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.
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. In an exclusive interview in the May/June 2013 issue of Writer's Digest magzine, Hugh Howey discusses his unconventional road to success, his love for the science-fiction genre and his best advice to other hybrid authors in the making. In these outtakes from the May/June 2013 WD Interview, self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey discusses his unusual methods for building platform, his daily writing process and his desire to support the works of fellow authors. Learn more about Howey’s unconventional career in these bonus online-exclusive outtakes.
What do you think are the key factors to Wool’s popularity?
I wrote a story that, for me, reflected what I thought was going on [in the world], and I think it resonated with readers. They loved it and they wanted more, and that was what initially got it going. I didn’t market the book at all. It was just published and ignored, and I went on to my next works. It took a few months before it started gaining this momentum, and it did it all on its own. What really kicked it into the next gear, I think, was when I followed it up with the rapid release of the next four stories that make up the single omnibus, which is being published as a single novel now. By releasing them in rapid succession and keeping the quality as high as readers were expecting, I had all five Wool books in the top ten lists of several categories on Amazon. That really captures people’s attention when they look at a bestseller list and half of the top-ten list is all by the same person with the same title.
Were there any other authors who served as models for your early experimentations in self-publishing?
I didn’t really know [self-publishing] was a trend until it was already happening to me. I had no idea. So I didn’t find out about people like Jay Conrad and John Locke. The only person I really had heard of … was Amanda Hawking. By the time I was quitting my day job this was happening to more and more people … so they’ve kind of become my idols [after] this has already happened to me. It’s not something I expected to happen to my career, so I wasn’t really looking for it beforehand.
What missteps did you take early on in your career?
I can’t imagine the outcome of my career being any better than it has been, so I think all the mistakes I made were fortunate accidents. I’m sure my publicist would tell me, “Do not make a Dance Dance Revolution in your pajamas and put it on YouTube, and do not post all these YouTube videos where you’re speaking directly to your audience …” Things that are probably against the norm have worked really well for me. My biggest mistake has probably been my greatest asset, and that’s just being myself. And I think it’s been so much easier to go through this process not worrying about my public persona or what I’m saying or doing.
Tell me a bit about your writing process.
I do my best writing in the morning because once I start getting emails and get into the business stuff it’s hard to get back to the creative side. … I can get 2,000 words written in a morning, and if I do that every day I can keep up my publication schedule. … Usually my afternoons consist of business-related stuff. I’ll do interviews, I’ll write a blog post, I’ll respond to emails, talk to my agent or my publisher [and focus on] whoever needs some of my time. I spend a lot of time at the post office. Today I spent a good three hours packing books and taking several hundred books to the post office. The ladies there all know me. I know all of them by name. They love seeing me come.
You’re a regular.
Oh, I keep that place open. I had 20 packages going to different countries today, and then another several hundred packages going domestic. You don’t make a lot of money doing that, because I’m just selling the books at retail [cost], plus a few dollars for shipping, but it’s fun to see people on Facebook opening their book [packages] and sending pictures. It gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Wool has recently been the subject of fan fiction. Where other authors might feel indifferent (or even, in some cases, take a stand against derivative works), you’ve wholly embraced these stories inspired by your universe. Why?
It never occurred to me to have any other reaction. When I first heard about someone writing fan fiction, I was flattered and amazed. I couldn’t believe someone was going to write a story in the [Wool] universe. They were just asking permission: “Do you mind if I write this?” And I said, “Absolutely! But if you are, please charge for it. Don’t give your work away.” And the responses to that from readers and other writers has been interesting. I know what it’s like to pour your heart into a story. Artists should be rewarded, and honestly, in non-genre fiction, stories that are told in an existing world with existing rules … are borrowing another world to write in, and that doesn’t occur to anyone as being sacrilegious. I think the same goes for my world. If anyone wants to write in it, I’m honored and thrilled. I just hope that if people read it, [the author] can buy themselves a coffee or a meal or something from their efforts.
What’s next after Wool?
It’s a trilogy, so I just released the second book in the series, Shift, and it’ll finish with Dust this summer. After that, I’ve got a dozen works outlined. It’s like being a reader: You finish a book and the best feeling in the world is that sense of satisfaction for completing a story and knowing you get to look at your to-be-read pile or go to the book store and pick something new. That’s how I feel as a writer. I get to look at all my notes and my outlines and my ideas and say, Ah, I feel like writing a romance novel next, or I want to revisit this world and write a sequel. After Dust is complete, I’ll get to sit down and choose.
How do you plan to grow your career from here?
I can’t imagine my career actually grows from here. People keep telling me that this is only the beginning, but I really feel like I’ve already achieved so much more than I ever dreamed possible. My expectations are just to keep writing and enjoy it, and if it goes back to just my wife and a few friends reading my stuff and loving it, I will embrace that and get a job at a bookstore again and shelve books during the day and write on my lunch break and every morning. I can’t possibly ask for more than I’ve already enjoyed.
To read the complete Writer’s Digest magazine interview with Hugh Howey, don’t miss the May/June 2013 issue.