The 20-Year Overnight Success

You might assume that Michael Wallace has led a charmed existence as an author: his first book hit the Top 100 right from launch, and the hits just kept coming, especially when Amazon Publishing picked him up and gave him a real push; he has now sold over a million ebooks and seemed to do it without breaking a sweat.

But like many “overnight” author successes, Michael Wallace’s story is one of hard work, persistence, and making the most of an opportunity when one finally came his way.

Michael Wallace took the time over several days in September 2013 to answer my questions about writing, marketing, and the book business, and the dialogue is presented in full below and is still hugely relevant to being an author in 2021.

David Gaughran: When I started self-publishing in 2011, you were one of those guys already doing well that everyone was watching closely. I think you uploaded your first in January of that year, and, if memory serves me right, The Righteous – your thriller set in a polygamist compound in the Utah desert – launched straight into the Top 100 of the Kindle Store and has sold well ever since. Are you one of these classic “overnight” success stories with ten years of hard work behind it?

Michael Wallace: Make it twenty years and that’s about right. The Righteous was my ninth completed novel. Toss in over a hundred short stories and maybe a thousand rejection letters and you start to get a picture of how persistent I was. Or maybe stubborn is the right word. I was not able to give up even in the face of overwhelming indifference on behalf of the publishing industry.

The Righteous had gone out on submission a couple of years earlier, and my agent kept getting rejections that were some variation of, “I loved this book and couldn’t put it down, but what’s the audience for a thriller set in a polygamist cult?” When I self-published, I was very happy to discover that there was in fact an audience.

I believe that luck has a lot to do with success as a writer, and there’s no question that I got some lucky breaks when I put The Righteous and a few of my other books up for sale on KDP. I was able to interact with readers on the Amazon forum before the policies changed and gave away several hundred copies of my novels in return for honest reviews. As the books started getting visibility, a couple of big review sites, including Pixel of Ink, gave me important mentions.

The Amazon algorithms at the time were very favorable and both The Righteous and Implant got swept up in an almost miraculous updraft. The Righteous reached as high as #20 in the overall store as an indie book. I was in the wave of 99¢ authors finding success at that time, and the store wasn’t as big as it is now, so I wasn’t getting rich, but it was real money. In addition, I started to get queries from agents and publishers expressing interest in The Righteous. As someone who had been struggling to get noticed for so many years, this was perhaps the strangest thing of all.

Of course, that was only the beginning of the story. You ended up writing a bunch of sequels to The Righteous, then sold that series to Amazon’s then-new imprint, Thomas & Mercer – a deal announced back in August 2011. Amazon then cranked up their famed marketing machine, and, at one point, the only book selling more was The Hunger Games.

That was an exciting time. The first three books of the series hit the Wall Street Journal Top 10 in the same week. My books were #2, 3, and 4 in the overall Kindle store, and the only reason they didn’t hit #1 was because it was the weekend of the opening of the first Hunger Games movie.

On the one hand it feels like a great accomplishment, but on the other I recognize I was fortunate enough to have a huge Amazon campaign behind it. When Amazon wants to give a book visibility, they can do so in a way that is stunning to indie and trad published authors alike.

It was a risk signing over my rights when the books were selling so well on their own, but Thomas & Mercer has more than proved their worth over the past couple of years. In addition, they’re just really nice people who treat their authors extremely well.

They do seem to roll out the red carpet for their authors. I’m curious about something though. Do you do anything to push the Thomas & Mercer books, or do you leave that in the hands of Amazon?

I don’t have the ability to change the price, so in general I am relying on the T&M promotion. But these are also my best-selling books by far, so a lot of my interactions with readers are to discuss The Righteous. I’m getting ready to deliver book #7 of the series in a couple of weeks (#6 is done and awaiting a February publication date), with one more book to complete the Thomas & Mercer contract. I suspect that when I look back in another twenty years, I will consider the eight books of the series to be my major accomplishment, not just of my career, but of my life.

You said the thrillers are your biggest sellers – not too surprising given the size of the genre (and the helping hand from Amazon). But you write all sorts of stuff: kids books, fantasy, historical fiction, and a little science fiction too. Aside from whatever deadlines you have with Amazon, how do you choose the next project? You obviously like writing in several different genres, so I’m sure that tickles something creatively, but do commercial considerations come into play too?

I need to mix things up to avoid burnout. Ideally, I’d write four books a year, maybe one historical thriller, one contemporary stand-alone thriller, a fantasy novel, and then something for an ongoing series. Practically speaking, I haven’t yet managed more than three books in a year, which means I shuffle stuff around. I choose the project depending on a mix of what I think is in demand, what I need to deliver for contract, and what ideas won’t leave me alone.

One of the best things about being an indie writer is that nobody can tell you no. Well, they can, and they do, but it’s easy enough to thumb your nose and do it anyway. Sometimes they’re right. I was convinced State of Siege was brilliant when I was writing it. Total sales are less than a tenth that of my most successful indie thriller, The Devil’s Deep.

But mostly, I’ve found that if I love an idea there are at least a few thousand readers out there who will love it too.

Your latest release is fresh territory again. The Wolves of Paris just came out the other day, and it seems to draw together aspects of a few different genres you enjoy writing in. Obviously it has the historical setting of Paris in 1450, but it’s a thriller… with werewolves! (That had me one-clicking in about 2 seconds, btw.)  Can you tell us a little about what attracted you to the idea, and whether a cross-genre novel like this poses any specific challenges when writing it?

In the winter of 1450, a starving pack of wolves infiltrated the city walls of Paris and killed forty people before they were destroyed by an angry mob on the steps of Notre Dame. That is about all that is known of the incident, but as soon as I read about it I knew I had to turn it into a novel.

I’m excited about The Wolves of Paris. Paris in 1450 is a fantastic playground for a fevered imagination, and the research was amazing and fun. The book itself is some of my favorite writing ever. It’s bloody, action-packed, and has a couple of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever written.

I think it’s my strongest work, so I’m hopeful it will get a great reception. But yes, it’s a little bit different. I write everything like a suspense novel, drawing out tense scenes and shifting viewpoints for maximum page-turning potential. Still, my main characters are traders from Renaissance Florence, traveling to Paris when it was still a dark corner of the late medieval period. It makes for a fascinating background, but I’m also hoping my core readers will take a chance on a very different setting.

In marketing terms, does breaking genre boundaries make promoting the book more challenging, or does it expand your potential audience?

Both are true. On the one hand, I’m constantly struggling to get my existing readers to give my newest project a try. On the other, if you look at my World War II thrillers on Amazon, you can see that they’re associated in the store with a lot of other period stuff. My fantasy novel pages are stuffed with recommendations for other fantasies. My Righteous series books show a lot of other Thomas & Mercer thrillers. That shows that my overall writing is drawing a diverse set of readers.

Those same recommendation pages on Amazon also show a lot of crossover in my readership, but it’s not yet where I’d like it to be. The key is to write so consistently well that a reader knows that if he enjoys any one book of mine he’s likely to enjoy anything I write.

Are you finding that readers generally stick to what they like (and you have to build a new audience in each genre)?

My largest group of readers are the followers of the Righteous series. They’re dying to know what happens next in Blister Creek, Utah, but not so interested in trying anything else.

Then I have the group who will read only my fantasy novels. They’re anxious for the next Dark Citadel books, but don’t seem to branch out into other things. Once or twice I’ve nudged one of these readers with a free book from my thriller list, but this has had mixed results, to say the least. This is a small, but fierce group of readers. A similar, but more fluid group of readers will read my historical thrillers or any of my contemporary thrillers except the Righteous. The polygamists creep them out.

Finally, there are those who read anything I write. For whatever reason, my writing style, my plotting, and my characters appeal to them, no matter the genre. Obviously, this is where I want all my readers to end up eventually, and this group does get a fair number of converts from the other categories.

Back to the Amazon deal for a moment. When it was announced, it was big news. I think you were in that first wave of self-publishers to get scooped up by Thomas & Mercer, along with people like Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, Traci Hohenstein, J Carson Black, and Scott Nicholson. And, like most of them, you’re still self-publishing other work.

They all seem pretty happy with how the Amazon Publishing experience has gone. I know you’re of a similar opinion, so I’ll ask you the same question I would ask them: if Amazon made an offer tomorrow, would you sign everything over to them? Or are you happier spreading your bets, so to speak?

That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I know the answer to that. There was a time when I considered doing that very thing, when Thomas & Mercer was making noises about acquiring my entire backlist. I hemmed and hawed and by the time I was interested in signing over at least some of it, they’d filled out their list of back titles and were no longer moving in that direction.

The truth is, self-publishing is fun. I love to have full control over covers and price and everything else involved in selling a book. It’s also fun to see sales in real time, to experiment with different promos, and to get those monthly account deposits.

But self-publishing is also more work, and the editorial process with traditional publishing is still superior to almost anything an indie writer can manage. Writing for a publisher gives a feeling of stability, which may or may not be illusory.

Many successful self-publishers say they wouldn’t take a publishing deal at all. Others say it’s either Amazon Publishing or self-publishing. Lots say they would sell subsidiary rights (print, audio, foreign etc.). And then some are totally open to anything, depending on the deal. Where do you fall?

I would absolutely take a deal with a NY publisher if the terms were good enough and the deal was non-exclusive. I wouldn’t limit my ability to keep working on side projects. This is one way in which Thomas & Mercer has been quite visionary. They recognize, correctly, that my doing other books will only help them sell more copies of The Righteous.

A traditional deal (and I’m including Amazon imprints in that) is like investing money in bonds when the stock market is booming, or vice versa. I want to be diversified, even at the potential of losing bigger money elsewhere.

My only real goal is to continue making a living as a writer. For twenty years I dreamed about how great it would be to be a full-time professional writer. The reality is, it’s even better than I imagined. I’ve got a good thing going and I want to be flexible enough to make sure that keeps happening.

I guess one of the advantages with going with a publisher is that they will fully exploit all those subsidiary rights – something that might be difficult or expensive for indies to do on their own, or where we might struggle to reach readers. Obviously, Thomas & Mercer put out print editions of your books, but it also does audio editions through Audible, CD versions, and MP3 downloads of those titles. Is there much sales action in these formats? I know you’ve done some paperback editions of your self-published stuff, but have you been tempted to do audio editions? Or is the market not quite there yet?

Right now, T&M isn’t selling much of anything for me except for e-books. But they sell a lot of those. Sometimes huge amounts. I’ve heard talk that they’ll be working those other formats harder in the future, but there are a lot of barriers, most notably that other bookstores see Amazon as the enemy and resist carrying their titles.

I would like to do audio of my self-published titles but I simply haven’t got around to it yet. I’m somewhat dissuaded by how poorly my paperbacks sell. I know that some indie writers do really well in paper, but mine have abysmal sales.

Moving on, I have a confession. I’ve been dropping your name a lot lately. I sometimes  get asked to speak at things or teach workshops and a topic that always comes up is author platform. Some writers break out in a cold sweat at the idea of joining Twitter, or posting about their lunch on Facebook, or wonder when they are going to write if they are blogging every day.

To reassure them, I always give the example of Michael Wallace. You have sold a large number of books without having a huge author platform. As far as I know, you don’t blog that regularly and aren’t even on Twitter. So it doesn’t seem to be a necessary condition for success. Or, at least, it wasn’t for your success.

Ah, so you are using me as an example of a lazy slacker who is somehow, mysteriously successful in spite of doing everything wrong. I feel that way sometimes when I look at the huge social media presence some writers manage. It is daunting to look at everything that can, and maybe should be, done. Mostly, I’d rather do nothing than do it badly.

Having said that, there are several ways I do interact socially. I maintain a website, collect a new release mailing list, and hang out on Kindleboards and other author sites to talk about marketing. I also experiment with my prices and run regular ads.

But no, I’m not a big blogger, I don’t interact much on Goodreads, and I am not on The Twitter, as my mother would say. It’s mainly a question of time. Even apart from the writing, which is where most of my efforts need to go, I need to spend my effort finding good covers, researching the next book, and learning more about the craft.

The reason I asked that question is that when I look back over the last couple of years, I spent too much time platform building, and not enough time putting out new fiction. I didn’t plan it that way, but I guess I wasn’t strict enough with myself about jealously guarding that writing time. I’ve switched focus this year, and feel a lot better for it.

One thing you did have – right from the start, if I remember right – was a lot of titles, and you’ve managed to keep up an impressive rate of releasing new books. I think you have 15 or 16 novels up on Amazon now, plus some shorter stuff and a couple of box sets. What’s your secret? Is it as simple as putting your ass in the chair every day, even when you don’t feel like it? How do you ensure all the other stuff doesn’t intrude on your writing time?

The truth is, I don’t feel particularly productive. I feel lazy, in fact. I have a hard time working for more than a couple of hours at a stretch on first draft material. I take too much time off between books, and my redrafts and edits progress at a sluggish pace. I see some writers producing ten books a year or writing first drafts in a single weekend and I feel like a sluggard.

What I am good at is consistency. I’m good at making a calendar and sticking to it. I’m good at setting a goal (typically, 1,500 to 2,500 words per day, depending on the book) and then holding to it every single day. When working on a first draft, I will write on Christmas, on my birthday, and if I’m sick. I can’t sit down to write a book–it’s too big a project–but I can hold myself to a certain word count every single day until a book magically appears a few weeks later. If I don’t follow this regimen, if I take a couple of days off, the book will go cold and it will be hard to pick up again.

I’m also a big believer in setting realistic, measurable goals. Make your goals something not dependent on other people. A goal such as “sell 100,000 books this year” is really just a wish. A goal “write three books this year” can be accomplished no matter what else anyone does.

And that’s my goal right now, to produce three new books every year. It’s a solid pace that feels sustainable over the long run. I do occasionally feel burnout approaching, but a trip or a few days of nothing but reading will generally recharge my batteries. This is my third year at that speed; we’ll see how I’m doing in another five.

We talked about author platform, but that’s only one aspect of marketing. While you don’t spend a huge amount of time blogging, or on Twitter or whatever, you do take an active role in promoting your books. What has been the most effective method, for you, in terms of reaching readers and growing your audience?

The two big things an author needs to do is to expand visibility and to maintain contact with loyal readers. In the first case, ads, giveaways, and other means of reducing your anonymity are absolutely crucial. Get your name out there. Get readers one way or another.

In the second case, if you are a writer and you don’t have a mailing list to announce new releases, you’re only making your job harder. My biggest regret from my first few months is that my list is now short several hundred names of people who would have signed up when I had so much visibility. Those are readers who have probably moved on in the past two years and forgotten all about me, but if I had a way to remind them, would return to check out my latest project.

As good as Amazon is relative to the other vendors, this is something the store could absolutely do better. If a reader has picked up multiple books by a given writer, they should automatically get a notice when that writer releases a new book. Until Amazon does that, writers need to take it on themselves to do the same.

Well they do have that new “Stay Up To Date” feature on author pages. But as I pointed out to Amazon several months ago, it doesn’t work – which, of course, is worse than having no such feature at all. But with regard to reaching readers and so forth, have you found that advice change over time? I know you had all or most of your stuff in KDP Select before, but I see you are on all the major platforms now. I guess what I’m getting at is this. What advice would you give to someone starting out today with only one or two books, and no “name” or author platform or mailing list?

If I were brand new today I would enroll my books in KDP Select. It’s true that you limit your readership when you do that, and some of the goodies that once existed as incentives to sign up for the program have been greatly diminished, but a good book with a strong cover can still gain thousands of downloads for a brand new author. Get your name out there, get a little visibility and some reviews, and then work at solidifying your reader base.

Beyond that, start making your own luck. Try new things, write new books, perfect your craft. Learn how to obtain and utilize constructive feedback. Don’t write strictly to the market, but every writer has more ideas than he knows what to do with. Take the ideas that appeal to you personally and then figure out which of them might be more commercial than others.

To a certain extent, my long, unpaid apprenticeship was a benefit, because I don’t have some of my crappy early novels out there harming my reputation. But there’s no reason why a new writer can’t put her book out there and let the audience decide. She can always yank it if she realizes later that it’s weak. After a few months, nobody will ever know it existed. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t put out your best possible work at any given time. I fully believe that, too.

You mentioned your “crappy early novels.” I guess those were some of the eight you you wrote before The Righteous. Were all of those eight trunked? Or did you publish any of them? I guess what I’m getting at is: do you think it’s better for a writer to keep their junk in the trunk, so to speak, or is it ever worth mounting a salvage operation?

Four of those novels are rubbish and will never see the light of day. In fact, I’m pretty sure three of them have been lost, although they might be on a floppy disk somewhere. I’m not sure and don’t really care to find out.

But of the eight, three of them are for sale after extensive rewriting. This includes the first two books of the Dark Citadel fantasy series and my children’s fantasy novel, The Kingdom of the Bears. The Dark Citadel books required a lot work, and there are still some things I’m not satisfied with. The Kingdom of the Bears was the last book I wrote before the Righteous and it was in decent shape and much easier to fix in a satisfying way. I’ve also got one other novel, another children’s fantasy called Moonland, that could be reworked at some point, but given that Kingdom of the Bears is my worst selling book, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend the time.

Should other writers rework their early stuff? That depends. I am a slower learner than most. It’s hard for me to identify my flaws until they’re already behind me. Almost every other writer I know either gave up long before I did or had earlier success. There are even rare authors who produce great work right off the bat.

If you’ve got a trunk novel you want to salvage, it’s worth asking whether it would take less time to simply write a newer, better novel. If the salvage effort is greater than about 70% of the effort of a new book, I’d say forget it.

About that “unpaid apprenticeship,” the pro-writer’s version of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory is that it takes about a million words before you start getting a real handle on the craft of writing – comfortable with all the tools at your disposal. My word count is only about half-way there, and I still write myself into a lot of dead ends, or choose the wrong project only to abandon it half-way through, or lose confidence in something, or whatever. At a rough guess, you breezed past the 2 million mark some time ago. How has your process changed over that time?

The biggest difference between a casual chess player and someone with an expert rating is the ability to recognize patterns in openings, end games, traps, and so on. Study and thousands of games help the chess player avoid blunders of the kind a crappy player like me routinely stumbles into. My writing has followed a similar pattern.

It used to be that I would write myself into plot cul-de-sacs or get halfway through a book and realize that I was building on a wobbly foundation. I’m much better at laying the groundwork for a solid book now. I’m not a strict outliner, but I do like to know where I’m starting, where I’m ending, and a big set piece or two in the middle. I make sure that I understand my characters before I start, especially my villains. So many things that now feel like instinct once gave me fits. This is where practice and study have played a crucial role in my development.

And do you ever lose confidence in a project, or, say, run into an intractable problem with the set-up or structure and abandon the book? I hear some pros say they still hit a wall with every novel, but are experienced enough now to know they just need to push through and keep going. Does that always work? I guess there’s a temptation, especially when writing in multiple genres, to switch to something else when the going gets tough (something I can be guilty of).

I only work at one first draft at a time, and I write straight through from beginning to end, instead of cherry picking the best scenes. This helps me avoid the temptation to switch projects. I do hit a wall in almost every book at about thirty thousand words, when the enthusiasm of a fresh start is long gone and the end is nowhere in sight. I just power through it.

Having said that, I did abandon my first book in more than a decade earlier this year. I was trying a different sort of structure on a contemporary thriller. It was going well until the midway point, then I continued for another twenty thousand words on sheer momentum. I realized I’d gone terribly wrong and stepped back for a couple of days. That’s when it died.

So now I have about 65,000 words of an unfinished novel hanging there. I’m still not sure what I’ll do with it.

It’s about time to wrap things up, but I wanted to ask about your future plans. Wolves of Paris is out now and picking up some very nice reviews. What else do you have in the pipeline?

Currently, I’m wrapping up Hell’s Fortress, which is the second to last volume in the Righteous series. I’m also working on the long-neglected third book of the Dark Citadel series. The first two books have enjoyed solid, albeit unspectacular sales, but the core readers are very loyal, and ask me frequently when they can expect the next volume. It is fun to go back to a pure fantasy world. It has been too long.

After that, I’m going to work on a proposal for what comes next with Thomas & Mercer after the Righteous series is done. My delivery date for the final book of the Righteous is next summer. I have no idea how that will wrap up. I’ve got a couple of WWII thrillers percolating in my head, but finding a time to write them is going to be a challenge.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat. If any of your readers want to check out the Righteous series, but are a little cautious about a thriller set in a polygamist cult, they can get a free preview with a novella set in the same universe, Trial by Fury, by signing up for my mailing list here.

Final note from Dave:

A huge thanks to Michael Wallace for taking the time to answer my questions. I know I learned a lot from this, and I hope you guys did too.

And you’ll learn even more by checking out the author page for Michael Wallace on Amazon. He writes in a large number of genres, as you heard above, so there should be something for everyone there.

I’ve read lots of his books and whether he is taking the reader into the mists of history, or exposing the dark underbelly of a polygamist cult, or traveling at lightspeed on an interstellar adventure, you can always tell you are reading a Michael Wallace book – a natural storyteller who has spent years perfecting his craft.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.