Hugh Howey is a best-selling Sci-Fi author with a long and interesting pedigree. He’s been a yacht captain, a computer guy and, most recently, a bona fide publishing sensation. His book, the Wool Omnibus, started as a novella on the Amazon Kindle Store and suddenly blossomed into a massive, multi-volume opus that is a #1 Bestseller on Amazon and the winner of Kindle Book Review’s Best Indie Book of 2012 Award. It’s been optioned by Ridley Scott and recently appeared in hardcover under the Random House imprint in the U.K.
Plus, he’s a pretty cool guy.
As part of the the Mytro Project on self-publishing for the entrepreneur, I thought I’d ask him a few questions about his books, his writing, and the business of doing it yourself. He was kind enough to oblige.
TC: So the story for you is that things were quiet for you for a long time with your writing and suddenly things ballooned? What happened? Where are you now in terms of sales?
Howey: My writing career took off with the publication of a short story, Wool. But I was happy with my career up to that point. I had been writing and self-publishing for three years. My first six novels had sold around five thousand copies between them, which was far more than I ever thought I would sell. I was getting $100 – $150 in the mail every month, and the amount was creeping up. But then Wool came out, and the sales shot through the roof. 1,000 copies in October. 3,000 in November. 10,000 in December. I wrote four more stories, which turned the short piece into a full novel, and the collected work went to the top of the Amazon charts.
Within months of publishing Wool, I was flooded with emails from agents and people in Hollywood. I had to quit my day job just to handle all the media requests and fan emails. It was insane. I had previously dreamed of being able to work at the bookstore I was helping manage no matter how popular my books became, but that just proved impossible. For the past two years, I’ve been on the road constantly. Wool has been picked up in over 30 countries, and I’ve sold over two million books worldwide. Not what you expect to happen as you’re working in a bookstore and writing stories in your spare time.
TC: Who are you? What inspired you to write Wool?
Howey: I’m a bit of a vagabond. I dropped out of college, where I was studying physics and English, and I sailed off to the islands for a year. I went through a couple hurricanes and had to take on odd jobs to effect repairs to my sailboat. This led to a career as a yacht captain. I did that for the better part of a decade, and then I met my wife and started spending more and more time on dry land. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of any book I started. It wasn’t until I began reviewing books for a crime fiction website that I learned the skill of writing every single day on a deadline. This lesson — plus traveling to book conventions — motivated me to try my hand at a novel, just to be able to say I’d done it.
Wool was my 7th or 8th published work. It’s an idea I’d come up with year earlier, about what it does to us to see nothing but bad news on the TV and in the papers all the time. We live in a Plato’s Cave of sorts, and the shadows on the walls are the worst of what’s behind us. I wanted to write a story about a people terrified of the outside world, where the heroes are the ones brave enough to go out and see for themselves and fight to make the world a better place.
TC: What kind of marketing did you do during those first few weeks and months?
Howey: I didn’t do any marketing for Wool until after it took off. I mean, I didn’t even have a link to the story on my website. I didn’t Tweet about it or Facebook about it. I think I published sample chapters early on, while it was still in rough draft. But nobody was reading my website then (or now, really). I did some stuff for my first novels. I did signings around town, spoke to some classrooms about writing, and I kept up a blog about the writing process. But the best promotion was just to write the next work. And the success came from word of mouth.
TC: What are some current best practices that you’re using to sell books?
Howey: I’m not great at selling books, to be honest. I don’t like asking strangers to check out my works. I find it embarrassing, and I’m just not good at it. My approach is to write stories that I find engrossing and then get them out there. And do it again. The way I use social media is to make myself available to my existing readers, not to win over new ones. I cherish every single reader, and I think that shows. If they enjoy my works, they are the best people to go out and spread the word.
TC: Why self-publish?
Howey: Man, we probably don’t have enough space here. Because I can write whatever I want. I’m working on a children’s picture book right now. I’ve written horror, YA, sci-fi, dystopia, general fiction, literary fiction, fan fiction, you name it. I can publish as often as I want. I don’t have deadlines. I make 70% on my e-books and $4 on my paperbacks (nearly twice what most Big 5 authors make on their hard backs). I can price my works however I want or give them away. I get to publish without DRM, which is a very important stance for me. I can even celebrate people pirating my work and only paying for it if they want. It’s hard to do any of this with a major publisher.
TC: Is traditional publishing dead, dying, or doing just fine?
Howey: It’s doing just fine. Publishers are seeing great profit margins. But that’s because they aren’t paying their authors a fair rate on e-book sales. This could backfire on them in the future. My guess is that we’ll see major publishers move to 50% of net on e-book royalties in order to keep their authors from bolting to self-publishing.
TC: What’s next? Now that you’re well known, how do you keep going?
Howey: I plan to continue publishing at least two works a year, but I want to do other things as well. I’m going to get into publishing in a different way soon. And I’m exploring opening up an independent bookstore.
TC: Very cool. What’s that about?
Howey: It’s a bricks and mortar store. I’m looking at spaces with a real estate agent now.
TC: Is this a full-time business for you now?
Howey: Oh, yeah. It’s all I do.
TC: How did you make it one?
Howey: My goal when I first started out was just to write a single novel. It has been a dream of mine since I was 12. So that was as far ahead as I was looking. But once I knew I could do this, I was hooked. And that’s when I decided I’d make a real go of becoming a full-time writer. My plan was to write for ten years before I judged my sales and earnings. I thought I could publish two works a year for a decade, and then I’d have a library of twenty works to promote. I didn’t waste my time trying to sell that first novel; I just kept writing. And I didn’t stick to one genre; I wrote a wide variety of stories in order to gauge my strengths and interests.
Being patient and having a long view was crucial, I think. I didn’t get discouraged, because I had no expectations. It isn’t like my books go stale. They’re all e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. They are brand new and always in print, just waiting to be discovered. I firmly believe that if a well-read author commits to honing their craft and writing two novels a year for ten years, they will be able to make a career out of writing. The beauty of self-publishing is that you can give yourself that ten-year chance. You don’t have to rely on being discovered by an agent. You don’t have to waste your time querying and spending the two or three years it can take to get a single book published. And you aren’t limited to the narrow window in which your book will be displayed on a store shelf. You can publish now and publish forever. That’s a huge benefit, one that I recognized very early on.
My one other piece of advice is that you should publish your works as if millions of people will read them. Invest in quality cover art that looks great both in print and on a small online thumbnail. 90% of the bad covers out there are due to horrible font selection. Don’t get fancy; use something big, bold, and blocky. And get help with the editing, even if that means exchanging services with other writers. Don’t be in a rush to publish. Make your work shine.
Photo: Amber Lyda