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Interview with Michael Head: How to Become a Successful, Full-Time Fantasy Author

Interview with Michael Head: How to Become a Successful, Full-Time Fantasy Author

April 20, 202414 min read

Discover in this post …

  • Michael’s exact path to financial success as an author.

  • the items writers should focus on if they’re looking to get serious about their writing career.

  • the best ways authors can maximize income streams from their work.


What goes through your head when you imagine fulfilling your wildest dreams as a writer? Do you picture yourself taking regular, month-long writing trips to Costa Rica? Earning $150k advances on your audio book contracts alone? Suddenly watching your bank account grow extra zeros as a direct result of your writing?

This is author Michael Head’s reality. In fact, he answered my questions below while on a writing retreat in Costa Rica and sent me the beautiful picture above.

Can you hear the crash of those waves? Smell that salty air?

I recently conducted a live interview with author Michael Head in my Facebook group for fantasy writers, and the writers in my group loved his advice so much that I thought I’d share his written thoughts here with you.

Michael Head is a full-time author who writes in the progression fantasy genre. He saw instant success with his first series, Threads of Fate, and has been living the dream of working from home in his pajamas ever since. Michael has reached the top 100 list on Amazon several times in the US, and the top 25 in the UK. In addition to the Threads of Fate series, he also has the Wandering Warrior series, the Legendary LitRPG Anthology, and he was heavily involved with the creation of the Year of The Sword series with author Dakota Krout.

It was an absolute pleasure to speak with Michael about his writing journey. Settle in and take notes as he shares his expertise below!

Michael Head Whisler Edits

Nicole - Great to have you with us, Michael. Can you explain the “progression fantasy genre” for those who might not have heard of it? And what attracted you to that genre?

Michael - “Progression fantasy” is a genre of fantasy that features specific growth patterns and tropes for the main character. Some of the main sub-genres within the major umbrella of progression fantasy are LitRPG, GameLit, and Cultivation, which all feature hard magic systems that outright name power levels characters can reach. This type of progression—or “leveling up”—is very similar to how video games work, and draws on a similar fan base.

I was attracted to the genre due to the explosive growth in readership the genre has seen in recent years, as well as the type of stories you can tell. They tend to be more in line with the kind of fantasy I wanted to write anyway, so I capitalized on the opportunity.

Michael Head Book

Nicole - You have a cool story, but you also say that people often see you as “lucky” for your instant success. You’ve shared some of your method with me, though, and it’s not luck that’s giving you $150k advances on just your audio book contracts. Can you tell us the backstory of how you got to where you are today?

Michael - First, I did my research. My time in the military showed me the importance of training and understanding what I was doing, and I tried to apply that to my writing career. I found an underserved genre—one with less than one hundred authors and more than fifty thousand readers—and I researched the books and tropes they liked the most within that sub-genre. Then, since it was during the COVID19 lockdown, I wrote a whole lot of books, really, really fast. It was a unique situation that allowed me to capitalize on the position I found myself in.

Realizing that a passion project would take me forever to write, I tried to put out the best product I could produce in the shortest amount of time possible. Because of that, I’m now writing my tenth book in a little over three years of being a published author. The royalties from those books have paid out far more than a single passion project would likely ever manage to pay me.

The crazy thing is, I’m not even doing it as well as many others in my genre have. There are other sub-genres—cozy, wargate, deckbuilder, etc.—that make my success look tiny in comparison. Some authors write a book every month, and churn out best-sellers twelve times a year. I know I’m not capable of that kind of speed, so I just try to keep what small level of success I’ve captured, and hold on to it.


Nicole - Do you believe anyone could do what you’re doing with equal success?

Michael - I think anyone who does the work, and has the skill to write a story someone wants to read can certainly do the same. People on Royal Road and Kindle Unlimited do it every day. Sometimes that equates to winning the lottery levels of luck, but ninety-nine percent of the time it’s people doing their research, putting in the work, and never stopping. Don’t expect your first attempt to make you six figures out the gate. It could certainly happen, but it isn’t likely. You should expect to learn something, and grow with each product you produce. That will eventually lead to six-figure income, and all those past products will explode as readers explore everything you’ve written, once your best-seller hits the market.

Nicole - How important is it to understand genre expectations, and how can you still stand out as an author? Is keeping your voice part of standing out?

Michael - Genre expectations, or tropes, are one of the most important things you need to understand as an author. That’s what determines your genre in the first place. If you don’t know your genre, you don’t know who to market to, and you don’t know your audience. That’s utterly ridiculous. Would you invent a product, and not know who you were making it for? Would making a new icemaker be useful for people in Antarctica? That’s why research, and taking your author career seriously, is so important. While it's probably not as drastic as the icemaker example, an author who doesn't understand the expectations, wants, and pitfalls of his readership is only setting themselves up for failure.

That said, finding a way to stand out in a genre is as vitally important as understanding your market. You have to distinguish yourself from everyone else, while still meeting reader expectations. Whether that means throwing in a fun twist, or finding a way to subvert expectations in a different way, it’s what’s going to drive readers to your brand.

Your brand is your voice, and that’s something you can’t compromise on, no matter what. There is a whole lot of lateral movement within any genre, so use that to your advantage, and maximize your own flavor and writing style.

Nicole - How can writers find a genre suitable for long-term happiness, and how can they avoid burnout? Also, what genre trends are you noticing at the moment, and would you encourage people to write what they want or follow these trends?

Michael - For me, finding a genre to write in started with finding a genre I liked to read. If you want to be a good author, you should be reading other books in your genre to understand what works—and what doesn’t work—as frequently as possible. I read upwards of a hundred books a year, and the vast majority of those are within my genre. Not everyone is going to have that kind of time, or maybe you can read even more than I do. Either way, don’t get stuck reading a genre you don’t enjoy. So, writing in the genre you like to read not only makes the most sense, you probably have the most knowledge about it anyway.

Avoiding burnout is a huge subject that could take hours to cover. The number one piece of advice I can give is to maintain balance in your life to keep burnout at bay. I’ve suffered from burnout, and it was because I neglected my physical health for the sake of meeting a deadline. It crushed my mental health in the end, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch a keyboard for weeks after turning in the book. Pay attention to your body, mind, and emotional health, and your creativity will continue to flow at a steady and constant rate.

Genre trends are a weird thing. I could tell you something right now, and in thirty days everything I said would be wrong. Also, I only know specific information about my own genres, and very general information about the other big genres. What I can say is that book sales seem to be trending downward at the moment across the board. A few outliers are holding steady, but whether it’s because of the economy, or people just having less free time, or this is a greater shift in how people consume their media, overall sales numbers aren’t keeping the same level of upward trend we were seeing in the past. It could also be we’re just seeing the end of the tail from the spike from the Covid lockdowns. As bad as they were for everyone, they were great for book sales. That phase might be over.

Does that mean we should all give up on our dreams of being an author? Of course not. It just means we need to curb our current expectations when we release a book, and understand this may be a temporary trend that will see a reversal when the economy swings in the other direction. Conversely, audio books have seen an increase in sales that counterbalance the drop in book sales. That means you should think long and hard about audio book production when you publish your book, and make sure you research audio book sales in your genre. If your genre has a market for audio, then you might want to talk to an audio book company about recording your book. Finally, remember that as authors, all we can do on our end is keep digging in those proverbial word mines, and producing more content for our readers.

Nicole - How can authors maximize their income streams from their work?

Michael - So many people write a book, dust their hands off like they were covered in flour, and say, “Well, now that’s done! Time to publish this and make royalties for life!” That’s not how it works. I mean, actually, it does work that way, but there is so much more they can be doing. Once your book is published, you can start a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the audio book production, or maybe a special edition hardback with extras. Do your research to see what other authors in your genre have seen success with, and copy it. I’ve seen some Kickstarters fail to hit ten thousand dollars, and some break the half-million-dollar mark unexpectedly. You never know what readers are going to want unless you try. Know your worth, know the worth of your intellectual property, and maximize it.

There are also ways to double down on income from books that aren’t even published yet. Platforms like Patreon, Royal Road, Ream, and dozens of others can allow you to publish one chapter at a time to draw in new fans, and they will pay you for the privilege to read those early-access chapters. Remember, nothing sells a book one like a book two, and getting to see that book two early is only icing on the cake for readers that really loved your book one.

Like I said earlier, another big thing is turning your book into an audio book. Audible and Spotify are huge in the marketplace, and only growing as time goes on. It might be expensive to make, but you don’t have to make an audio book right away. Use Kickstarter, or royalty share, or a publisher, or whatever avenue you can come up with, but explore your options to get it done. This is a career move that can change your life.

Nicole - You’ve said that despite your extensive resume that would let you do tons of other things, you wouldn’t want to do anything else. What are some of your favorite things about being a full-time fantasy author?

Michael - I’m literally writing this on the side of a mountain near Dominical, Costa Rica, overlooking the ocean while listening to three toucans arguing over a piece of fruit in a tree less than thirty feet away from me. Not many jobs would allow me to do that. I can write books from anywhere, and I’m on a month-long writer’s retreat with a bunch of other author friends who I enjoy spending time with. We write in our books for a few hours, and then hang out with the howler monkeys when they stop by. It’s fantastic. I try to do these kinds of trips at least two or three times a year, since they are great ways to see my friends, as well as a tool to keep burnout at bay. Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Vegas, Colorado, Atlanta, Wisconsin, it doesn’t matter where we go, as long as we have a great group of friends around us. When I’m back home in Kansas, most days I work in my pajamas. It’s a huge difference from my time in the military. I highly recommend it for anyone not sure about it.

Toucan Michael Head Whisler Edits

Nicole - Let’s leave everyone with some practical advice. For those taking notes, what are your best beginning tips? What should writers think about before going full-time, and what expectations should they set for the future?

Michael - Make sure you’re financially prepared to quit your full-time job before taking the leap. I know that’s common sense, but I’ve seen people make that mistake, and it wasn’t pretty. Also, take this job seriously. Just because I’m working in my pajamas or verbally arguing with howler monkeys doesn’t mean I’m not deadly serious about my career. This might not be as life-or-death as leading convoys through the streets of Baghdad, but I research, train, and work just as hard as I did in the Army. Being a full-time author is still a full-time job, and you should expect to put in full-time hours. You just get to put in those hours in much better places, under much better conditions, in a much better career.

Nicole - That all sounds amazing. Thanks for your time, Michael! What’s the best way readers and writers can connect with you?

Michael - The easiest way to find me is on my website, michaelheadauthor.com.

You can email me, check out my books, merch, bio, and all those fun things all in one place. I’ll reply to every message I get, so don’t be afraid to reach out. No promise it will be instant, since Costa Rica doesn’t have the best internet and we keep losing power, but I’ll get to you as soon as I can.

Finally, remember, write the story you would want to read, and you will be shocked to find how many other people want to read it too.

Love ya. Michael.

You can connect further with Michael through his …

Website

Facebook

Patreon

Newsletter

And if you’d like to watch the replay of my original interview with Michael in my free, private Facebook group for fantasy writers, you can watch it here.


Has this interview encouraged you to buckle down and research genre expectations for your WIP? Has it left you feeling excited—as if the route Michael described might not be easy, but certainly possible? Let me know what you’ve learned in the comments below!


Do you want to learn how to write a story that makes your target readers stand up and cheer? If you’d like support from A to Z (from brainstorming to drafting to revising to publication), book a Discovery Call with me to see if you’re a good fit to join my book coaching program, Fantasy Footsteps: Road to Publication. And if you haven’t done so already, grab your Free Guide on how to hook readers from your story’s start!


Nicole Whisler Edits

Nicole Whisler is a developmental editor and book coach who specializes in working with writers of fantasy novels. Prior to editing, she taught English and creative writing full-time for six years. She is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, a member of the Professional Editors Network, and a leading book coach for the Coach Foundation. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she leads an in-person writing critique group at her local library.

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