Hugh Howey is living every indie author’s dream. He landed a film deal with 20th Century Fox and even Random House acquired the print rights to his Wool series. And he did it the right way, organically. I had to track him down and ask him, How in the world did you do it? My readers want to know! (And so do I)
So, I did and remarkably Howey was completely accessible, not big headed, no layers and layers of assistants, agents and publicists to go through. Just me and Howey.
What you’ll find in the interview is exactly what Howey did step-by-step to build his emerging media empire and what his advice is for writers who want to follow in his footsteps.
Jeff: Wool blew up like crazy! You are every indie author’s hero. What else are you working on, Hugh?
Hugh: My newest book is set for release on August 15th. It’s called I, ZOMBIE, and it’s not just different from anything else I’ve written — I think it’s unique to most of the horror literature out there. Because of this, I’m not sure how it’ll be received or whether or not it will be a success, but it’s a book I really believe in.
In I, ZOMBIE, the main characters are the undead rather than the survivors. The tragedy revealed in the story is that zombies retain all of their memories, all of their sense of self. What they don’t have is any control over what they do. (Or very little control, and only in some instances.)
I believe this new angle adds to the lore of the zombie while also making them more tragic characters. There have been scenes in films where a zombie seems to have a connection to an object or another person. How much more horrific would their condition be if they were in this locked-in state that I’ve imagined? What if they knew what they were doing while they attacked and maimed others? Once you read this book, it might change the way you view zombies. It might alter what you think when you watch a film or read another book. I also hope readers will note the many ways that we are very much like zombies in the lives we live today.
Jeff: With so much craziness going on in your life, it must be hard to keep up with your own writing. How do you keep focused?
Hugh: By not doing anything else. Pretty much my entire day is consumed with writing or with all the various duties that surround writing. I spend my time signing books and shipping them out, answering emails, Skyping with book groups and classrooms, doing interviews, coordinating cover art, writing blog posts, spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook, and writing, revising, and editing on top of it all.
I probably spend 14 hours a day doing book-related stuff. I figure I’ll take a break when people stop demanding more of my stories. Until then, I feel like I need to really concentrate on getting my stories out there while there’s still demand for them.
Jeff: Do you get distracted with phone calls and email offers coming in every second? How to keep the urge of checking your Amazon status every five seconds?
Hugh: All the time. As much as I love what I’m doing, the urge to go do something fun or to distract myself is always there. How do I beat it? I’m not sure. I would say a force of will, but I think that’s giving myself far too much credit. We are who we are. For some, the ability to jump out of bed at five in the morning comes easier than it does for others. I’ve always had this desire to be doing something with my time, whether it’s a project around the house or reading a good book. I need to maximize every hour. But I don’t think that’s a conscious decision; I think it’s just how I’m built.
I, ZOMBIE deals with this problem in every chapter, this question of free will and of human individuality. I think it’s wrong and unfortunate that people with innate drives make those who are born differently feel bad for who they are. My wife’s parents have a labrador (Ben) who is constantly starving. The dog hunts down and eats any scrap of food left around the house. If he were left to his own devices, Ben would eat himself sick (he has done this several times) and would weigh twice what he currently weighs. And still, he would be hungry.
My dog Bella can go all day without touching the food in her bowl. She lacks the same drive to eat. Bella is skinny as a rail. Does she choose to be? Does Ben choose to be overweight? You would never hear us complain about Ben being a glutton or being weak. He is who he is. You would never hear us claim that Bella has weight issues because of all the Glamor she reads and Animal Planet she watches. She just doesn’t have a strong food drive.
So, why am I able to write every day? I would love to take the credit for how I just am. I would love to pretend that a word of advice would help those who have struggled with the problem suddenly overcome it. But I’m jut wrapping up a book that explores these issues, and I’m not sure I believe what I used to believe. I don’t think we’re as free as we like to pretend we are. And while that sounds dire and dreary, I also think the freedoms we do possess arise from our understanding of this sad fact of human nature. No good ever came from avoiding the truth. Accepting that we have certain strengths and weaknesses unique to ourselves can alleviate much of our guilt and confusion when we compare ourselves to others. Which might just free our chains enough to wiggle in the direction we want to go.
Jeff: So many authors would love to say “Shove it!” to all the people who rejected them in the past. Is that what you did?
Hugh: I doubt all those girls who turned me down even remember who I—
Wait. You mean literary rejection? Well, I haven’t had to deal with a ton of that. Some, sure, but I think the more traditional publishing route would have given me a broader taste for the rejection many writers deal with.
When I queried my first book, I got the usual form letters from agents and publishers, but one thing to keep in mind is that many of these agents only take on two, three, possibly four writers a year. And they receive dozens of query letters a day. There are a lot of agents who are so busy with their current stable that they simply reject everything. So it never really got me down. I did feel the frustration of knowing I’d written a work that would sell very well if given the chance, but I was realistic about how many others had done the same thing and felt the same way. Being heard amid all that noise is nearly impossible. I always distracted myself by writing the next work.
What has hurt over the years are the rejections from readers and from my fellow writers. When I see a review that lambasts one of my works for having a gay protagonist, that makes me sad. When I read a review that tells me I’m horrible at what I’ve dedicated my life to, that cuts to the quick. It takes ten positives, it seems, to counter a single negative. Dealing with this has made me a much more gracious person when critiquing others. It’s like learning to tip appropriately: I think every human being should wait tables for a summer or a year, just to know what it’s like.
The other criticisms that hurt come from fellow writers. It’s a small minority, but all the negativity I heard early on was frustrating. Fellow aspiring authors would doubt every bit of good news, would cast aspersions on my chosen genre or publisher or publication method. I never understood all of that hostility. I was in a very active writing group in North Carolina and participated in all of these critiques. When it came my time, half the group didn’t even read the work, claiming they “don’t like science fiction.” As if I liked memoirs and poetry!
The worst, though, was a writing forum I used to participate on. It had (and continues to maintain) a strong bias against self-publishing. Back before I had any of this success, I asked what people on that forum thought about landing an agent by proving oneself with self-published sales. I was jeered and called a fool for suggesting that agents would dare scour the bestselling lists for self-published authors. “As if agents have the time,” they said. When I wondered aloud whether it wasn’t better to self-publish and allow readers to pick the winners rather than gatekeepers, it was insinuated that only poor writers would do this and solely to justify their inability to publish elsewhere. Even though these trends are now well-established with hundreds of other self-published authors, a forum designed to lend advice is still giving horrible advice. This saddens me far more than a form rejection. I think it should sadden everyone more than the form rejections.
Jeff: What did it take to his the New York Times bestsellers list, Hugh?
Hugh: I honestly can’t remember. I’ve gotten so busy that I no longer track my daily sales like I used to. I believe it was around 14,000 copies in a week when I grazed the NYT list. This was caused by a flurry of media mentions after Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian secured the film rights to WOOL. I may never have another week like this as long as I live, and I’m cool with that. I never expected my lifetime book sales to hit 10,000 across everything I would ever write, so I don’t take any of it for granted. I’m just charging forward in shock and full of ignorance.
Jeff: What’s changed in your life since you hit it big time?
Hugh: I get more sleep than I used to. Being able to quit my day job means I can write and do all my promotional stuff without wrecking my body. There are drawbacks, of course. I don’t have all those hours away from my computer to brainstorm and recharge. I have to force myself to take long walks with my dog to plot. It’s easy to forget how important this is.
My life has changed more in the past six months due to my wife’s occupational shift. She took a job in Florida, which has caused all sorts of upheaval for us. Selling and buying homes, all the repairs that need doing, the difference in weather and routines . . . that has led to more change than my writing success.
Financially, it’s hard to say. I’ll be paying a lot of taxes this year, but I also have all these new expenses. Agent fees, lawyers, tax attorneys, pension managers. It’s easy to see how people make a lot of money and manage to stay broke. My wife and I moved from a 750 square foot house to a 900 square foot house. It feels palatial to us, but I bet every single person reading this (who doesn’t live in NYC) would walk into our house and wonder how on earth we live in such a tiny space.
My dream isn’t to own lots of things, it’s to write for the rest of my life. It’s to not worry about how I’m paying the bills while I do what I love. As such, I’m preparing for the years when I make far less than I’m making now. And I’m convinced that I’ll be back to shelving books one day, and my co-workers will be absolutely sick to death of hearing about my little moment in the sun. They’ll probably stick their fingers in their mouths and make gagging gestures when I’m not looking. I’m prepared for that.
Jeff: So, give our readers some advice. What should they do to get the word out there about their books. What did you do?
Hugh: Here’s the sad thing: I didn’t market WOOL until after it had already become a success, so it’s difficult to know what part of the growth has been natural and what part is me pushing a thing that was already going down the slope on its own.
I think what’s important to look at is what I’ve done over the past three years. Immediately after I wrote my first book, I began writing my second. My father used to get on me for not doing more to promote the book I’d already published. I would set up signings at coffee shops and art fairs and sell a handful at each, and he would wonder why I wasn’t doing more of that.
My idea was to write while I could. I would always have the finished product to promote at a later date, when I felt I could no longer produce. And so I wrote four books in that first series, promoting a little on Facebook and a website that drew very little traffic, but mostly concentrating on the writing.
I eventually realized something yucky about writing a series: it meant I was forever promoting the first book in the series. My sales were always going to drop off, because not everyone reads all the sequels. It was the syndrome of a writer acting like a reader (what’s the next book after this one?) when I needed to think more like a publisher (we have no idea what’s going to sell, so we ought to diversify).
Inspired by the crunch of NaNoWriMo, I broke out and wrote different styles of books and books of varying lengths. I found out that a sizable portion of the reading public wouldn’t get near science fiction, so I wrote a coming-of-age story. I learned that young readers enjoyed violent, dark, and more fantasy-like books, so I wrote Half Way Home. I saw digital books taking off and that they didn’t conform to a standard length of about 100,000 words, so I wrote novelettes and short stories as well.
I’m continuing this trend and expanding on it by releasing a horror book next and working on a romance title on the side. I never would’ve guessed that WOOL would be the thing to take off. I could easily have not written it all because of my ignorance. All of this, I think, backs up the old adage that the best way to promote your work is to keep writing. When something does finally do well, how much back catalog you have in place can be more important than how strong your writing platform is.
Jeff: What did not work out of all the things you tried?
Hugh: Here’s another sad truth: I love reader blogs. Love them. I treasure every review that pops up on someone’s blog; I bookmark each one; I share the links with all my readers. There’s no greater thrill than seeing a new Google Alert pointing me to a review on someone’s website.
But I have to say, I’ve never seen a blip in my sales due to a blog review or an interview or a podcast. The only websites that have led to a bump have been BoingBoing, Gizmodo, and Reddit. The only media mention that gave me a boost was Entertainment Weekly. And these are outlets with tens of millions of readers. Even then, my sales would merely double. I say “merely,” because you might expect sales would go from 300 a day to 3,000 or 30,000 in a day. I mean, tens of millions of readers, right?
But no, sales would go from 300 a day to 600 a day. And the next day, down to 450. And then right back to 300.
Getting a mention anywhere is very much like winning some kind of writers’ lottery. I know that, believe me. I get giddy with every post on Facebook or RT on Twitter because I languished in obscurity for years hoping for anything like this. So understand that I am thrilled with every stroke of good fortune that I’ve won. I just think it’s important to share with other writers that the dream we all have of getting that one mention that makes our career isn’t just unrealistic — it’s unfounded. Unless it’s Oprah singing your praises, you still have the slog ahead of you. And I bet even the Oprah selections found that they soon tailed off into oblivion and had the same struggles start anew with their subsequent works.
That’s the thing about success: there are so many levels of it, and so you have to learn to appreciate every ounce of height you attain. You also have to learn to anticipate and not dread the fall.
The other way to go about this seems dangerous to me: that’s where you take for granted each victory you win and delude yourself into thinking that success is like a ratchet and that you’ll only go up from there. I’ve got a friend who had 6-figure advances who can’t get their next book sold. Just when they thought their struggles were over, they learned how tenuous it all was. It can actually be more difficult for an author who didn’t earn out a huge advance to get a second shot than it is for an unknown to get their first one. Think about that for a while.
There are possibly two or three dozen writers who can guarantee that all their future books will sell well. The rest of us are like the pro athletes on the end of the bench who damn well better be living sensibly and saving every penny. Because pretty soon, we won’t get any more playing time. And if we didn’t enjoy what we had and prepare for the worst, we’ll have something to go with our tales of one-time and former glory: a mound of regret.
Start with this: Celebrate the fact that you wrote something today. Celebrate the conclusion of your manuscript. Celebrate every day spent revising. If you get a sale, celebrate. A review, celebrate. Treat each morsel of good fortune like a feast. That’s what I do. I’m loving this while it lasts. And I think I appreciate it more by telling myself that it won’t.
Jeff: I know you didn’t market until after it found success but what did you do specifically to go from one sale to the first 10,000? What is your step by step guide?
Hugh: WOOL was published in July of last year. Up to that point, I’d sold a few thousand physical books, mostly to friends, family, and a readership I’d developed by being active online. I set up a dozen signings, did some readings at a bar my sister frequents, stuff like that.
I’d had less success with e-books. I didn’t market them as much. By September of last year, I maybe had sold 1,000 total e-books across a dozen titles over a three year span. Maybe. It could have been less.
And then, in September, I sold a few hundred copies of WOOL at 99 cents. In October, I sold 1,000 copies. For the first time, I started spreading the link to the book on Amazon. I also dropped what I was currently writing and began writing four more stories in the series. I tried to stick to the shorter length, but the entries grew as I went along. I tried to stick to the same price point, but that became difficult as well. I basically took what worked and tried to create more of it. I read the reviews and e-mails from fans and incorporated their feedback. Probably the most important thing I did was release the next entries quickly. Readers didn’t have to wait months for the next book; they had to wait weeks. The flurry meant all five WOOL books were in the top of several bestselling lists on Amazon. They became difficult to ignore.
I also took risks with the plot. I killed off my main characters. I tried to inject real tension into my story, something we’ve become inured to in fiction. I believe I succeeded; it’s hard to say.
The problem with these causes and effects is that they appear to be a chicken and egg problem. I did more promoting because a work started doing well. That work began to do even better. I promoted more. But was I really having an effect? I’m promoting as much now as I ever have, but sales have declined slightly from a high of about two months ago. Is the market saturated? Or is it waiting on another Gizmodo-like bit of news? Maybe for progress on the film side? The Random House release in the UK?
I have no clue. As I said earlier, I truly believe my best promotion has been to keep writing. Most of my marketing has been done on Facebook. And yet, while I have 1,600 friends and another 600 subscribers, how could that account for 200,000+ books sold?
My fear — and I’m loathe to admit this — is that all the marketing and promotion accounts for very little. I could probably do that all day and sell a few dozen books. And I could do it tomorrow and sell a few dozen more. But how do you sell tens of thousands? I have no clue. If I did, I would be selling that many copies of my Molly Fyde series, which I promoted much more heavily than WOOL. That series was endorsed by Douglas Preston, a #1 NYT bestseller. It won book of the year awards from several bloggers. I promoted it everywhere. It didn’t begin selling in appreciable amounts until after WOOL took off. It’s an also-bought.
And yes, that makes me feel extremely powerless. I wish I had a different answer.