Michael Patrick O’Neill ’88 was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, but it was summers spent “running like a little wild man in the wilderness” of the Pocono Mountains that formed his lifelong sense of adventure — and led to a self-made business in wildlife photography and book publishing. He came to Lehigh because that time at his family’s cottage in the Poconos made Pennsylvania feel like a home away from home, and his older brother, Joseph ’87, was already a Lehigh student.
After graduating with a major in international relations, O’Neill worked in New York City, first in an education consulting firm and then as a research analyst for Young & Rubicam (now VMLY&R). But the outdoors beckoned, and in 1991, he moved to Florida and took a position with W.R. Grace that advanced his career — and gave him an insatiable travel bug.
“I was a research analyst, and they sent me all over the world — to China, Russia, Thailand, the Philippines. I also got my MBA from the University of Miami on the weekends,” O’Neill says.
Into the deep
As he was building his career and traveling the world, O’Neill began to pursue scuba diving and underwater wildlife photography as a hobby. He had taken a lot of writing-intensive courses at Lehigh and began getting paid to write magazine articles on scuba diving and for the photographs he took.
“Then a light bulb went off in my mind: ‘Hey, this is very cool and a lot more fun than working long hours in an office,’” O’Neill laughs. “So, on a pivotal day in my life in October 2001, I just resigned. My family said, ‘OK, so what are you going to do now?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to write a children’s book, and I’m going to illustrate it with my photography.’”
Diving into books
The fruit of that first effort was a book called Fishy Friends: A Journey Through the Coral Kingdom. Using his background in analytical research, O’Neill soon figured out that going through a traditional publisher “would not provide me with royalties I could live off of. So I thought, ‘I’ll assume the risk myself!’ And I created Batfish Books, my little publishing company.”
O’Neill ordered an initial print run of 5,000 books — “The reality of what you’ve done really hits when a semi-trailer pulls into your driveway with your books!” — and then put in plenty of miles driving to trade shows far and wide to try to sell them.
“There’s a huge book trade show called the Book Expo. That first year I went it was in L.A. I went up to the top buyer for children’s books for Barnes & Noble and asked her if she had time to look at my book. She told me to come back in three hours. I thought I was politely being blown off, but I went back, she looked at the book, and agreed to put Fishy Friends in 100 Barnes and Noble stores.”
O’Neill logged many Saturday morning hours at various Barnes & Nobles doing author visits with kids. He employed a guerilla-marketing strategy, loading up his trunk with books and driving all over Florida, stopping in gift shops and retail stores along the way to sell Fishy Friends.
He grew the business and his inventory with a series titled Let’s Explore, including books that featured his photos of sharks, sea turtles, and coral reefs. Sales began to pick up, and soon O’Neill was invited to do full-blown programs at Barnes & Noble for schools. “I would do my photo slideshow, take my dive gear, and talk not just about writing but also the math and physics behind scuba diving,” he says.
More than just author visits
Before long, schools in south Florida began asking O’Neill to do assemblies. Word spread, and with the help of a booking manager he hired, his school programs branched out way beyond Florida.
“I’ve presented to more than half a million children in 26 states, including Alaska and lots of the East Coast,” O’Neill says. “I use subject matter that all children love — sharks, sea turtles, dolphins — to teach reading, writing, science, and conservation. I’ve been doing this since 2001, and I’ve never lost my passion for the education side of my business.”
O’Neill and a colleague also formed a nonprofit, Into the Blue, that provides his presentation, as well as a book for each child in attendance, at no cost to Title I schools in south Florida. He hopes to get funding to expand the program’s reach to give even more children “a passport to the world that can inspire.”
“To do this for a living is a blessing,” O’Neill says. “And I think it’s a cool legacy. It’s my way of giving back.”
*All photos are Copyright Michael Patrick O'Neill.