me. I think it is because it’s one of my favorite things to do. Asking me if I like to write is like asking a child if they enjoy playing their favorite game. I wake each morning excited to sit down at the keyboard. I’ve never really suffered from “writer’s block.” Yes, there are times when I get stuck and have to work out a plot element, but each of those problems get worked out before I’m at the point where I have to write a particularly tricky theme. As for the actual “craft” of writing, words usually flow pretty easily for me, but that’s not to say that I don’t work hard to improve as well. I’m always striving to take my writing up a notch (or two) and I think, in that regard, each book is better than the last.
As someone with experience with both self-publishing and traditional publishing, what do you enjoy most about each approach?
This answer is going to be different for each person. Neither path is superior over the other, it’s just a matter of what the individual author is looking for. In the traditional route, I like the fact that it’s pretty easy. I have an experienced team that knows what they are doing, and that takes a lot off my plate. The downside, of course, is when what the team decides doesn’t align with my opinion. For instance, if I don’t like a cover I don’t have any say over it and just have to live with decisions of others. That leads into what I like best about self-publishing… full control. The book produced is 100% the way I want. I get to choose the cover artist, the editors, the price, everything. It’s a level of control that gives me the satisfaction of putting out a book exactly the way “I” want it.
How did the story of Hollow World take shape?
It started out as a short story I was writing to help an editor who was trying to showcase some new authors. It was a donated work being used as an “anchor piece.” When I finished, I realized I had found the tip of a very large iceberg. The first people who read it (my wife and two writer friends), had the exact same reaction. To do the concept justice, it really needed to be a full-length novel. So I wrote a different short for that anthology and reworked and expanded that original work into what became Hollow World.
During the writing of Hollow World, were you at all fearful that the fans who knew you as a fantasy author wouldn’t embrace your transition into sci-fi?
I’m not sure I would classify it as “fearful.” I thought it was a very real possibility, and still do. For me, the books I write aren’t written to maximize readership. I just write a book that I want to read and hope that there my tastes are similar enough to others that it will find a decent following. Even if Hollow World never sold any copies, I still would still have been glad that I wrote it. This was an idea that once it was planted in my head wouldn’t let me go until I got it down on paper. It’s still very early to know if Hollow World will be a financial success, but I’ve already achieved what I set out for regarding this book.
With regards to your self-published works, what has been your approach to marketing? Which methods have best translated to sales?
The two primary things I concentrated on were (a) bloggers and (b) Goodreads. Bloggers, because they have a following and a single write up from them will get my books out in front of a large number of people who read in that particular genre. Goodreads is just a logical choice because it’s a site filled with millions of readers. I’ve written up some post on what I’ve done, which I hope will help other authors as well. It’s a lot of information, too much to cover here. So I’ll provide the links so those interested can dig in further:
- An author’s guide to Goodreads
- How to get your book reviewed
- Do’s and Don’ts of Getting your Book Reviewed
- Author’s Guide to Self Promotion
Which of your works are you most proud of?
I can’t help but think that the next question is going to be which of my children I love the most, but I’ll try to answer this one as honestly as I can. Percepliquis (the last book in the Riyria Revelations) tied up the series in such an amazing way that I can’t help but be proud. In many respects the other five books of the series were all there to “set the ball” so I could spike it in Percepliquis. It has what I consider one of the most satisfying conclusions to any series I can think of. When I typed the last line, I actually thought to myself, “Damn, that was good.” That may sound egotistical to admit, but it’s what I truly felt.
Hollow World, on the other hand, I consider my best from a “literary perspective.” While Riyria is designed to be a fun, entertaining read, Hollow World has themes that are “deeper” and more “thought-provoking.” It touches on some controversial subjects —all of them really — religion, what makes us human, how do we find value, can one person’s paradise be another person’s hell, what is love, and many more. What I like about that book is I created a social science fiction story but one that isn’t too heavy and dry. So while it is quite different than my other books, it’s also very much “me.” It has a kind of lightness of style, characters that people care about, and an interesting plot all of which makes it an “easy read.”
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I think he did an excellent job at a first-person narrative that, while it has an incredibly large amount of exposition, was done in an entertaining and interesting way. I really liked his characters, and he gave me a few twists I didn’t see coming. I generally shy away from dystopic futures, but even in the grit and grim of Ernest’s world, there was fun and friendship and even a glimmer of hope for a better day. All in all a truly enjoyable book.
If you had to offer one piece of advice to young authors, what would it be?
It’s not new or earth shattering, but it’s definitely true. I’m proof that the only way to guarantee failure is to stop trying. This is a business that rewards persistence, and almost everyone fails many times before they finally succeed. The Crown Conspiracy was the first book picked to be published, but it was the fourteenth book I wrote. Few authors can look at their first written novel and say, it was truly great. The trick is to keep learning and perfecting your skill. There will be hundreds of rejections and disappointments along the road, you just have to rise above them and keep at it. If you do, your chances of success are actually pretty good.
When your first novel was finally published, did it feel like the culmination of years of hard work, or was it more of a feeling of relief? Either way, how did you celebrate? And now that you have a number of successful novels under your belt, how do you celebrate the release of a book these days?
You know it really wasn’t either. My first book was being published through a very small press, which offered no advance, a limited print run (2,200 books), and had no interest in ebooks. So even if I sold out all the books (which I did), it only amounted to a few thousand dollars of income. While I could say I was “published,” it didn’t feel like anything special or earth shattering. For me, the day of celebration came when my wife was able to quit her day job because we had put away a nice nest egg and my writing income was exceeding her salary (she had previously been the sole income provider). To celebrate I bought her an expensive new bike. She loves to ride, and since she didn’t have to go to her day job she had more opportunity for that.
As for new book celebrations, I usually have a “launch party” at my favorite independent bookstore, One More Page Books. The place is packed with friends, readers, and a fair number of people from my writing group. It’s a fun night with everyone all in one place. We just held the Hollow World party there a few weeks ago.
What are you working on next?
Next is always a strange thing, because what is “next” from the reader’s perspective is not “next” from the writing side. Let me explain. I just finished the third book in my third series, which is tentatively called, The First Empire. This will probably be the next thing that readers will see from me, but it is still a long way off. First I need feedback from my wife (alpha reader), then my beta readers, and finally the editor at my publisher. During that time I’ll be writing something completely different because I have a lot of down time waiting for their input. So in a few weeks, I’m going to start writing a standalone fantasy that came to me about a year ago. I outlined the whole thing, and I think it will be a really fast write. So that project will be “next” for me. That project is so new that I don’t even have a title for it, and I don’t want to give too much detail on the plot as it could change dramatically during the writing.
Once I get that done, I’m going to write another Riyria Chronicle, because the feedback from the readers is that the pair of thieves from that series haven’t yet overstayed their welcome. Then I’ll go back and write book number four of The First Empire because, by that time, the first three books will be moving through the publication process and I’ll want to have the full series done before the first book hits the street. So what’s next for the reader is already mostly done from my perspective, and the next thing I’m writing is still in its infancy.