Author Q&A: Hugh Howey
Best-selling author Hugh Howey is known not just for his literary works like the Wool and Silo series, but also for his advocacy for self-published authors.
(Oh, and he also starred in another sci-fi writer’s novel, Hugh Howey Lives — check out our interview with writer Daniel Arthur Smith.)
Howey recently spoke with Fussy founder Jeffrey about a wide range of publishing topics — and, since he’s a sci-fi author, his predictions for the future of literature, of course.
JEFFREY: Five years ago, you spelled out a game plan for aspiring authors: 1. Write every day. 2. Invest in professional editing and cover design. 3. Self-publish. 4. Repeat.
Even for authors who follow all four steps, many struggle with the fifth step: Be patient. They expect magic to happen after book one, and that almost never happens.
HUGH: It is exceedingly rare for success to come quickly or easily.
The problem artists have is that we only know our own struggles. Every other work of art appears out of nowhere, and successful careers seem to start with everyone else’s first go.
But that’s never how it works. Everyone has to struggle and be patient.
I think it’s important for successful artists to share all that they’ve endured so our expectations match reality.
A few tricks really helped me: I planned from the outset to languish in obscurity for ten years before I assessed my progress. This gave me patience.
I made sure that I enjoyed what I was writing, that I loved the process. This gave me an appreciative audience.
Finally, I told myself that everything I published would be available for thousands of years, so success and appreciation didn’t have to occur in my lifetime. That gave me hope.
JEFFREY: In fact, there’s a big benefit to having a backlist of five or ten books before writing the one that takes off — those readers go back to buy everything else you’ve written.
HUGH: Exactly. I’ve talked about this a lot to fellow writers. One of the worst things that can happen to you is for your first book to be a runaway success.
You’ll spend the rest of your career either not writing for fear of a sophomore slump, or you’ll get sequelitis and write on a treadmill forever, or you’ll be so consumed with fan obligations that you lose time for writing (or forget what inspired you to write in the first place).
The best writing you’ll ever do is the writing for yourself, with no one watching, and no one waiting. Don’t waste that time, and don’t fail to appreciate it. Lean into it.
JEFFREY: Would authors be better off not worrying about print-only contracts and foreign rights until they can quit their day job and live off of their ebook royalties?
HUGH: My advice would be to not worry about print and foreign sales at all until you have some domestic ebook traction.
Print editions are great to have from day one, because there are readers who want signed copies, and authors should do community signings where it’s feasible, and because it fills out an Amazon product page.
But until ebook sales are bringing in enough money to pay some of the bills, the primary focus should be on writing.
I wouldn’t sell the rights to a work until you have serious leverage, and that won’t come for a while.
JEFFREY: I can’t think of one, but is there any scenario now where it makes sense for an author to sell the domestic ebook rights to their books?
HUGH: Every career is different.
There are some genres where print sales are much greater than ebook sales (children’s books, middle grade), and so ebook rights are more of an add-on than a primary income generator. For those authors, getting a traditional publishing deal is the way to go.
There are also authors who can write a lot of books in quick order. For these authors, doing a few traditional publishing deals is a great idea.
You won’t make as much money in the short term, but you’ll expand your exposure and get more sales across your entire list. Some manuscripts can be thought of as loss-leaders.
There are also times when the advance is so lucrative that it makes sense to say yes to any deal, as long as the contract doesn’t preclude your ability to keep writing and publishing.
I’ve had quite a few friends and acquaintances take deals like this. I’d say half of them end up not regretting it. Just make sure the advance is enough money that you don’t care if the book fails.
The biggest disappointment I see from hybrid writers is that they go into a partnership thinking a major publisher knows more than they do about selling books. Spoiler alert: They don’t.
JEFFREY: Most of your ebooks are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. How did you make that decision and what factors should authors consider?
HUGH: I experimented. I tried Kindle Unlimited. Then I pulled out and went wide for a year.
Then I went back to Kindle Unlimited. I get more readers being in KU than being on all retail outlets.
If someone asked me if I’d rather have ten million readers east of the Mississippi, or one million readers spread evenly across the country, I’d ask why geography has anything to do with it.
Amazon ebooks are available to every reader on pretty much any device that has a screen. So it’s not like my books aren’t available everywhere.
It’s similar to doing a deal with a publisher. Your book might “only” be available from Random House, but it’s sold in almost every bookstore.
My books are available in every home, anywhere that there’s a whiff of cellular or WiFi.
If someone makes a personal decision not to shop with Amazon, then I lose that reader. But in my experience, I’ll have gained nine more.
JEFFREY: One of the challenges in self-publishing that you identified was a lack of good data, so you and Data Guy created the website Author Earnings a few years ago. What are the findings that surprised you the most? And if you should share one piece of data with every author, what would it be?
HUGH: The most surprising piece of data to me was how small the overall pie the Big 5 publishers have.
All the media coverage of the book business focuses on what these five companies report, but they pay out less than half of what authors make.
So for authors (or anyone who cares about authors) to listen to coverage about the publishing industry, they are listening to a minority of that industry. Not only are they not listening to news about the totality of the industry, it’s not even a majority of it.
The piece of data that I would share with authors is that 70% is a lot more than 12.5%.
When we look at book prices, and total sales by publishing house, and earnings by retailers, all of that noise hides the fact that traditionally published authors take home a sliver of the sales. Self-published authors take home the lion’s share.
That is why the Big 5 can seem to rule the roost when it comes to earnings, but be insignificant when it comes to author pay. And I care far more about authors than I do publishers.
JEFFREY: Finally, I know you have given some thought to the issue of artificial intelligence, which stands to impact our lives as much (or more) than computers and the Internet during the second half of the last century. Do you expect to see an AI-written bestseller during your lifetime?
HUGH: Not during my lifetime, no. But it won’t be long after.
Unlike many who write in my genre, I tend to be very conservative in my guesses about the future. Change comes more slowly than we like to hope it might.
I’d say in a hundred years, we’ll have our first bestseller that is completely written by a computer.
In fifty years, we’ll have something that’s readable and enjoyable, and maybe it hits some bestseller lists because of the news coverage and notoriety.
But on merits alone, I think it’ll take twice that long.
We laugh at how AI writes now, but that’s as mature as laughing at a baby for how it babbles. Computers are learning how to speak. They are learning how we speak.
Soon, we will craft stories with their help, guiding them along the way we correct the speech of toddlers. Soon after that, they won’t need our guidance anymore.
Eventually, long after I’m dead, computers will generate stories for readers on the fly. No two books will be alike.
And they’ll be catered to how engrossed you were on previous stories, what parts worked, what parts didn’t.
This is not a future I find endearing. But I think it’s inevitable.
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Learn more about Hugh Howey on his website, where his books can also be purchased, and follow him on Twitter.
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