Hugh Howey is the New York Times best-selling author of the Wool series. Hugh has self published all of his books except his first book. He has sold more than 2 million copies of his books as a self published author. Here is his story.
Hugh took an unlikely path to becoming a best-selling author. He always wanted to write but he could never summon the fortitude to get to the end of the manuscript.
After college he became a computer technician, and then switched careers to become a yacht captain for 10 years. He spent that decade working and living on boats. It was hard work. He was on call 24 hours a day and spent most of his time away from his family.
Writing His First Book
When Hugh met his wife it was a good excuse to get out of the industry. He finally had time to sit down and write. He finished his first manuscript when he was 33.
Hugh’s only goal was to write so that he could say that he had written a book. He never thought that he would be able to pay his bills with his writing.
Hugh sent his first manuscript around to family and friends after he finished it. His first impulse was simply to put it up on a blog for people to read. Hugh always had very low self-esteem when it came to his writing and he was very afraid to share his writing with an audience. It was because of the tremendous response and encouragement of his family and friends that he tried to get it published.
Hugh went online and figured out the process of querying agents. Very early on he had offers to buy his first book from two small publishers. He decided to go with the first offer because he had a good feeling about the editor.
Although he enjoyed the process of publishing his first book with a traditional publisher, Hugh noticed that the publisher was simply using tools available to anybody. So when they offered him a contract for his second book he opted to try self publishing.
He published his own work for the next two years before Wool took off. Ever since then his life has been crazy as sales skyrocketed for the Wool series.
The Story Behind Wool’s Success
Wool is a 40 page short story that took off in 2011 and allowed Hugh to quit his day job.
Hugh wrote Wool and it started doing really well on the Amazon charts. All the feedback that he was getting through reviews and emails asked for more of the series. Before the fifth installment of the series was complete Hugh gave notice at his day job, because he was making more money from sales of the series then he was at his job working in a bookstore.
How Self Published Authors Can Work with Traditional Publishing Companies
Hugh considers himself a self published author because he always publishes his work directly to readers first. He has had publishers buy his books after he self publishes them if they do well enough sales wise and the contract makes sense. But selling to a publisher is not the reason he writes stories. He does better for himself self-publishing than he ever would with a publisher in the United States. Overseas it makes complete sense to partner with publishers because he can’t handle translation rights and marketing in 30 different countries.
Hugh does individual publishing deals overseas and he considers them his publishing partners.
Why Self Published Authors Make More Money Than Traditionally Published Authors
There are two reasons why self published authors make more money than traditionally published authors.
- Self published authors get paid a much higher royalty for every copy of their book sold then do traditional authors.
- Self published authors control their own visibility. Traditionally published authors have a minimal ability to break through the noise in the marketplace. When you sell your book to New York you have almost no ability to affect the marketing of that book. Publishers will push your book to bookstores, and unless you break out the most you will make is your advance.
Working at a bookstore really opened Hugh’s eyes. He saw how many new authors fail to break out in the traditional publishing marketplace. He also saw very successful authors come to his bookstore and talk about writing. Every one of them had a day job.
No traditionally published author Hugh talked to was able to write exclusively to pay the bills. That included many New York Times best-selling authors.
The Advantages of Being a Self Published Author
Conversely Hugh has met hundreds of indie published author acquaintances who are making a living with their writing.
Indie published authors are able to make a living because they can publish more books faster than the traditional publishing apparatus will let them, and online bookstores have unlimited shelf space. Nobody is taking their books off the shelves because they aren’t selling well right now.
With indie authors who publish on online bookstores, a book never ages. The book is new when a new reader finds it.
In short, as a self published author you have:
- The same visibility as every other author.
- Longevity. Nobody is taking your books off the shelves.
- Control. If your title, cover art or blurb isn’t working you don’t have to contact and editorial staff to make changes. You can make changes in minutes that will update within 24 hours.
You can also change the price of the book, and you control what promos you do for your audience.
Hugh Howey’s Simple Book Marketing Strategy
Hugh does some promotion for his books now, but at the beginning of his career he was focused solely on writing. His plan was to write three novels a year for 10 years and then begin marketing his work after he had a big enough backlist. He didn’t get that far because Wool took off.
He came up with this plan because he saw many of his heroes during the traditional publishing era had a similar career path. John D Macdonald is someone Hugh chose to emulate in terms of his productivity.
Hugh’s Marketing Process
Hugh writes a novel. He sends it out to copy editor and works on it until he’s happy with the result. He publishes it for readers. Then he works on his next story.
This is a pattern Hugh sees repeated with all of the successful self published authors he interacts with.
The most promotion they do is interacting with their current readers. They don’t spend time to go out of their way promoting their work beyond writing the next story.
“I don’t think you can find me anywhere out there asking strangers to read my work. It’s not something I think works well. I think people tune out when they see an author asking people to read their work, or asking people to buy their work.” – Hugh Howey
The Importance of Having a Long-Term Vision as a Self Published Author
If you want to make writing a career it’s important that you have a long-term vision. Hugh was willing to write 30 books in 10 years without making a living from his writing. The only way to make sure that you’re successful is to have a similar long-term vision. Focus on actions instead of results. If you write enough books you will eventually be discovered, but there’s no way of knowing when that’s going to be.
You shouldn’t look at writing as a get rich quick scheme. Most authors don’t make a living on their writing. If you need money this month or this year, find another way to make money while you write on the side.
Set Healthy Expectations
Planning to make a living from your writing is like saying, “I really enjoy playing basketball, so I think I’ll go play for the NBA.”
It’s okay to have those dreams, but if you have them as expectations there’s a lot of room for disappointment.
If you have the expectation that you’re going to finish a book that you start, that is a healthy expectation.
Likewise, if you have the expectation that you’re going to get your books published and out to readers no matter what, that is a healthy expectation.
I’m going to sell 500 copies of this book in my lifetime is an ambitious goal. And if you do everything right you might aim for 500 and end up selling 5,000 copies. But it can be dangerous to give yourself goals that you can’t directly 100% control with your actions.
The Importance of Finding True Fans and Cultivating Relationships with Them
Hugh does a number of things that make no financial sense, but they make him happy and they make his fans happy.
- He’ll crash launch parties
- He’ll coordinate with parents so he can meet their kids in bookstores
- He signs and ships books to his fans for free
If you cultivate relationships with your fans and the relationship becomes stronger, they’re more likely to not only buy the books you write, they’re more likely to tell people about them.
The important thing to remember when building relationships with fans is to only do activities that you enjoy. Treat your fans like you would treat a good friend.
“Everything that has happened in my life and in my career is because of this, very loyal fans. Concentrate on them. Keep that attitude no matter how many fans you get.” – Hugh Howey
Converts Followers into Lifelong Fans
Hugh has a very simple process for converting fans into true fans. He responds to every email he gets from a fan who appreciates his work.
“Forget about the medium. Forget about whether you sell e-books or paperback books or audiobooks. We’re storytellers. We tell stories like we’re telling stories around the campfire.” – Hugh Howey.
Hugh expresses gratitude for every email he receives from a reader. And the relationship builds from there.
Don’t worry about your audience as a whole. It will build as you write stories. Worry about and concentrate on the people in your audience as individuals.
On Happiness, Writing, and Success
“If you’re not grateful right now chances are you will never be. Money is not going to make you happy. It’s who you are.” – Tom Corson Knowles
Studies have shown that amputees experience depression shortly after the procedure and then return to their baseline level of happiness. Likewise, lottery winners experience a brief spike in happiness and return to their base level of happiness.
What you want to do is elevate your base level of happiness and stop thinking that achieving some outward goal (such as self-publishing success) will give you a long-term boost in happiness. Concentrate on being happy now and success will come to you.
Enjoy the process wherever you are. It will make the process easier and more fun, and you’re more likely to succeed if you’re having a good time.
Before Wool took off Hugh was making $300 a month from his writing hobby while he was working at a bookstore. He never imagined that his hobby would turn into a career. He was excited to write in his spare time and have college kids recognize him from his writing. If he hadn’t achieved his current level of success, Hugh would have been just as happy to continue writing and get a thrill from people recognizing him from his work.
If you don’t enjoy writing and you’re trying to use it to get to a place of happiness chances are you’re going to be disappointed.
How Hugh Handles PR
Hugh doesn’t proactively do promotion. At the advice of his publisher, he sent out print copies of his first book to bloggers so they could review his work. Hugh never goes looking for interviews but he says yes to almost every interview request he gets.
The best way to become known in self-publishing is to write a lot of books. That way you become known as a prolific self published author rather than for any individual book you write.
Hugh has had a very unique career in that people generally know him because of his book. Usually people think of a book first and then the author. Very rarely do people put the author’s name before the book in their mind.
The Self-Publishing Revolution
Hugh is very cognizant of the fact that people like to use him as an example of massive self-publishing success, and he is. But he likes to keep it in perspective.
Hugh says: If the Wright brothers had been born 50 years earlier they wouldn’t have been able to build a plane because engines were to heavy and the gliders of the time wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground. If they had been born 50 years later somebody else would have already done it.
He realizes that he’s incredibly lucky to be alive and writing during this self-publishing revolution. And he was incredibly lucky for his book to take off when it did. For him, it’s all a question of timing.
How Luck Factors into Self-Publishing Success
A lot of new authors carry the same expectations into their writing that they have when it comes to their day jobs. They believe that if they write every day, and put the time into practicing their craft, and they’ve been in the marketplace the longest they should be making the most sales. That just isn’t the case.
A lot of luck is involved when you embark on an artistic career. You never know how big a reach an individual who reads your book has.
Hugh tries his best to promote new authors that he likes because he wants everyone to reach the level of success he has. Hugh has read many books that he thinks are better than his that don’t sell as well. So many factors go into what makes a best-selling book that it’s impossible to say exactly why his book took off when it did.
Maximize Your Chances for Success by Focusing on What You Can Control
The only way to give yourself the best chance to succeed as a self published author is to focus on those elements of your career that you can control.
- Your attitude. Make the book you’re writing something you’re passionate about. Have fun while you’re writing.
- How many books you’re finishing.
- How many books you’re publishing.
- How much time you spend writing.
- How much time you spend working on your craft.
- How professional your book looks when it is published.
- How much you love what you do.
- How much you give back to your fans.
As a self published indie author it’s not your job to worry about how many books you sell because you can’t directly control that.
You can control loving what you do, creating great work, and producing a large inventory for your audience to find.
Use Your Social Media Platforms to Broadcast Your Talent
The secret to being successful as an artist and indie author is to enjoy the process every step of the way.
“You may not have anyone reading your book but every writing session I write a sentence that is so good I immediately hit control S because I’m afraid if I lose the document I will never be able to write that sentence again.” – Hugh Howey
Many times Hugh would take the sentence that he likes so much and he would post it as a tweet on Twitter. Hugh did it simply to broadcast his talent. He didn’t care how many people retweeted it or looked at it. He was just putting it out into the universe.
A lot of people struggle with how to get noticed as a writer. If you can’t get noticed with your own writing and talent then all is lost. You are a writer. That means you have a voice and a perspective. Don’t let fear stop you from sharing that talent and perspective with the world.
Use your Facebook posts and blog to showcase your talent. Use your writing talent everywhere you can. You never know who will stumble upon a piece of writing and decide to share it with their network. And you never know how large those networks might be.
There has to be some sort of skill or talent you have that stirs your soul. And if you don’t have that, then it doesn’t matter how many books you write, you’re never going to reach the level of success you dream of.
Follow your passion. Your passion will draw others towards you. If you keep developing your talent by following your passion you’ll eventually do something that somebody else wants to share. That’s the whole key to creating a community of people willing to help you achieve your dreams.
Be authentic and share your process and excitement with the world. Share your passion, milestones, and successes with the world. You can share your frustrations as well.
People are drawn to passion far more than they are to someone trying to sell them something.
You can go beyond what actually moves you as you write. You can figure out what moves your readers by checking out your own books on Amazon, and seeing how many people highlight certain passages of the book through the Kindle apps highlight function. You can share the most highlighted passages of your stories on your social media platforms.
3 Keys to Success in Self-Publishing
There’s a simple formula for success anyone can follow. It has three key elements.
- Be passionate about what you do. That passion will be evident to everyone you interact with.
- Be humble. People are attracted to talented humble individuals. Nobody likes arrogance.
- Care about your audience. Do what you can to help them. Turn your audience into a group of friends willing to help you succeed.
The Importance of Book Reviews
It’s important to look at your negative reviews and see if they can help you improve your writing. Don’t take negative reviews personally. Use them to your advantage.
It’s also important to look at the positive reviews and see what your audience is saying you do well. Make sure you continue to do that. Give the audience more of what they want and they will reward you with loyalty and more sales.
The Freedom of Self-Publishing
One of the greatest things that the self-publishing revolution has given authors is freedom. Freedom to write anything you want regardless of whether it makes sense from a sales standpoint.
Hugh loves that there’s no middleman between him and his audience. He understands the kind of pressure that a traditionally published author has. Editors and agents are always asking traditionally published authors to write something consistent with the previous thing they wrote. He works with Random House in the UK and his editor there is terrified every time Hugh submits his new manuscript because they may not be able to do anything with it.
Self published authors have a tremendous freedom to write whatever they’re passionate about and find an audience to support them without the roadblocks of traditional agents, editors, and publishers.
“One of the reasons it’s so hard to break out [as an indie author] is that we’re all writing what we think people want. So we’re all writing the same stories. I think the crazier you can make your story the better. Turn genres on their heads.” – Hugh Howey
You used to need to write based on where you could put something in a bookstore. Editors and agents use to turn books down because they didn’t know how to market it, which means they didn’t know which bookshelf to put it on in the bookstore. As a self published author you have complete freedom to write whatever you want.
If you want to mash up ninjas and elves do it. The fact that no one else has done it before will make it new and fresh.
Some time ago people in Hugh’s audience wanted him to write a zombie novel because everyone was writing them, and they wanted his take on one.
Instead of writing a traditional zombie novel, he wrote I, Zombie, a book from the zombie’s point of view. Hugh’s version of the zombie is someone who has all their memories intact and yet was forced to yield to this overwhelming compulsion to eat people.
To Hugh, this is much more terrifying than your average zombie thriller. As he continued to work on this story Hugh realized that he was simply writing about the human condition. There are times when we all feel like were slaves to our own compulsions.
By writing the story his fans asked him to write Hugh was able to create a unique piece of art with his individual perspective. At the time Hugh felt like he was writing something he hadn’t seen in fiction before. That was exciting for him.
You’ve got to remember that when you’re writing you’re also reading. If you can keep yourself entertained, it will be fresh for your audience as well.
“Write what you feel is missing as a reader. Write what is not on the shelf.” – Hugh Howey
Using Pen Names
Hugh is always shocked when he meets a fan at a book signing for Wool, and they’ll say they like one of his other books that is not even close to Wool’s genre.
Hugh has a very eclectic taste as an author. Each project he writes is something he’s excited about. He finds that a sizable portion of his audience will follow him when he writes in different genres.
If someone likes your writing they like your style. And people will try different books out more often then publishers give them credit for. This is why Hugh never uses a pen name. As a self published author Hugh is the brand. And so are you. Write whatever you’re passionate about and your audience will find you if you give them enough inventory to make it likely that they’ll find you.
How Hugh Decides What to Write Next
Hugh’s writing process is very much like his reading process. After he’s finished reading a book he might pick up two or three different books. He’ll read a new book and when that no longer interests him, put it down and move on.
After he finishes a novel he goes through the same process. He will write a chapter in one book and if it doesn’t pull him in he’ll put it down and write a chapter in another book. He goes back and forth until he finds a project that he’s really passionate about and then he’ll finish it. He has the luxury of doing that because he’s a successful self published author.
What Hugh Reads
All of Hugh’s fiction has a philosophical spine to it. He prepares to write his fiction by reading history, psychology, and philosophy. He also reads the morning newspaper.
Reading nonfiction is especially helpful for Hugh because it feeds his mind and gives him more information about the human condition, which fascinates him. Also, reading nonfiction ensures that Hugh won’t pick up and inadvertently use any fiction writing styles or any fiction author’s voice. When nonfiction is written correctly there is much less style or voice in it than there is in fiction.
Write Stories That Are Entertaining and Engage You As the Reader
Hugh likes to write stories that function on two levels. First they function purely on a surface entertainment level. Second they function as a critique about what’s going on in the world at that moment from Hugh’s point of view.
He writes his stories that way because that’s what makes writing entertaining to him. The only way he can be sure his audience will be entertained is if he is entertained while he’s writing a story.
The Importance of Teams in Self-Publishing
When Hugh started his self-publishing journey he was a one-man operation. He did cover design, interior design, and book formatting himself. His wife and mother helped him with editing.
As he grew he built a team through his fan base. He met his cover designer because they made some fan art and told him he could use it as a cover. He offered to pay them for it and asked if they were up for doing the next cover design.
He met his editor when they sent him an email detailing all the mistakes in the Wool Omnibus Edition.
Self-Publishing Versus Traditional Publishing
Self-publishing is so much easier than traditional publishing in Hugh’s experience. His traditional publisher had him traveling for six months of the year in 2013.
When Hugh self publishes it takes him a weekend to get his book live on Amazon. He does the e-book formatting and the paperback formatting himself. He pays an editor and cover designer reasonable amounts of money to complete the packaging of his story.
When you traditionally publish you’re expected to have an author platform and promote your book.
After being traditionally published and self-publishing Hugh definitely prefers self-publishing, especially for authors just starting their career.
Your fifth book is going to be the book that’s good enough to get you noticed and help you start building an audience. Hugh doesn’t believe that writing the same book 5 times is the best way to get to your fifth book. He thinks you’re much better off learning how to publish and writing five different books. In his experience, the quality of your writing will improve faster that way.
Things to Think about When Choosing Your Publishing Path
When you choose your publishing path, you should choose the path that leaves the most options open. Self-publishing used to be the most restrictive path. Now it’s the path that leaves the most options open to you.
When you go the traditional publishing route today, you’re basically giving away the rights to your book forever. The rights reversion clauses in traditional publishing contracts these days have such laughable loopholes that there’s basically no chance you’ll ever get your copyright back.
The publishing path you choose will not affect the quality of your work. If you’re self-publishing a book and no one is buying it, then an agent or editor wouldn’t be interested in your book either. Remember everybody is just a reader. Your job as an author is to entertain your readers. As long as you do that it doesn’t matter which path your career starts from.
If you write a good story it will have a chance to get traction, especially with the visibility opportunities that every author has today.
A lot of people are hesitant to self publish because they say that self published books aren’t good. The truth is the method you use to publish your book doesn’t affect its quality.
If your work is great that’s an even stronger reason to self publish, because in that case you’re already ahead of the game. Your work will gain traction as organically as it would in a bookstore, and it will have wider visibility because it’s available online.
Whatever career path you choose remember to be humble. Going into traditional publishing thinking you’re going to be the next James Patterson is as silly as believing that you’re going to go into indie publishing and become the next Amanda Hocking and get a $3 million advance. Both outcomes are equally unlikely.
It’s much better to aim at selling five copies a week. That is an achievable goal that you can build on by publishing multiple titles.
Traditional Publishing Vs Self-Publishing in the Future
Hugh believes there will always be room for both traditional publishing success and indie publishing success in the future. He has many friends who were traditionally published. His first book was traditionally published and it worked for him at the time.
Hugh believes traditional book contracts will improve so that it’s a harder decision for people in the future which route to go.
Whether you’re an indie author or traditionally published, we all carry our own biases into whatever we do.
Hugh sees a future where an author will start out self published and build a readership, and at that point agents and editors from publishing houses will come to them.
It’s similar to the way people are discovered on other online social networking platforms today like YouTube.
A Unique Publishing Deal
In 2011 Simon & Schuster bought the print rights to publish Wool. It was the first deal where a publishing company only bought the print rights. Hugh wasn’t willing to sell the e-book rights because he was already making a living selling the e-book.
He turned down several seven-figure advance offers because he wasn’t interested in selling all of his rights. He had leverage because he was already a mega-best-selling author.
Remember, you can always say no if the deal doesn’t make sense.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
To learn more about Hugh Howey, visit his site at hughhowey.com
Wool Omnibus Edition (Silo series Book 1) – the series that made Hugh Howey a household name.
1,000 True Fans – an article about how 1000 true fans can support an artist’s lifestyle.
http://lonetrout.com/ – the website of David Gatewood Hugh Howey’s preferred editor.
I, Zombie – a book Hugh Howey wrote for his first thousand true fans. He warns people who aren’t true fans not to read it.
http://www.hockingbooks.com/ – the website of Amanda Hocking a mega-successful indie author who became a hybrid author when she accepted a $3 million traditional publishing advance.
Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.