'Wool' author Hugh Howey chimes in on print, digital, self-publishing

Wool author Hugh Howey sees the book industry “heading in all directions at once.”
Wool author Hugh Howey sees the book industry “heading in all directions at once.”
Published April 30, 2013

In April, megabestselling author James Patterson made headlines when he bought full-page ads in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and Kirkus Reviews and the cover of Publishers Weekly to ask "Who will save our books?"

When I interviewed him, Patterson said he wasn't concerned about his own book sales (275 million and counting), he just wanted to start a conversation about the recent enormous changes in the book industry — particularly the explosive growth of e-books and the closely related boom in self-publishing.

Patterson's books are published digitally, of course, and he's happy about it, but he became successful through the traditional model of publishing.

Hugh Howey is a notable example of an author succeeding in the new publishing paradigm. In 2011, he began self-publishing, through Amazon's Kindle Direct program, a series of postapocalyptic short stories that eventually became the novel Wool. It sold so well that in 2012 he signed a six-figure deal with Simon & Schuster to publish a print version of the book — but retained the digital rights himself. (20th Century Fox has bought the movie rights.)

I emailed Howey, who was on book tour in Australia and New Zealand (he lives in Jupiter), with a few questions about Patterson's campaign. Here are his answers. — Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Do you agree that we need more public conversation about changes in the book industry, or is that conversation already in progress?

The conversation seems well under way to me, but perhaps that's because I'm in the trenches. It's easy to become isolated and lose touch with public discourse. I think Patterson's ad was high profile enough to get the murmurs out a bit more. Whether or not I agree with him, that's a good thing.

As someone who's had extraordinary success with digital self-publishing and then with traditional print publishing, how do you see the future of the industry evolving?

I see it heading in all directions at once. More avenues means more diversity. Publishers will continue to release books; writers will continue to self-publish; more and more authors will jump the fence in one direction or another or choose to straddle it. The biggest change will come from the competition self-publishing is injecting into the landscape. Publishers previously competed on little more than the size of an advance. Now they will have to compete with the artistic freedom self-publishing provides, monthly payments, real-time sales data, multiple releases a year, multiple genres to write in, 70 percent royalty rates, complete ownership of material and so on. It will be interesting to see how publishers adjust practices in order to woo authors, both established and aspiring.

What about Patterson's comment that he's not sure the self-publishing process fosters unusual and/or complex books?

I think he has it exactly backwards. Publishing is becoming more and more averse to risk. New and exciting authors are passed over in favor of celebrities with draw power. The market for literary fiction is shrinking. So why not publish those works yourself? If the argument is that editors are required in order to generate such classics, then hire an editor. Many of them are now working freelance. If the subsequent argument is that money should always flow toward the author and never away from them, I would counter that current royalties are more trickle than flow. A one-time expense in exchange for lifetime ownership is a bargain.

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You've worked social media masterfully to promote your writing; how do you think that method compares to the traditional one? And is it good for every writer?

I had no idea I was a master! Honestly, I don't think I'm a good promoter. I spend almost zero time or effort asking new readers to sample or purchase my work. That's not the job of the author. We should write our best material and leave it up to readers to spread the word.

My approach with social media is to interact with the readers I already have. I do it mostly to procrastinate from my writing. It's an escape. It's the only socializing I get outside of my wife, and she gets sick of me. So I Facebook and tweet with readers and I update my website a few times a week. I respond to my emails. And I put videos on YouTube showcasing my sick dancing skills.

And finally, what are the updated sales figures for Wool? How do the print figures compare to digital?

My guess is that we're around 600,000 copies for the Wool series. It's difficult to tabulate, especially the print sales. As for proportion, the digital outpaces the print even ignoring the head start.