His short story, WOOL, became an Amazon bestseller in 2011 and soon readers were clamoring for more. WOOL is now a five part series and will soon be made into a major motion picture by acclaimed sci-fi director, Ridley Scott.
Readers quickly embraced Hugh’s previous works, including The Molly Fyde Saga and his standalone books I, Zombie, The Hurricane, The Plagiarist, and Halfway Home.
Today he is highly respected not only for his writing, but his willingness to help other authors achieve the same success that he has had.
The Hugh Howey Interview
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Books by Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey Transcript
Tim Knox: Hey everyone, welcome back in to Interviewing Authors, Tim Knox here. Another great show for you today. My guest is Hugh Howey. Hugh is what I would call a self-publishing juggernaut.
Hugh has really set the world on fire with his books Wool, Shift, Dust and many others. The cool thing about Hugh Howey is you will never meet a more humble, nice guy. Hugh is a great interview. He talks about how he acclaimed fame.
He was not an overnight success. He had written books for many years and had quite a backlist when Wool, the short story that put him on the map, took off. Hugh talks openly and honestly about his journey. He has quite a background. When he was a teenager he got in a boat and took off for the Caribbean and spent about 10 years down there living on boats. He worked as a yacht captain, worked at a bookstore and all the while he was a writer and that’s the moral to the story you’re going to hear today from Hugh Howey – just keep writing, just keep plugging along and the work will reward you in time.
A great interview with a very humble, very nice man and one of the most successful self-published authors on the planet, Hugh Howey, on this edition of Interviewing Authors.
Tim Knox: Hugh, welcome to the program.
Hugh Howey: Thanks, Tim. Thanks for having me.
Tim Knox: Appreciate you being here. This is a program about the process of writing and creation and publishing. I think that you really are kind of spearheading some efforts and that’s one reason I wanted to talk to you. I mentioned this a little bit on the pre-call; I started this program because really I was nosy. I wanted to know how these authors were doing what they were doing. You see so many stories of, you know, I sold one book here and then all of a sudden it exploded and I think the question of why never really gets answered. I think you’ve got a really good backstory but before we get started on that, if you will, just for those who have not read your work or aren’t familiar with Hugh Howey just give us a little thumbnail of you.
Hugh Howey: That’s difficult because I’m a little all over the place.
Tim Knox: You were quite the vagabond I think.
Hugh Howey: Yeah my first career out of high school was in computers and then I went back to school to study physics and switched to an English major. At the time I was living on a sailboat. After my Junior year I really got terrified of the real world and so I took my sailboat down to the Bahamas for a year and just hopped around from island to island. That led to another career as a yacht captain, which I did for eight years. When I got out of that industry I settled down with my wife. We’ve been together for 12 years. I finally had the time to sit still and chase this really childhood dream of having written one novel in my life.
That’s really what I set out to do is write one book. I got hooked on the process just like I’ve been hooked on reading my whole life. My first book was with a small press and when the contract for my second book came in I had learned enough through that process to realize that I should be publishing my works on my own.
The blessing of my publisher, we still have a great relationship and I’m still thankful for everything they taught me and they’re very proud of everything I’ve done since then, but I’ve just been self-publishing ever since and have had an outsized amount of success at that.
I think that gets to your question about seeing people go from zero to one hundred seemingly and it seemed like that for me from the outside but Wool, the story of mine that took off, was my 8th published work and at that point I sold about 5,000 copies over a previous seven titles in about two and a half, three years. I thought… now I see people who really bemoan selling 5,000 eBooks.
At the time most of my sales were print on demand paperbacks. I wasn’t concentrating on the eBooks and I thought 5,000 books was a lot. I mean I was selling beyond the people that I knew. That base of readers were there to discover Wool, which is a short story that I published and that’s the story that went from selling a dozen copies to 1,000 in one month, 3,000 the next month, 10,000 the month after that. It just ballooned from there. So how do you make that happen? There’s an element of luck involved and that makes it very difficult to prescribe a sequence of events for anybody to follow and this will definitely happen to you.
Tim Knox: Right and I really want to dig into that process because a lot of authors that I talk to that are doing what you’re doing, maybe on not as grand a scale but on the same kind of level when it comes to Kindle and that sort of thing.
A lot of them don’t know how they did it but I think there is a very definite formula and I really want to dig into that. If you don’t mind let’s go back because you just said something about you were in college, physics, English major and you decided to get away and you hopped a boat and you went to wherever you went and became a yacht captain.
I always find it fascinating, an author’s journey, because very rarely is it as clear cut as well I went to college, got a degree in English, started writing books. Those formative years if you will, talk a little bit about those because you were a yacht captain but during that time were you writing? Were you creative?
Hugh Howey: Yeah I’ve always read and did journal entries and adventures that I go on. I used to be a big rock climber and I would write about one particular climb or I would write about one sunrise. I wrote a lot of poetry since I was little through college and beyond, which I think poetry’s a great way to cut your teeth on – learning flow and learning rhythm and building your vocabulary and learning to get an ear for what is pleasing as far as meter even for prose.
Yeah, when you’re talking about people who go to college and get an MFA, I think that’s a great path for becoming an editor but I don’t think it’s a great career path for becoming a writer. When you look at a lot of the great writers like Grisham who came from law or Patterson who came from advertising, everyone kind of has a much more interesting career path than just staying in academia through their whole lives.
While the school years are fun, the best way to power your writing is to go out and live life and explore and travel and see as many different things as possible and work as many different careers as you can.
When you’re writing a book you’re going to peephole that story with characters from all walks of life and if all you’ve ever been in is the university setting, which you know working in a college bookstore while I was writing, most of my colleagues who were writing as well were college professors who were all writing stories about college professors in a campus life because really that’s what they knew.
I didn’t set out to do this but when I looked back on it the best thing I did for my writing was take any crazy adventure that came my way and say yes to it, even if that meant… there were several times that I left school by finishing my academic work even over a month ahead of time in order to take a boat job that would get me down to the Caribbean.
Those opportunities come up for everyone but it’s very easy to say no to them because it feels like it would be a lot of work to chase those opportunities. I think if you want to be a writer you have to look for every possible chance to jump on an adventure and do as much observing and journaling as you can while you’re on that adventure.
Tim Knox: I think that’s such a great point because if you look at a lot of the more famous writers or the more prolific writers, they are the ones that did live those adventures. They’re not the ones who just sat in a corner room somewhere and hacked out work. Hemmingway and those guys, they really lived that stuff.
Hugh Howey: Yeah Hemmingway – I was in Cuba at a bar in Havana and I started chatting up the guy beside me. This was back in 2000 I think and the guy beside me was Hemmingway’s old fishing boat captain. So he was really old; he died just five years or something after I spoke with him. I’ve got to find that.
I had a Sony MiniDisc player on me and I was recording conversations with people on my travels. I haven’t taken the time to try and track down the conversation I had with him but I did record it. It was really crazy to think of the life that Hemmingway led while he was doing all this writing. It goes back to how do you write about a man going to sea without having been to sea and how do you write about heartbreak without having had your heart broken?
I think every risk and adventure we take in life just sets us up for whatever our creative endeavors are, whether it’s music, writing or writing plays, whatever you want to do with your creative life. It has to draw on the things that you know.
Tim Knox: Have you found that someone like you who is really creative as a writer, that outlet can be in many forms. You’ve seen, for example, a lot of the actors who can sing and dance. I’ve noticed this in my interviews with a lot of the authors. The ones that are more creative, they can write across all genres, they can just pretty much…. My God, Stephen King can play in a band. How creative can that be?
Hugh Howey: Yeah I wish it worked for me like that. I do feel like I can write in a lot of genres and I have; I enjoy that. I have absolutely no singing or dancing or any ability to play music. I’m not good at picking up foreign languages. I really tried hard with that and struggled. I wish I was as wide ranging as some of those other artists. For me it’s always been writing and the fine arts – painting and drawing – have been the things that I’ve been drawn to and have been decent at.
Tim Knox: You also do photography right?
Hugh Howey: Yeah I love photography but I don’t know that I’m any good at it. It’s one of my passions. I spend a lot of time with the camera.
Tim Knox: The nice thing about photography is you really don’t have to be good at it to be passionate about it or spend a ton of money.
Hugh Howey: Yeah absolutely. I compare photography to self-publishing a lot because people look at the cost that you can incur with self-publishing a quality work where you hire an editor, get great cover art; you make a book that you’re proud of.
You can easily spend $2,000 or $3,000 creating a book that is indistinguishable from a book from a big 5 publisher, which I think is very important because you want to put your best work out there but readers won’t judge your work by your cover and your blurb and by any typos and editing mistakes. But when you look at what people pay for like one lens for their camera – that’s a hobby.
They’re not going to ever make a living out of it. It’s something they do because they enjoy it. Writing is one of the least expensive hobbies you can possibly have. You already own a computer. It’s just your time and your imagination. I look at the investment in a book as being extremely affordable for being able to own the rights to this piece of work for the rest of your life.
Tim Knox: I think that’s such a great point. I was interviewing someone a couple weeks ago and they were I don’t want to say bitching but they were bitching about the fees that it costs just to put up on CreateSpace. I’m like really? That’s not a tremendous investment at all. What is it, like 30, 40, 50 bucks or something?
Hugh Howey: I think it’s free now. Even their expanded distribution is completely free now.
Tim Knox: Super.
Hugh Howey: He might be with Lightning Source, which is another print on demand.
Tim Knox: I think the point there is a lot of authors don’t approach this from a business standpoint. I’m an old entrepreneur so I always… process and cost are very important to me but you look at your return on investment. I think that’s what you’re talking about. Invest in a good cover, invest in really good formatting because your book can be indistinguishable between what’s self-published and the big guys.
Hugh Howey: Yeah and I’ll even step one step back from approaching it from a business perspective, which is what I do, but I also look at it from a hobby perspective. My mom and sister both knit and run a knit store together and they can spend $40 for a couple of skeins of yarn. The amount of time they put into knitting a sweater and the amount of money that goes into the yarn and the equipment will never be made back.
It’s done because they love it. It’s from the passion. When you look at all the other hobbies you could be doing, whether it’s gardening or skydiving or building plastic models, whatever it is, all those things cost a lot more than writing. They expect to put in all that hard work and immediately get paid but there’s no creative career where there expectation exists. People don’t learn to play guitar and they’re like why is no one paying me for writing this song? You have to approach it like a career if you expect to get paid.
Before then you need to just look at it as, hey, this is something I enjoy doing. I want to get better at it but it’s totally fine for me to spend some money to foster this passion.
Tim Knox: You really got interested in writing when you started doing… you were writing reviews of crime fiction. How did that come about?
Hugh Howey: I had a friend who had a website that did true crime reporting and he was a fan of true crime films and murder mystery, horror films, a wide variety of genres that you can lump together. We were doing reviews on his true crime site.
We decided that they just didn’t go together and needed a separate website for the reviews so we started this website and I was the book editor for it. I started reaching out to publishers letting them know we’re open for business and I just started getting a flood of books in the mail.
Every day two or three hardbacks would arrive in the mail for me from publishers and I was reading a book a day and reviewing them. I was going to book conferences and covering those, just getting a lot of content up. I was doing interviews with writers like Tana French who won the Edgar Award. I did an interview with her. Every week we had an interview with a big name author.
Yeah reading that much, which I’ve always been an avid reader but I’ve never read a book a day for months on end like I was doing. My brain was just getting overloaded with prose which ended up being awesome when I wanted to sit down and write my own book. But also doing those interviews with authors, like you and I are doing now, demystified the process for me. It’s like, okay, these are normal people.
A lot of them have day jobs. They just spend a few hours a day or a couple hours a day writing and with that level of commitment and that level of investment they’re able to produce works that I really enjoyed so I think I can do this. After one conference in particular in Virginia I came home and I was just so fired up and instead of working on my reviews, I sat down and started writing a book.
Within two weeks I had a 100,000 word rough draft. I spent 20 years of futility not being able to finish a book. I didn’t have a day job at the time. I was spending 12 to 14 hours a day on this manuscript. The amount of hours that it took to write the book is the same that I’m investing now; I just don’t have the ability to basically hibernate for two weeks to write a novel anymore.
Tim Knox: Did you do something with that book?
Hugh Howey: Yeah that book won an endorsement from Douglas Preston, who became a fan of the series and is a New York Times bestseller. It won several book of the year awards from book bloggers and got picked up by small press. It still sells very well today.
Tim Knox: What was the name of that book?
Hugh Howey: Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue.
Tim Knox: Did you self-publish that one?
Hugh Howey: I was going to; I was going to put it on my blog. I started a website while I was writing and I was using the website while I was querying to kind of log the process but within a few weeks of starting the querying I heard back from two small publishers who wanted to do a partial read and then a full read and then one of them made me an offer.
It was a small advance and regular contract. They provide cover art and editing. It was like what you would get from a regular publisher except without the large print run, without the same marketing muscle that’s really hard to compare because you can get very little marketing even with a big contract, and a much smaller advance but everything else about it was the same – all the editorial and publishing support and logistics that you get from a publisher.
I really enjoyed that but like I said earlier, I watched the tools that they used to publish which a lot of what small presses do are available to anybody. They’re print on demand and eBook. I wanted to have more creative control and I wanted to operate even faster. They operated very quickly but I wanted to go even faster. Also I wanted to be able to hire… I enjoyed working with my editor but I wanted to be able to hire the editors and cover artists that I wanted to work with. For me it’s the difference between owning a small business and punching a clock for a corporation. I had more of an entrepreneurial spirit, so for me I would much rather own a small business than work for a big company.
Tim Knox: I think one clear pattern keeps emerging to me on how someone accomplishes what you’ve done, what Russell Blake has done, several others. The lesson that I have learned is don’t worry about selling the first book. Don’t worry about the money. If you concentrate on the work, you do the work, you build a catalog, someday one of those books may get noticed and your catalogue will get noticed.
Is that what happened with you because I know you had written five or six books over the course of a few years but when Wool came out that’s really when things started to fall in place for you but you had been writing for years. You actually had the plan where you wanted to write two books a year for 10 years so you’d have a catalog to sell. Talk a little bit about that.
Hugh Howey: Yeah I think your summation just then is the best I’ve heard from the most practical and highest probable way of getting a career as a writer. It starts with having a long view, a lot of patience and committing to writing in obscurity because you love the process, not because you have dreams of where it needs to be by a certain period of time.
I set what I thought was a very long horizon for myself. I wanted to write for 10 years. I thought I could write two novels a year. This was while working a day job, keeping my wife happy and my dog entertained and my house maintained and all the other things in life. Basically by giving up video games and some TV shows and not going to the movies as often and things like that, I was spending my leisure time writing.
I knew I could write two books a year, two books that I was really proud of. Having that 10 year horizon I knew that I probably wouldn’t make it 10 years but by looking that far ahead I wasn’t going to stop anytime sooner. It gave me the ability to write for my own pleasure and to publish just for the joy of having it out there.
What I found very quickly is like all it takes is having one or two readers in your life to make it worthwhile. My wife was reading my manuscripts and my mom and then a first cousin who was a big fan and telling all her friends about it, a colleague of wife at her work, someone who works with me. You just pick up a reader here and there and if you’re story resonates with them they want to check out your next work.
I think having the appreciation of just having one or two readers was enough for me to get up every morning and devote myself to my writing. Setting that expectation of when I have 20 books out if no one has read any of them that means they’re still all brand new. The idea of… I see this problem with a lot of authors where they publish a book and they’re so impatient for it to take off that they’re frustrated when it doesn’t. I never had that expectation. Working in a bookstore certainly helped that. I saw how few books took off. Even traditionally published authors with marketing and backing, their books just fell flat and didn’t sit on the shelf for more than three to six months before they were returned. So I had very low expectations going into it and just enjoyed the process. That gave me the freedom to write relaxed and take chances and write not to expectations from the marketplace but the things that entertained me, that got me out of bed early in the morning every day excited.
Tim Knox: So you wrote for yourself and really if someone picked it up that was great but you were writing strictly for Hugh Howey.
Hugh Howey: Yeah and for my wife and my mom and for people. I’d write for myself but I’d also write a scene and go, oh my wife is going to love this. It helps to have someone in mind whether it’s yourself or whether it’s friends or family or that one stranger who wants your work. It’s cool to see the reaction to the book from their perspective because that can be very motivating.
Tim Knox: Do you think that’s one of the things that discourages new authors or ends their career actually is the unreal expectations? I’ve written a book, Hugh; it’s the greatest book on the planet. Agents and publishers are going to line up and all I have to do is sit back and count my money, and then the real world hits. You think that drives a lot of folks out of the business and is that a really good way to weed out the business?
Hugh Howey: I don’t like the idea of weeding out artists. I think everyone’s first work might not be their best work and if we discourage people how many incredible works of art are just never created because people gave up too early? What I love about self-publishing is once you learn to be patient you can write a book, get it edited, workshop it with some more writers, join a writing group online or in your local community, hire an editor and cover artist.
Make this book something you’re proud of. You hit publish and then the next day you start writing something else. With the old process you finished your manuscript and you started mailing it out to people and now you become a professional querier. You’re researching agents, writing letters to agents, learning how to format query letters for each one, what they in a submission – how many pages, a self-addressed stamped envelope or online query.
Then you have to keep a spreadsheet of who you submitted to, who you’ve heard back from, who’s next on your list, any edits you want to make. I mean that’s where you lose your passion for writing is that process.
Tim Knox: You get caught up in the semantics of it.
Hugh Howey: Absolutely and if it goes ideally, like the best you can expect, it might be three years from starting to query to… it might take you a year to land an agent and another year to land a publishing deal and then a year for the book to come out. It can happen quicker but it’s so rare that it’s not even worth thinking about.
I know people who spend five years writing and banging their head against the wall before they finally get an agent. They think well now I’ve got it. Now my career’s going to get started. Then they can’t land a publishing deal. I’ve got a friend who was with HarperCollins who his first book contract was in the six figures and his second was in the high fives and then an offer never came for the third book.
When he got that first book offer, first six figures, he just assumed well now I’m a career writer and I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life. Even for people who make it that far there’s room to fail. Having awareness of how the industry works really helped me to just publish and say you know this book is out. It’s out as an eBook and a print on demand book. It’s going to be available forever.
For all I know I’ll die and 50 years from now someone will pick up that book and enjoy that read and that makes it worthwhile. Having that low expectation of that long of a view made it so easy to get up every day and write and be happy with what I was producing.
Tim Knox: That’s such a good point. It seems to be what I see a lot among the authors that have persevered and built the catalog and then something happened and things took off. Let’s kind of talk about that because I think I’d be remiss without.
When you published the short story Wool you had been writing for a long time. You had, what, six novels and had sold maybe 5,000 copies between them. Then Wool gets noticed and things start to happen. The back catalog starts to sell. Talk a little about that time. Was that the tipping point for you do you think when things really started to happen?
Hugh Howey: Wool was a self-contained story. It was like a Twilight Zone episode. You can read it in 30-45 minutes. I self-published it onto KDP for $0.99 and I had a little paperback edition that was only 40 pages thick for like $5.
Tim Knox: I remember reading it when it came out, yeah.
Hugh Howey: Oh really? That was the whole story and I had such low hopes for this story because it wasn’t a commercial, the length and price, that I didn’t even really mention it. I didn’t put a link on my website for it. I didn’t tweet about it or put it on Facebook.
I didn’t do anything for it. I just put it out there and started working on my next novel. That was in July of 2011, late July. In October about two months later it sold 1,000 copies that month and I had never sold 1,000 copies in a single title in a year. Even though it was $0.99 this was like $350 that I had earned for that month.
For all I knew this was going to be the best month that I ever had in my writing career and it was still significant for me. This is crazy. We’re going to pay a couple of bills and I’ve got 1,000 people who’ve downloaded and read a work of mine. The emails and the reviews and all that that came in was just life changing.
So I immediately decided to write more in this world. That’s what people were asking for in the reviews and the emails I was getting. They wanted to see more stories in this world I created. Yeah so for the next two months I wrote four more pieces and was releasing them every two weeks or so.
Things just kept compounding on themselves and people, while they were waiting, would go and read some of my other works. So having that backlist available was hugely beneficial. If this had been my first work that took off I would not have had the amount of success that I’ve had because having all that backlist was so important.
Tim Knox: How did Wool get noticed and sell that many copies?
Hugh Howey: That’s a good question. I think it was happening on social media. It was happening word of mouth but I wasn’t privy to the process. The way I think it was happening was it was the kind of story that because of this twist ending and even when you’re reading it you know it’s going to be a twist ending.
You know it’s going to be one of two outcomes and you keep thinking you have it figured out then you second guess yourself and you go back and forth and almost everyone is wrong. It was kind of an accident that I created that psychological drama and I think it was such a hook that when people finished it – and again it cost $0.99 and you read it in 30 or 45 minutes, so during a commute or on a lunch break.
Immediately people were telling everyone they knew you should check out this story. It’s only $0.99, you can read it in no time. You’re going to love it. Tell me if you figured out the ending.
I think that’s where the explosive growth was coming from that people were Facebooking and tweeting and sharing a link. It’s so easy to grab. It’s not like you have to drive to the bookstore to find it. It’s like someone posted a link, you should read this and it’s $0.99. We’re used to paying that for a song, for an app.
People clicked okay and they read the story then they were writing a review or they were emailing me or they were telling their friends and family you should check this out and they were looking at what else I’d written. It was very fortuitous. I wish I had it planned out or I knew what was happening. I can really only look back and having talked to a lot of people who picked it up when it first came out and ask them what was your reaction?
They tell me what they did so that’s where I’m having to piece together the history of this.
Tim Knox: I think it was really smart you had that backlog. Another theme that I find is when readers do discover you – I’m doing air quotes here on the radio – when they do discover you, they want to see what else you’ve written. They want to go back and buy and read and that sort of thing. I think that’s how you build that initial audience but then you make a really good point. People find something they like and then they tell other people. I think that’s the best form of marketing really that I see is this groundswell of initial reader and fan activity that just kind of blows up. Now awhile later Wool is just this phenomenon that just keeps on going, right?
Hugh Howey: Yeah. When people say well how can I improve my chances of this happening to me? If it were easy we would have all done it with our first novels and I would be able to do it with every book that I write.
The challenge is you have to write a story and the quality of the prose isn’t is what’s as important as having a plot and characters and a setting, something that is such a hook and so fascinating that people can’t put it down and they have to invite everyone they know to come join them in this place. It’s not easy coming up with those kinds of stories. I had the idea for Wool in my head for five years, which I think helped that it was percolating for that long.
Tim Knox: What was the genesis of that idea?
Hugh Howey: Well I spent two years working as a roofer when I got out of boating in order to spend more time at home with my wife. We had moved to Virginia while she was finishing her doctorate and so I was flying to the Bahamas from Virginia.
The guy I bought the house from had a roofing company. He told me when I bought the house, “Hey if you ever want to help us out I’d love to have you.” I had no experience doing this and he asked me if I had a fear of heights. I told him no I used to rock climb a lot, free climb. So I started working for this roofing company in Virginia and loved it and had all this time to sit and daydream and that’s when I came up with the Molly Fyde character, who became a four book series.
I came up with the idea for Wool which was going to be a novel but I didn’t have time to devote to making it a novel. The story was killing me. I had to get it out there. I saw a way to write basically just the climax and compress it down to just the best part, which I think was very important as well.
Yeah so the genesis was I had gone from seeing the world by traveling around on boats to seeing the world through the daily news and newspapers and the internet, and it was two different worlds.
One was a world full of people going about their day and doing pretty banal things and the other one was just a greatest hits of all the worst things going on in the world. I noticed that I was getting more depressed and more pessimistic about the world and had to remind myself, okay no, I spent time in some of these countries and these very poor places like Haiti. Yes, there are bad things going on there but I also remember playing soccer with kids in neighborhoods and riding bikes through towns and being invited into people’s homes and having meals with them.
Yes, there are bad things going on everywhere but if that’s all we focus on that can really poison our perception of the majority of what’s going on in the world.
So that’s sort of the idea where Wool came from. It was basically creating a Plato’s Cave where we only see shadows on the wall but in this case it’s shadows that terrify us. At some point we need to be brave enough to go out and see the world for how it really is. If there are bad parts about it be brave enough to go out and make those parts better.
Tim Knox: One of the things you’ve talked about is those authors who are not selling hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of books. You call them I believe the midlisters, the ones who are on Amazon making a living or making an extra $500 a month or an extra $1,000 a month. You feel there are a lot more of those out there than there are like you, who are just selling a ton of books every day. Talk a little about that. When is Amazon going to recognize those people? When are they going to get their own list? Just what are your thoughts about the midlisters in general?
Hugh Howey: Yeah the way I’m trying to look at it is this – the percentage of people who make a living in any artistic endeavor, it’s very small. The number of people who learn to play the guitar versus the number of people making a living playing guitar is very small as a percentage. In absolute numbers, the absolute number of people who are making a living off their writing or supplementing their income, making enough to consider it a second job to pay for participating in that field has…
I don’t know if it’s gone up 10x or 20x but it’s gone up a lot. We’ve gone from hundreds of people making a living while writing fiction, not needing a second job or money from some other source, to thousands of people making at least tens of thousands a year. I meet people at every conference, I get emails. For over two years now I’ve made this like a cause really to find out how many people are doing well enough with their self-published writing to have it be really considered a full-time job.
It started with a forum post where I was asking for people to report. I was overwhelmed with the response. More recently it’s turned into this project with a partner of mine where we’re looking at the Amazon bestseller list to try to piece apart how well self-published authors are doing.
The economic advantages to self-publishing are so great that you can sell fewer works and make a great income off of it because those works never come off the shelf, they’re always available – this is new. This is not the way the model worked before. You had a small window and if some other book in your genre was tearing it up at the time no one was going to hear about your book. It got no marketing.
The timing would just be wrong for that book and it would never get a second chance. Now you have 10 works available and they’re all selling. It all adds up and they’re selling around the world and they’re selling as eBooks, as print on demand, as audio books. They’re selling on Kobo, on iTunes, on Barnes & Noble, Amazon.
You’re in every home in the world, in every digital book outlet in the world and that’s a powerful shift in the economics of all of this. It’s why I think people who dedicate themselves to this craft and say I want to get 20 published works in my lifetime have a great chance of making a career at this. People who write one book and hope they get lucky have almost no chance.
There is frustration from people, like okay I’ve published four or five books and I’ve hired cover artists and gotten great editing and it hasn’t happened to me yet. That can be very frustrating I’m sure but your chances of making it through that are much better than querying. My agent, for instance, only takes two new clients a year.
She gets hundreds of submissions a day and she only takes two new clients a year and every agent is dealing with this. They get to a point where they’re just sending a form letter to everyone. The only people they would consider is when they get an email that says, hi, my name is so and so and everyone’s heard of them. I’m a New York Times bestseller.
My agent just passed away and I’m moving on or I’m dissatisfied with my agent and looking for a new one or I like what you did with this work and I want to place my next work with you. When they’re getting letters like that and you’re having to compete with that, it’s difficult. Again, it’s the reason why you can give yourself a chance by making your work available and writing your next work. I think that’s the absolute best thing you can do to make it as a writer
Tim Knox: Do you think some in the industry and even some authors see self-publishing as a step down from the traditional publishing, meaning that if you can’t get traditionally published you can always self-publish? It’s almost like some people demean self-publishing when really it has opened up so many doors for so many authors.
Hugh Howey: I’m sure there are for some people. I feel bad for the people who still see it that way because self-publishing has a very long history of, you know, there are a legion of works that we consider classics now that were originally self-published.
For me, and I hope the next generation has this attitude because I see it in so many other areas of our lives, but the maker culture of putting things together ourselves like growing your own vegetables, creating your own furniture, 3-D printing – all these different ways of taking manufacturing and bringing it into a smaller, more intimate part of our lives. I think that’s how we should look at artistic endeavors as well.
So for me there’s more of a stigma with being with a big corporate publisher where they’re going to say okay you can’t kill this character because it doesn’t set you up well for the sequel or we need to consider what the film people are going to think if you do that with this decision or the market is not really ready for that. I don’t want to work for someone else and have them tell me how to create my art.
I think the stigma exists because the people who used to self-publish were people who tried everything else and just gave up and went and spent tens of thousands of dollars with a vanity press and got scammed and ended up with a bad product that even they weren’t proud of and so there’s a lot of shame and indignity in self-publishing.
Now it’s people taking the helm and doing it themselves and creating the works that they’re proud of. So I think the stigma’s going to turn around. For me it turned around years ago. I was at a major publisher where they were making a big seven figure offer for my Wool series and one of the ways they were trying to… they could see that I was not convinced and one of the things they tried to entice me with during this reading was wouldn’t it be great to say you were with a major publisher?
I told them straight up this is from my heart – I love your books and I appreciate what you guys do but there would be a stigma attached to me saying that well now my success is because I’m with you guys rather than because I did it on my own. I think we’re going to move more to that world where we find out someone has this success and they did it all by themselves or with the help of their freelance team and their beta readers and their fans.
People will be like, wow, that’s fantastic and there’s going to be a lot of pride and celebration behind self-publishing.
Tim Knox: Do you think that some publishers are now launching self-published authors, seeing who’s going to self-publish successfully and then if books are being sold they’ll come and cherry pick the best and try to sway them into traditional publishing?
Hugh Howey: That is happening. I think they look at success and they check out the manuscript to see if it’s something that they’re interested in because they’re missing out on great material now. There’s a lot of material that’s never going through the query process so no agent ever saw this manuscript.
No publisher ever saw it. It went straight to self-publishing. So they’re looking to see what’s out there, what are we missing, just like a fashion photographer walking down the street will see someone that has this right bone structure or whatever and say, hey, have you ever thought about this and they discovered someone who wasn’t even trying to be discovered. A graffiti artist or an amateur photographer who is seen by a curator of talent and says, hey, we’d love to snatch you up.
I think publishers are weary now of just signing anyone who’s got decent sales numbers and saying this will translate to our model because there are things that they do with raising the prices and staggering the release and formats and things that they do to hurt books that. A book that works well self-published won’t always work well traditionally published.
Tim Knox: You had a recent blog post where you talked about a book conference where the self-published authors were put off in a room by themselves. The traditional authors were in the main room; the self-pubs were in a side room almost like second class citizens if you will. They were calling them aspiring authors. What was the deal there?
Hugh Howey: Well I wasn’t at that conference. I had friends tweeting and Facebooking about that. One of my friends who was there called me and was practically in tears about it. It turns out the aspiring authors thing was a designation they’ve used at this conference in the past and one of the volunteers had used it incorrectly.
It was a situation where authors went in with the promise that they were all going to be in the same room and they had put the self-published authors in one room and all the traditionally published authors in another. Some people’s feelings were hurt. Some people thought there was no problem with it at all. For me I’ve seen a huge difference in conferences in just the few years I’ve been going to them. It used to be self-published authors weren’t allowed anywhere on a panel, in the signing rooms with other authors.
You had to pay to get a table and you were kind of in the place where you were pitching. I’ve seen a big difference at some conferences and some haven’t changed very much. Some have even gotten a little reactionary about it.
The competition here is not between authors. We’re all in it together. The competition is between outdated mindsets and the realities of the digital age, which has impacted every entertainment field and is going to keep impacting publishing. There are publishers and booksellers and people who don’t benefit from self-publishing who don’t want to see anymore inroads from self-published authors.
But for the people who matter, the readers and the writers, this has been the greatest… and I think we should just focus on the positive. That was really the point of my blog post. It wasn’t to try to cause trouble or stir up any bad feelings. It was just like, look, next year let’s separate people alphabetically.
Let’s think of some other way to differentiate than publishing path because it’s no longer that self-published authors… I mean, myself. All my self-published books were choices. I had offers. I had an offer for my second book and I never looked since then. I’ve had publishers say we’d love to see your next book before you publish it.
We’d love to see the manuscript; we’d love to do a deal and I ignore them. I self-publish my work. I go directly to my readers. If a publisher wants to pick up my work afterward they’re welcome to but I’m not going to delay a work for a year for that process. It’s worked for me.
Random House in the UK… I self-published my last novel, Sand, and they read it and they’re reading it when the readers are reading it. They don’t get an early copy. It goes live and then my editor there loved it and wanted to publish it so we’d done a deal with them. I think that should be the future of where we make our work available to readers first and we concentrate on what the reader wants and let the industry try to catch up to what we’re doing.
Tim Knox: One of the things you’re really good at is keeping in touch with your readers. You’ve got a wonderful website. You’ve got a great blog. You also do quite a bit of Twitter. What are your thoughts as far as social media? How important is it for authors to do social media, not only to brand and market their work but to keep in touch with their fan base, their readers?
Hugh Howey: My view of social media is it’s more avenues for me to stay in touch with my existing readers. It’s not a place for me to go out and try to lure in new readers. Twitter, I view it as a way of global email.
I don’t use Twitter the way I think you’re supposed to. I’ll post links to interesting things. If you look at my Twitter feed it’s mostly me responding to people just being me and saying, hey what’s going on with this or what do you think about that? It’s me favoriting things and replying to people and retweeting people.
I guess most of my marketing time is spent responding to emails and tweets and Facebook posts. The one thing is I use my blog to broadcast stuff but it’s almost never to say buy my stuff. It’s usually just blogging about things I’m interested in.
For the last few years it’s been the publishing industry. I’m just fascinated with how books are made and all the changes that are happening to the publishing industry so I’ll blog about that sort of thing.
I think one thing I learned while I was working at the bookstore. I worked in an independent bookstore on a university campus and I didn’t tell people that I was a published author. My books were on the shelf in the bookstore because I was an assistant manager. My boss isn’t going to get away with not carrying my print on demand books.
So I had like six novels on the shelf and I would never tell people that I was a writer or point that out to them. When someone found out on their own they were intensely curious about the fact that I was a writer. They wanted to know everything about it. If you walk up to someone and say, “Hi, I’m a writer,” they’ll turn around and walk the other way. If they find out on their own or find out some other way it’s almost like… it’s not a deliberate method of increasing interest; it’s just an observation that I had. I’m really uncomfortable like trying to sell my wares to people. It’s not something that I enjoy doing.
What I did notice is that when people found out that I was a writer. They had all the questions for me and if you tell someone you’re a writer they just want to change the subject. I’m not sure why that is. I don’t know if maybe they think well if you’re not telling anyone about it then you must be doing great.
You’re not asking for readers so there’s some secret or something great that you’re keeping hidden. If you’re broadcasting it; if you’re coming on TV with a paid advertisement people are a little suspicious of that I think. This is all postdoc reasoning. This is me looking back to try to figure out what things were helpful and what things weren’t.
I’ve never seen it be helpful to run around shouting buy my stuff but I have seen some incredible interactions when people find out serendipitously that you have a passion for some sort of creation and they’re interested in the kind of product that you create.
Tim Knox: It’s almost like the old tentative business that if you announce it to the world, the world doesn’t believe it but if other people announce it all of a sudden the testimonial effect takes place and people start believing your press. That’s when they get interested. You mentioned you worked in the bookstore. Last question here – you almost have a Tarantino-esque story here because he worked in a video store dreaming of directing films and you started working in a bookstore dreaming of being an author. Now that you’re a successful author are you thinking about going back and actually opening up a bookstore?
Hugh Howey: Yeah I’m pretty deep in that process now. I’ve been looking at spaces in town with a realtor. We lost our only bookstore in Jupiter, Florida. There was a Books-A-Million right around the corner from me and we have 60,000 people here. Just studying the industry and trends, I mean independent bookstores are seeing double digit growth year on year.
What I think is happening is the real threat to independent bookstores was the big box discount stores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million. I used to work at a Barnes & Noble to get through college. I helped open up one of their stores. I’m a fan of the company and I’ve enjoyed working there but also think that they were the thing that shoved aside the independent booksellers. What Amazon is doing is outcompeting with the big box retailers both on discounts and on selection and on convenience.
Amazon is going to put the big box retailers out and what we’re going to see are the independent bookstores, which offer destinations for real book lovers – curated content, a place of community for book clubs and for writing groups. Any sizeable town is going to need an independent bookstore.
I think what we’re going to look back and realize 20 years from now is that Amazon saved the independent bookselling industry by taking the bigger predator, the big box retailers, out of the economy. I know it’s kind of a backwards view. The small independent booksellers think that Amazon’s been killing them but if you look at long-term trends it was the big boxes that was destroying them.
It’s still a difficult time for all retail so I don’t want to minimize the hardship that some booksellers are going through but if you’re losing all your bookstores I think now is a good time to look into opening a small independent bookshop and not going overboard with the square footage but having a place for people to discover great reads.
Tim Knox: You know that’s such an interesting point. I had a friend many years ago who owned a small independent bookstore and Books-A-Million came to town and he just couldn’t compete. It basically put him out of business and now Amazon seems to be putting the big box stores out of business. Now the independent sellers are coming back around. It’s almost a circle of life if you will. I feel like books are always going to be there. There are always going to be those people like me, like you, who want to hold that book in their hand. There’s always going to be a need for that independent bookseller.
Hugh Howey: Yeah they’re not going away. Vinyl records are having a comeback. There is a cult for the analog in this digital world. The good thing about a book is it helps you escape by not having any sort of digital tether where you can check your email on the same device or any of those distractions.
I don’t think it’s going to go away. It’s going to become a smaller part of the industry so we’re not going to be able to have these massive bookstores in every town. We should also celebrate what Amazon provides for people who don’t live in a city big enough for a bookstore ever. I mean there are people in rural America who have an incredible selection of books in their home and I think a lot of the Amazon hatred and the snobbery around bookstores comes from people who are lucky enough to live in a city that can afford one.
What do we do for the large number of people who are never going to be in a town big enough for a bookstore? I think we should be thrilled they have the access to literature.
We’ve got to stop thinking about all of the competition among publishing and start looking at how we can win people over to reading from other things they can be doing with their spare time. I think that’s a huge area we could concentrate on and get massive growth in readership – getting people hooked on reading when they’re younger and partnering with schools and teachers to stop teaching kids to hate books.
Let them read stuff that they’ll enjoy until they’re old enough to learn that a lot of books are fun and yeah maybe I’m going to be assigned some books I hate but that’s not the medium; that’s the individual selection. I think there are things we can do to triple, quadruple the number of people reading and that’d be great for the entire industry.
Tim Knox: Is that something that may become a pet project for you?
Hugh Howey: I’m not sure. I wish I had the ability to tackle that but I think it’s much bigger than anything I can impact. It’s like wanting to clean up the environment. Like I walk around my neighborhood and pick up trash and if enough people did that it would help. Writing books that I think will turn people on to other books and promoting other authors and anything I can do like that, I do. I think I’ll just have a tiny, infinitesimal effect. We just need a lot of people to be aware of the problem and doing their own little part.
Tim Knox: Hugh, this has been a great interview. Where can folks find out more about you and your books?
Hugh Howey: I know one other Hugh Howey. We actually met in Australia. He lives on the other side of the Earth from me. We’re like the antithesis of each other, like antimatter I guess. I got everything before he did so you can find me just at HughHowey.com and at Twitter and at Gmail and at Hotmail. I feel sorry for him but I kind of corned the market on the Hugh Howey stuff.
Tim Knox: Hugh Howey, the author of Wool, Shift and Dust, the Molly Fyde books and so many great works. Hugh, it’s been a pleasure having you on the program. We hope to have you on again soon.