Interview: Michael J. Sullivan’s Kickstarter for Hollow World

I’m happy to announce that Silk Screen Views has had a chance to catch up with Michael J. Sullivan, an author known for the Riyria series books and novellas. Recently, Michael started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a new book called the Hollow World and it just finished a few days ago. The project has been very successful and an interesting adventure for Michael. Let’s move on to the interview and get a sneak peak into the campaign, Michael’s thoughts about the project and the book that started it all.

o=o-o=o

~ Book Campaign: Hollow World Kickstarter ~

What made you think about starting a Kickstarter campaign?

I can take no credit for the idea. That’s all my wife’s doing. In general she takes care of the “business side” of things so I can concentrate on the writing end. She’s known about Kickstarter for a long time and saw some other authors* who did well with it and thought we should give it a try.

She’s pretty famous for always saying, “Well you won’t know unless you try.” And that has taken us in many interesting directions over the years.

*Authors: Brad Beaulieu, Tobias Buckell, T.A. Pratt

Why did you decide to try it out? You’re with a publishing house & under a contract.

Self-publishing isn’t new to me. I started out self-publishing, sold the series to traditional, and now I’m considering each project on a case-by-case basis. I just recently signed two books with Orbit, but they didn’t agree with my terms for Hollow World. I could have shopped it around elsewhere, but I was actually looking for a good excuse to shift to hybrid (doing some books self, and others traditional) so I leaped at the chance. I’m sure I’ll continue to do some of each from this point forward.

What was it like to brainstorm ideas for the Kickstarter? Was it easy to figure out donation gifts?

Most of that was my wife’s doing. We had a couple of requirements we wanted to stick to:
(a) having something reasonable at $10
(b) having something at $25 and
(c) providing a limited edition hardcover

We didn’t have any of the really high rewards ($1,000+) because I didn’t feel comfortable that I had anything to offer that was worth that much. Marc’s painting was so beautiful that it was a perfect choice to use for the stretch goals.

When did it hit you that the whole thing was going to work? When did it feel real? 

The next day when I got up and saw we were already 134% funded. But I never expected it to go over $30,000 mark. I figured it would do $10,000 – $20,000 tops.

If you could describe the whole experience in 5 words, what would they be?

Eye-opening. Exciting. Easy to do.

Did you ever imagine that you would gain the response you have to this project?

No, not at all. My wife and I had a bet going. I thought we would reach the goal a few minutes before the clock ran out at the end of 30 days.  She said we would get fully funded in 48 hours.  We were both wrong, it went to 100% in 17 hours, but she was closest so I had to clean the house that week. Well worth it!

What do you enjoy the most out of the experience?

That its success may be used as an example and encourage other authors to try the “non-conventional” options available to them. Earning well as an author has always been difficult, but by using all the tools at their disposal many authors who you’ve never heard of are actually doing quite well.

Was it tough to come up with new donation gifts as the project passed several goal marks? 

A little…yeah. I really wanted to do T-shirts but they can be expensive to buy and ship. Plus there is a lot of organization related to sizes.  In the end, I stuck to posters and bookmarks because they are (a) light to ship and (b) easy for me to produce.

What’s the standing for the Hollow World Kickstarter? Is it the first fiction novel campaign to be so successful?

If you look at the broad category “Publishing” it’s a small fry (still in the top 100 at #86). But there are sub-categories like children’s books, fiction, poetry, etc. In the fiction category, it ended up at #8.  But all the projects ahead of it are either:  interactive ebooks, anthologies, book & games together, or multiple book projects. So that makes it #1 for a single novel.  But again, that’s within the fiction category.  If you go over to children’s books there’s a project (Wollstonecraft) that earned almost three times as much but that’s a much different classification so it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

How active were you in the whole process? Networking, announcements, etc.

I tried not to be too obnoxious about the promotional end. I didn’t want to piss people off or get too annoying. Still, I have a big presence on Goodreads, Reddit, and the various staples like Twitter and Facebook. So I did post a few messages there. I also have emails of some of my readers and I did a mailing to them, but truth be told I stopped a lot of those activities once we did really well as there was no point to push it further. It’s not like this is the only income the book will ever produce. There will be plenty of people buying it when it is officially released.  My main goal (once we got past funding) was to have it do “well enough” that other authors would consider it a possibility for their own work.

What do you believe are key elements that made the project successful? Current fans? Word of Mouth? Your passion?

I think the key to any venture is having a product that people are excited by. The books I’ve released in the past have been pretty well received, but it’s been a year and a half since the most recent one came out. I think there are a good number of people who are anxious for my “next read.”  I also think it doesn’t hurt to go “direct to the readers.” There are a lot of people that get annoyed by “big business” taking so much of the profit, so having almost all the money (Kickstarter takes just 10% to process the payments/facilitate the process) is also a major draw. I don’t have full data yet, but I think that many of the contributors had never funded a kickstarter before and like the concept.

What advice would you give to other authors about your experience?

Wow, there’s a lot to say on this front. I’m actually going to do a whole write up on how mine was designed, what I did right, what I did wrong.  I’m going to be posting this for free so others can read it. But in general I say they should plan a lot ahead of time and be willing to make adjustments as it goes on.  Also don’t get stressed out during the middle of the campaign when contributions are slower.  It happens to almost all of them.

Artist: Marc Simonetti

~ Behind the Screen into Hollow World ~

How did you end up going from taking a break to writing Hollow World?

As a writer, you sometimes have these ideas that get into your head and you really have to write the book to purge them out. Hollow World was like that. I would keep coming up with more and more ideas about it and so it was really quite persistent. In many respects, the best thing was to get it written so I wouldn’t have it nagging me all the time.

Did the concept, writing and art all fall together easily for Hollow World or was it a step by step process that also had leaps of genius and productivity?

It’s one of those novels that came together really quickly for me.  But many of the concepts and ideas had been with me for decades. For instance, some of the inventions that exist in Hollow World are from notes I made 25 years ago. They finally started coming together like dust forming into planets after the big bang starts to calm down. The first draft was written in six weeks and that’s about twice as fast as most of my novels. So yeah, it was a pretty easy one and flowed together really effortlessly. Those are the best kind of novels for me!

How do you think people will react to you writing Sci-Fi? What did YOU think the reaction would be? What’s the reaction thus far?

An excellent question, and to be truthful I have no idea. To me, genre doesn’t matter. If a story is good, I don’t care what it is classified as but others aren’t like I am. My wife was a good test case as she generally enjoys fantasy but isn’t a science fiction fan. She loved Hollow World and she doesn’t love everything I write.

I think that if people say to themselves, “Well I like Sullivan, so I’ll take a chance,” then they’ll be pleased. To date the feedback has been really strong. My editor at Orbit, my agent and the beta readers (many of which are new to my writing) all loved it. I only had one person (a fellow writer) who didn’t like it, but that was because they liked a protagonist in the short story Greener Grass and he’s not in Hollow World. That guy was a bit too unlikeable to carry a whole story. In small dosages I can “take him” but my trademark has been characters that you would like to hang out with. So I needed to have a different main character for the novel.

I’ve guessed from your writing that your wife is your first, best, worst, love-hate critic and reader. How did she initially respond? What was her response once she read the book?

You are very correct about Robin’s role. While it was under construction, I would drop hints here and there and she often gave me very skeptical responses. I was really afraid that she wasn’t going to like it. She tore through it (always a good sign) and when it was over she said, “I know this is a standalone book, but I could see a story made about this, and that, and the other thing…”

I knew it was a big hit. She also has roamed around lamenting, “I miss Pax.” Which is a REALLY good sign. It was because she missed Royce and Hadrian that I wrote The Crown Tower and The Rose and the Thorn. So responses like that from her are the best indications that the book came out well.

While being between contractual obligations, why Hollow World?

Oh, Hollow World wasn’t the only thing I worked on after my Riyria Revelations. There was Antithesis (an urban fantasy), and then The Crown Tower, and The Rose and the Thorn. Not to mention The First Empire Series which was actually supposed to be written before Hollow World. As I mentioned, Hollow World really just wouldn’t leave me alone so I had to get it out of my head so I could concentrate on other stuff. I’m now back to writing The First Empire while I wait to see how the readers think about the new books.

What about the story made you sit up, not let go and keep at you until the words were written?

Well I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you. Oh wait, that’s a line for my secondary career as a spy/assassin. But seriously, I really can’t say because it would spoil the fun. Part of what makes the book intriguing is the unexpected directions it takes and the characters that you follow.  I don’t want to say too much about that.

But one of the cool things about this book is that different people will see it differently. I’m sure that a lot of people will assume I’ve interjected some of my own beliefs into it, but I’m a master of playing both sides of an argument and so only I and Robin know my real take on things found between the pages. It has the potential to be polarizing, and I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing, but it was interesting to do from a writer’s perspective.

How did you decide on the artist for the cover and the promos for the Kickstarter?

When the concept of people living under the earth in beautifully carved out caverns with simulated sunlight came to me, I had a very particular minds-eye impression for what that would look like. I’m an artist, so imagining the setting down to the smallest detail is easy for me. Marc Simonetti has done the covers for the French editions of my Riyria Revelations and he has a great eye for perspective. His artwork shows a lot of depth. Plus there is a real drama to his style. I knew immediately that he would be the perfect choice. I also found some other painters who have great work (just in case he wouldn’t be available…or would be astronomically expensive) but I’m glad he both had the time, and the Kickstarter provided the funding, because he really did an exceptional job with the painting.

Can you give a brief description of Hollow World?

Sure, Hollow World is about an “average Joe” who has a penchant for science but circumstances prevented him from going to MIT.  He’s generally worked hard, done the right things, but lived a pretty dull life. When he discovers he has a terminal disease, he takes a chance to build a time machine and go to the future, where he thinks he’ll find a cure. What he discovers is quite an adventure for him, and the readers who come along for the ride. His time travel also sets off a sequence of events that could have drastic consequences, but I won’t get into that as it would spoil the fun.

Are you already working on a sequel to Hollow World?

No, not at all—and I’m not even sure there will be a book two. As I mentioned, my wife wants one (or two or three), and she usually gets her way, but it makes no sense to write another until we see how the first one does. I was the same way with my Riyria franchise. I wrote six books and that was all that there were supposed to be. But the series was well received, and yet people still wanted more, so I wrote two more books.  I can’t afford to take time away from other projects without knowing whether Hollow World has any legs or not…but if it turns out it does, then I have a lot of potential ways to go about more in this world and with these characters. And I would love to return and do the same with it as I did with Riyria.

Did you daughter read the story? What’s her response?

Sarah did read the book, and her favorite character is Alva…who isn’t even a person, but I wrote it with Sarah in mind. She liked the book a lot, but she’s not as enthusiastic about me writing more in that world as Robin is. I’m not concerned about that because she had an almost identical reaction after reading the first book in my Riyria Revelations and now it is one of her favorite series. She’s one of those people who like a book more the longer she is away from it. Having only recently read it, I figure she’ll be really excited about the time the official version comes out in January. Another contributing factor is that she REALLY prefers to read on paper (she read it on her phone). My guess is that it will go up a few notches on the re-read.

Do you ever feel lucky & blessed that writing has become what it has in your life?

Blessed, definitely. Lucky…I have a bit of an issue with that word because I think it is used as a crutch by some writers. Too often I hear would-be writers say, “You have to be lucky to make it,” and I think that absolves the author’s responsibility to write well. By their reasoning, any piece of crap can ‘make it’ if the person is lucky enough. Thomas Jefferson said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it,” which sums up my thoughts on the subject.

A better adjective for me would be to say that I feel extremely grateful. I’m always appreciative of the fact that many have given me their time, encouragement, and money so that I can do this as a full-time profession. I feel like the two of us have a covenant. For my part, I need to write the best books I know how, and in return they give me enough money to pay the bills so I don’t have to have a day job which would take time away from my writing. It’s a pretty good arrangement from where I sit.

So blessed? Yes. Grateful? Yes. As for lucky…it seems to take away any responsibility on my part, and I prefer to think I have a part to play.

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Thank you, Michael, for joining us on Silk Screen Views and sharing your thoughts and experiences on the Kickstarter & Hollow World. I learned a lot and look forward to your collected thoughts on running a Kickstarter as an author. I can’t wait to read the book! I’m totally curious and can’t wait to get my copy. This won’t be the last time you see Michael J. Sullivan on SSV. I’m sure we’ll find other reasons to bring him back.

Michael is one of the handful of authors that have given Silk Screen Views permission to repost their articles on writing in our Scribes Corner. You can find him there but to really get an idea of what he’s like, please check out Michael’s website for more information on him and his work.

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