Wisdom for Independent Authors from Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey first won fame as an artist through his Wool series, which was published independently through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform. Hugh has since sold film rights to his work to 21st Century Fox and signed a nearly-unprecedented publishing deal with Simon & Schuster that enables him to maintain exclusive online publishing rights. Though financially successful, Hugh has given away a large amount of his work away for free and makes an effort to keep prices low. Despite his fame as an author, he is still very open and accessible to his fans via his website and social media channels.

Below, Hugh shares the factors that contributed to his runaway success along with advice for those who are interested in self publishing.

Did you share your work online anywhere else before using Amazon Kindle's Direct Publishing System?

Hugh HoweyThe only other place my writing was available was through my website. I had short stories and samples up on a blog before my KDP titles were released. I also experimented with Smashwords but never put much energy into that. It was the KDP platform that provided the most eyeballs and the most marketing muscle. Once my books began selling, the nature of Amazon's recommendation platform kicked my sales into another gear.

Through which channel (Amazon, social media, etc.) did your first substantial audience find your work?

Amazon, without a doubt. As long as your book is pleasing its customers, the Amazon machine treats you just like any other author or publisher. There's no distinction. I've seen my e-books recommended to those who purchased Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE. I've seen it bundled with Ernie Cline's READY PLAYER ONE. They send out e-mail blasts to readers who might be interested. It's impossible to overstate how level the playing field is on Amazon if your book generates word of mouth among readers. It's hard for me to imagine my novel showing up in the window of a major bookstore, but it can show up on the front page of Amazon.

Aside from adding the proper metadata to one's work and going to appropriate conferences and conventions, what can one do to give a book higher odds of gaining traction?

The best thing you can do is write a book that gets readers talking. Be edgy and unique. Start the book with a bang, end it with a flourish, and cut out all of the boring bits. The real marketing happens when the author isn't looking. Social media is powerful, but not so that the author can browbeat everyone into buying their work. What social media does is amplify an existing signal. One reader can tell a dozen others, and each of them can tell a dozen others, and you wouldn't believe how swiftly this multiplies.

I use social media to interact with my existing readership, to make myself available to them, not to ask for new readers. And conventions, conferences, and book signings are great for networking and having fun, but I don't think they'll launch a career. The best thing for that is to keep publishing. Don't expect much at all until you have five or a dozen titles available. Pour your energy into writing. Because once you have a single work heat up, the rest will take off as well, and you'll find yourself too busy to maintain the same level of output.

What heuristics did you use to determine when to give your work away for free and when to charge a small price for it?

Wild-ass-guessing! I have no idea what I'm doing when it comes to price and freebies. I err toward the side of cheap. I want readers more than I want profits. The latter follows the former.

In addition to yielding a regular monthly income (as opposed to large sums at irregular points, as is the case with large publishers), what other benefits does self publishing offer?

The two biggest benefits, and these can hardly be appreciated fully, are the control over price and the longevity of your product. Major publishers can't compete on price. They simply have too much overhead. You can make more on a $2.99 e-book than you would selling a paperback with a traditional press. And you'll sell a lot more of them.

Longevity is the biggest advantage. This revolution is young, so it's difficult to see how crucial this is, but your self-published work will never go out of print. Ever. It will have the same visibility potential for the next fifty years (and beyond). A traditionally published book might have three or six months on a store shelf, and fewer people are browsing those shelves. Multiply all the advantages of self-publishing by this extra length of availability, and you get the true difference between the two routes of publication. It's enormous.

Were there any factors aside from your wild success that enabled you to sign that (at this point) incredibly rare type of book deal with Simon & Schuster that enabled you to maintain exclusive rights to sell Wool online?

It was a combination of blistering and consistent sales, stubbornness, a brilliant agent, a supportive wife, and a nimble and free-thinking publisher. Simon & Schuster deserve most of the credit. They took a chance and got creative. I'll always appreciate them for that.