Hugh Howey

An indie trendsetter talks about the secrets of his success.

Hugh Howey photographed by Jason Myers

Bestselling science fiction author Hugh Howey, who has a devoted fan base and just might see his famous Wool series make it to the big screen, is a huge devotee of indie publishing and encourages beginners to adopt this route. “If you are a chef in a busy restaurant, and most patrons are coming for your cooking, you have a choice,” he says. “You can collect a wage and make someone else a lot of money, or you can take a risk, learn a few things about running a business, and go open a restaurant of your own.” As for his movie casting preference, Howey would love to see Charlize Theron as Jules, who is suddenly thrust into the role of a frustrated leader (but since she nailed her role in Mad Max: Fury Road, she's probably done with dystopian works for now, he says). Howey spoke to Kirkus about why indie publishing makes sense for new authors and why all lovers of literature need to encourage fan fiction.

Why did you decide to self-publish rather than publish traditionally? When did you get started?

It wasn't an easy decision to self-publish. My first book had just come out with a small traditional press, and I was holding the contract for the second book in my hands. It seemed crazy to turn that offer down and strike out on my own, especially since this was 2009 and there weren't many stories of self-publishing success at the time. E-books were barely a thing.

But I saw a few trends around the corner. The most important was that books were never going to go out of print again. Ever. Print on demand and e-books changed all that. As a bookseller, I saw the cycle publishers pushed, with books churned out one after the other. Whatever didn't stick got dropped. There was no long-term commitment or slow build. Just energy thrown behind the thing already gaining traction on its own.

I knew I would care about my stories forever and I wanted to retain ownership so I could promote them forever. That might mean lowering the price or even giving digital copies away. A publisher wouldn't do this and compete with its other books, which meant that my needs and their needs would not always be aligned. I also saw that I would be driving most of the sales and keeping a fraction of the profits.

If you are a chef in a busy restaurant, and most patrons are coming for your cooking, you have a choice: You can collect a wage and make someone else a lot of money, or you can take a risk, learn a few things about running a business, and go open a restaurant of your own. I find all the talk of “Most authors don't want to learn those other things” quite sad. It’s a way to coddle and to keep employees tied to miserly contracts.

What attracted you to the science fiction genre?

There's no better genre for writing about the human condition. Writing about the future allows us to speculate on where current trends might lead. We can exaggerate for effect. We can present potential timelines. We can warn.

How easy or difficult is it to sell self-published work in this genre? What incentives and pricing structures did you have to implement to ensure sales?

The science fiction bestseller charts on Amazon are absolutely dominated by self-published authors. Publishers simply aren't releasing enough works in these genres. I think the tastes of literary agents and editors dictate way too much of what gets published. Rather than operating according to reader demand, editors publish the works they enjoy. The works they wish people read more of.

Price is also important in this genre. Readers were used to mass market paperbacks for $6.99. Publishers made these a bit taller and started charging $9.99. Or they got rid of them and foisted $15.00 trade paperbacks on readers. I couldn't have afforded this as a reader, and I read two or three books a week growing up. Publishers were pushing fans of the genre into video games and comics and anything else to get value for their dollars.

Self-published authors are offering the same quality e-books but at half or one-third of the price. Meanwhile, these same authors are making $3.00 per sale rather than $0.75. Everyone is winning but the middlemen.

What’s been the most pleasing or revelatory aspect of self-publishing for you?

Knowing who my customer is. When I worked at a bookstore, I saw the messy relationship between publishers and readers. Which is to say: one didn't exist. We, as booksellers, were the matchmakers. Publishers got their checks from us, not from the reader. Which meant they didn't know who was buying what. You could see this in the marketing and the catalogs. They assume readers only read one genre, which isn't the case.

What has been the most difficult aspect of self-publishing?

Patience. The patience to not hit "publish" too soon and give the book more time to make it perfect. I do seven or eight revisions of every work, and then rounds of editing and beta reading.

The second aspect of patience is to stop worrying about sales and write the next book. There is no launch window anymore with publishing. You can have 20 published titles out there, not selling, and they are all brand new to the reader. If your 21st title takes off, you've got an instant backlist. All of it will get a boost. So be patient with each work prior to publishing, and then be patient with your career after publishing.

What is your advice to other writers considering self-publishing?

Congratulations. You are making a wise choice.

It used to be that self-publishing was the end of a writers' career. It was the last choice you made, anWool Howey 2d there was no going back. Now, the opposite is true. If you go with a publisher, you'll never get your rights back. There is no undoing that choice. You will no longer own your art and your hard work. This should make going with a major publisher your last choice.

What I see now is people like myself and many of my colleagues going with a major publisher after they have already had enough success to not care about the decrease in income that comes with selling our art and making five times less per sale. That is, we go with a publisher only once we can afford to.

If self-publishing is better, then why would anyone go with a major publisher? Or rather, why did you? Is there something that major publishers can offer that is worth this cost?

For me, it was primarily the experience. I wanted to see what it was like to work with a major publisher. I was willing to give up quite a bit to test the waters. I learned a lot.

The only reason I was able to sign a deal with Simon & Schuster in the U.S. for the print edition of Wool was the limited time of the deal. After another three years, the rights to that print edition revert to me. I can go back to my print-on-demand edition. Even in the area of print, I make far more money from my POD books than I do from the book promoted by and marketed by a major publisher. Their reach and ability to sell copies do not have a high enough multiplier to make up for the fraction of pay they offer.

Your stories have generated quite a bit of fan fiction. How does that help your image and books?

Fan fiction isn't about me or my sales. It's about the readers having the freedom to express themselves. They can continue the stories, exercise their imaginations and writing skills, and perhaps transition to original works of their own.

Here's something I don't get at all when it comes to the perception of fan fiction: How do musicians begin their careers? They start by playing other people's music. That's all they do for years before they begin forming their own melodies. Even then, they play covers. Jazz is full of artists riffing on one another's works. The same is true for the fine arts. You study the masters, emulating their styles, before you develop your own.

I've never gotten the snobbery over fan fiction. Literature began as fan fiction, with stories told orally, revised, and then retold by others. All the other arts do it. It's time for readers, reviewers, and editors to stop taking themselves so seriously and help foster fan fiction as a source for new readership and new great writers.

Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelancer with a passion for books.

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