As I read the “Wool Omnibus,” I couldn’t help but wonder: why this book? What magic made this series the breakout self-publishing success that is redefining what it means to be a self-published author? What is generating all this crazy buzz?
This may upset some readers, but I don’t think it was anything actually about the book. In fact, I thought the book was just OK. Maybe it’s just that I’ve read a lot of dystopian fiction, but nothing about “Wool” seemed inherently revolutionary. The first novella was good, but the stories in the “Wastelands” anthology were just as good or better. (If you like dystopias but haven’t read “Wastelands,” go. Do it. It’ll knock your socks off and give you chills.)
The covers of his books aren’t that great, despite all the advice on the internet telling you that it’s vital.
He seems like a pretty likable guy, but I’m sure there are lots of likeable authors that haven’t smashed all the records.
So what gives? How did Hugh Howey do it?
I don’t know for sure, having not met the guy–I read his blog and I have read several articles about him (including this one from the Wall Street Journal, where the graphic artist clearly did not bother actually reading the book)–but this is the impression I get:
Story Raises Questions
The first story in what came to be the “Wool Omnibus” is a tightly written short story set in a world tantalizingly like our own. It inspires a lot of questions: How did they get there? Why all the mystery? Why did his wife die? Is the world really poisonous? Why would they do this to their people? What’s it like? How long have they been there?
That’s a lot of questions for a first story, and it is very engaging. You’re hungry for more.
It’s a Novella
All those questions called out for answering, and, luckily, Howey didn’t write a whole novel: he just wrote a novella. So he decided to write other novellas to answer some of these questions (judging by the rest of the stories, he wasn’t all that sure what the answers were at first, either).
But this novella model made it very easy for Howey to break his sales into different markets. Here, have the first story free. Want more? Oh, that’s $2.99. More again? Another $2.99, please. It’s very savvy marketing. Plus, because they were short, he could churn out more stories quickly, while he was still on the readers’ minds. Now he can continue selling or giving away the short stories AND can sell the Omnibus version–with a higher price tag (AND devoted fans can now buy it in print form, too!).
(To be fair to Mr. Howey: I think his pricing structure is exceedingly fair to the reader. $2.99 isn’t a painful price point at all: he could have jacked the price up much higher. But he didn’t. And, I think, that turned out to be a great marketing move for him as well).
All his stories were originally online-only. I can’t be sure, but I think he was predominantly selling via Amazon, too. This allowed his price point to be set so crazy low; have a very fast publishing turn-around time (less than 24 hours after he’d completed a book, it could be sold); he could skip all the traditional publishing steps; and it allowed him to interact with his fans directly.
I’ve only been following Mr. Howey’s success for a short time, but he is very active on his blog. He posts videos of his book launches. He engages directly with his readers, so they feel like they are part of the process. In fact, he credits readers with the reason there is more than one book at all. That’s pretty clever; now the reader is part of the process, he has partial ownership of the result. (Of course, this could have horribly backfired if the result was really poor, but as long as it was modestly good, Howey was golden here. And it is, so he is.)
This Wasn’t His First Rodeo
Howey had been through the publishing and self-publishing ranks before, so he knew what to expect. I think this made him more prepared when “Wool” started blowing up, because he’d been selling books online for awhile. This is also good for him now, because readers who liked “Wool” but had to wait for another section of the story could buy and read something else he had written in the meantime.
Howey is a NaNoWriMo competitor, and that practice helped: all of his stories are penned very quickly, in marathon writing sessions. I think that agility is part of his success, and he couldn’t have attained that if he hadn’t been practiced in it already.
He’s Got a Nice Wife
The Wall Street Journal article up there notes that Howey’s wife is a psychologist. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume she makes decent, if not great, money, enough they can live on her income alone; for awhile, Howey was unemployed. When he did take a job, it was a 30-hour-a-week gig at a bookstore that allowed him more time to write. His wife is a nice lady; she tolerated and encouraged his writing addiction. Without the flexibility his wife (and her income) provided, I guarantee Howey could not have published his books and therefore been a success. She deserves some of the credit.
He Got Lucky
Honestly, luck and timing can’t be discounted. Howey started publishing “Wool” after “The Hunger Games” was a huge success and had whetted readers’ appetites for dystopias (some of us like dystopias all the time, but I realize I’m the minority here). Dystopias are a pretty small niche, too, so it was probably easier for randomly searching readers to find it (compared to, say, romance, which is a flooded genre). He was able to publish via Amazon, a format that is still evolving but flat-out didn’t exist even 5 years ago. He couldn’t have done it without the platform; I highly doubt his book would have been published at all, much less as a huge success, if he had had to go through the traditional publishing gauntlet.
Not everything on this list is replicable; I wouldn’t suggest trying to imitate Howey in hopes of seeing the same success. But it is helpful to keep an eye on the high-fliers as we develop our own paths.