Michael J. Sullivan is a publishing veteran, using a wide range of tools including: self, small-press, big-five, Kickstarter, print-only, foreign translations, and audio to get his stories “out there.” His best-selling debut series, The Riyria Revelations, was released by Hachette Book Group, has sold more than half a million copies, been translated into fifteen foreign languages, and appeared on more than ninety-five “best of” or “most anticipated” lists including those compiled by Library Journal, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and Audible.com. His most recently released work, Hollow World, is classic social science fiction reminiscent of Asimov, Wells, and Heinlein. Michael’s current project is The First Empire, a four-book epic fantasy which explores the difference between myths and legends and the true account of historical events. It challenges what it means to be a hero and the impact of ordinary people, long forgotten over time. Michael posts about the business side of writing for Amazing Stories Magazine and is a host of the writing podcast Hide and Create. You can learn more about Michael at his website www.riyria.com.
Introduction: Tell us who you are, how and why you decided to be an author and where you’re at right now in your career.
Thanks for having me. I’m Michael J. Sullivan author of twenty-six books (nine published, three in the queue). I’ve wanted to be a novelist ever since I was eight or nine years old when I found an electric typewriter in the basement of a friend’s house. To be honest, I never thought it would be possible to make a living this way, so that was never a goal. Almost every author has some form of horror story about their difficulties, and I’m no different. I spent over a decade writing and then quit because I wasn’t getting anywhere. I concluded writing had been an incredible waste of my time, and I vowed never to write creatively again. I stayed away for a decade before relenting…but only on the condition that I wouldn’t seek publication. Interestingly enough, it was those set of books that got me on the scene when my wife decided to handle the publishing aspects. As to where I am now, I’ve been a full-time novelist for the last four years and one of the lucky few who earn a good living from doing what I love the most.
What was/is the hardest thing about balancing writing with everyday life and/or a day job?
I’m one of the few who never had to balance writing with a day job. The first time around I was a stay-at-home dad and wrote when the kids were napping, or after my wife came home. When I wanted to return to writing, my wife was extremely supportive, and since her income was substantial, we could live comfortably on her paycheck. I’m grateful to return the favor, and she quit her job three years ago. As for balance, I find I can’t write well if that’s all I focus on and always “mix it up” with other activities including physical and educational.
Tell us about your schedule and habits from this time (or what you’re doing now if it hasn’t changed).
I start off each morning with coffee (essential), some oatmeal and fruit, and some time reading the paper and checking out the Internet. After that, I’ll read a few pages of an author whose writing I enjoy as it helps to “prime the pump” if you will and get my head in a “writing space.” I’ll write through until lunch, where I’ll take a break with my wife. If I haven’t hit my word count, I’ll write a bit more in the afternoon. Usually, though, that is my time for physical activity. I’ll go for a bike ride, a jog, or workout. Depending on the time of year I’ll do something artistic (like painting) and in the evenings, I usually read, which often is something non-fiction so I can learn something new.
(Optional Question) If you don’t mind, would you tell us how your sales first started out? How many books did you have out before you started seeing traction?
I initially published through a small press (before ebooks came on the scene) and I have no idea how they sold (I never received a royalty report or any money). Once I started self-publishing, I had a much better feel for things. With just one book out, I was happy to sell a few books a week. When it got to a book a day, I was ecstatic. I released my books on a six-month schedule, and they went something like this:
- April 2009 book #2 was released: sales started at 100 and went to 250 by the next release
- October 2009 book #3 released: sales 250 then growing to 500
- April 2010 book #4 released: sales quickly grew to about 1,000 a month
- Oct 2010 book #5 released and that month’s sales were 2,600. But in Nov, Dec Jan and Feb they were 9,500, 10,500, 11,500 and 12,500 respectively. We negotiated a deal with Orbit during the first part of October and Orbit’s versions went up for pre-sale in March 2011. My self-published books stayed on the market until August 2011 (Orbit books were released in November – January) but I’m not sure what the sales were. I wasn’t promoting the self-published books, and it was definitely less than over the Christmas but I don’t recall the exact numbers.
At one point in time did you make the decision to support yourself/your family as an author? What was that decision like and how did you feel afterward?
During that Nov 2010 – Feb 2011 time period, income was really high $45,000 – $55,000 a month. Plus we had a six-figure offer from one of the big-five. Usually, a multiple-book contract will be paid out over many years. In my case, all the books were all written (and scheduled for release in three consecutive months: November 2011 – January 2012). Because of this, I saw the full amount fairly quickly. By April 2011, I had enough cash reserves to pay all the household bills for more than two years. With that kind of cushion, it seemed a safe bet for my wife to quit her day job. Still, writing income when traditionally published can be sporadic so we always have a good cushion on hand. If push comes to shove, Robin will have plenty of time to get a “real job” if needs be. I love having her at home, so I’m incentivized to keep the income flowing and repay her for years of doing similarly for me.
What is one thing about your author career that not many people know of? Alternatively, what are some of your other hobbies/interests outside of writing?
I have a fairly “open” online persona so most people know a lot about me. The one thing they may not know is when I get “stuck” with a plot I go for walks and have out loud conversations with myself. There is something about doing that aloud that activates a different part of my brain, which usually provides a solution. My hobbies outside of writing include: biking, hiking, jogging, painting, gaming, and hanging out at the local pub with some writer friends of mine.
What’s the single best piece of advice you have for authors who can’t support themselves with their writing yet? What should they be focusing on?
I’m always harping on three being a magic number. I see too many authors spending too much time promoting themselves when they have only one book available for sale. Until you have three books, you should be hyper focused on writing more books. Once you have three books out, then you can spend more time on promotional activities, but doing so before then just won’t be productive. You really need readers who buy multiple books from you, so you need to make getting multiple books your number one priority.
Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to touch on?
Not really, it’s been pretty comprehensive. I’ll just say in closing that this is a profession that rewards two things: persistence and quality. If you can write a book that people love so much they’ll tell others about it, and you can produce books at a fairly consistent rate then there is no reason you can’t find success. If you self-publish, make sure you are putting out a book that can go toe-to-toe with those released from New York. You owe it to yourself and to your readers to put out only your best.