There was a time when bestselling author, Hugh Howey never thought he'd finish writing a novel, let alone get one published. There was a time when he lived in a tiny home in the mountains and dreamed of one day being published.
Now, everything has changed. Millions of copies of his books, including his runaway hit Wool have been sold, film rights have been bought and he has become a beacon of hope not only to other indie authors but anyone who has a dream and has had naysayers tell them they would never make it.
In my in-depth interview with Howey, I asked him everything from his early days as a writer, his thoughts about naysayers, reactions to the Author Earnings Report, his advice to other authors, and even about his new personal life as a bachelor.
What was life like for you before your book series WOOL took off?
The worst part of my writing life was the twenty years where I dreamed of writing a book but never completed one. That's been half my life. And it drove me nuts. Writing a book is such a reachable dream; anyone can do it. Most of us write a novel of words every month, in emails and Facebook posts and Tweets. So there was a lot of self-inflicted guilt and criticism all the years I dreamed of writing a book and simply refused to.
Once I wrote my first novel, MOLLY FYDE AND THE PARSONA RESCUE, the feeling of accomplishment and release really carried me for a while. I was so excited to have gotten this bucket list item out of the way, and so impatient to start the next book, that I didn't really worry about sales. It wasn't until HALF WAY HOME came out that I felt like a real novelist, and that I knew I was writing stories at least as good as the books we sold at my bookstore. That's the first time I wondered if I could make it as a writer, and I felt the frustration of not being able to reach the audience that I knew would love my books. At this time, I was getting invited to speak at a nearby middle school, and the class was full of fans, and I tried to imagine my books really getting out there.
Within a year of feeling that, WOOL started taking off. Now, I don't want to make it sound like it all came so easy. The years I spent writing with a day job were brutal. I lived in the mountains, and the mornings were cold in our tiny home, but I forced myself up before dawn, trudged to campus in the snow, sat in a chair up in the whisper section of the university library, and wrote until I went to work. Then I wrote on my lunch break, eating the same meal of half of a PB & J and water, and wrote until I had to check back in. And then I wrote at night and on the weekends. I managed 2-3 novels a year for those three years, and it was brutal. But I loved what I was writing. It was 20 years of frustration pouring out of me.
Do you still have moments of insecurity before you write or release a new novel? How do you overcome it?
It gets worse with every passing day and every release. Everything I write just sucks. And then I revise it until it's just horrible. Then revise until I almost don't hate it. Ten or more passes, and I can publish without feeling like I'm harming people with my words. It really is that brutal. And it is only getting worse. I think I remember my greatest passages, and I hold every single sentence up to that standard. I also feel like I shouldn't be doing this if I'm not pushing boundaries with my stories and crafting prose that readers will really fall into. So I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
What's your latest book about?
BEACON 23 is about a very damaged individual living in isolation in this space lighthouse. He's messed up from serving in battle. He thinks he can get better alone, but he finds out that this only makes things worse. And that the solution is not to run from his problems. He finds this as his problems begin coming back to haunt him.
When did you know life had changed for you forever?
When I started taking calls from Ridley Scott's people while at my bookstore job. We had a no-cellphone policy. When I told my boss I had to take the call, and he knew my notice was just around the corner, it felt like one life was tearing away for another. I never wanted to have to leave that awesome job, but the time restraints made it necessary. During those last two weeks, I was watching the WOOL books climb the charts, and I realized something very cool was happening to me. And that it would probably last all of three months, and then I'd need to look for another job.
Do you still fear that it will all go away?
I never feared this; I expected it. I waited for it. I wondered why it wasn't coming sooner. I seriously expected to wake up every morning and see that I hadn't sold a single book overnight. I kept thinking this for several years. No exaggeration. Every month was going to be the last month that I made any money from my writing. Now it's gotten to the point where I'm just surprised when the money appears in my bank account every month. I still expect it all to have stopped. I don't look at sales data. I don't promote my work. I just assume my career is over, like I've assumed from day one. It just hasn't happened yet. Maybe tomorrow.
Why do you think there are so few paparazzi-stalked authors compared to reality stars? What's it going to take for the public to look at authors like other celebrities?
It will never happen. Celebrity comes from visual recognition, and rarely in any other way. And I'm glad. I get recognized on the street now and then (just last week, it was a police officer in uniform, and I wondered what I'd done wrong when he called me over!). I've had this happen enough to be glad it doesn't happen more often. I don't want to be known; I just like my stories to be read. We authors have it the best among all the entertainment sectors. And our works appear to last the longest while remaining germane.
How many of your books have you sold in your career?
I have no idea. In the millions. I don't even know how I would count them anymore. It's across 40 countries and in so many formats. What's crazy is that I told my mom, when I finished my first novel, that I hoped to sell five thousand copies in my lifetime. 5,000 copies! I figured this would be a very difficult task, and those first 5,000 certainly were. At that point, I was already more successful than I ever thought I would be. The rest has just been absurdly awesome.
Do you read your reviews? When people are especially nasty on social media or in reviews, how do keep it from affecting you?
I used to read every single one. I still glance at them when I can. I think it's important to know what readers think about your work. I love the interactions and the feedback. I've really enjoyed commenting back and forth with readers on some Amazon reviews. I've made some great friends that way. Even dedicated a novel to a reviewer's wife because of an interaction like that.
The negative reviews sting at first, but you get used to it. I just concentrate on the people who love my work, and I look for any constructive criticism among the negative reviews. I don't want to "toughen up," as J.A. Konrath always implores me to do. I want to still feel all the good stuff, so I worry about becoming calloused or ignoring the feedback. I've just come to accept that not every reader will like what I present them. That's cool. I'm a reader as well, so I know how it works.
AUTHOR EARNINGS REPORT & THE DATA GUY
Based on your research, what subgenres have you discovered are ripe with opportunity: tons of fans but few authors?
That's a great question. I think serious nonfiction is still overpriced and underserved. I believe an author who did real research and put out shorter pieces more often would crack a niche that no one quite has so far. And despite the number of sci-fi and fantasy authors, I think the demand there for awesome stories is still being unmet. We need more voices in those genres, really pushing boundaries.
How can people use this data from the data guy, to further their writing careers?
The most obvious takeaway is that going indie has more upside than querying agents. That's without question. Not even included in our data is the 99.9% of manuscripts that didn't get published after being queried. The other takeaway is that audiobooks have a lot of earning potential, and that indies can't ignore their print editions. And that only seems to be gaining steam.
Why do you think that, especially at first, the industry tried to poo-poo the data and call it flawed? What message do you have for the nay-sayers?
I don't have any message for them. And I don't have any opinion on their complaints. The data is made available, and the conclusions are incontrovertible. But the reason I don't really concern myself with what industry insiders say is because the website isn't for them. Of course they are going to have an issue with our results. Our results basically say to authors: You're better off cutting out the middlemen who take 85% and work for yourself and keep 70%. That's the conclusion the data points toward, and it matches what I've experienced and what I've seen across thousands of my traditionally published and indie published friends. The middlemen aren't going to hear this and say, "Oh, yes, we've been taking advantage of readers and writers for generations." And I don't expect them to. All I care about is authors being informed before they make their decisions.
What's your writing process like now from conception of idea to launch? Do you outline, do you rewrite?
I daydream about a story for a long time before I start writing. Often it's for years. I'll write several books while dreaming about other plots, so they really have time to come together. I'll make notes, write some scenes, jot down any thoughts I have so I don't forget. But then, I just start writing from page one. When I get to the end, I do a dozen or so passes before it goes off to my editor, David Gatewood.
OK, your first draft is done. Do you rewrite? If so, how do you approach it and take it from a hot mess to a jewel?
Absolutely. I do a dozen or so passes through the story, starting with a heavy rewrite and getting down to a search for typos. I love this process far more than the original writing.
What's one message you wish that other indie authors would listen to that they don't seem to be?
Indies are too varied a group to think of us like that. And we tend to listen to everything. We try everything. We share our results. So I can't imagine that there's anything, as a group, that's being ignored. A few messages that I think don't get discussed enough, regardless of whether anyone is listening or not:
- - To succeed, you've got to work a lot. A lot, lot. Not everyone will have the fortitude to put in the hours required. Successful indies often fail to talk about how many hours they put in to get to where they are, so a dream is sold without the waking efforts needed.
- - It can end at any time. Save your money. Expect ebbs and flows. There will never be an eternal upward trajectory. When the dips come, it's not your fault, or your readers' fault, or Amazon's fault, or anyone's fault. The readers have moved to something else. Go look for them if you like, but don't complain that they moved on. Be glad instead that they passed through.
- - Keep your expenses low. Stay out of debt and maintain an affordable, simple lifestyle. This will give you a lot more room to write.
What book are you writing now?
MR UNLUCKY. It's about a cop who busts crooks traveling back from the future.
ON BOOK PROMOTION
What do you do to promote your books that leads directly to sales?
I don't, really. Lately, I haven't even told readers that I had a new release. This isn't to be coy, or because I don't care, but because I haven't seen that it makes much of a difference. Maybe you can blow out the first week, but I've tried this every way possible, and I see the same general overall sales eventually. This won't be true for every author, but for me, the day after release, I'm writing the next story.
How do you balance promotion and writing and living life?
I rarely promote anything. I spend a few hours every morning writing, and the rest of my time is spent keeping up my boat, sailing to the next island, and enjoying life. The balance feels very good right now.
Besides writing a great book, what promotion do you do that actually affects books sales?
Facebook has been the best for me. I like just being myself, connecting with fans as friends, and letting them into my life as they let me into theirs. I said "yes" to everything I could for quite a few years. Now, I turn everything down. I have no idea how you got me to do this! Oh, yeah, Facebook.
What advice about writing and career would you give yourself if you could?
Start sooner. I can't believe I wasted so many years doubting myself. I wish I had more practice, more words under my belt.
You seem at times like an ambassador for Amazon. Do they give you special treatment or compensate you in any way for endorsements?
It's the other way around on both accounts. Amazon started off as an ambassador for me. When WOOL started climbing the charts, solely based on reader word-of-mouth, Amazon started recommending my other works to those readers! Then, they sent automated emails to readers of WOOL 1 when WOOLs 2, 3, 4, and 5 came out. They promoted me through also-boughts, so people who enjoyed READY PLAYER ONE and THE MARTIAN were recommended WOOL (and vice versa). All of this was taking place without me paying Amazon anything extra other than the 30% they get for building the KDP ecosystem, carrying my works, handing my customer service, doing all transactional costs, R&D, etc.
When I saw this taking place, and how the income from this one outlet was allowing me to quit my day job, I started promoting Amazon to any writer who asked me my opinion. I was already a fan as a customer and a reader and a bookseller (I used Amazon as an account in my bookstore, sourcing used out-of-print books and selling them to customers). So I drank the Kool Aid long before I published, and then I really became a fan when they allowed me to publish my work and keep 70%. Again, I would say it's the other way around. My endorsements began as I saw the value of working with Amazon, not the other way around. And no, the only compensation I see from Amazon is from my sales. They reward me for pleasing readers, which is as it should be.
If you could sit down with Jeff Bezos and give him a wish list for a better experience for readers and or KDP authors, what would you tell him?
I've done entire blog posts about this. Unfortunately, I don't think Jeff reads my blog. The four biggest changes I'd like to see:
- Get rid of the 35% royalty on ebooks below2.99.
- Waterproof my Kindle.
- Allow me to edit my manuscript right in KDP (to correct small typos).
- Get better at removing the bogus reviews and stop removing the legitimate reviews.
What are your predictions for what will happen in the next two years with the book publishing industry and books as a whole?
In two years, I think we'll see a Big 4 where today we have a Big 5. And the share of books sold by these publishers will continue to shrink, as they price themselves out of the ebook market and indie authors continue to take share through quality releases and a concentration on the hottest genres. Fiction is already over 50% ebook. I think in two years that number might be closer to 65%. I believe it'll get to 75% eventually.
Paper books won't die, but within a decade they'll be akin to vinyl. I think the market for paper books will seem larger than it really is, because we see them, but we don't see ebook sales and consumption. With half the market already in the hands of indies, and knowing their sales ratios in ebooks to be north of 90%, there's only one way this can go. I think industry observers will continue to miss what's happening, and I think their ignorance will continue to not matter one whit. The readers want great stories affordably priced. There will always be writers out there willing to provide this.
Are you still living on the seas? What has that been like?
I am. It's been life-changing. I spent nearly 15 years of my life living on boats before I started writing. So this is a return to who I am, and it's been liberating. Every day poses unique challenges. And you live in constant contact with nature. I don't use the word "harmony," because nature doesn't know you are there. She's working on a much larger scale. If you start thinking she sees you and cares, you'll get hurt. But you really learn to respect her; you learn how the stars progress across the sky; and you learn quite a lot about who you are, as a person.
Did you feel like you were escaping and finding yourself? Is that why you left? When will you come back?
I settled down for a few years to see what that novel experience would be like. I haven't left; I've returned. The question is whether or not I'll try the domestic life again someday. Right now, I don't feel the urge. Even when I do, I can see myself living a month at a time in different places, or a year at a time. Routine is not for me.
How did you get such an amazing body? Seriously, what's your diet and exercise routine?
I wrote a short book about this, because I get asked a lot. Most of it is diet. If I eat poorly, I balloon up just like anyone else. I eat yogurt with some fruit (not too much fruit) for breakfast. I have a smoothie for lunch (banana, peanut butter, protein powder, yogurt, camu, a few blueberries, two strawberries, two cubes of ice, and water). For dinner, I try to eat early and pretty much eat whatever I want. I do 10 minutes of yoga every morning, along with some push-ups and pull-ups on alternating days. I walk. I take the stairs. I carry as many groceries in a load as I can. I carry luggage that has wheels. And so on.
So are you single or married or ...?
Met any nice girls lately?
I meet amazing women all the time. Amazing women. I haven't met one yet who is enthusiastic about my lifestyle and compliments me the way I would like. I'm open to finding that person. I'm also cool with my current lifestyle until she comes along.
What are some of the drawbacks from being in the public eye?
Oh, I don't think I'm in the public eye anymore. I'm practically retired. But at the height of my book touring, I didn't really see any drawback other than the demands on my time. That was the only burden. Everything else was a blessing.
Actually, I just thought of one thing: I've had some experiences on Facebook where people tell me I can't share my political or religious views because "I'm just an author." We're all just something. All our opinions should count. It's bizarre to me that my views were more tolerated when I was a bookseller. Now I'm supposed to shut up and write. That's a weird thing about being in the public eye. I just unfriend those people and move on.