A SHIFT IN POWER
A CONVERSATION WITH THE MODEST, SMART, HUGELY SUCCESSFUL HUGH HOWEY, AUTHOR OF THE 'WOOL' SERIES
If he was lucky, Hugh Howey thought his 2011 self-published science-fiction novella ‘Wool’ would sell five hundred copies. Instead, he has sold five hundred thousand, scored a seven-figure publishing deal, and had Twentieth Century Fox snap up the film rights with the iconic Ridley Scott possibly to direct.
He thought he was just writing the sort of tale he wished already existed and he would then return to his other novels. But the enthusiastic demand from Amazon reviewers caused him to hurry back to his dystopian subterranean world to continue the story. Less than six months later he had released four more novelettes of varying lengths, the 550-page ‘Wool Omnibus’, which has since spent considerable time in the Amazon top 100 and was a #1 Bestseller in Science Fiction, and Winner of Kindle Book Review's ‘Best Indie Book of 2012’ Award.
A modest Howey, who is passionate about the options available to authors through self-publishing, wants to make it very clear that this success story is about his choice to self-publish from the beginning.
“It wasn't a matter of dealing with rejection and finally resorting to this. It was a choice from the get-go.”
“The first thing an industry insider will think when they hear ‘self-publishing’ is that an author gave up on the query route. I don’t query my books. I haven’t since my first novel was published by a small press and I decided to publish the rest of my books on my own.”
Howey claims it took “crazy” and “lots of guts” as opposed to “clever” to create the deal that “everyone in the industry was saying would never happen—ever.” His “brilliant” agent Kristin Nelson walked away from six-figure offers, and then seven-figure offers, to eventually strike a deal with Simon and Schuster to distribute ‘Wool’ to book retailers across the US and Canada. The deal, though, gave Howey full rights to continue distributing ‘Wool’ online in these territories himself. Normally, an author signs over all their territory distribution rights, which includes the increasingly lucrative e-book sales.
Adds Howey, “We stuck to our convictions and we were doing well enough with foreign rights and film sales to not worry about what we were leaving on the table. To us, the goal was to get a different conversation going. And Simon and Schuster deserve all the credit for stepping up to the plate.”
The deal has de-stigmatised the self-publishing door for other new and established authors to follow suit in taking control of their careers and their intellectual property. “Many authors are now seeing the benefit of earning money now rather than waiting years for a dream that may never materialize,” says Howey. “The route we take no longer signals the quality. It makes for an interesting time to be a writer.”
Howey suggest that self-publishing may actually be a smart career move. “Many authors are now skipping the years-long submission cycle and placing their stories directly in the hands of readers (and at incredible prices). Instead of manuscripts sitting around, they are collecting sales and building a fan base. Even a handful of sales are more than none. And time is spent writing the next work rather than shopping around the last one.”
Much has been written about the poor quality of self-published books and whilst self-publishing is a great opportunity, the sheer volume of releases makes it difficult for readers to find gems that aren’t peppered with errors and novice mistakes. There is an expectation that a major commercial publisher will provide a superior read.
Howey comments on this assertion, “I see typos in the first printing of major releases all the time. If you ask a reader if they’d rather have a book with two typos in it for $12.99 or one with ten typos for $2.99, I think they’ll go with the latter.”
“All authors need to put out their best work possible, and Indies (independent authors) are no exception. But I do think they deserve a little more of a pass, just as an Indie rock band might release an album with some pops and static. It reminds you that you’re discovering something, not being handed something.”
Instead of asking ‘How’s the writing?’ of an Indie book, Howey suggests the question should be: ‘How’s the story?’ “Readers care less about writing and more about gripping tales with unforgettable characters. The publishing industry is largely run by English majors who think we should care about pristine prose. They don’t understand the success of ‘Twilight’, Dan Brown, and E.L. James. They wish everyone was reading and discussing literary works. This is why they often miss out on books with wild potential.”
“If you have to lean one way, it shouldn’t be towards the writing. And I say that, as someone who cherishes fine prose and agonizes over every one of my sentences. But only after I’ve crafted what I hope is an addictive story.”
‘Wool’ is indeed one of those addictive stories. Set in a not-too-distant future, the story takes readers into the world of a Silo, home to thousands of descendants of the survivors of a sixty-year-prior cataclysmic disaster. Nobody remembers what happened but outside the Silo, the world is in ruin with air too toxic to breathe.
Those living inside are bound by strict rules. One being you must never express the desire to go outside. Doing this, will automatically see you sent outside in a specially made suit to participate in what is known as a ‘Cleaning’. Unwise unfortunates as well as convicted criminals are sent to clean the one wall-screen allowing the inhabitants a view on the desolate world. Within minutes their suits break down and they are asphyxiated.
The Silo is tiered with two hundred levels and maintains a systemised society of engineering, I.T., administration, food production and Government, all on different levels. ‘Wool’ begins the story with the Sheriff who has lost his wife to a ‘Cleaning’. But readers then move through the volumes to view the Silo habitat through the eyes of various characters including Juliette, an engineer who begins to question the values and rules of the system. Then the fun really begins.
It is a grim, claustrophobic vision of the future and Howey admits he cannot be sure of the story’s origins but he shares that silos were always a part of his life. “My father was a farmer and had two large grain silos behind his barn that we played in and on top of.”
“I also grew up in the Cold War Era and another type of silo was the missile variety. We practiced nuclear drills in grade school. People built bunkers. I took it as an axiom that people would one day live underground while a wasteland raged overhead.”
The limited view of the outside world via the wall-screen is a central component of the story. “It came from my wariness of 24-hour news,” says Howey, “and what I fear a constant barrage of bad news does for our perception of the world. What if it really isn’t so bad out there? What if we’re bold enough to go see the world for ourselves?”
In his own way, Howey has widened the perception of the self-publishing world, that outside the landscape of traditional publishing there is a richer world than initially imagined. He believes publishing opportunities are broadened with the two working together such as the publisher initiated idea with the Wool U.K. edition. The book contains the first chapter of the already e-published follow on series, ‘First Shift Legacy’, and concludes the free chapter urging readers to immediately purchase the already-available e-book, even though the print copy is yet to be released.
“What’s great about this,’’ adds Hugh, “is that a major publisher embraced e-book availability before the print book was available! I’ve always thought this should be the case. It helps make for a stronger print debut. For proof, Wool hit #8 on the ‘Sunday Times Bestseller’ list in the U.K. upon release, almost unheard of for a debuting author. The only reason that was possible was because of the existing fan base and word-of-mouth generated by the e-book sales. I think publishers are doing the opposite of what’s good for their customers, their authors, and themselves, when they hold the e-book back in an attempt to protect hardback sales.”
Whilst many authors complain of the deadlines imposed by their publishing contracts, Howey says, “I was the one who dictated the release schedule and told Random House (his U.K., Australian publisher) when I would have each book available. I have yet to sign a contract where someone demanded or expected a book from me at a particular time. The pressure to release multiple books swiftly has come from indie authors. We are making a great living off our work and enjoying the rapport with our readers. We just want that to continue.”
With his publishing success, Howey’s only complaint is that his wife misses him whilst he is whisked away from his South Florida home on long book tours through Europe, the U.K. and currently the U.S. The benefits though have outweighed the negatives, with the author now able to enjoy more free time at home after success saw him resign his day job as a bookshop employee. Even with the extra work load of his new found celebrity he still maintains his daily 2000 word-a-day count. “But it has meant some long days.”
And if he were ever banished into a deserted silo with time on his hands, the busy author says he would read Shakespeare’s and Edgar Alan Poe’s complete works, and ‘Ulysses’, not because he thinks the latter is any good but he figures, “it’s the only way I’d ever read it. It took being stranded on an island to finally read ‘War and Peace’. No joke. I Loved it.”
So many authors quote their indebtedness to their agents or publishers for their success but Hugh Howey, as one of the poster-children of the new social media and self-publishing phenomena, is adamant who is the major inspiration and support for him. It’s his readers. In ‘Wool’s’ Amazon Book description he writes, “Thanks go out to those reviewers who clamored for more. Without you, none of this would exist.”
It may be, in the not-too-distant future that many successful self-published authors will leave a similar inscription in their Amazon sales pitch, but with one added line, “If not for Hugh Howey and his crazy courage, none of these stories would exist.” Read my review of the sensational WOOL: Click here
READ MORE ABOUT HUGH (Seriously you need to if you are a writer)
Hugh Howey is the author of Wool, a bestselling novel that has appeared in the top 5 of science
fiction on Amazon. He is also the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga. He lives in Boone, N.C. with his wife Amber and their dog Bella.
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