Posted August 11, 2014 by in Interviews

A Chat with Author Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan, author of the recently released Hollow World, takes some time to answer a few questions.


RS: Thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule to do this; it is very exciting for our little book site and me as a fan. 

MJS: I’m very pleased to be here. Thank you for having me.


RS: After a rough start, you have had tremendous success as a self-published author over the years. Many, many authors go this route but never cross over to mainstream the way you have. To what do you attribute this success?

MJS: I’m not sure if this answer is going to be encouraging to new writers or have the opposite effect, but here goes. There are three keys to success. The first is to write a very good book, and as “good” is a highly subjective term, what I mean is you have to write a book that people love so much they recommend it to others. If you write an “okay book,” your chances of success go down significantly as everything hinges on the all-important “word of mouth.” The writer, or a publisher, can’t manufacture a word-of-mouth following by throwing money out there. It’s the readers who decide which books they’ll talk up. There has to be a high-quality product, or you have zero chance of catching a wave. The big problem is it’s impossible to know what books will have this “it” factor that people fall in love with. If that were easy to determine, all books would be bestsellers.

The second key is you have to “get it out there” to a core group of people…because a pump doesn’t work unless it is first primed. There is no “magic bullet.” All authors start out without an audience, and in the early days they must gather them one reader at a time. It’s time-consuming and may seem impossible. But if you keep at it, the wheel will start to turn on its own.

That brings me to the third key…persistence. Writing (and publishing) are not things that happen overnight. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says it takes 10,000 hours to master a task. Stephen King advises that a writer’s first 1,000,000 words should be looked at as “practice.”  I agree with both of those assessments. It takes a long time to learn how to weave a good tale and find your voice. Few do it in their first book…for me, it wasn’t until about book eight that I was writing something that I felt could be “put out in the world” and it was novel number fourteen that was my first published book.  The good news is you are in complete control of this. If you keep at it, and work toward constant improvement…you will get better.

So, bottom line…none of this is easy…especially the first part. The good news is you don’t just have one chance at bat; you can keep writing and try different things. Each one increases your chances of hitting a chord with a reading audience. Once you get them hooked, they will be more than willing to give your other works a try.


RS: As I mentioned, I have been following your works since before The Crown Conspiracy was self-published. How long had you “known” the characters Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater before you were finally able to give them their first adventure? (In other words, did you have these characters mentally developed for years before you were finally able to place them in a story?)

MJS: Oh these two had been with me a long time, well over a decade. It started way back before the Internet. It started when I and a few friends started a kind of “chain story” where one started a scene then someone added on to it. It started easily enough; two guys walk into a tavern. That was an early incantation of Royce and Hadrian, but they were nothing more than a “duo.” My friends soon got tired of the project…mainly because every time I got the story, I rewrote their parts. Back then I was writing literary fiction, working on the Great American Novel (without success). So I quit writing altogether. I was away from it for a decade, but these two kept invading my thoughts. I never wrote down anything, but I could see scenes and how plots would play out. Finally, I decided to write again, and it was them that I started with. They were still rough, though. If you look at early drafts of The Crown Conspiracy, the two were hard to tell apart. Eventually, they developed their own personalities and from that point on, I’ve connected with them, such that I know what they will say or do in any situation.


RS: When you made the deal with Orbit, you had to remove your previously self-published books from the market so you wouldn’t be competing with Orbit. How did you feel about that? You had relatively solid sales, and then you pulled them out of that game…that had to make you nervous.

MJS: The “publishing process” can be very slow. When Orbit made the offer, it was mid-October 2010, and I was selling modestly well. Previous months were right about the 1,000 mark, which was spread across four titles. In early October, I released my fifth book, and its initial sales had a big impact. By the end of October, the sales had increased to 2,600 books. But the crazy time came in November, December, January and February where the sales were 10,000-12,000 each month. No one knew I had a deal with Orbit; it just happened to be a watershed moment when a lot of self-published authors saw some major traction.

It wasn’t until March that I received the first draft of a contract…and I was shocked at what was in it. I thought I would be signing over rights for five or seven years. What I didn’t know is that the “industry standard” was a term that extended for the full copyright (life of the author plus 70 years). Yes, there were provisions for the books to revert if sales fell below a certain threshold, but I thought those levels were ridiculously low and weren’t likely to be crossed. Then there was the non-compete clause…that was a total deal breaker (as written) as it could potentially restrict my ability to write anything else for the rest of my life. I should make it clear that these provisions weren’t unique to Orbit (or their parent company, Hachette Book Group). All this was standard to the industry. Anyway, when that contract arrived, there was no way I would sign it. I had an advantage as I could just walk away and stay self-published.

After many more months, the contract got revised to a point where I could sign it, and I think I finally did in like July or something like that. So yeah, there was a pretty long time where I doubted whether the move from self- to traditional was the way to go. My books were for sale all during this time, so I didn’t have a problem on that end. They eventually came off the market just a few months before Orbit’s release dates. To me, that timing was appropriate. The pre-order pages for their books were up, and people didn’t have too long to wait. It wasn’t hard to remove them…by that time I had come to think of “my time” with those books as over, and I was excited to see what new levels Orbit would take them to. I wasn’t nervous, as the books had already performed far beyond my wildest hopes, so anything else that might become of them was icing on the cake.

Hollow World (Kindle Edition)

By (author): Michael J. Sullivan

Kindle Edition: Check Amazon for Pricing Digital Only
Release date March 24, 2014.


RS: You recently released your novel Hollow World, congrats on that. You posted on your website that you felt it was the best thing you had ever written. What is it about this novel, more than your other works, which you feel so close to?

MJS: Hollow World is a complicated book. It covers some “big issues” (the meaning of one’s existence, what makes us unique, what is love, even contemplations on God), but I do all this in a way that I hope is entertaining. The real trick was to present a kind of Rorschach test where different people come away with very different impressions. Based on reviews and personal correspondence, I did what I set out to achieve. It’s interesting seeing people assume I’m advocating one “agenda,” while others see me “pushing” the exact opposite viewpoint. The truth of the matter is my views on some of the issues in the book remain nicely hidden…and no one has yet figured out what I think on a number of subjects, even though they “think” they do.

It all sounds kinda heavy, but trust me, it’s not. Like my Riyria books, it has some interesting characters, a murder, and a plot that threatens an entire civilization. It plays out both on an individual level, how a man comes to grips with his past and what his future should be, but also shows us a world which could be a utopian to some, and a dystopian to others. In short, it has a lot going on both on the surface and beneath. In many ways Riyria is written for pure entertainment, whereas Hollow World challenges people to think and hopefully consider things in a different light. Fun stuff.


RS: You obviously spend a LOT of time writing and promoting your books, but are you a reader, too?

MJS: I think reading is important for writers…and yes, I read a lot…every day, in fact. I’m not a very fast reader, so it takes me a long time to go through a book, and many of them I purposefully dole out very slowly to make them last longer. Each day before I write, I read a few pages to get my head into a “writing space.” My main reading happens in the evening, right before I turn in.


RS: Who are your top three favorite authors, and do you prefer to read traditional or ebooks?

MJS: Well my answers are probably not going to be too surprising, but by giving some context they might have more significance. J.R.R. Tolkien and his amazing Lord of the Rings saga is responsible for turning me into a reader and writer. Before him, I hated books and barely made it through any of the ones I tried. All that changed when I discovered Middle Earth. I read everything I could get my hands on, and at that time there wasn’t much (unlike nowadays). So I started writing my own stories. As you can imagine, that will always put his books in a special place for me.

The second person is also highly responsible for my writing career. As I mentioned, I used to write literary fiction, which I enjoyed creating, but it wasn’t what I would call “fun.” One day I picked up the first Harry Potter book for my daughter; she was struggling with dyslexia and I thought she would enjoy it. I ended up reading it and fell back in love…so much adventure…such a great set of characters…a wonderful world. It made me want to write again, but this time I would concentrate on writing books that I wanted to write, not books that I “thought would sell.”

There are many contenders for the third spot.  I’ll give it to Stephen King because he has a fabulous way of writing characters that I remember. It’s been well over 30 years since I read The Stand, but I still can remember Nick Andros, Frannie Goldsmith, Tom Cullen, and Stu Redman like they were childhood friends. I love the way he gets “inside of the heads” of his characters, and I’ve learned a great deal from watching what he does.

As for print versus ebooks…I’m one of those people who can’t be satisfied with either/or. I like both. I love a beautiful book on my shelf, but that’s mainly for me to look at from afar. When it comes to reading, I prefer ebooks as it doesn’t damage my “precious.”  Plus, I’m getting older and my eyes are not what they used to be. With an ebook, I can adjust the size of the font, and when reading a paper edition, I have to put on glasses.


RS: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

You can find ebooks by Michael J Sullivan on Amazon here.


Rachel Storey

Software engineer by day, bookworm by night. I love reading. I love writing about reading. I love talking about writing about reading. I joined Bookkaholic to have great conversations about literature, so please feel free to leave comments and discussions.