Reading Time: 14 minutes
Hugh Howey is the indie author behind the Wool series which recently held six out of the top ten spots on the Amazon.com Science Fiction best sellers list. I had a chance to sit down with Hugh and discuss the experience of being an indie writer and the Wool Series. In this interview we talk about Hugh’s path to success as a writer. In part two we have a spoiler-filled conversation about Wool. I also have written a spoiler-free review of Wool for those readers who haven’t yet read the book. Howey is married, lives in North Carolina and places yacht captain among his past careers.
Wecks: Since we introduced this interview with biography let’s continue in that vein a little longer. How did you get started in writing?
Howey: With a lot of fits and starts, that’s how! Ever since I was twelve, I dreamed of being an author. I just never had the fortitude to see any of my stories through to completion. I would start a book, get a few chapters in, and grow bored or get distracted by something else. It wasn’t until I started writing for a book review website that I formed the habit of getting up every morning to write for a deadline. While freelancing for this site, I went out and covered a few book conference. The same question would pop up for every single panel. Some fellow aspiring author would ask the panel how they got published, what the secret to writing was.
One of the panelists — I’ll never forget it, it was the mother half of the Charles Todd duo — slapped the table and shook her fist and said, “You just write! You stop dreaming of writing. You stop talking about writing. You stop wishing you were writing. And you write!”
Her passion startled me. It woke me up. It was the simplicity and logic behind what she was saying. I’d always wanted to write a novel — just as a personal accomplishment — so I went home after that convention and with the help of my new habit of writing professionally every day, I started a book that I knew I would finish.
Wecks: Why science fiction? Did it come from what you read as a child? What were the influences which led you to that genre?
Howey: Yeah, I was a huge sci-fi buff when I was younger. I faded out of that in college and started reading the classics, then I moved to mostly non-fiction, which is what I primarily read today. But the stories I wanted to tell, the stories that had been stirring in my imagination for years and years, always rested along the edge of the implausible. I count Jonathan Swift and Pixar as major influences. I wanted to write works that were fun and adventurous on the surface but had layers of deeper meaning just below. It’s not outright satire, but my goal has always been to appeal to readers of all stripes. It fuses a lot of the things I’ve learned from my more recent forays into non-fiction with my youthful appreciation of classic science fiction.
Wecks: Are there ideas or themes which are easier to express when writing science fiction than other genres? In other words, what is it that science fiction makes clear, which fantasy cannot make clear? Or do you believe you could have just as easily made Wool in a fantasy realm or another kind of speculative fiction?
Howey: One of the many things that surprised me about Wool is how many of its fans don’t consider themselves science fiction readers. There have been dozens of reviews and emails that start off with, “I don’t normally read science fiction, but…” This pleases me because I think the genre suffers from an unfair stigma. I love bringing new readers into the fold.
The science fiction I enjoy most as a reader are the stories that focus on the people rather than the worlds or the technology. We deal with magical technology every day. We don’t care how it works, only what it does to improve or hamper our lives. It’s relationships and emotion that drive a great drama.
The Wool series is about a closed society on the edge of survival. It speaks to how fragile our existence is, how fragile our world can seem, and the struggle to put social systems in place that allow us to hold it all together. I think it really speaks to the hope many of us have that we can improve the human condition, but it also details the dangers this journey is fraught with.
What is it about science fiction that excels in examining the human spirit? I think it’s that the genre allows us to exaggerate some facet of our nature, or tweak some feature of our environment, and see what bubbles to the surface. It’s a wonderful genre to read and an even more exciting one to write.
Wecks: I want to turn a little bit more toward your particular career in writing. You have chosen not to go the traditional route by working with an agent and then a publishing house, etc. How did this come about? Was this an accident or on purpose?
Howey: It was some of both. When I started out, I had a manuscript that a few test readers really enjoyed. My dream was to publish chapters of this book, called Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, on a website and ask for donations. It was to be a serial adventure with little hope or dream of making real money. But I had a lot of early readers who thought this Molly Fyde story was as good as anything else out there. I looked into going the traditional route and learned how to write a query letter. Within weeks, I had more than one small house ask for a partial and then a full submission. When an offer came in, I took it.
That experience taught me a lot. I enjoyed working with a small press and an editor, but I wanted to move at a faster pace and figured I could do the pagination and marketing on my own. So I struck out as a self-published writer with no real dream beyond selling anything more than a few hundred copies and possibly entertaining some friends. I figured I would write in obscurity the rest of my life, simply because I enjoyed it.
When Wool took off, quite by accident and all on its own, I started getting calls from agents, publishers, film companies, and TV studios. Again, there was the bug in my ear saying that this was too good not to put out traditionally. I finally caved and signed with a literary agent, but my expectation is that nothing will come of it. I enjoy the freedom to write and to publish how I see fit. I’m finally making enough to do it full-time. A traditional publisher would have to detail a plan to really broaden my readership while allowing me to retain a lot of the freedoms I’ve come to appreciate. There still isn’t a very good model in place to handle this transition. It’s something the book business is just experimenting with in recent years and trying to sort out.
Wecks: What are the advantages of being in independent author?
Howey: There are many. For a lot of indie writers, the money is better. The difference in royalty rate is startling. Also, you’re free to price your books reasonably. I’d rather excite the imagination of a legion of readers and make pennies from each of them than hold off for a larger chunk of change from only a handful of fans. I think this is why indie books make up so much of the bestseller lists on Amazon. We’re more competitive with our rates, and the quality is there if you search it out.
Some more advantages: Indies are privy to their real-time sales data. We are paid monthly rather than once or twice a year. We can explore other genres. I’ve been free to write standard fiction, books like Half Way Home that have more of a fantasy feel to them, all without clearing it with anyone. We can publish short stories and novellas.
The greatest advantage, though, is the relationship with the fans. As I interact with readers, there’s a feeling of camaraderie, like we’re all in this together. They know that I don’t have a PR firm or publicist guiding my responses. I think they understand that my ability to write stems directly from their support, rather than from publishing advances. I don’t know if all writers feel this intimate with their readers, but I suspect being independent adds some kind of special epoxy to this bond.
Wecks: Being an indie author seems to be a little more DIY than traditional publishing. What do you have to do for yourself that a traditional author might not have to think about?
Howey: Wow. Everything! I’ve had to learn how to paginate my physical books, which means learning terms like kerning and leading, widows and orphans. I have to secure my own editing and proofreading. The onus is on me to do eight or nine revisions of every draft so the final work has the same polish readers have come to expect from other books. I had to build my own website, learn to make my own cover art, set up my own signings. Even things like selling signed copies of books off my website involve a lot of work. When an email comes in with an order, I grab a book and an envelope and sit at my desk and do it all by hand then drive it to the post office. There’s a lot involved, but I find almost every step soothing. I would be more anxious if I had to rely on someone else taking care of it for me, if I had to send an email or make a phone call and stress that I was bugging someone or that it wouldn’t get done if I didn’t pester them.
Wecks: Trey Ratcliff the photographer and tech guru wrote a piece over on GigaOm in which he explains how he got into e-publishing. In the piece he talks about having lunch with the executives from a traditional publisher who had just agreed to publish his first book of photography and they asked him how he planned to market his own work. Trey ended up wondering why he was giving away the rights to his work if he was going to have to do all the work to market the book anyway. Is this similar to your thinking? Where is it that you feel the advantages of being an independent author the most, where you turn and look at your traditional colleagues and think, “They don’t know what they are missing?” Or do you think that way?
Howey: I have really good friends who are traditionally published, and I think it works best for them. They might be miserable doing all the little steps I listed above. So I try not to think competitively about the various forms of publishing (though I do wax philosophically about it on my website and in various forums at times). There are things I could be envious about and things I could be smug about. It’s best to assume they all cancel out.
I did have a reaction similar to Trey’s when I saw the work I would need to do in order to market my own books. It seems to be about the same degree of effort for an unknown in the traditional world as it is in the self-published world. The traditional author has a few advantages. There are publicists to lend advice, to help design flyers, posters, bookmarks and the like. But it’s still up to the author to push every single book, to go to the signing, to establish the online platform. It makes you wonder why the publisher gets such a huge cut of the profits, especially for e-books, where the production costs are almost nothing.
I will say that, like Trey, the prospect of giving up rights to a work fills me with dread. Possibly the greatest thing about being an independent author is that you own your work. The emotional payout that comes from this is difficult to calculate. It’s worth a lot.
Wecks: Your books are published both for Kindle and as print copies. I admit I haven’t looked, are they available on websites other than Amazon?
Howey: I’ve been on the Nook and iBook stores in the past. Right now I’m exclusive to the Kindle. The Wool series is going to move back to those other outlets in April, just to see if sales will be stronger this time around. Every author has a unique blend of sales success on the various e-book stores. Over 90% of my sales were coming from the Kindle, and they offered advantages to going exclusive that were lucrative enough to allow me to quit my day job. If I move back to the Nook and iBook and sales are as flat as before, I’ll stick with the Kindle. Amazon does an amazing job of leveling the playing field for all writers. They give us tools to help promote our works that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Hopefully that will change. I would love to reach a broader audience.
Wecks: For someone who is thinking about self-publishing, lay out the steps you take to get a new piece of writing from the point where you have a completed and edited manuscript to the point where someone can purchase it.
Howey: First, take that complete and edited manuscript and assume it still needs work. This is true of everything I write. Typos and plot holes persist, so go through it a few more times and enlist friends to give their feedback. Once you are sure it’s as clean as you can make it, you’re ready to send your baby out into the wild.
Each outlet has its own procedure, but they are very similar. For the Kindle, you need to register a KDP account. This is the Kindle Direct Publishing platform that you’ll use to create your book, offer it for sale, and hopefully see your results. After you set up your book and fill in all the various forms (title, author, price), you can upload your cover image and the book interior (your manuscript). The KDP site will take a Microsoft Word document and convert it for you. A helpful little preview tool will show you what it looks like on a Kindle device. I step through the entire book one final time before I click “Publish.”
There are a few things you can do to give your book a chance. Strong and grabby blurbs are a must. Cover art matters. And you really want to have the book edited as well as you’re able. Once you are satisfied and you select your foreign markets, the book is off to Amazon and will usually be available to readers in less than 24 hours. Then you forget about it and start writing the next thing!
Wecks: If you were going to give one piece of advice to someone thinking about publishing for themselves what would it be?
Howey: Besides to go for it? I would encourage them to set any goal other than to be famous or wealthy. Find a passion in the writing, whether it’s the love of crafting new worlds and filling them with interesting people, or the rush of completing such a huge undertaking, or the thrill of delighting a single reader. Just don’t go into it with unrealistic expectations. Instead, treat it like a hobby that you really enjoy. If you do this, there’s no way you can fail. Hobbies are meant to be fun. The best part is that the quality of your work will shine if you’re doing it for the right reasons.
Wecks: Getting your work to the point where someone can buy it doesn’t seem that difficult, but that is just where the fun begins, isn’t it? The secret sauce is in getting other people to actually buy the book. You are a best-selling author making a living from e-publishing and self-publishing, how did you do it? Tell us about your journey up the charts.
Howey: It’s hard to pin down a single ingredient, but there are two or three things that I think I’ve done well and a few areas where I just got lucky. It starts off with good stories. I’ve become a stronger writer over time and with practice, but I think I was good at the very beginning at coming up with fascinating tales and great characters. No matter how well you market, you can’t beat word of mouth, and if you don’t have a brilliant story, people may enjoy it, but they won’t tell their friends about it. This is the hardest part, writing something that is as catching as a cold.
It also seems like I reached a tipping point once I had 8 or 9 titles available. Sales led to more sales. Also, I listened to what my readers wanted more of. When the reviews for the first Wool book began to pile up, I immediately dropped what I was working on and wrote the next four entries. There was this great feedback loop with my fans who helped me create something special. I embraced them being a part of it, and they seem to have embraced my success (perhaps understanding that they helped make it possible).
Finally, I think I got lucky with my publishing method. That serial style that I dreamed about with my first book gave Wool a huge boost. By releasing shorter titles at a compelling price point, my stories stormed the charts en masse. A single book is invisible; it’s a tree in the forest. Even a few books by the same author but with varying titles kind of blend in with the noise. But when there’s five books with the same strange title sprinkled throughout the charts together, they sorta build on top of each other like individual ripples growing into a much larger wave. Suddenly, I had seven titles in the top 20 of science fiction, which caught the attention of other authors who blogged about my publishing method. I must have caught the attention of readers in the same manner. Now I know of several authors adopting this same style for their upcoming works, so we’ll see if it becomes a trend or if it was a fluke.
Wecks: So when did you realize that Wool was taking off?
Howey: October of last year. I started selling dozens of copies a day, and it kept building, and toward the end of the month it looked like I might get close to a thousand total Wool sales for the month. I stayed up until midnight refreshing my KDP dashboard to see if it would happen. I pleaded on Facebook and Twitter for a little push. I think I sold 1,018 copies of a little 99 cent short story that month. I figured it was the apex of my career and that it would all be downhill from there. I can’t remember the last time I stayed up until midnight. I could barely sleep afterward.
Wecks: That must have been a great feeling. Did you do a little dance or something?
Howey: Funny you should mention that. I’ve done some literal dancing over various milestones and posted the inglorious results on YouTube. It isn’t pretty and readers really shouldn’t seek these disasters out.
But yeah, it was an incredible feeling. I practically do a little jig with every piece of fan e-mail and every Amazon or Goodreads review. And I keep thinking it’s got to end soon. I thought I’d never sell a thousand copies in a month ever again. Just this month, I crossed the 100,000 mark for all my e-book titles combined. It’s not something I ever dreamed of, and I still can’t really wrap my mind around it. And of course, I expect that this is the true peak, right? It has to be.
Wecks: So in your blog post over on the GeekDad forums you say that you have recently had the privilege of turning down a literary agent who approached you. Is that true? That must have been an odd experience?
Howey: It’s happened a few times. It wasn’t until the right agent got a hold of me and promised to not mess with what was working well that I decided to give it a go. She convinced me to test the waters with traditional publishers and to look at overseas markets. Since then, I’ve had a few other agents get in touch with offers of representation. It does feel weird to apologize to them and explain my situation. I take no pleasure in it at all. I’m just incredibly flattered and gracious.
Wecks: If someone wanted to ask you questions about writing is your GeekDad community page a good place to do that?
Howey: Absolutely! I love chatting about the process and helping others get started. I would love for GeekDad to become a place for aspiring writers to meet and discuss the challenges of self-publishing. There’s already such a great DIY community on GeekDad. And like you mentioned earlier, writing is similar to other project-oriented hobbies.
Wecks: Tell us about the future. You seem to have a million projects going at once. What is next?
Howey: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of pots on the stove right now. Readers are clamoring for more Wool, so that’s probably the next thing I’ll release. I have a new Molly book that’s almost complete that fans of that series are hounding me for. And then I have a new series called SAND LAND that I want to get out. There’s also a zombie book that’s unlike anything else in the genre. I’m a little scared of that project, but after posting some sample chapters on my website, I’ve got quite a few readers eager to get their paws on the rest.
Wecks: I try to close all of my interviews by asking if I have missed anything important. After all, you know better than I the questions I should ask. Is there anything you would like to talk about that I haven’t covered?
Howey: The questions have been great! I don’t know if I can turn this around or not, but I would love to hear in the comments what readers think the future of publishing will hold. As someone who loves physical books but also enjoys the convenience, price, and lack of cluttering that comes from e-books, I’m excited and nervous about the future. It would be great to spark a conversation about the challenges of breaking into this new publishing world as well as a bit of back and forth on what GeekDad members think the future will be like for readers who love both mediums.
Wecks: Well, I won’t speak for anyone else, but I am looking forward to reading more of what you write.
Howey: Thanks, Erik. It’s been a blast!