Hugh Howey's Unlikely Path to Print

Author Hugh Howey got a writer's dream: multiple publishers offering him million-dollar deals to publish his work. Then he did something most authors wouldn't even consider -- he turned them all down. Howey's serialized novel Wool was a huge hit on the Amazon Kindle store, so Howey held out for something rare these days: a print-only deal that allows him to continue selling his book online on his own. Howey joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Watch a web-exclusive conversation with Howey.

Howey's Wool takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, where humans live in an underground silo. Society has become stratified, literally--blue-collar workers live in the depths of the earth, creating the tools and energy needed to keep the silo running, while the wealthy live in comfort near the surface. On the top level is a huge video screen, with the only view of the outside world, a toxic wasteland that keeps all trapped inside the silo. Read an excerpt from the book here.

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What were your inspirations for the book--I read cable news was part of it?

You draw from so many sources. The original story was a 40-page novelette, and that was inspired by getting all your information from one screen, and what does that do to your perception of the world outside your own bubble? It was the local news that just shows car wrecks and robberies all the time. You assume bad things are happening to everyone all the time. 

The later stories got really into the layout of the silo itself, and I pulled from my yachting experiences. The owners are laying on beach towels up top, and then it’s the guests, the crew, and the engine room. The higher up you were, the better off you were. There was intense stratification.

Why do you think this genre, dystopian fiction, is so popular right now?

I don't know if it's the state of the world, but these things come in cycles. It’s been popular in every generation--"Brave New World," "Clockwork Orange," "V for Vendetta." If you charted it out, it’s a pretty solid run for the past 80 years. Right now, things are just magnified--everything is making more money than it used to. Comics have always been popular, but look at The Avengers. It made a billion dollars.

The Wall Street Journal said you are a “slick marketer”--sending free copies of books to bloggers, engaging with your audience personally--but you chalk up your success to a lot of luck. Do you think of yourself as a slick marketer?

I encourage fan fiction and for people to charge money for it. That’s taboo for a lot of authors. I want readers to be a part of the collaborative process. I don’t feel like a slick marketer. I think they summed it up best when they called me a goofball. I get really excited about opening up the first copy of proof as when they come in and introducing my dog to readers.

Some authors are opposed to any kind of fan fiction, let alone letting fans profit from it. Why are you so open?

It seemed natural to me. Someone approached me and said they wanted to write in my world. That’s fantastic. I told the first person to put it up and charge money for it. The hesitation is always from the fan fiction writer, "Are you sure?" But that’s always been my philosophy.

Any pushback from your publisher?

The contracts I have don’t give them the power over material they usually would have. They can only release a print version, they don’t own the material. I’m flattered, and they can only improve the world.

It was interesting to read about the way you released your books, serially, because there’s been a lot of buzz lately about Netflix’s House of Cards, which released a whole season of TV at once. People have been debating whether it’s better to binge all at once, or even when to discuss spoilers from later episodes. But that’s how books have always been released--all at once--and what you’ve done is more like conventional TV episodes.

It’s kind of a call back to more classics--Dickens serialized his works and would combine them into a novel at the end. I initially had no plans to write more after the first story, but fans had a demand for more. "Ender’s Game" started as a short story, which was my favorite growing up. The challenge was, once you published it, you’re stuck. You needed it all planned out--when you got to book five, the foreshadowing in book two really had to pay off. There was no way to make revisions. 

Since you released your book in chunks, you got something most authors don’t--feedback from your fans while you’re still writing the book. Did anything you hear, say, after part two influence later sections?

It’s not about giving readers what they want, but seeing their expectations, and adjusting the book to maybe disappoint them. The first two books were told from a first person perspective and the characters died at the end of each book. So when book three came out, I heard, don’t you dare kill [main character] Juliette. Seeing what made them emotional clued me in to what was working and what wasn’t. 

And having five as many books gets five as many slots on the Kindle bestseller list?

That’s why the book got so many eyeballs. The five books had all five slots in some categories in Amazon. You didn’t see one book, you saw five. It really increased the visibility.

Do you see your physical book reaching an audience who wouldn’t otherwise buy it, or as a collector’s edition for die-hard fans?

I will get some new readers. But others just want a print edition. If we offered ebooks for less, we could sell the ebook to the reader for cheap, and next time they see the physical version, they’ll want a memento of it, or as a gift for a friend. The want something signed or to put it on a shelf. We still love books. And it's exciting to love something that’s underground and then see it in Target. 

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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