Interview with
Michael Sullivan

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Barlow: I was reading a little bit about you, and I saw that you had actually started writing books to teach your daughter, who had dyslexia, how to read. Is that right?

Sullivan: That was part of it, yes. She was not happy. She didn’t like reading. So, I tried getting her a bunch of books to get her to read, and one of them that I got her was Harry Potter, and I was like, “Wow. This is a lot of fun.” And I had been trying to write a lot more books that were kind of complicated and much more serious, and I thought to myself, “I want to write something that’s as easy as this.” And that would just be enjoyable for anyone to read, and I thought if I just got her something that her father wrote that maybe she would be more interested in reading it, and I could tailor it to her interest to some degree, and yeah. So, that was part of the incentive. There was more than that, but that was one of them, yes.

Barlow: So, uh, maybe reading Harry Potter, then, kind of inspired you to write something that was slightly less complicated and more fun?

Sullivan: Well, I had been working for about a decade learning how to write, and I had been reading Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning books, and a lot of those have a tendency to be somewhat literary fiction, somewhat drier, and they weren’t necessarily to my taste, but I was learning something, so I kept learning more and more how to write. And then eventually, I had tried for a long time – it didn’t work – so I eventually gave up. I started advertising for about twelve years, and then, after reading Harry Potter, I went, you know, “I’m not gonna get published, but I want to write something enjoyable like this. I’m not gonna write to try and get published. I’m just going to write for my own enjoyment. And that’s when I started that, and that’s the way I got published.

Barlow: That’s fantastic. Whatever you enjoyed other people enjoyed, too.

Sullivan: That seems to be a thing, yeah. If you like it, other people probably will, too.

Barlow: I just saw your e-mail that you had a flat tire, and I’m so sorry to hear that!

Sullivan: Yeah. We went out to get dinner, and that was a problem, but anyway…

Barlow: That’s so unfortunate. Um, so maybe what made you decide to self-publish your books instead of seek, or continue to seek, a traditional publisher?

Sullivan: Okay. Well, that might be a long answer to a short question.

Barlow: That’s okay.

Sullivan: So, the very first one I wrote – like I told you, I wrote these books, and my wife read them – and she… we got an agent… she got me the agent. And we eventually did get a publisher who was a very small publisher in Minnesota called AMI, and they published my first book and were in the process of trying to publish my second book when they ran out of money and couldn’t actually continue… well, they couldn’t cover the cost of the printing. And after that, we already had some knowledge of self-publishing because we had been looking into that. And this was before the Kindle, so we were kind of gearing up to that. But at the same time we used to run an advertising agency, so we knew how to do things like layout, and I was familiar with some cover art, so we could actually go ahead and do that, so we started self-publishing right about the time that the Kindle came out, and we did that for the five books of my six book series. And my wife then went to New York, and she thought she was going to shop around again, now that we were making some decent money at self-publishing, and… cause she thought they might be interested, and they were, and so that’s how I got then into traditional.

Now, the reason we we went into traditional after actually being successful at self-publishing was because I knew that there were a large portion of the population, certainly back then, which would have been around 2010, that were gonna be somewhat prejudiced against it. People just simply would not read a self-published author’s work, book, because they just assumed that it would be bad, and I knew I was missing a lot of audience. So, what I did was, I took the additional… because I actually took, I expected to take a pay cut, when I went into traditional publishing, even though I got a six figure deal for my first contract, it still was going to be less than I was probably going to be making if I stayed in self-publishing. At least, I thought so.

But, in doing that, in taking that step, I did triple my fan base. And what I didn’t know was that there are people in other countries that are watching American traditional publishing, and it made it easier for us to get foreign deals, which greatly compensated for the lack of money from the contract. And they also got us into Audible, or audiobooks I should say, which I don’t know if we would have done, but that also was very lucrative. So, we ended up making just as much money as we would have if we had stayed in self-publishing. My wife and I worked very closely to do this.

Barlow: Right. And perhaps you didn’t have to worry about all the things that your publishing house was going to take care of in terms of creating the covers and everything.

Okay so that is really interesting and a great point about reaching a wider audience and also audiobooks and also foreign rights. That is all very good.

Now, the downside of that was that don’t make the assumption that just because you’re traditionally published that you don’t have to worry about things like the cover art or the design or the editing. And as it turns out I discover that you do have to do all this. You also have to market yourself. It’s not something you get to give up. Those are things that you still have to do. I mean I worked… I was not happy with my first publisher who did what I think is very bad cover art. But when I got to my second one, they were more willing to work with me and we had much better cover art. Same thing with the interior design and same thing with editing. I was able to find better editors by being more proactive. So, just because you’re traditionally published doesn’t mean you can sit back and say, “Oh, they’re going to take care of it,” because they will, but it’s probably not going to be the best that you want because the best advocate for your book is going to be you.

Barlow: That’s also an excellent point.
Out of curiosity I knew that you had you had gone to a traditional publisher to sort of widen your fan base and also because you knew that some people still had a prejudice against self-publishing. Did you also sort of want, just for your own sake, to be traditionally published? Like, was that also a goal to continue down that road or not?

Sullivan: I was very on the fence about that. I mean on one hand it was sort of a seal of approval that I kind of wanted but I never had. And I knew I would be giving some stuff up, really, for vanity. It’s kind of strange, but being traditional published in many ways is vanity press. It oftentimes is not going to make you more money, necessarily. So, it is something that most authors really want to be able to say they’ve done. And it’s kind of the seal of approval that you have achieved this level. So there was some of that involved. But it was also… it turned out to be a fairly sound business deal.

Now, at the present time, it’s turning the other way. I’m actually doing more self-publishing these days because of the fact that I’ve already got that seal and I can see now that having more control is going to actually make my… I’m going to get my books in more people’s hands, and I’m going to be able do better books than I would if I was going to traditional publishers.

Barlow: Interesting. Okay.

Sullivan: But, again, that is different for different people. I mean, I happen to be… My wife and I are very good at handling the business end. We know how to do editing. We know how to do all the aspects that you would need if you were self-published. Now, if you’re a traditional published author, and you’ve never been self-published, that’s going to be a lot harder because those people don’t know how to… may not have those skill sets. So, that could be a problem for some people.

Barlow: Right. That’s true.
When you had first self-published that first book, how long did it take before it gained momentum?

Sullivan: So I started out with a six-book series. And the first book I sold, and I would stand in bookstores and try to get people to buy them, and I would say I was selling maybe a couple hundred books… a week a month a year. Yeah, about 200 books a month, and that was it was okay. So, that was enough for you know weekend or something. That was a little extra money. And then the second book came out, and they started getting a little bit more… like 400 books a month, and then 500 bucks a month.
By the time we got to the fifth book in the series, I was probably making around… a thousand dollars a month.

Robin Sullivan (Michael’s wife): No. More than that. When there were four books out, they were selling a thousand books a month, which would have been about five thousand dollars a month. When the fifth book came out, that’s when it went up to twelve thousand copies per month.

Barlow: Wow.

Sullivan: See? She knows the numbers.

Robin Sullivan (Michael’s wife): The first book came out in October of 2008. The fifth book came out October of 2010.

Barlow: Okay. Wow.

Sullivan: Yeah. About two years or so. And, actually, I’m slow. There are other people out there who we know… one fella who was reportedly making like about three hundred thousand dollars, and he’s only been out for how long do you say? Yeah, since 2016. So, I mean, I’m kind of actually slow compared to some people.

Barlow: Now, is he writing the same genre as you?

Sullivan: Yes. Yeah. In fact, yeah. He was actually out here with a bunch of fantasy authors in my house a couple of weekends ago, and we were comparing notes, and yeah. He was younger, newer on the scene, but making quite a bit of money. So, yeah. He got to his rate of sales much quicker than I did.

Barlow: Interesting. It could have also been timing, like when he…

Sullivan: Well, I think if you know what you’re doing, there are a lot more facilities out there these days for self-published authors. Supposedly, there’s a lot more competition. But, I mean, when I was starting out, not only was there more stigma, but they didn’t have the facilities for authors to get artists to do cover art or design work. And there weren’t as many freelance editors that you could grab. So, it was harder to do because it was more of a primitive stage. Nowadays, they have a lot of things set up for that and gear for that. But they also, yeah, there’s a lot more infrastructure, but it also… I think there is maybe more competition out there, and more self-published authors are doing it better. So, again, you’re going to be competing against better competition.

Barlow: Right. Those are all great points.
I know that you said that you were in bookstores selling your books. Did you use any other types of advertising, or did you do interviews, or anything else?

Sullivan: Well, I was in a lot of bookstores selling because my publisher has set up these signings. I wouldn’t probably have done that so much because literally I would be in a bookstore for two hours and I might make three or four sales. It was not a very good return on investment. Instead, what we focused on was the social media. We went onto Goodreads, which was one of the best resources for raising your, you know, your platform and getting people to know who you are and getting that project. I mean there are millions and millions of readers on that site. So, if you can get in there, you’re going to get more recognition. Also, you want to get reviews on Amazon because, once people see that you have more than a handful of reviews, and they’re pretty good, they’ll be more likely to buy you. We also approached a number of bloggers, and, initially, they wouldn’t actually review books that were self-published, so we would look for the littler bloggers who would be willing to look at self-published books, and if they liked it, we would kind of get to move up to the next layer. And then we eventually worked our way up to a point where people who would normally not accept nontraditionally published books would then be asking for it because they had heard so much. There was so much buzz for it. They would actually come calling me and say, you know, “Can we get this book?” And that’s kind of how we got into… broke through that ceiling into getting bloggers who would only review traditional books. They are reviewing my self-published books. And then that perpetuated itself, and I got better reviews, and then that bled over into more sales and so on and so forth.

Barlow: Yeah. They couldn’t resist it anymore.

Sullivan: Right.

Barlow: That’s good to hear as well.
Let me see. I’m looking through my questions and… oh, this is a good one. Did you have someone professionally edit all of your manuscripts, or were you comfortable enough with what you had produced to where you didn’t?

Sullivan: Yeah originally we always hired someone to do editing. Now most of my books have been edited many, many, many times. Now, the very first one was edited significantly. We had it edited. We hired professional editors to edit it, and then it went to, like I said, the small house in Minnesota, and they had people who went over it, as well. And when came back to us, and we were going to self-publish it again, we again went through it and did another pass. And then, finally, when it went to Orbit, they had another pass, and all these people had gone over the book. I don’t know how many times. And there were still errors in it, believe it or not, which was amazing. But we didn’t find out until it was translated into French.
But, yeah, for the most part, we always have professional editing done, and, nowadays, when we’re doing a self-published book, we go to the effort of, we will hire more than one professional editor – the same people the New York publishers will use because they’re now mostly freelance. So, we will hire them. Plus, we’ll have a beta program that will help try and find errors and try and find structural problems where people are clearly, you know… this is this is not a good part of the book, and we don’t know why, but it’s not registering with us. So, we will do that, and it goes through many passes before it goes out in the public. But, no, I mean we would never be a situation where I’ve just said, “Yeah I think this is okay. Let’s throw this out there.”

Barlow: Okay. So, then I’m guessing that you’re pretty comfortable with killing your darlings. You know that you want to get the book to its best, and you want to have the best effect on its audience. And, however you need to get it there, that’s what you do, right?

Sullivan: Yeah. For the most part, I… it never really needs to be edited to that point because of the fact that I usually… I mean I have frequently written what I consider really nice sentences, and I realize they’re not consistent throughout the book, and I’m like, I have to take that out because that would be jarring to hit that really poetic sentence in the middle of all this other stuff. I always stop that, usually. It was rare that I think that that kind of mistake would get through. But, yeah, I mean, we had enough passes to where it would be smoothed out and cleaned up. And people make me look a lot better than I am.

Barlow: *Laughs* Okay. After you were sort of successful, and then you went to traditional publishing for a little bit before going back to self-publishing, how did you find people in the traditional publishing arena? Did they find you, or did you seek them out at, like, conventions or, how did that work?

Sullivan: You mean how did I find people to traditionally publish me originally?

Barlow: Not, like, originally, not the very first one, but after your books had become big and traditional publishers were interested. Did they contact you or did you contact them?

Sullivan: Well, after I was traditionally published, I was signed with the publisher, so I didn’t go looking for anyone else until such time as I decided to switch from one. I decided which from Hachette over to Penguin Random House. That’s the only change I ever did. Do I… Am I not answering your question perfectly?

Barlow: There was a period of time you said, I think five or six books were published self-published, is that correct?

Sullivan: That was the original. That’s correct.

Barlow: Okay. And then how did you move from that to traditional publishing.

Sullivan: Oh okay. So, once I was self-publishing those books, and, like I said, I was selling at a really good rate, then my wife took those numbers – those numbers of sales – and she got an agent to represent us. And they… she basically made a cheat sheet for the agent that she could take around to publishers and say, “This is what the sales are. Do you want to publish this guy?” And we actually had some preemptive offers based off of that, and then we realized the one we wanted to go with was Orbit.

Barlow: Okay. Excellent.
And were those agents or editors interested in publishing anything, or only publishing future work by you?

Sullivan: No. They took my existing series. I had written… I had published the first five books. The sixth one was ready to come out in just a matter of a couple of months. And they decided to repackage them, so they actually asked me to take everything off the market. So, I didn’t have anything for sale for about three months, and that was very painful because it was bad because I didn’t like to have nothing up there while the three months went by. So, I actually put out a short story that we put up for free as an example of the books, so it was always out there. Something was always out there by me. But, yes, I was out for three months, and then they came back out with a complete reprint, where they took those six books that I had and they released them. It was in November was the first book, and then December for the second book, and January for the third book, and what they did was they put two novels in each binding, so all six books came out in a three-volume series, and they came out one month and the next month then that month. So, that’s kind of how they released them. So, yeah, they were released once by me self-publishing and that they reprinted it.

Barlow: Right. Gotcha gotcha.
Do you feel as though your experience was one of a kind, or do you think that this is something that’s capable of being accomplished by any writer who is serious about writing her self-publishing or publishing?

Sullivan: Well, it’s certainly been duplicated by several people because I know them. In fact, there’s one fellow who followed almost the exact same path. His name is David Dalglish. He started off. He did self-publishing, and then he literally went to the same publishing house that I did which was Orbit, and just a few years later. So, I mean, he literally followed the same path, and he was writing the same type of stuff. So, that I know you can literally duplicate it. Now, I would say any author could do that. I mean there are many factors that are going to factor in on this. But, yes, you can definitely repeat what I’ve done, and there have been many people who have. The difference is going to be the quality of the writing and your ability to be able to get your persona out there and get people to actually be interested in reading what you do, and that’s going to be dependent on the amount of effort you put into social media and in other promotions. And, for the most part, my wife is extremely good at that, and she helps me out there quite a bit. Now, some people are really good at writing, and they can make great books. Some people are really good at promotion. And not always can you get someone who can do both, and you need to be both of those things to be doing what I did.

Barlow: Right.
Do you have any advice that you usually like to give on self-publishing?

Sullivan: Well, I would suggest, you know, making sure that you don’t publish until it’s ready, and you’re going to have to figure out how that… It is hard sometimes to figure out when you’re ready. But most people will do a thing, where they will… they’ll write something, they’ll read it, they’ll get their friends, they like it. So, they think they’re ready to publish, but they don’t take the time to actually get it the critical readers who can give a really honest feedback because the worst thing you can do is, you put something out there and, not realizing that it’s bad, and you’ll be attacked online if that’s really awful, or even worse than that, you’ll be completely ignored, and then that can actually ruin your persona going forward. Maybe you get better, and you do something good, but those other books are still out there, and they’re still above you. It’s kind of like having something on Facebook. You move on. You get older, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m kind of embarrassed that that’s out there,” but you really can’t erase it very easily. So, don’t publish until you’re ready.

Barlow: Okay.
My next question… this might be… you might have already answered it, but what is the biggest mistake you see other authors make?

Sullivan: The biggest mistake I see other authors make… well, the answer comes in two different ways.
One would be, either they haven’t spent enough time learning how to write, and so the books that they’re producing aren’t as good as they could be. And the other thing is that if, maybe, they are good at writing, but they’re relying too much on, not… just putting it out and expecting it to take off. You actually have to put some elbow grease in it. But the other problem you have is that, one of the best things you can do to promote your work is write another book. In fact, you should write, like, three books before you put a lot of effort in to promote them. People try to promote the first book, but what that does is, you’re investing a lot of time and energy to get people. But they’re only going to get one book out of you, and they’ll kind of forget you while you’re writing the next one. If you have three books out there, you’re going to magnify the effect. And if you’ve got three books out there, they’re going to think, “Oh. Well, this is a substantial author. I should keep watching this guy because it’s not just a one off. He’s actually pretty good. He’s consistent.” You can put more than one book out there, and three books will be more than enough to get someone to really think that you’re someone who they want to watch. And I think that you have to be able to know… spend enough time to write well, and then put in enough effort to get noticed.

Barlow: Right. That makes a lot of sense.
Can I ask you what your biggest mistake was?

Sullivan: What my biggest mistake was? Oh. Um, hmm… I accidentally did a lot of really good things by accident I think.

… Oh yeah. My wife says I should have fought harder for the audio rights. I didn’t do it at the time because I didn’t think they were that lucrative. Turns out they’re very lucrative, and nowadays they are the equivalent of what eBooks were back in the day.

Barlow: Really?

Sullivan: Yeah. Had we had we kept the audiobook rights, that would have been much better. So, we’ve done that since then, but back in the old days we probably should have realized that that was important. Yeah.
My wife says hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost because we didn’t keep that.

Barlow: Oh no. Oh my gosh.

Sullivan: But we actually did do most things right by sheer accident, and it wasn’t because we were super knowledgeable. It’s just that we kind of went with our gut. Luckily, we happened to do a lot of things right. Not too many mistakes, but that would probably be one.

Barlow: Okay. Well I’m going to keep that in my mind.
Is there anything that you wish everyone knew?

Sullivan: When you think about it, traditional publishing and self-publishing are both good for different reasons and both bad for different reasons, and it’s a misconception to think that one way is right and the other way is wrong. We’ve been successful in both. And it depends on what you as a person are looking for and what you’re willing to accept and what you’re willing to live with versus, you know, what you really want. And then you have to decide between the two. But both of them are very good ways of getting published, and both of them are very bad depending on the type of person you are. That would be something that people probably are not as well educated about or not as well informed about, unfortunately. There’s no way of saying that, yes, you must be traditionally published, and if you’re not, there’s something wrong, or you must be self-published. There’s a lot of mindset that believes that.

Barlow: Okay, so my last question for you. Is there something I should have asked but I didn’t?

Sullivan: *Laughter*
That’s a good one.
I mean, the thing is that I do interviews frequently, and I’ve been asked a great many questions, so it’s unusual for anyone to ask you something that’s original. So, if you would have come up with something that was original, that would have been interesting, but I don’t know that it would have benefited you any. No, you. You did fine. What is it for, exactly?

Barlow: So, I am in the last semester of my MFA. And I… well I’ll go ahead and tell you… I myself self-published a book and ultimately got a book deal out of, well, a three-book deal out of it. And, so, I’m very sort of positive about that route, and the majority, I would say, of my peers kind of, like, stick up their noses at the idea of self-publishing. And, so, my goal was to sort of show the positive sides of it, how effective it can be, and, also just, you know, not just come from my own perspective, but come from a variety of perspectives, so that’s why I wanted to interview a lot of people and so, just…

Sullivan: So, I can explain one more thing for you based off of that, and it’s the idea that there is a very bizarre way that people look at the differences between traditional and self-publishing, in the fact that they will say, you know, the vast majority of people in self-publishing do nothing, and they are unsuccessful. But what they’re failing to recognize is that they’re literally looking at everyone who tried self-publishing versus only those who got past the slush pile and actually got published do they do they judge for traditional publishing.

Barlow: Ahhh.

Sullivan: They’re not also counting all those people who have been submitting to publishers for years and never got anywhere. So, once you get published, of that group of people, how many are successful versus everyone who has ever tried to get published in self-publishing, which is apples and oranges because of the fact that you’re taking out all the bad people who try to get traditionally published.

Barlow: That’s an excellent point.

Sullivan: So, if you include those, then the numbers equal out a lot more. In fact, you are more likely to get successfully published in self-publishing than you would in traditional due to the fact that you don’t have to make as many sales in self-publishing to be successful. But you do have a lot of crap out there because, basically, what it would be is that, if everyone who ever submitted a book to a traditional publisher was having the entire slush pile being published.

Barlow: Right.

Sullivan: So, unfortunately, they have a tendency to forget that portion of them. It’s just that “We’re not going to include that in the data.” So, that’s one of the things I tend to get a little irritated when people are comparing the two. Like, “Oh, well, see. These numbers don’t line up.” Well, that’s because you’re skewing your numbers by leaving this group out.

Barlow: That’s a really good point that I had never thought of before. I feel as though, I mean, one person had made the comment that “Self-publishing is like playing tennis without a net.” And I disagreed with that because you can, like you did, hire editors, you can edit multiple times, you can hire great cover artists, and on the other side, you also have authors who have been so successful that they can’t refuse to edit their manuscripts, which is almost like playing tennis about a net. And, so, you also have that in the traditional publishing industry.

Sullivan: So, I think the misconception that you’re having here is that there is more than one way to publish. Traditional publishing simply means that you’re having someone else handle some of the services. They’re both the same thing. They’re both publishing. It doesn’t matter how you go about doing it. If you self-publish a book, and you do a terrible job of it, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you traditionally publish a book, and you don’t follow up on it or have a good traditional publisher on your side, or they’re not invested in doing anything, then you’re also going to fail. I mean, both routes are terrible if you don’t know what you’re doing, and unfortunately there’s a great many people who get traditionally published who know nothing about what they’re doing. As a result of that, they can have their careers ruined through the contracts where people totally make it impossible for them to work, or they will give you bad editors, or they will have people tell you things that you’ll believe it because you’re putting too much emphasis on the publisher. Or, they will tell you not to promote yourself online, which is what you really need to do as an author, or you will not get anywhere. You as an author are publishing. You’re either going to publish through your self-publishing route, where you’re going to be doing it. You can hire other people, like editors or services. And, in my mind, to many degrees, the publisher is simply another distributing service that you as an author can utilize. It’s not something where you go through them, and they will then make you into a good author. And, I think, this is a huge fallacy. Too many authors think that when they get published by a publisher, the publisher is the source of their success, which to me is absurd because most people in publishing houses don’t really know that much about writing. Most writers have been doing it for years and years and years, and most of the people who are editing you have been at it for a very short period of time. And they don’t know anything about writing. They may know something about the marketing or the industry, but they don’t know anything about writing. So these are things that you need to keep in mind – that traditional publishing and self-publishing are different ways of doing the same thing, but the onus is always on the author.

Barlow: That’s excellent. Yes. I think you are completely correct in that. I mean, the idea that the publisher will make you great, somehow, I think that a lot of people think that.

Sullivan: I mean, but you’re not playing with a net if you are self-publishing because, again, if you’re not paying attention traditionally, they may not give you good editing, as well. I mean I’ve had traditional publishers that don’t edit well. So, again, just as you have to watch and make sure you get good editors when you self-publish, you also have to make sure that you get good editors when you traditionally publish. So, it’s not a matter of, “They’re going to take care of everything.” You still have to make sure your book comes out well.

Barlow: Right. That is all perfect. I almost want to sort of start the presentation with that. That these are two routes to doing the same thing. And you… you are responsible, ultimately. So, yes, that is true and excellent. Okay.
And you also make me want to go back and see where my audiobook rights went.

Sullivan: *Laughs*