How to Sell Millions with Self-Publishing — Hugh Howey, Bestselling Author of Wool

How to Sell Millions with Self-Publishing — Hugh Howey, Bestselling Author of Wool

Preview (00:00:00)

  • Hugh Howey's lifelong dream was to write a book, but he struggled to do so for 20 years.
  • He realized that he needed to develop a daily writing habit to overcome his fear of writing.
  • Howey emphasizes the importance of maintaining a consistent writing routine, even on weekends and while traveling.

Breaking the formula with a literary sleight of hand. (00:00:52)

  • Hugh Howey discusses his unorthodox creative process and publishing journey.
  • He shares an example of how he structured the end of his book "Wool" using a bit of creative sleight of hand.
  • Howey explains that he wanted to take readers through a range of emotions, including frustration and anger, before giving them the "nugget" they were waiting for.
  • He intentionally included a Q&A section at the end of the book, where he asked readers to help spread the word about the book.
  • This strategy worked well and resulted in "Wool" becoming the most reviewed and highest-reviewed item on Amazon that year.
  • Howey emphasizes the importance of understanding what resonates with readers and not being beholden to traditional publishing formulas.

A commitment to 10 years of obscurity. (00:05:22)

  • Hugh Howey committed to writing in obscurity for 10 years to see what would happen.
  • His first book did better than many first books, earning him a few hundred dollars a month within a year.
  • He decided to write two books a year for 10 years to determine if he had what it took to be a writer.
  • This approach allowed him to focus on improving his craft without worrying about marketing or immediate success.
  • Howey believes that the best time for a writer is when they are writing for themselves without external pressures.
  • Howey wanted to write books that filled a void in the market and offered something new and exciting to readers.
  • He was inspired by science fiction books like "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Ender's Game" and wanted to create similar experiences for readers.
  • Howey only writes when he can't find what he wants to read or if he has a unique idea that he can't find elsewhere.
  • He often gives away his ideas to others if he doesn't have the desire to pursue them himself.

Buying back rights and self-publishing. (00:09:38)

  • Hugh Howey initially intended to give away his first book for free on his blog to get feedback but received offers from two small presses after they saw his blog and Twitter feed.
  • Despite feeling uneasy about signing away the rights to his book, Howey learned from this experience and never again gave away the rights to his work, even in major deals with big publishers.
  • Howey turned down seven-figure offers from major publishers because his self-publishing income was higher, with the advice of his agent, Kristen Nelson.
  • Howey eventually agreed to a five-year print-only deal with Simon & Schuster, retaining all digital and audio rights, as well as worldwide distribution, which allowed him to regain the rights to his book after the term and auction it again for multiple opportunities to maximize his earnings.
  • Howey enjoys the creative freedom and control that self-publishing provides, such as running price promotions, updating covers, and adding new content to his books.

Why authors should strive for a reader-first vs. publisher-first mindset. (00:17:07)

  • Hugh Howey believes authors should prioritize readers over publishers.
  • Many successful authors don't ask for time limits in their contracts, despite having significant leverage.
  • Some authors feel indebted to publishers for their success and make poor business decisions to appease them.
  • Howey suggests aspiring authors have confidence in their work and believe it will find the right audience.
  • Authors should make creative decisions based on their belief in their work, not self-doubt.

Hitting the NYT Best Sellers List with a self-pub book. (00:19:33)

  • Hugh Howey's self-published book made it to the New York Times bestseller list, challenging the notion that it's impossible for self-published authors to achieve this milestone.
  • The New York Times list is curated, and while factors like sales and Amazon rankings are considered, it's not solely based on sales figures.
  • A handful of independent reporting bookstores around the country play a significant role in determining the list, and Amazon sales are taken into account but discounted to some extent.
  • Howey's success can be attributed to a combination of factors, including strong reader demand (selling 50,000 copies a month) and retail distribution through CreateSpace, Amazon's print-on-demand service.
  • Despite his achievement, Howey emphasizes that it's not necessary to aim for the New York Times bestseller list to have a successful writing career.
  • Before publishing Wool, Hugh Howey had written five novels and a novelette.
  • Wool was his seventh published work and fell into the novelette range, with a length of around 50 pages.

Pricing logic. (00:23:11)

  • Hugh Howey started publishing when e-readers and print on demand were around, which allowed him to offer his short story at a low price.
  • He priced the ebook at 99 cents and the paperback at $4.99, which was lower than his previous books.
  • Amazon incentivizes authors to price ebooks between $2.99 and $9.99 by offering a higher royalty of 70%, but Howey chose to go lower to avoid bad reviews.
  • Howey's main goal was to find an audience and get his story picked up, so he eventually made the first part of his serialized work free.

The undersold value of worldwide rights. (00:26:34)

  • Hugh Howey does not sell worldwide rights to his books.
  • Audio and foreign rights have become significant revenue streams.
  • Foreign deals can be more lucrative than US deals.
  • Publishers often have conversations with foreign publishers and receive funds before paying authors.
  • Howey has done approximately 50 deals in other countries for Wool.
  • Foreign deals are usually term-limited (5-7 years) and can be renewed.
  • Howey has agents in the US, Europe, and Asia who handle foreign deals.
  • Agents have knowledge of local publishers and can provide valuable insights.
  • Howey emphasizes the importance of trusting agents and values their expertise.
  • Despite being self-published, Howey appreciates agents, publishers, and bookstores and celebrates the success of writers regardless of their publishing path.

How authors can find deal leverage early on. (00:29:54)

  • Authors need leverage to negotiate with traditional publishers.
  • Self-publishing can provide leverage by generating revenue and establishing a readership.
  • Publishers are more likely to take risks on books with a proven track record of success.
  • Authors can establish themselves by building a successful podcast, platform, website, or social media following.
  • Establishing a platform reduces the perceived risk for publishers.

Establishing a daily writing habit. (00:31:59)

  • Hugh Howey suggests that writers should develop a daily writing habit and set a daily word count goal to stay motivated.
  • He recommends reading widely to expose themselves to different writing styles and plot elements, which helped him improve his writing skills.
  • Howey emphasizes the importance of consistency and discipline in writing, rather than waiting for inspiration.
  • His daily writing habit began when he was reviewing a book a day for a website, which laid the foundation for his successful self-publishing career.

Fiction that inspires better writing. (00:36:44)

  • Reading beautiful prose can improve one's writing.
  • Some recommended books for improving writing:
    • This is How You Lose the Time War: Praised for its beautiful prose and unique structure, written by two authors who alternated chapters.
    • Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: Initially challenging but rewarding, recommended to read past the first 70-80 pages.
    • Lincoln Highway: A spectacular book.
    • Anything by Amor Towles: Known for his literary and narrative magic, despite not being a primary career writer.
    • A Table for Two (short story collection coming out this year): Contains a particularly clever short story.

Collaboration vs. writing solo. (00:40:52)

  • Hugh Howey is working on his first book project in six years.
  • He is collaborating with a friend because he found it difficult to complete the book on his own.
  • Collaboration has been a positive experience for him, making the writing process more enjoyable and productive.
  • Working with a partner has helped him overcome self-doubt and impostor syndrome.
  • The book is not finished yet, but the collaboration has already been a success for him.

Ways the publishing industry protects the status quo. (00:42:34)

  • Publishers are unwilling to offer print-only deals because it sets a precedent for other authors to demand similar terms.
  • Publishing contracts are standardized across different publishers, with similar terms, conditions, and financial arrangements.
  • Publishers exert social pressure on each other to conform to industry standards and avoid competition.

Why Hugh makes publishing deals at all. (00:45:39)

  • Publishing deals allow authors to reach different readers through different distribution channels.
  • Once financial stability is achieved, authors can make decisions based on creative fulfillment rather than financial necessity.
  • Publishers provide infrastructure and support for activities like box sets, special editions, and book tours, which can be challenging for authors to organize independently.

Self-promotion as therapy. (00:46:32)

  • Hugh Howey's father helped promote his first book by setting up tables and selling copies in unexpected places like coffee shops and hardware stores.
  • While it didn't make financial sense, Howey found that engaging with readers on Facebook was an enjoyable form of promotion that provided emotional reinforcement and encouraged readers to talk about his books with others.
  • Howey views activities like blogging, being on social media, and putting out videos as a form of therapy that helps him feel less alone in his writing journey.

Keys to fruitful collaboration. (00:48:56)

  • Personality is the most important factor in successful collaboration.
  • Collaboration should feel enjoyable and not like work.
  • Effective collaboration involves spending time brainstorming, dividing up writing tasks, and working on scripts together.
  • Hugh Howey and his co-writer, Matt Mados, prioritize projects based on urgency.
  • They managed to advance five TV/film projects simultaneously, increasing their chances of success.
  • Their typical workflow involves creating a rough outline, a detailed outline, and then dividing up the writing tasks based on individual strengths and preferences.
  • This collaborative approach significantly increases their productivity and creativity.

Common mistakes creatives make. (00:51:49)

  • Trust your own judgment and intuition when making decisions, even if it goes against established wisdom.
  • Consolidate your identity and write under your real name to build a strong brand and connect with readers.
  • Experiment and try new things, such as focusing on audiobooks early on.
  • Carefully consider rights agreements, as major publishers may undervalue digital rights while emphasizing print.
  • Embrace and maintain your relationship with readers over time.
  • The publishing industry has become less profitable due to pressure from big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders, which demanded significant discounts from publishers.
  • Traditional publishers can still cut expenses by reducing the number of employees and cutting back on lavish perks.
  • The publishing industry has changed significantly since the early 1990s and is likely to continue evolving in the future.

AI's present-and-future impact on publishing. (00:57:26)

  • AI will significantly impact book creation and publishing by enhancing cover art and text generation, making it a valuable tool for self-publishing authors.
  • The influx of AI-generated books may lead to fewer opportunities for some authors as readers opt for these alternatives.
  • Amazon, as a dominant player in the publishing industry, will need to implement effective filters to combat fraudulent activities such as plagiarism and fake book listings.
  • Despite the challenges posed by AI-generated content, successful authors can still thrive by contributing to the arts and delivering high-quality work.

AI-generated occupational and existential crises. (01:02:52)

  • AI will bring both opportunities and challenges.
  • One opportunity is the ability to use AI to overcome writer's block and produce more consistent writing.
  • The transition to new jobs created by AI will be painful for those who lose their jobs and may have difficulty reskilling.
  • AI will present an existential crisis as we realize that human intelligence can be replicated by machines.

Mid-term optimist, long-term pessimist (01:07:18)

  • Hugh Howey, a bestselling author, discusses his views on the future of humanity and the potential risks associated with technological advancements.
  • While he is optimistic in the short and medium term, he is pessimistic in the long term due to the inevitable end of the universe.
  • Howey identifies specific targeted technologies such as advanced genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and infinite storage capacity batteries as the primary existential threats, rather than the environment.
  • He raises concerns about the potential misuse of these technologies and questions whether slowing down technological progress is necessary to mitigate these risks.
  • Howey compares the current situation to the development of nuclear weapons and argues that regulating potentially dangerous technologies may be more challenging due to their global and decentralized nature.

Procreation in uncertain times. (01:12:25)

  • Hugh Howey and his wife recently started the process of having children through embryo extraction.
  • Howey believes that having children is always worthwhile, despite the uncertainties of the future.
  • He compares the decision to have children to the fixed set point of happiness that humans have from birth, which is similar to height.
  • Howey argues that life has always been difficult for most people throughout history, yet humans still find joy and love.
  • He expresses concern about the declining birth rate and the potential for a population implosion.
  • Howey disagrees with the idea that settling space can solve the problem of population decline, as he believes the joy of having children decreases with each subsequent child.

The future of religion. (01:16:47)

  • Hugh Howey's personal journey led him from being a militant atheist to having more compassion for people's religious beliefs.
  • Declining population growth and increasing religious adherence may impact society's makeup and values.
  • Howey's experience trying to rescue a friend from an extreme religious cult made him realize that religion can provide solace and purpose, leading him to reconsider his position.
  • Self-reflection and understanding that everyone is trying to find their way through life are important, as any of us could be wrong.
  • Individuals should be good to themselves and others, regardless of religious or philosophical beliefs.
  • Religious indoctrination can be abusive, and trust in one's belief system should allow others to find it naturally through positive examples.
  • Religion is a persistent phenomenon despite persecution in some places, and superstition will always exist, with religion being a relatively benign form compared to others like deep conspiracy theories.
  • The loss of religion has created a gap filled by other beliefs, such as CrossFit, veganism, QAnon, and even atheism, with people passionately defending their beliefs, even if they are not religious.
  • All individuals serve a purpose, but there are dangers associated with religious institutions, such as the abuse of children in the Catholic Church due to arbitrary rules like not allowing leaders to marry.
  • Small changes that could improve lives, such as allowing priests to marry, are often not made due to religious dogma, which can turn people away from religion.

Free will and objective moral truth. (01:24:27)

  • Hugh Howey does not believe in free will.
  • He believes in an objective moral truth, but he doesn't know exactly what it is.
  • He thinks that values and mores are not necessarily subjective.
  • His best argument for objective moral truth is that humans are the same everywhere and we all want to be treated about the same way.
  • He also believes that the Golden Rule is evidence of objective moral truth.

Parting thoughts. (01:29:18)

  • Hugh Howey is open to answering more questions.
  • He is excited about adapting Silo into a TV show and working with creative people.
  • He enjoys sailing and having adventures.
  • Hugh Howey considers his wife the best thing that has ever happened to him.
  • He is looking forward to starting a family and becoming a father.
  • Hugh Howey lost a close friend, Roland Griffiths, who had kids relatively late in life.
  • He believes having kids is like leveling up in the journey of becoming a man.
  • Hugh Howey is most active on his Facebook group, Twitter, and Instagram.

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