Hugh Howey: From Yacht Captain to Best Selling Self-Published Author

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Hugh Howey: From Yacht Captain to Best Selling Self-Published Author

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Hugh HoweyHugh Howey is the best selling author of the post-apocalyptic book series Wool. His rise to success has been featured in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Boing Boing just to name a few. Here is his story:

Q: As I understand it, you attempted to write your first book in primary school. How old were you and what intrigued you about writing?

A: I was twelve. I had just read THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and ENDER’S GAME, and I wanted to read them again without knowing what was going to happen. The choice was to give myself a concussion or make up my own stories. I went with the latter.

Q: Prior to become a full-time author, what did you do for a living and how did you decide to make the transition to becoming a full-time author?

A: My first career was as a yacht captain. I drove big yachts all over the Caribbean for the rich and famous. It was far too glamorous a job for me, so I decided to become an unwashed starving artist instead. A much better fit. (Also: I met my wife, fell in love, and followed her inland, away from the sea. I worked odd jobs for a while, and then decided to knock novel-writing off my bucket list. All it took was finishing one novel to get hooked.

Q: You're an outspoken advocate for self-publishing. What do you think the future holds for traditional book publishers and what value do you think they still provide (if any)?

A: I think traditional book publishers will always be around. But their market share will continue to erode, as more and more writers bypass them. There are things they can offer, but I think until they radically improve their contracts, that the costs far outweigh the gains.

Q: Do you fear or have concerns about what many feel is a monopoly Amazon has created in the self-publishing space?

A: No. The real monopoly has been the 5 major book publishers who had a stranglehold on print distribution. Amazon is the first real competition injected into the marketplace. Unable to compete with Amazon, publishers have resorted to collusion and price-fixing. The real irony here is that Amazon is saving independent bookstores by taking out the real predators – big-box discounters like B&N – which is allowing small bookshops to thrive again. Indie bookstores have seen 10% growth the last three years, because they offer an experience Amazon can’t, and the major chains are going under because they couldn’t compete with Amazon on price or selection. It’s like rock / paper / scissors.

Q: Are there any circumstances that would sway you to take a traditional book publishing deal, including providing rights ownership?

A: Absolutely. I did a deal with Simon & Schuster where I kept the digital, audio, and foreign rights. The deal is only for seven years, no matter how well the book is selling. I’m always open to discussions, but publishers rarely bend on the major deal points.

Q: Your book series Wool was a huge hit on Amazon's Kindle platform. What do you attribute this success to?

A: I attribute it to Wool not being my first book series. Wool was my eighth published title. My previous works had sold around 5,000 copies over two and a half years, which I was thrilled with. That slow build gave me a platform that increased the chances of a work taking off. The rest was just word of mouth, the right story at the right time, and luck.

Q: How has your self-published success allowed you to leverage additional opportunities? (ie: distribution deals, movie deals, etc)

A: I attribute every deal my agent has landed with the success of my self-published works. There’s no other way to see it. Readers responded to my works, spread the word, shot me up the charts, and that gave my agent leverage to make deals all over the world (31 countries and counting) and in Hollywood (with Ridley Scott).

Q: Since self-publishing has removed the barriers to entry for book publishing, what impact do you think this will have on the industry as a whole, and do you fear the space becoming overcrowded?

A: There will never be enough books. If you look at all the titles, it seems like a lot. But I worked in bookstores for years, and each individual reader was always looking for something new to capture their imaginations. Also: Books are now in print forever, so there’s a lot of time for a reader to discover a title.

Q: Since self-publishing has become so widely adopted, it's much more difficult to be discovered organically. What advice would you give to authors looking to market their books and build their brand?

A: Write everywhere. On Twitter, Facebook, blogs, bathroom stalls. If you can’t entertain in a sentence, how can you hope to hold someone rapt for an entire novel? Hone your skills by practicing everywhere and all the time. You will get better, and you will build an audience.

Q: The success of Wool garnered interest from 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate to create a feature film. How was the opportunity established?

A: My literary agent hooked me up with a co-agent in Hollywood, who sent the book out to a ton of A-List directors and producers. When I saw that list, I thought she was crazy. Why would these people care about reading my story? Then I heard Steve Zaillian was reading and enjoying the book, which blew my mind. He passed the work along to Ridley Scott, because he thought Ridley would enjoy it as well, and the two of them went in for the option. I still pinch myself.

Q: You've been quoted as having turned down seven figure offers for the e-book rights for Wool in order to maintain rights and ownership. What drove your decision to turn down such a lucrative offer?

A: I was already making enough money that I wasn’t swayed by a big pile of it. I wanted to retain ownership of the work. My agent and I were looking to partner with a publisher, but publishers were more interested in acquiring my work. If I’d signed that contract, my story would have been taken away from me forever. I had a dollar figure in mind for what it would take to do that, and it was much higher than any offer I would have seen.

Q: What's the best advice you would give to aspiring authors who have the passion for writing but are afraid to take the plunge?

A: Learn from me. My greatest regret is the 20 years I spent not writing. Those years torture me. So go ahead and assume that you’ll write a book one day, that you’ll finish it, and you’ll love it. If you don’t start that process right now, you’ll kick yourself. Don’t kick yourself. Write. It feels better.

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