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Interview With Hugh Howey

You've probably heard of Hugh Howey by now - and if you haven't, then you've probably noticed his novel WOOL on your weekly shop at Sainsburys.

However, what you may not have known is that WOOL started out as a self-published novel on Amazon. Since then, Howey has pretty much become the poster boy for indie authors - with enough eBook sales to make him a seven-figure profit, a huge fanbase and rumours of interest from Ridley Scott for a film version, he's become something of a trailblazer in the world of self-publishing.

Here, we ask him about his journey as an author, his inspiration and his advice for writers deciding which publishing route to take.

So, this must have been quite a journey… Do you remember where you were (and how you felt) when you first started working on the first scenes of what would become the Wool series?

The idea for the story came to me five years before I started writing it. I was working as a roofer at the time, had just given up a career as a yacht captain, and I started thinking about the difference between seeing the world through travel and seeing it through the lens of 24-hour news. I wondered what it was like to have our view filtered through a medium biased toward bad events and what this does for our desire to strike out and see the world for ourselves. And so I dreamed up the wallscreen and the silo to house it.

I very clearly remember the day at the bookstore, years later, when I thought of the first sentence. It just came to me in a flash, and I knew it was a good opening line. So I jotted it down and started writing on my lunch break that day. The first WOOL story took me three weeks to write, edit, and publish.

How much of an effect do you think your time spent rolling across the seas in yachts influenced the atmosphere within the silo?

Immensely. Boats are silos at sea. You can’t leave (like going “outside”). If you do, you die. You have to be self-sufficient, and you have to know how to fix things. I remember having lists several pages long of what needed doing and having to prioritize, because you can’t do it all. Something broke every single day.

Wool is many things. It’s post-apocalyptic, it’s sci-fi, it’s brooding, it’s no advocate of cleaning...  However, if you could pinpoint one thing in particular that has grabbed readers, what would you say it is?

The sense of cost. There are real and dire repercussions for everyone’s actions. People die. They suffer. They fall in love. They lose one another. You have to keep reading to see what will happen next. There’s no safe place to set the book aside, knowing everyone will be okay while you’re not watching them.

Since its success in the US and UK hardback and paperback charts, the story has found a new audience.  Is there a particular moment in Wool’s journey where you realised it had ‘broken through’?

It happened for me before the print books came out. It was when the five Wool books sat on top of the science fiction charts on Amazon, and I was getting emails from all over the world. At that point, I was making enough from my sales to put in my notice at the bookstore, and I knew something was happening.

Since then, I’ve been surprised by the heights to which the book has gone and how far it has spread, but that was the first time I realized I was having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The story of Wool should always go hand-in-hand with how you self-published using KDP. Talk us through how you felt when you first made Wool available as an e-book.

I didn’t think much at all. I had written something that made me happy. It was my 8th or 9th work published to the Kindle store. I had the same sense of satisfaction of having completed something and putting it out there for people to discover . . . and then I moved on. I started writing my next novel. I never thought anything else would happen.

Was it always your intention to self-publish, or would you have considered the traditional publishing route had the opportunity presented itself?

When I wrote my first novel in 2009, my idea was to put it up on a blog for free and in a serialized fashion. I sent the entire work out to friends and family for feedback. Those who read it said it was the best thing they’d read in a long time, and that it belonged in bookstores. I allowed this chatter to sway me away from the blog idea and to instead query agents and small publishers.

Within three weeks, two publishers asked for a partial submission and then a full submission. Soon, I had an offer of a small advance and a traditional contract, which meant someone else paying for the publishing, providing editing, cover art, marketing, all of that. I was sure I’d never get another offer, and I loved the editor I was in contact with, so I took the deal. I learned a lot from that, but I also saw that all the tools for publishing were available to anyone, so I went on my own with the second book. I even went back and acquired the rights to my first novel. I’ve been self-publishing ever since. Even now, when I have publishers asking for the next thing I write, I choose to self-publish.

What would you say is the single biggest advantage of deciding to self-publish?

There are so many that I would be remiss if I didn’t list several. The biggest one for me is the freedom to write what I want when I want. I can jump genres and write several novels a year. Traditional publishing is much too restrictive. I don’t want to pump out the same book over and over. I want to challenge myself and produce the work that I feel is missing from the marketplace. So that’s the biggest.

The next biggest is the lack of delay in getting the work to the reader. I can have the book ready, hit “publish,” and the book is being read in eight hours. Publishers send advance copies to reviewers and bookstores and wait months to get the book out. Even though the e-book could be made available immediately to build interest for the physical book. That would frustrate me now that I’m used to delivering swiftly.

And then there’s the fact that I make more money, which means devoting more time to writing and less time to a day job. I get paid monthly, which takes a lot of stress away (most authors get paid once or twice a year). I can control the price of my work, which means giving readers more for their money and selling a lot more copies (publishers are hesitant to do this because they don’t want to compete with new releases from other authors). I could go on and on. I’ve seen every side of publishing except for vanity presses, and there’s a reason I self-publish without hesitation.

Are there things you feel as though you missed out on by not going down the traditional publishing route (working alongside an editor, for example)?

Nope. I have published with Random House in the UK and got to work with an amazing editor there. And I did a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster and worked with a brilliant editor there as well. But I had already worked with the best editor I will ever work for, and that was Lisa Kelly-Wilson, who I knew from an online forum, and who agreed to check out my very first manuscript. The first WOOL was dedicated to her, in fact.

There are thousands of editors out there looking for work. The big publishers use a lot of freelance editors these days. I can hire the same people I might end up with if I were to go the traditional route, pay them once, and still retain ownership and control over my work.

Would you recommend other aspiring self-publishing authors pay for particular services? Editing or cover design, for example?

If they need it, yes. You can also join a writers’ group and trade editing services. You can get great cover art for less than $100. You can have your book perfectly formatted for $60. As a hobby, writing is cheap even if you do a top-notch job. I laugh at the people who say writers can’t afford to put a professional book together. I spent a lot more money playing video games than I do investing in my work. My wife spent more money gardening. You have to look at this as a hobby, but one with the potential to pay you back. So yeah, save up and invest in your work. Pay yourself a dollar for every 500 words you write. Set that aside, and you’ll have enough to publish your book when you’re done with it.

You recently negotiated a deal with Simon & Schuster to retain Wool’s ebook rights, whilst they get the print publishing rights. Do you hope this will set a precedent for other successful self-published authors?

I would like to think so, but the progress has been slow. Bella Andre received a similar deal with Harlequin before I got my deal, and Colleen Hoover got a deal like this soon after mine, so it’s happening. I hope it happens more. I know a lot of authors who are saying “no” to offers because publishers want all the rights, and nobody wins in that scenario.

You use social media a lot and interact with your readership – how important do you think this is to becoming a success as a self-published author? (Do they all have to dance like you!?)

I highly recommend nobody dancing as poorly as I do. You really can hurt something. Like people’s sensibilities.

Social media is important for me because I don’t have much of a social life! Writing is very lonely. I enjoy connecting with people, and so I use social media to engage the writers I already have. I don’t know that it’s necessary for every author. You have to do what makes you happy. Everyone should experiment and discover for themselves a routine that works best.

Do you feel there’s a greater sense of community within the self-publishing industry?

Absolutely. I read a blog on IndieReader recently about the five things self-published authors do well, and one of them was the sense of community. We actively root for each other and promote each other. When I see an author do well, I know that’s good for the community of readers, which helps us all.

I talk about this a lot, but authors are not in competition with each other. We’re all in this together. Self-published authors seem to get this. I think part of it is that we’re not going through the rejection circuit, which can really beat down a person’s sense of worth and make them defensive. We’re getting our works out there and moving on to the next project. There’s less despair. (Comparatively, of course. There’s still some despair.)

Much in the same way one might follow a band’s progress from a chance-viewing in a local bar to selling out stadiums, do you think Wool has benefitted from your readership being privy to both yours and the story’s development? 

I think so. The band analogy is spot-on, I think. Readers who discovered this work early on feel a sense of ownership, and they want to see the work do well. And I share in that ownership with them. This is the success that they made. Their word of mouth created this. It makes it very easy to dance for them and make a fool of myself in other ways knowing that I owe all of this to the reader. I think if you have a successful launch the traditional way, you might feel entitled to that success. There’s a massive launch and a big machine behind you. So it’s expected. You and the publisher did it together. You’re grateful for the readers, of course, but I don’t know if you feel perfectly beholden to them the way I do.

What do you make of the recent announcement that Amazon will launch Kindle Worlds – of benefit to hard-working, creative fan fiction writers or against the ethos of fan fiction?

I love the idea. I’m a huge proponent of fan fiction, as I think it grows worlds in organic ways, and it turns more readers on to becoming writers. As soon as I get DUST out, one of the first things I’m going to do is catch up on the WOOL fan fiction that’s out there. Quite a few titles are on Amazon bestseller lists right now!

Do you think that traditional publishing can continue to keep up with the rise of self-publishing?

I think there will continue to be more and more ways to publish. There are authors who launched their careers by reading their own books and creating podcasts. Blogs have been turned into books. People are Tweeting books. These are all additions to our literary culture.

What I think will have to happen is publishers will have to make their contracts more fair in order to entice authors to consider them. Many successful self-published authors have moved away from traditional publishers to go it on their own. Many more don’t even try that route. Publishers will have to compete for manuscripts by offering better services, like monthly payments, better royalties, lower e-book prices, and a myriad of things they’d prefer not to do.

Finally, if there was one piece of advice you would give to an author thinking of self-publishing, what would it be?

Patience is the key. There is no pressure for your book to do well in the first year it’s available. Or even the first decade. It will never go away and never go out of print. Publish and start writing the next story. Publish that one and start writing the next. Be playful with your prose. Take chances. Skip genres. Vary the length. Just enjoy what you’re doing and be patient. If you can combine these two things: happiness and low expectations, you can’t lose.

You can find out more about Hugh Howey and purchase his books on his website.

Follow him on Twitter here.