I met Michael via Facebook. I reached out to him for an interview because of his new project. I am curious to see how it turns out, and what readers he attracts. I believe you will be too.
As the face of publishing changes, authors are coming up with new and exciting ways to share their art with the world.
Below are the questions I asked him:
You moved to Russia right out of college. How has that culture influenced your writing?
Language is one influence. I learned to speak Russian. Learning another language gives insight into different perspectives of the world and into language itself. In Russian, you don't have the present tense of “to be”. You have a looser sentence structure. You can put the subject and verb practically wherever you want.
Finally, some of the best writers were Russian. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Babel. They have influenced my writing.
What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast?
5 AM or 6 AM. Bacon. I am always on or off the Atkins diet. Atkins allows you to eat bacon. You can’t live without bacon, can you?
You moved back to the US and worked in Hollywood. What did you learn while screenwriting that has helped you launch your career as a book writer?
Better to write books then screenplays. I decided to write screenplays to finance my book writing career. I did it backwards. How was I supposed to know?
If you can get a book published, and then write the screenplay, you've got a better chance at getting your screenplay optioned or picked up. Plus you can get into the WGA.
The truth about screen writing is that most screenwriters make a living rewriting others’ scripts. This is how Hollywood supports its screenwriters.
In other words, you could present a studio with a perfectly written script and the studio would still have the script rewritten or polished by a high paid screenwriter. Some of these writers get paid $300,000 per week. Not bad huh?
You probably got paid WGA minimum of $37,500. This is called paying your dues. Just make sure if you accept minimum that you get a nice chunk of the net if the movie goes big.
Whatever you write, it’s not your baby. If you think that it is, be prepared to let someone else raise it. Once you’ve sold your script, the studio can do whatever it wants to it. Invariably, they will.
You have all these competing visions of your work. The producers’, the director’s and the actors’. Each one of these groups will have their input. That’s hard for a writer. You are handing over your baby to surrogate parents and you’ll have very little input after that. That is why you have to sell and move on. A book is yours. You can write what you want.
What’s the funniest story you have while writing in Hollywood?
People ask me what movies I’ve worked on or been in. I tell them that I was an inch off screen in “The Saint” starring Val Kilmer.
If the camera had panned over an inch more, I’d be right there.
Why is it so difficult to get a movie made in Hollywood today?
Money. Films cost a lot. You need a star attached to get funding. It helps if you have a cause or something you really believe in.
I had one project, “The Flesh Trade”, about human trafficking. The film was a month away from production. We had $5 million dollar budget. We had director attached and were assembling the cast when half the financing fell through. That ended that project. I quit Hollywood afterwards. I grew too frustrated with the system.
Why look to Hollywood? So many great things are getting made today outside of Hollywood. The main problem for filmmakers and for writers is getting their work recognized. That’s the hardest part. As the cost of production has come down, the cost of recognition is still high.
What is your iBook app project?
I wanted to create an interactive children's book. I think that is the future of childrens’ books. You engage more of the child's senses, there are sounds and touch. You can update the versions to keep the story fresh. But book apps are expensive. It can cost $50K on the high end and $10K on the low end.
I’ve scaled back my project from an interactive app to a print book. The ebook already exists. The book is ready to go. I just need the funds to pay the publisher. If I exceed my funding goal by 300% to 400%, then I’ll have enough to build the interactive children’s book app.
You are using kickstarter to help launch your project. Please explain how kickstarter works to help artists?
Kickstarter is a great platform for artists to display their work and projects to attract funding. KS gets over 1 million visitors a month and over $300 million was donated to projects last year alone. As Blanche from a Street Car named Desire says, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Ultimately, that is what you are depending on. Family and friends can only get you so far. You’ve got to reach out and appeal to strangers and hope that they like your project enough to pledge.
Many people think the pledges are charity. They are not. They should not be. If you want to make a pledge in Kickstarter, do it for the experience. The creator of the project should take you on a journey. You become a part of that project. You make that project happen no matter how much you give. You get great rewards.
Jim Dwyer is the illustrator for your iBook. How did you two meet?
Online. He auditioned and won.
What’s it like working with a partner on this project?
Jim is easy to work with.
Where is the best place to grab a great cup of Joe or Tea in your town?
R&R Coffee in Black Forest.
Ryan, the owner, is a coffee and tea fanatic. He roasts his own beans. He grinds the beans for each cup. He'd grow his own coffee plants if the Colorado climate permitted.
What do you think about literary agents? Still needed or a dying breed?
My father was a lawyer and he said there will always be a need for good lawyers. I think the same applies for literary agents.
There will always be a need for good agents. Their role is changing however. A good agent should be good with social media and PR. Literary agents should be searching platforms like Kickstarter for new talent. Maybe they already are.
Writers are looking to bridge those gaps to get their books into print and into bookstores. A good agent should be able to help a writer bridge those gaps.
There are too many agents and book reviewers who scoff at the online publishing boom. They do so at their own peril. If an unknown writer sells 500 books, or 1000 books, during his Kickstarter campaign, it demonstrates that that writer has some marketing savvy and a book that interests people. Imagine how many books that writer could sell if he had the full marketing force of Harper Collins?
An agent serves as your intermediary. You never want to negotiate your own deals. You want to keep your reputation as someone easy to work with. Your agent can be the tough guy.
How did you come up with the idea of a bear that wants to be a boy?
Camping with my kids.
Camping is big in Colorado. Imagine at night in the dark and you are a hungry bear searching for grubs under rocks all day and you smell hot dogs, hamburgers, salmon, trout, steaks, chicken, bacon emanating from the campgrounds every night.
It must be torture. On the flip side, I think a bear would be quite disappointed if he saw how much time we sit and stare in front of the black boxes at home.
There is a huge disconnect. People are active outdoors. Then we go back home and turn into passive little snails.
Secondly, I'm a big fan of Hans Christian Andersen. Last year, I read The Little Mermaid. It's a pretty deep story. Much more intense than the Disney version.
In those days, parents didn't have tv’s or Xboxes to plop their kids down and entertain them. They read stories. Andersen and Kipling wrote long kids stories to entertain the kids and also the parents. I followed that tradition.
Why an iBook? Why not go the traditional publishing route?
Do you think a publishing house would allow a 7000 word kids book from a first time children’s book author?
I wrote the book for my kids and myself, not for the publishing houses.
I don’t think a publishing house would publish a 7000 word kids’ book from an unknown author. It’s not the length that would turn them off.
I’m sure a well-known author could get that type of book published. It is the fact that I’m an unknown author. Publishing houses don’t want to take a risk. They are in business to make money. They know what sells and sells quickly.
I never asked. I never sent out any query letters. As a writer in 2013, you don’t need too.
There is the interesting story of the Russian writer, Leonid Tsypkin. He was a doctor by profession, but a writer by passion. He wrote nearly every day, but never had one word published. Many writers are afraid of being published. They are afraid of the criticism. Tsypkin could not get his work published because of the Soviet system. It was not until after his death in 1982 that his first book was published. His work is quite renowned. It is ironic, because his work is still being published, while most of the “famous” Soviet writers of his time are out of print.
Self-publishing has its own challenges. There is a stigma. You self-publish because nobody but you and your spouse like your work. I think that perception is changing. I am an unknown. But if I were a well-known writer why would I need a publishing house? Publishers are scratching their heads asking why a well-known writer needs Kickstarter? Ryan North raised almost $600K for his Shakespearean book To Be or Not to be on Kickstarter. He sold his books to his fans and he got to keep the bulk of the profits. That is great. That is liberating.
Finally, I’d like to build my tribe of people, who like my work. Seth Godin, a well-known marketing consultant, coined the term. If you ever watched Mad Men, Don Drapper is marketing average products to the average consumer. That type of marketing is dead. People have their own interests. We aren’t interested in the generic unless perhaps its toothpaste. But in art, we are particular. We know what we like. We like Jackson Pollack or we don’t. We are going to read children’s books or we are not. My books are not going to appeal to gang bangers. They are not my audience. My audience is kids and parents interested in the outdoors- interested in the environment and conservation.
My job over the past 6 months has been to try to find these people and let them know about my ebook and my kickstarter project. I think a writer that can build a tribe of 5 to 10 thousand members can build a sustainable career. You could run a kickstarter campaign every 6 months or every year and sell 5 to 10 thousand copies of your book. I am getting ahead of myself.
This is easier said than done. If you can do it, then you don’t need the publishing houses. You just need a platform like Kickstarter.
This is easier said than done. If you can do it, then you don’t need the publishing houses. You just need a platform like Kickstarter.
Who is your biggest cheerleader?
My kids, Sasha and Ewan. They encouraged me to write this story down. In life, Tanya, my wife. She's been my cheerleader from day one and I hope until the last.
Most writers have a day job. What is yours?
I have a small lead generation company. I learned in Hollywood that you don't have to be a writer, painter, or musician, or actor to be an artist. You can have a creative outlet in a whole host of jobs. I wanted my own company.
I built Blindbid, a b2b lead generation site. Entrepreneurship offers more opportunities to be creative than the arts. I would say the owner of R&R coffee is an artist. He is always creating new drinks. He is always experimenting and innovating. Are we doing the same as artists?
Take a look at Van Gogh’s works. He starts out with dark, uninspiring works like the Potato Eaters. Then he starts experimenting with color. Suddenly, Van Gogh paints Starry Night, one of the most famous paintings of all.
I think life is interesting if we are allowed to experiment, if we are allowed to use our creativity. So much of that is suppressed in the corporate world. That’s tragic in a way. We need more human expression, not less.
Do you belong to any writer’s associations?
No, but I probably should. I just believe in writing.
When I was in Hollywood I did a poor job in networking. I was always writing. Unless you want to live like Van Gogh did, you got to network or build your tribe.
Will you be speaking at any writer’s conferences this year?
No one invited me yet. Maybe you could?
(Maybe I will...)
Please give some advice to newbie writers.
Write often. Try everything. Find your niche – your writing style and genre.
Build your tribe.
What do you wish you knew about this industry when you started out?
How big and crowded it was. I think everyone thinks it’s easy to write a children’s book. It's not.
It's like poetry. You only get so many words and so many pages. You have to keep to the essence.
There are so many kids’ stories that have great characters or great premises and then abruptly end. They go nowhere. They are more like writing exercises than stories.
A good idea is not a story. A great character is not a story. These elements are essential to a good story. You still have to have a beginning, middle and end. You need to make a point. Have a theme.
How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success?
If your blog readers could join my Kickstarter campaign for the experience, that would be great. I’ve planned my Kickstarter campaign around helping my tribe get what they seek. Some may want entertainment. Others may want to learn from my mistakes or successes. Others may want to help a writer get his book into print. There are many reasons to get involved. I hope to give back more to those that pledge than I receive. When someone pledges X amount of dollars for a signed copy of the book, I want to make sure that the book is the best that it can be and worthy of being on his shelf.
Please remember, the Kickstarter campaign is only 30 days. There is a lot of satisfaction for the person who pledges to a successful campaign. There is the metaphysical reward. You were behind a great piece of art. You don’t have to be an aristocrat to be benefactor or a patron of the arts. Isn’t that awesome? It is a great feeling too. I’ve backed many projects myself and I get more satisfaction out of that then when my favorite football team wins.
Americans spend billions of dollars on spectator sports. They are just that, spectators. No one is going to list the fans names on the Lombardi Trophy. But I will include your name in the book credits.
There is the physical reward of getting a copy of the book or receiving an original print by Jim Dwyer or receiving a hand carved Ettie the bear. These are some of the great rewards that participants receive in addition to the book.
In more practical terms, I need the help to spread the word by July 11th, the kickstarter launch. It is very important to get off to a fast start on Kickstarter. I have been running two book contests that I encourage your audience to enter.
Contest 1 – Win a wood carved Ettie the Bear
Contest 2 – Win a Kindle reader and a ebook copy of The Little Bear of St. Elmo’s Forest.
If you like the story, please share it with friends and family. Post a little blurb on your facebook page, tweet about it, pin one of the book’s illustrations on your pinterest board, and post on your google+ page. Go to my Amazon page and post a review. Those things are very helpful. Do it for other unknown writers as well if you like their books. This is how we build our own independent book distribution system outside the traditional publishing house system.
What else are you working on right now?
I’m writing a children’s version of Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. I also just completed the text for a minimalist children’s book called, Somethings. It has less than 200 words. Can you believe that? My kids, my toughest critics, like it.
What one word best describes you?