Secrets of Best-Selling Self-Published Authors #15 - Michael Bunker

Very pleased to bring you this fantastic interview with talented author, Michael Bunker. Please take a moment to check out his links at the end of the interview and buy his books. This from his Amazon bio:

"Michael Bunker is a USA Today Bestselling author, off-gridder, husband, and father of four children. He lives with his family in a "plain" community in Central Texas, where he reads and writes books...and occasionally tilts at windmills. In November of 2015, Variety Magazine announced that Michael had sold a film/tv option for his bestselling novel Pennsylvania to Jorgensen Pictures. JP is currently developing Pennsylvania for production into a feature film or Television series. Michael is writing the first draft of the screenplay.

Michael's latest (and best rated) novel is Brother, Frankenstein which was released in late April of 2015.

Michael has been called the "father" of the Amish/Sci-fi genre but that isn't all that he writes. He is the author of several popular and acclaimed works of dystopian sci-fi, including the Amazon top 20 bestselling Amish Sci-fi thriller the Pennsylvania Omnibus, the groundbreaking dystopian vision Hugh Howey called "a brilliant tale of extra-planetary colonization." He also has written the epic post-apocalyptic WICK series, The Silo Archipelago (set in Hugh Howey's World of WOOL,) as well as many nonfiction works, including the non-fiction Amazon overall top 30 bestseller Surviving Off Off-Grid. Michael was commissioned by through their Kindle Worlds and Kindle Serials programs to write the first ever commissioned novel set in the World of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. That book is entitled Osage Two Diamonds, and it debuted on Dec. 17, 2013.

In late April of 2015, Michael released his novel Brother, Frankenstein to fantastic reviews.

Michael has been featured on NPR, HuffPost Live, and and was recently interviewed in a article that will give you more background and insight into his life and works..."

Let's get into it.

Who are you and where do you come from? Do you think that your life experience has gone someway towards making you a successful author in your chosen genre?

My name is Michael Bunker and I am a USA Today Bestselling author. I am also a “Plain Person” (like Amish) who lives off-grid in a Plain community in Central Texas. My family lives completely off-grid (no electricity or commercially provided grid utilities) and I have an off-grid office powered by solar where I work. I have published bestsellers in both fiction (mostly sci-fi) and non-fiction, and I do believe that my life experience is central to my success as an author. Living the way I do informs everything I write, and it is why a lot of people find my work interesting and informative.

Did you try to get publishing contracts for your books early on with traditional book publishers? If so, did you have any success there or, if not, what was it that made you decide to self-publish the majority of your work?

I did not. My first successful book was a non-fiction book on Off-Grid living philosophy and it was a runaway bestseller. That book made really good money from the start and it is still my biggest selling book. From that book I was offered agent representation and a publishing contract, both of which I turned down. Since then I have mostly self-pubbed, though I have traditionally pubbed one novel (serially through Amazon publishing) and I have a short story coming out soon in an anthology published by a traditional publisher. My trad-pubbed novel was one of my best stories and… almost no one has read it compared to my indie novels. I sold a film option to a Hollywood production company for an indie pubbed novel (Pennsylvania) and all of my indie novels have done better than my trad-pubbed book.

You have achieved great success by establishing your own niche in the science fiction genre with your stories of a dystopian world set in an Amish community. Did you deliberately set out to write a story that would be different from all the other genre-based fiction that was available? I.e. did you identify a market for your work early on or has it just evolved from the point of publication?

I think it is a combination of both. I definitely thought from the beginning that there would be a good market for Amish Sci-fi or Amish dystopian stories. My first fiction novel (The Last Pilgrims) was purely future/dystopian and I had no idea that the market would classify it as Sci-fi. So that part of it was accidental. But once I thought about it more, Amish Sci-fi made perfect sense. Sci-fi is about us using our imaginations to explore and explain how we interface with technology and the society/culture, so what better tension point can there be? So once that thought exploded in my brain, I thought… ok, no one else is really doing this, so why not?

How important is your domination of that niche market (i.e. Amish/Sci-fi) to your success as a largely self-published author?

I’m not sure, since I don’t know specifically what direction the flow moved. Let me explain… either there was a pent-up demand for Amish/Sci-fi and I happened to tap into it, which would mean that my position in the market is critical to my success… or… readers all over the spectrum saw something different and migrated to it and liked it. In which case my position in the market is nice, but not critical to my success. I don’t know which one of those is true, though I suspect it is the latter.

Do you think it is important for self-published authors to identify and write in a niche market that they may have an interest in, in order to establish themselves as a leader in that genre and sell more books?

I think it is an awesome way to go about business, but I couldn’t say it is “important” since I don’t know how most authors would go about doing that. Some may be interested in very typical, geeky, sci-fi niches that might be hard to penetrate. Theoretically, I would say it is important to write authentically, which means write something that either you know, or you plan to know before and as you write it. Niche markets are an important thing if you really want to deliberately capture an audience looking for a certain thing. However, I think authors should keep in mind that as the world changes, there will be areas of opportunity in emerging niches that perhaps no one has really considered yet.  For example, I was asked to write a short story for a crime anthology that is based on themes from outlaw country. Well… that’s way outside my usual genre, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the traditional western, outlaw, or crime story could really get a bump from the introduction of another style or genre… like time travel. So I wrote a time-travel, outlaw, western, crime story. It was fun and really had my creative juices flowing.

Once you have decided that self-publishing might be your route, what financial and artistic considerations should you keep in mind before you begin?

My philosophy, and I’ve called it “The Bunker Doctrine” since early on in the heady days of the indie pub revolution, is that the product you put out there needs to be as good OR BETTER than anything the traditional publishers are putting out. The days of slapping something together to get a good story out there quickly… well, those days are over. We all know the legends, and the original WOOL series by Hugh Howey is an example… write a good story, don’t worry about the cover or presentation but just throw it out there… well, I’m not sure that story was ever really substantively “true” to begin with, and even if it was, the market has changed substantially since 2011. So I say, make the investment to make your good as good as it can be. I mean a top-notch (not average) cover. I mean fantastic interior formatting. Interior artwork if you can swing it. As good as you can make it. Because if you don’t, you are throwing your book in with a thousand-thousand other “average” books and it most likely will never make a splash.

What kind of marketing did you do to establish your author brand and what do you think is the most successful marketing for self-published authors? Is there any one thing that you have determined has helped you sell more books – i.e. could you outline your path to establishing your brand and your most successful sales method/s as?

This is a very difficult question, and it highlights the Catch-22 nature of marketing and success. Non-fiction and Fiction are very different animals. Non-fiction readers usually search topically. They aren’t asking “is there a new Michael Bunker book out there?” They are asking, “What can I learn about living Off-Grid?” I had established a very earnest and loyal following through my non-fiction writing on my blog and with my book Surviving Off Off-Grid. Not huge by any means, but earnest and loyal. This meant that I could plea with them to do things that help a new writer get started. Like buy the book and write reviews. Because of this, my fiction books were able to get a little notice at the beginning and I was able to harvest a significant number of early reviews. The ability to ask for and harvest real, authentic reviews is critical to any author’s success, and I think it is probably THE most important and overlooked areas of our marketing and brand establishment.

My brand was easy to establish because it was functionally different than anything else out there. Both from my look (which is how I really look and dress) to my constant interaction and participation with readers and fans, I put a very high value on brand building. I guess the point is that you can’t do what everyone else is doing, the same way they are doing it, and look the same as every other author out there, and expect to stand out. Sure, my brand is very unique and easily identifiable, and it helps that I was living my brand before it got popular, but this area of marketing has to be intentional and deliberate.

I think the most important thing with helping me succeed has been a focus on deliberately highlighting three very important elements as ONE overall image… that is that the book quality is off the charts, the brand is authentic and unique, and the focus on the reader is paramount. This means that I spend a good portion of my time, more than I spend writing actually, interacting with my fans and friends (friend-fans.)

Do you design your own covers? How important do you think cover design is to a potential reader and how big a part do you think it has played in your success to date? 

I participate in the design, mostly in the early concept phase, but my philosophy is to hire the very best people in the business, give them the vision, and then let them do what they do. If I don’t like it, I won’t use it, but most of the best ideas have gone very wide from my original ideas. So I don’t want to shackle the artist. So there is a big difference between hiring your cousin or a friend’s friend who can do some cool stuff with photoshop, and hiring a top-notch professional.  And the cover artist doesn’t need to be a cover artist. I am ALWAYS on the lookout for artistic talent that I think is unique and special. Several of my cover designers were NOT cover designers, including Ben Adams, the awesome guy who designed the Brother, Frankenstein cover. He was an artist, but doing this kind of cover was new to him.

I think having very unique, visually stunning, and communicative covers has been critical to my success.

In your opinion, is traditional publishing on the way out? Do you think that traditional publishing can continue to keep up with the rise of self-publishing?

I hope that trad publishing isn’t on the way out, but frankly they keep shooting themselves in the foot. They have shown a remarkable ability to completely miss the point, to frustrate readers, and to almost self-destructively do the wrong things. Unhappily the business has turned into a pulp mill at the same time it is foolishly looking to find the next Hunger Games. Frankly, I have trouble explaining most of the decisions the individual publishers make. As I mentioned before, my trad-pubbed novel is the worst selling novel I’ve ever written, and it is probably one of the best stories. It was handled poorly, marketed poorly (if at all,) and basically was a master’s level course in what NOT TO DO. But that has become the norm.

As an example, I’ll give you a case study. I won’t mention any names.

An indie author I know published a book on almost the same day I published Pennsylvania. He had some moderate success, but he just felt like he would never be happy if the old-school ivory tower publishers didn’t grace him with a contract. So that was his intense desire. And it worked out for him… I guess. He was socially, politically, and culturally aligned with that system. By that I mean that there is a sort of pretentious, condescending, buggy-whip mentality in the trad-pub world that highly values itself, despite the reality of its situation. Anyway, whereas I was busy writing books and doing the things an indie needs to succeed (I’d been offered that other way and found it somewhat distasteful as it is,) he was querying and submitting to agents, racking up rejections. He had a lot of what they were looking for, much like Home Alone 3 or 4 had a lot of what the movie business was looking for at the time. He checked all the boxes, and so did his story. To shorten the story… he got an agent, sold the book for a very large advance, sold all the foreign rights, etc. He got the brass ring! Except the book wouldn’t come out for 18 months. He had all the social-cultural benefits, and the money must have been nice, etc. But I would bet that book NEVER pays off the advance, and even if he gets another contract or two, eventually that type of socialism is failing the industry right now. Books that make big advance and don’t make bestselling lists… well, you know. Now, during the time his book was pulled off the market and going through the pulp mill, Pennsylvania sold 100,000 copies in all its different iterations, and sold a film option to Hollywood. It is still going strong. We are negotiating foreign rights, and all of that will multiply if/when the movie/tv show airs. If it does. If not, I’ve published another book since then with another one due this year.

So my answer is… I hope the traditional publishing model doesn’t fail. I hope they change, and learn, and make it. But in the end I don’t care if they fail, if they don’t care enough to put out books people want to read in a way (and for a price) that makes it healthy and happy for everyone involved.

Would you ever consider signing all your books to a traditional publishing house or will you always mange some of your titles yourself through self-publishing?

It would take a substantial number with a lot of zeroes after it for me to sign them all over to a traditional publisher. I have an agent, and he submits for me now and again, but usually we all mutually agree that I’m doing better on my own. Now… if someone wanted to do a deal on Pennsylvania that made sense to me AND the reader? I’d do it. Same with any of my other books. I’d love to have my books in bricks and mortar stores. But that is a poor return for selling the reader and myself down the river, if that’s what it took. And that’s what most trad pubbed deals do. They want to sell the reader a $13 e-book and a $25 hardback and eventually a reasonably priced paperback. They want to do it an antiquated way that doesn’t make sense for today’s readers.

But my hypocrisy is such that for enough money, I’d sell my backlist and then make individual decisions on new stuff when those books are ready.

Have you ever used free book promotions? Do you think they are a worth-while marketing tool for self-published authors? If so/not – why?

I have used free book promotions. Free books can work if they are done right, but most of the systems (even Amazon) of distributing free books (I’m not talking about “first in series”) is not smart, in my opinion. It misunderstands today’s readers. NOW… I do give ALL of my books to my email list subscribers for FREE if they are [subscribers] and stay on my email list. I also distribute ARC (advance reader copies) to all of my subscribers for free. I started doing this several years ago, and it works for me. It encourages readers to become fans, and fans to become friends. I’ll always have fewer friends than potential readers, so I feel comfortable giving my books to my friends with the hope that they will appreciate it and share it with readers I don’t know. Even if my list was 25,000 subscribers, I’d do this. Because there are billions of people who haven’t read my books, and I feel comfortable that people who care enough to join my email list (at: and to read my book for free… will review it and tell others if they like it.

What avenues of self-promotion did you find to be most effective and affordable? What’s the best ‘bang-for-your-buck’ advertising you have employed?

An effective author’s blog is one of the best and most affordable ways to capture readers, funnel them onto your email list, and to make superfans of casual readers.  An email list is critically important, but the blog is the “funnel” for the list. Social media is important, but it is NOT good for sales and shouldn’t be used for that purpose.  The big marketing lists, like Bookbub, can do very well, but nothing beats a long-game investment in a good blog and email list.

Do you feel there’s a good sense of community within the self-publishing industry?

I think there is. My experience in the self-publishing community has been awesome. As always, there are inauthentic people, passive-aggressive a-holes, and trouble makers. They exist everywhere. For the most part, though, I think the self-pub industry is probably one of the most supportive and least competitive communities of its kind.

What would you say is the single biggest advantage of deciding to self-publish?

Control of your life, your art, and your message. To me, it isn’t so much a choice between self-pub and indie. Most (and by most I mean almost all) authors never have the choice. No one is banging down their door, and if they submit to the trad system it will never work out for them. But if there is a choice, then both have their advantages. I happen to believe that self-pubbing has very distinct advantages. I make more per book, I have direct contact with my reader, I control what I want to do and when I want to do it. And I’m free. That’s a good thing for an artist.

How important do you think social media and a strong active online presence is, to becoming a success as a self-published author?

I think it is very important, so long as the author isn’t thinking that social media is a place to sell books. It isn’t. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use it to keep readers informed. You should. But it is not a place to push “Buy my book!” It is a place to interact with readers and friends, to prove who you are and establish your brand. It is a place to be authentically you, and… AND… it is a means and method of funnelling interested readers to your blog and eventually your email list.

Are you in regular contact with other self-published authors and how important was any input you may have received early on in your career?  Do you have a mentor in terms of your self-publishing success – someone who may have inspired you to ‘give it a go’?

I am in constant contact with other self-pubbed authors. Every day. I’ve become kind of a contact point for a lot of people in the industry, so I make sure to talk to authors every day. I think much of the input I’ve received has been tremendously valuable. Along with relationships I’ve built up with people I respect. Hugh Howey was very instrumental in getting me to give self-pubbing a go. I think most of us who were self-pubbing before it was cool will all say that. Later, once I realized that his was more of a “lightning strike” experience and very atypical, I learned and collaborated with a whole legion of authors who’d been at it awhile and who’d had success in both traditional and indie publishing. Matthew Mather, Nick Cole, Ernie Lindsey… all of those guys were very central to helping me along the way.

You recently launched a publishing company (along with marketing guru Tim Grahl and best-selling author Nick Cole) called Wonderment Media. Do you think self-published authors need to become effective business people, by treating self-publishing as a business, in order to succeed and secure their financial independence?

Yes. Maybe not to the extent of Wonderment, but I think self-pub authors benefit by not thinking themselves as starving artists and beggars looking for handouts or head pats. I think the most successful indies take control of their situation, look at their work as art, and their business as BUSINESS.

Where to from here? Are you currently represented by an agent and are you working with any publishers on future projects?

Wow, that is a big question! Where to from here? A lot of great things happening. I am represented by an agent, and he is constantly talking with people and discussing opportunities. He recently negotiated a film/tv option for Pennsylvania, and he also recently worked on another option with me for an Untitled Michael Bunker TV Project. He is also working with a foreign rights agent considering foreign deals for Pennsylvania and my other books. I just wrote a short story for a trad-pubbed short story anthology, and I am always willing to listen to anyone who has a project or idea that would work for me.

Can you offer any advice to fellow writers if you could go back in time and “do it all over?” What’s your top tip for other indie authors?

Find out who you are, what your product is, and why it is something anyone else should part with time and/or money to experience. Just being a “good” writer is not going to do it. This is an ideas business. Your art is art, but frankly 99.9% of the people who have ever lived have never found a buyer for their “art.” You are not only an artist, you are someone who wants people to pay you to do art. So you better be special, and you better have thought about why you and your art are worth it.

Finally, thanks for sharing your thoughts on self-publishing. Where is the best place for readers to find your books?

Thanks! This has been great, and you have awesome questions. People can find me and my books at and they can interact with me on Facebook: or Twitter:

 A small selection of Michael's books (click image to purchase)

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