Julia Maurus discovers the success strategies of American Hugh Howey, the self-published author turned millionaire behind the hit trilogy Wool.
Hugh Howey knew his best chance of being a successful author was online. He’d always dreamed of being a writer, but it wasn’t until after he’d tried out college life, sailed north and central America for seven years as a yacht captain, met his wife and settled down that he finally became serious about his dream of becoming a novelist.
At that point, he took a job in an independent bookstore, read ‘a ton of books and slathered the shop’s shelves with staff picks.’ He attended a book conference, where he was reminded of the fundamental importance of writing every day.
‘The only way to amass a pile of words into a book is to shovel some every single day. No days off. I spent every spare minute of my life reading, writing, reviewing, editing, and publishing. Books were my life.’
Howey sent his first manuscript out to friends and family, planning to publish the book on a blog, but everyone insisted he seek to have the work published. He was sceptical, but relented and sent out query letters. Within a month, he had two offers from small publishers.
‘I went with one of them, and I enjoyed the process. But I realised I could do it on my own. I still have the contract they sent for my second book, which I self-published instead. I just prefer being my own boss, I think. I like the creative control.’
Watching the news one day, Howey imagined a society whose citizens based their understanding of the world on a television feed. For five years he imagined the story unfolding, always as a novel, but he was too busy with other book projects to write it. Then he wrote The Plagiarist, which was longer than a short story but shorter than a novella, and decided to utilise that form to ‘purge’ himself of his dystopian story idea.
He wrote the novella Wool in three weeks. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where the last remaining humans live in an underground silo and things are not all they seem.
As with his first half-dozen e-books, he enlisted his wife and mother as editors, but he did everything else himself, from marketing to cover design. Then, in July 2011, he self-published Wool as an e-novella. To his surprise, it was a hit on Amazon, and his dreams started to come true. He stopped working on his relatively unsuccessful Molly Fyde series in order to complete the three-part ‘Silo series’.
‘I thought I had a great little story when I wrote the first part of Wool. But I had no idea it would grow into anything more. Asimov’s Foundation series had a similar genesis: what started as a collection of short stories grew into a series of novels. Sometimes our stories take on a life of their own.’
Howey has since sold rights for Wool to publishers in 32 countries—including a break-through print-only deal with Simon & Schuster in the United States. The novel has thousands of online reviews (it was the most favourably reviewed Amazon book of 2012) and has sold over a million digital copies alone. It is sitting comfortably within Australia’s top 100.
Howey believes that all authors—even those who dream of being with a large publisher—should begin their writing careers self-publishing.
‘You are creating a product that never rots, never rusts, never expires. You control the price. Shipping is free and immediate. You can market it forever. Your margin is 70%. You’ll never need to write it again or spend another penny on it. For Pete’s sake, can it get any better?’
At present, hard-copy books outsell e-books, but we are in the midst of a revolution, and Howey is one of the posterboys of what Publishers Weekly recently dubbed the ‘indie author revolt’. The blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey also began life as an e-book. Howey asserts that, in the history of mankind, there has never been a better time to be a reader or a writer.
Interacting with readers is a vital part of Howey’s life as a writer. He seeks feedback on the progress of each fiction series he is writing and allows himself to be guided by fans. They in turn write fan fiction.
He has an e-newsletter, and ‘progress meters’ on his official website allow his ravenous readers to get an indication of how long they have to wait for his next book. The progress bar for each book creeps up until it meets the set total word count, demonstrating how well Howey plans each novel.
He is, it seems, a well-tuned writing machine. He maintains an active presence on social media and his blog, uploading goofy videos. When I emailed him to request an interview, I received a hilarious, apologetic, automated reply that began: ‘I’ve been getting complaints lately that I’m only writing two or three novels a year, and that this simply isn’t enough. Which means less emails and more books. I hope you understand. Rest assured that I’m still reading every single email I get.’ (He responded personally 12 hours later.)
But isn’t all this writing exhausting?
‘All of the pressure comes from within,’ he explains. ‘I love writing. I would do this if no one was reading my works (which was once the case). I would write if it cost me some monthly fee in order to do so. Many people have expensive hobbies. Mine costs nothing but time, and I enjoy that time.’
The runaway success of Wool hinged on the story’s audience appeal, but that didn’t mean that Wool could not benefit from the traditional publishing process. Howey, in an interview with The Guardian, speaks glowingly of one editor who prompted him to write a whole new chapter in the second instalment of Wool, which he says is now his favourite chapter. Having editorial input from a traditional publishing house made Wool a stronger and more cohesive series than when he first released it.
Of course, it was reader demand that drove Howey to write beyond the original novella. And because it was a serialised release, he felt he could change the tone and the pace as he progressed. Panellists on the ABC’s The Book Club criticised the series for this lack of consistency. But Howey never set out to achieve critical acclaim. He just wanted people to read his books.
Wool has been optioned by Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian for a potential feature film, but Howey isn’t holding his breath.
‘I’ll believe in the film when I watch someone rip my ticket in half. A screenplay has been written, and 20th Century Fox says they’re excited to get this on the big screen. But I want to smell the popcorn.’ His countless fans would argue that the investment is a no-brainer; why wouldn’t it be a blockbuster?
Howey is grateful to the millions who take the time to read his ‘made-up stuff’. ‘Word of mouth is the reason so many people have taken a risk on me, and it has changed my life. I’ll be grateful until my last breath is wheezed.’
If you want to know the chilling reason the book’s called Wool, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
Hugh Howey has lots of great tips for writers, covering everything from becoming comfortable staring at a blank screen to polishing your manuscript to perfection: visit www.hughhowey.com. Wool is published in Australia by Random House (paperback RRP $19.99; e-book $8.99).
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Hugh Howey’ in The Australian Writer issue 384 (June–August 2014).