Hugh Howey talks about DUST, WOOL, and Spectacular Self-Publishing Success
I asked Hugh Howey, self-publishing pioneer and author of the bestselling dystopian trilogy that starts with WOOL, to join me for an interview. The final book in his Silo Saga, DUST, was released just two weeks ago…completing the adventure for fans of this instant classic. He spoke to me just before that release.
Patrice: So you’ve gotten a million questions around the topic “how does it feel to be a big name author?” But, practically speaking, how has it changed you as a writer… or has it… to know that your next book, DUST, has been preordered in the thousands–I’m guessing–and is being highly anticipated by fans? Does that spur you on or keep you up at night? And do you get better tables at restaurants? Recognized on the street? Hounded by book groupies? Tell the truth!
Hugh: Ha! Recognized on the street! I’m not one of those authors like Harlan Coben whose face takes up the entire back jacket of his hardbacks. Which is a good thing. For all of us.
I don’t think about the pressure of a vast audience. I write the stories I care about. If I was going to succumb to pressure, I would have written WOOL 6 and 7 and 8. Instead, I left my bestselling novel on an island and wrote something way off in left field. And then I did very little to promote this new work. I don’t put links at the end of my books to urge people to purchase the next one. I just convince myself that I’m still writing for an audience of none, enjoy what I’m doing, and publish as quietly as possible.
Patrice: You’re a little bit controversial for your outspoken views about self-publishing. Clearly, 99.9% of writers of any stripe will not reach the level of success you’ve had with WOOL. Yet, you maintain that there is little downside to jumping in and publishing one’s own book. Do you believe that everyone is better off doing that first?
Hugh: Yes, and I’ve been very careful to distance my anecdotal and outlying success with the reasons I give for self-publishing. I made a conscious decision to self-publish my second novel, despite having a contract and offer from a small press. Before WOOL took off, I was posting on writing forums that we are better off owning our material for all of time, that these works will never go out of print, and that going directly to the reader is better than applying to editors and their slush pile shovelers. I was mocked for this philosophy. When I suggested that agents would one day approach self-published authors, I was told I was crazy. Maybe this is why I look up to Joe so much. He shows us every day that logic trumps experience. The people who tell you that they have twenty years of experience in this industry? Back away from them slowly. This business is changing too fast for any of us to pretend to be experts.
As for the 99.9% who won’t see my level of success, I would point out that 99.9% of those who submit material to the traditional machine will never see a similar level of success. It isn’t like our option is to self-publish OR see how well our novel does fronted out on an endcap in a bookstore. Our options are to self-publish OR spend a few years landing an agent, another year selling the book to a publisher, a year waiting for that book to come out, and then three months spine-out on dwindling bookshelves before you are out of print and nobody cares about you anymore. If you’re lucky. Most likely, you’ll never even get an agent. Because you aren’t Snooki.
Patrice: You have a traditional print publishing deal with Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and Random House in the U.K., as well as publishing arrangements in twenty-something other countries for translated versions. Yet you still publish your own ebooks and sell print copies to fans out of your house, at least for the U.S. editions. Did that take some fancy contract drafting? Or did you just say, “I want to keep doing what I’m already doing successfully” and they rolled over and said, “Okay, Hugh Howey, but only for you…” ?
Hugh: It takes a whole lot of not caring to get away with what I do. It takes that, and it takes an incredible and tolerant agent like Kristin Nelson. We’ve been in contract negotiations, and someone will put forward a clause that runs counter to my publishing philosophy, and we’ll both just say that it’s a deal-breaker. We’ve walked away from multiple seven-figure deals without breaking a sweat. It helps when you’re totally fine doing things your own way. I still self-publish everything I write from the get-go. If anyone wants to make an offer afterward, I’m always open. I love having those discussions. But as soon as the deal doesn’t make sense for the reader (like higher e-book prices, windowing, limiting the number of works I can publish), the deal is off. My attitude is that publishers need writers far more than writers need publishers. If we can work together, awesome. But the days of dictating unfair deals to us are dwindling, and fast.
My success has largely come from putting the reader first, and that’s what I demand from any publisher I work with. Simon & Schuster and Random House UK have both demonstrated to me over and over again that they care about the reader. S&S agreed to a simultaneous paperback and hardback release. Who does that? Random House UK did a paper-on-board hardback for under ten pounds. They’ve done some incredible giveaways, and they allowed readers in on the process with some awesome contests, all the sorts of things I think publishers should do more of. It’s why I love working with both of these houses. And I love that they tolerate me doing the things I enjoy doing.
Patrice: You’ve taken the unusual step of allowing others to write and charge for books set in your world, otherwise known as the “WOOLiverse.” [Full disclosure: I'm one of them. I've published the four books in the Karma series, including The Sky Used to be Blue, Cleaning Up, Deep Justice, and Rising Up, as well as my newest Kindle Worlds short story, SILO SECRETS: Daniel.] Why are you doing this? Aren’t there risks?
Hugh: It doesn’t occur to me not to allow this. Someone asked if they could write in my world. Who would I be to tell them no? I value freedom above all else. I value creativity, art, and artists. I can’t imagine telling someone that they aren’t allowed to write about my characters. All I feel is flattered and honored by the suggestion. And I can’t imagine asking someone to give away their hard work. I believe artists should get paid if at all possible. As foreign as my stance is to others, any other stance would be foreign to me.
Are there risks? I don’t see any. I have one more work coming out in this universe, and then I leave it to others. The greatest thing that has happened to me in the past few years has been the opportunity to connect directly with so many readers. The second-greatest thing has been seeing talented writers such as yourself connect with those same readers! Contrary to what many writers seem to think, we aren’t in competition with one another. We need each other. If someone can write in my world and entice readers away to their own works, I’ll cheer them on until I’m hoarse.
Patrice: Amazon’s newly-launched Kindle Worlds programs makes formal the arrangement you’ve already had with some other writers to allow them to jump into the WOOLiverse and write “Silo stories.” How do you see this as different from what is already happening, and what new opportunities do you think this program will bring to writers and fans?
Hugh: My hope is that Kindle Worlds will give these stories greater exposure. There is so much room for exploration in the Silo Saga. I can’t possibly cover it all. And fans have shown an incredible thirst for more adventures.
The most exciting prospect is that dabbling in a beloved world will turn readers into writers. There’s a misconception out there that fan fiction is lazy. The truth is that the world building is the easiest aspect of writing. The challenging bit is the plot, the dialog, the believable characters, the twists and turns and satisfying conclusion. If coming up with the world was the difficult part, it would be easy for anyone to write a story in the world we live in and know, or a story set in historical times. Fan fiction provides an opportunity for aspiring writers to discover their own talents and hopefully graduate to their own works. And the more people we have writing, the larger the pool of talent, the better this industry is for everyone.
Patrice: Okay… advice to writers time. What would you tell someone reading this who has an idea, or a book, and wants to get eyeballs on his or her words as quickly as possible.
Start with the first sentence. Make it so incredibly compelling that readers have to read the next sentence to see what happens next. Repeat until you reach the end of the story.
Possible first sentences:
Losing my virginity to a ninja was not what I had in mind on my eighteenth birthday.
I’ve always wanted to know what it felt like to kill a man, and now I know.
If you are reading this, you have exactly three days left to live, and I am already dead.
Maybe those aren’t the best examples, but I put all of two minutes into coming up with them. I’m already thinking of the books I would write to go along with these openings. I think I could entice readers to stick with me for a page or two. If I can do that, I can give these lines away in a Tweet or a Facebook status and gain a reader. I could give the first pages or even an entire book away and trust that they’ll tell others or come back for more.
The misconception out there is that writing requires a mastery of language, but nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t need perfect prose to launch a writing career; we need entertaining storytelling. Story is king and prose is pawn. Knock readers’ socks off. Shock them. Wow them. Give away your work and wow them some more. Basically: Ninjas + Sex, and you can’t go wrong.
Patrice: And what about that movie deal… are you and Ridley Scott buds now?
Hugh: I wish! Ridley enjoyed my work and is pretty sure that he can make a mediocre book into an amazing film. And I hope he’s right. I get asked all the time how much involvement I would have in the film, and the answer is that I don’t want any part of the project. I would just hamper the development. The producers were kind enough to fly me out to Hollywood to meet the screenwriter and go over some ideas, and that was more than I asked for. Nothing will change the book I wrote. That’s the part I can control. I’d rather stay out of the way and be surprised by what they come up with.
Patrice: Now that all your wildest writing dreams have come true, what do you still wish for, Hugh?
Hugh: For Ridley Scott to be my bud, obviously.
Also, to be able to come up with something to write tomorrow. And the next day. Because it still feels like magic and something I’m not capable of. I feel like I’m bumbling along and faking it most of the time. I hope I can keep faking it. Because it’s fun to look back at the things I write that feel a whole lot smarter than I know myself to be.
Patrice: Many thanks to Hugh for answering my questions, and to Joe Konrath, whose invitation to guest bloggers inspired this post, which originally appeared on his website. I’m watching the phenomenon that is WOOL continue to spread around the world, and I’m thrilled that I was invited to play in Hugh Howey’s universe.
If you haven’t read them, grab WOOL and SHIFT and DUST and enjoy! And then if you crave more, check out my Karma series, set in the same entertainingly chilling future.
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