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How Hugh Howey Turned His Self-Published Story "Wool" Into a Success (& a Book Deal)

It’s not just an amazing success story, it’s a new precedent for authors everywhere: Thanks to Hugh Howey, you don’t have to choose between the allure of self-publishing and your dreams of big book deals. You can have both.

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At first, Hugh Howey’s decision to walk away from a small press contract and self-publish didn’t seem all that remarkable. After assuming complete control of his work, he kept his day job and began writing and releasing e-books (as well as some print books) in his off hours, happy to be simply sharing his stories with whatever readers might find them. But when one of those books, Wool, unexpectedly took off, everything changed. Howey found himself at the top of e-book bestseller lists—and at the forefront of a new age of publishing.

—by Rachel Randall, managing editor
for Writer’s Digest Books

The opening chapters of Wool first appeared as a $0.99 e-book novella via Kindle Direct Publishing in July 2011; Howey had written the post-apocalyptic story, about a community of people living underground in giant silos, without intending to immediately follow it up with more installments. “I self-published it and went right back to my next work,” he says. But by October, Howey noticed Wool was eclipsing all of his previous works and was positioned to sell 1,000 copies by the end of the month. “I figured this was going to be the pinnacle of my career,” he says. So he promptly tabled the unrelated project he’d been planning for National Novel Writing Month and instead focused on writing more of the Wool saga.

What happened next is a story that rivals the success of self-made sensations Amanda Hocking, John Locke and E.L. James. The subsequent, rapid releases of the next four e-book installments of Wool rocketed Hugh Howey’s name to the top of Amazon bestseller lists in several categories. In January 2012, he released the Wool omnibus (the combined five parts), which spent two weeks on The New York Times e-book fiction bestseller list and received the Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Best Indie Book Award in the sci-fi/fantasy category. By that summer, Howey was selling 20,000–30,000 digital copies of Wool a month … and making a monthly salary of $150,000 from e-book sales alone. He quit his day job.

Publishers began to take notice. But instead of accepting the first offer that came along, Howey partnered with a literary agent, Kristin Nelson, and embarked on a mission. The pair began having conversations with publishers about the type of contract they were seeking—one that would allow Howey to broaden his reach to bookstores worldwide while still thriving as a digitally self-published author.

Not surprisingly, a lot of publishers weren’t even willing to discuss a print contract that didn’t encompass digital rights—and really, even Howey didn’t expect to land that kind of deal. He saw himself as advocating for an eventual shift that might help other authors in the future. “We figured that … it would take 20 or 30 published authors like myself having these conversations before some author down the road got the kind of deal we envisioned,” he explains.

But then something else amazing and unexpected happened: Holding his ground worked. After walking away from several six-figure advance offers and two seven-figure advances, Howey became the first self-published author ever to be offered a print-only contract-and a significant six-figure advance-by a major publisher. Simon & Schuster released Wool in both hardcover and paperback in March.

The nature of Howey’s author-centric conversations with publishers speaks to his inherent altruism—a quality that seems to be at the core of his success. Howey has since self-published a second omnibus in the Wool universe, Shift, and is preparing for the release of the final book in the series, Dust, due out in the fall. Whether these titles will also go on to be traditionally published remains to be seen. From his Florida home, where he resides with his wife and dog, Howey continues to advocate for more power in the hands of both traditional and self-published writers. Here, he discusses his unconventional road to success, his love for the science-fiction genre and his best advice to other hybrid authors in the making.

What influenced your initial decision to self-publish rather than pursue the traditional route?

Largely, my impatience. I went the traditional route with my first manuscript. I [had] shared that manuscript with some friends and people I knew on forums—I was going to put it on my website for free—and they said, “This is as good as anything I’ve read in the bookstore. Don’t put this out there for free; you need to submit this to publishers and try to get an agent.” So I begrudgingly went that route, and I was surprised: Within weeks I had some small publishers offering me advances. I was thrilled.

[But then,] watching that first book get published, I realized that all the tools were available to me. There were these new digital tools, and I could do it all myself. So when I got a contract for my second book, it was a difficult decision to make, but I told the publisher that I was going to try to do it on my own.

When did your literary agent come into the picture?

When [Kristin Nelson] got in touch with me, [Wool had become this breakout success and] I was turning away offers of representation. I just didn’t think I needed an agent because I was enjoying what I was doing in the U.S. and I was making enough to not need a day job. But she explained that I could … give the Hollywood market a much bigger attempt, and that I could attack the foreign markets. … Kristin has taken something that was doing really well domestically and expanded it in ways I never would have been able to.

You were having fantastic success through e-book sales alone. Why take Wool to a traditional publisher?

When I hooked up with Kristin, we discussed the fact that there was very little chance we would actually sign a deal with a traditional publisher. They would want the digital rights, which was how I was making a living, and they would want to take the [e-book] down. It could take a year before I saw any sort of payment, and I was getting paid monthly [at the time]. So we had these conversations [in order to] get publishers used to [ideas] they were uncomfortable considering, and we figured it would help some author years from now. …

Finally, Simon & Schuster came up with a contract that was everything we were looking for. It was a print-only deal, [and there was] nothing to hamstring my self-publishing career. They embraced what I was doing on my own and they just wanted to offer this book to a wider market. … And it’s gotten a lot of attention in the publishing industry. Another author, [Colleen Hoover], has [since] gotten a similar deal, so that’s exciting to me.

So you believe traditional publishers are becoming more open to negotiating hybrid models?

I think of all the industries that have been revolutionized by digital media, publishers have done a great job [of adapting]. They’ve gone from [stigmatizing] self-publishing to looking at the bestseller list to find people who aren’t signed, snatching them up and giving them much fairer contracts, and embracing the fact that they can publish several books in a year and have this huge fan base they can bring with them. It just makes complete sense, you know? There’s so much risk involved in publishing a book. If you can print a bestseller that’s already self-published, a lot of the risk is removed.

Do you feel that luck has played a role in your success?

Absolutely. I’m uncomfortable ascribing my success to my writing prowess. So much of it is timing. If I had been doing this five or 10 years ago, I never would’ve gotten my stories out there. And if I would do it 10 years from now, maybe my stories wouldn’t be good enough to compete with all the other works being self-published.

Now that you’ve had experiences with both traditional publishing and self-publishing, would you say being a hybrid author is the best of both worlds?

Absolutely. I not only have the great royalties that come from the dual rights, but I’ve been picked up by major publishers overseas [such as Random House in the U.K.]. I get to work with wonderful editors at Random House and Simon & Schuster and go on a book tour, things that I would never be able to do on my own. But being self-published means that I get to produce three works a year, I get to price my works where they’ll sell instead of pricing them so high. So there are advantages to both, and trying to pick the best from both worlds, to me, is ideal. It just requires a bit of good fortune to get to a position with your self-publishing career that you can get into the traditional world. And it also requires some bravery from traditionally published authors who want to become hybrid to break out and do some self-publishing. Some New York Times bestselling authors are now self-publishing in order to augment their earnings, and I think that’s brilliant.

What advice can you offer to authors who are trying to build a hybrid career?

Well, if you’re already traditionally published, examine your contract and see if [self-publishing] is something you can do. It’s a wonderful way to build your readership. My recommendation to anyone who’s got a backlist or a career in a traditionally published model is to break out and test the waters in self-publishing. It’s not going to do anything but good for your career.

For those who want to self-publish [from the start], embrace that. There’s no stigma from publishers, so if you want to become a hybrid author, the goal is to get as many works published [as possible]—high-quality stuff—build an author platform, and trust that 10 years from now you have 20 works available and one takes off and a publisher will approach you. You have as good a chance of winning a publisher over by getting sales going through your self-published works as you do submitting to the slush pile.

Both routes are fine … but if you’re really weighing the pros and cons [of] self-publishing, maybe you’re earning $20 or $50 a month with the six or seven titles you have out there, and you’re busy writing your next work. You’re not thinking about landing an agent. You’re not writing query letters, you’re writing stories. And meanwhile, [your e-book sales might be] paying your cable bill. … Instead of [having your manuscripts] in a drawer or in self-addressed, stamped envelopes, you have them out there where readers can find them, and maybe one of them will take off. That’s something I advocated before Wool had any sort of popularity, so it’s not just anecdotal. The fact that it worked I think lends credence to the idea of it working for others.

You’ve said that you wrote Wool for yourself, rather than with an audience in mind. Do you think this approach has had something to do with its success?

Oh, for sure. I think readers are looking for something new, something they haven’t experienced before, and that’s been my passion behind everything I’ve written. … I’m writing the stories that I wish were already out there. With Wool, I wrote a story that was short and dark, and it seemed completely uncommercial to me, but it was the kind of story I wished I could encounter as a reader. … I never thought it would have this sort of success. You’re not sitting there thinking any of this is possible when you’re writing. You’re thinking, I’m going to enjoy this, my wife is going to enjoy it, I’m going to self-publish it, I’m going to get on to the next thing.

What is it about the science-fiction genre that appeals to you?

To me, the beauty of the genre is its ability to [satirize] the human condition and really speak to what it means to be alive and to exist as a person. Of all the genres, science fiction gives you the best ability to exaggerate some feature of the human condition or some feature of our environment and see how your characters will respond to that.

I was struck by the complexity of the world you built in Wool. Did you do extensive planning before you began writing, or was your approach more organic?

I have an idea of where a story is going to end before I [start writing]. I’ll even write a very rough outline of the last scene or the last chapter, so I know where everyone’s going to end up and where the story is going to finish. I read some books and they’re just meandering and trying to find their ending, and I like for my characters to have a destination. [I leave] some room for wiggling, and for characters to interact organically with their environment or each other. I don’t plot heavily, but I definitely know where the story is going to end up, and that’s necessary for me. I want to avoid what [the TV show] “Lost” did, which was to make it up as they went along. [Laughs.]

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to other writers?

Support one another. Wherever you are in your career, there’s something you can do to help someone else out. The unusual nature of our industry is that we are not direct competitors to one another. … What I’ve learned from being a bookseller is that we will never have so many books that someone is not going to read your book because they’re reading everyone else’s. We can all do well, and the way we do that is by making reading as pleasurable as possible and by turning more and more people on to it.

Rachel Randall is a managing editor for Writer’s Digest Books.

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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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