Interview with successful self-published author, Hugh Howey
This month, WF is excited to bring you an in-depth interview with author, Hugh Howey. Prior to his self-publishing success with WOOL, Hugh was at times a computer repairman, a yacht captain, and a bookstore clerk. He now lives in Jupiter, Florida with his wife Amber and dog Bella. He has been kind enough to answer our questions and as a special treat, has invited WF into his home for a tour. Special thanks to Tavern Members Kyle R, Gavrushka, Terry D, Pluralized, and Morkonan for their interview questions. Enjoy!
How has becoming a full-time writer changed your feelings about writing?
That’s a great question. There’s always the danger that the passion for artistic expression will diminish when it becomes a job. Writing used to be the thing I couldn’t wait to get to when I got off work. I’d get up in the wee hours to write before heading to work; I’d write on my lunch breaks; it was all I could think about getting to. Now it’s what I need to do when I wake up every morning.
For me, the key to maintaining that passion has been to write the stories I care about, not the stories that I think will sell. That’s why I started writing in the first place, just for the joy of it, and to plug some gap that I saw in the marketplace as an avid reader. So even as I quit my day job, I wrote sequels that took huge risks, and I wrote in a wide variety of genres. Anything I could do to keep from writing the same story over and over. That would be the quickest way for me to lose interest.
Another way my feelings have changed is by seeing what’s possible. I think anyone who dedicates themselves can build a viable career as a novelist. It takes a lot of time and hard work, a dedication to craft, a lot of reading, quite a bit of failure and laboring in obscurity, but those who persevere can slowly build up a career or a nice side job while doing what they love.
Kyle R. asks: What would you say is your biggest obstacle in life? How do you deal with it?
My biggest obstacle in life is being happy. Which probably sounds strange for anyone who knows me. I wrestle with depression, but I’ve been winning that fight for so long that I don’t think anyone even notices me struggling anymore. But it requires a daily application of willpower. It’s a constant struggle. I’ve been working on writing something about this, not just because there’s a chance that what I’ve learned might help others, but because it would help me even more to clearly lay out what has become guiding life philosophies.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? What inspired you?
I tried writing my first novel when I was twelve or thirteen. It was a rip-off of Douglas Adams’s HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. I read that book and ENDER’S GAME in quick succession, and I didn’t want to leave these worlds. I wanted the books to go on and on. The only way to do that was to daydream more to the stories. And then I branched off and started coming up with my own worlds, and that’s when I started pecking them into my dad’s computer and printing them off.
I never got more than six or seven chapters in to any of these books. It took twenty years for me to write a full novel. For the longest time, I just assumed I was incapable of writing a book, which was the only thing stopping me. Once I learned I could do it, the books just started spilling out and piling up.
There is an ongoing discussion on WritingForums regarding the best approach to learning to write. What do you think is the best way for an aspiring writer to reach his/her full potential?
Read a lot and read widely. Don’t stick to a single genre or even to fiction. And then start by writing short stories. Aim for two complete short stories a month and do this for a year. It’s how you limber up. You don’t learn to play basketball by running up and down the court for an hour, and you don’t learn to play the guitar by writing a ten-song album. Trying to write a novel without first developing the habit of daily writing is just an insane way to go about it. And the end product will disappoint and dispirit you. It’s much better to get in the habit of completing projects and getting positive feedback and building up from there. Also: short fiction is now more viable than ever. There’s a real market for it in the digital age and with lifestyles getting so busy.
Gavrushka asks: How would you describe the moment when you received your first acceptance letter? And how did it change you?
It was terrifying, to be honest. I spent a few weeks querying my first novel, and I heard back from two small presses who wanted partial reads and then full reads. Both made offers. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I hold out for a bigger publisher? Should I sign my art over to someone else for a small advance and what seemed at the time like very low royalties (turned out they were the industry standard).
It was a lot to deal with. Even as I signed a contract for my first book, and celebrated with a dinner out with my family, part of me felt queasy. Like the expectations had just gone up, and I could no longer send drafts to friends and family and hear how impressed they were. Now I’d have my story go out to strangers and hear how much I sucked. So it was one of the best days of my life and one of the most nauseating.
Gavrushka asks: As a writer, what would you say was your biggest weakness? And as a person?
My biggest weakness as a writer is physical descriptions. I’m not sure if I avoid them because I’m bad at them or because I don’t like them. But I think if I was better at them, I’d find a way to make myself like them. I rarely comment on what characters look like, leaving that up to the reader. And I think this becomes a detriment when you take it to the extreme.
As a person, my biggest weakness is life balance. I work too many hours. I say “yes” to every opportunity. In the last three years, I’ve been away from home more than I’ve been home. I’ve been on hundreds of flights to over a dozen countries and over a hundred cities and talked to thousands and thousands of people. And when I’m home, I work from the break of dawn to late at night.
I finally started remedying these habits this year. I physically couldn’t endure it anymore. So I’m trying to get better. Part of the thing my wife and I concentrate on is how all weaknesses result in other strengths. There is almost always something good that results from our failings. The key is being aware of these so we don’t judge ourselves and others too harshly, but also to work on the negative side without losing the positive side.
Describe your writing process.
I start with an idea, usually an observation about human nature or the human condition (like our response to immigration reform). And then I think of a world where I can highlight this observation. I think of the people who live in this world. This daydreaming hatches a plot, which I make notes of.
When I start writing, I begin with a blank document, the general plan for the entire novel, and I tackle one scene at a time. I write in the mornings until about noon. I aim for a couple thousand words a day. It takes me two months to write a polished draft and another month to get through the editing process.
What is your ideal writing atmosphere?
Lying in bed with my laptop and a sleeping dog. The absence of light and sound helps.
You described honing your craft with a local group of aspiring writers that sounds very similar to our WritingForums community. How important was that experience to you? Why?
The most important part of belonging to a writing group was that it made me feel like a professional writer. Our mental conceptualization of ourselves is crucial. This is why it matters how you dress and how you groom yourself. I learned this in high school, when I used to dress up for game day. The soccer team wore ties on days when we played at home. I took myself more seriously with a tie on, and so I sat up straighter in class, paid more attention, felt more studious.
I latched onto this idea and started carrying a briefcase to work instead of a backpack. I started wearing ties on most days. Being a student became my profession, rather than my profession being “cool” or socializing or chasing after dates. When I started going to regular writing group meetings, it helped me feel like a writer for the rest of the week. I had a social obligation to take my writing more seriously.
What is the most important advice you have for aspiring writers?
This is stolen from Caroline Todd, who inspired me to finish my first novel: Stop thinking about being a writer, stop dreaming of being a writer, stop talking about becoming a writer, and write.
To read more of Hugh’s advice read his post: My Advice to Aspiring Authors
Kyle R. asks: What are you most conscious of while writing?
How much my prose sucks. Every new draft comes on the heels of final edits with my last work, and the finished product is light years better than my rough draft. So I go from looking at this brilliant work that is the result of ten or more passes, revisions, and edits, and I look at my rough material, and all I see is that I can’t write. I have to remind myself that it’ll get better, just like how the last book got better, and the book before that.
Kyle R. asks: How would you describe the perfect story?
The perfect story is one that feels like it was written solely for the individual reading it. I’ve read a handful of these in my life, the books that you get at just the right time and hit you especially hard, and you feel like the author must know you intimately in order to touch your soul so perfectly and deeply. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN was one of these books for me. I read it not long after losing a dog that was like a child to me. That book destroyed me and put me back together again in a way that made me stronger.
Did you already know about the Simon & Schuster deal when you turned down another seven figure offer for both print and e-book rights?
No, the seven-figure offers came before the S&S print-only deal. I said “no” to those offers not knowing I’d ever get another deal or a better offer. There are several things that made it possible to say “no” to those offers. A savvy agent and a supportive spouse went a long way, but so too did living well within my means my whole life. This is something we don’t talk about enough as artists, but living a simple life is key to building a career doing something you love. Not only does it free up your time to do art instead of chasing money, it’s just easier to be creative while owning less. I truly believe that.
My wife and I lived in a 750 square foot house that I paid $112,000 for. We lived in that house for five years while I worked in a bookstore and wrote in my every spare hour. If we had lived beyond our means, I would have needed to work more hours or get a second job (or a job that demanded more of my time at home). Being in debt would have caused me to take the first bad deal anyone offered me. Forgoing immediate self-gratification and saving money is one of the hardest things to do. We ate soup. We didn’t eat out. We went on hikes for our entertainment. Doing this year after year while friends and family are having a blast and going into debt is incredibly difficult.
I’ve since made an incredible amount of money, but I don’t want to lose whatever it is about living a simple life that makes me happy. So when my wife took a job in Florida, we moved into a 900 square foot house that I paid $115,000 for. The fewer things I own, the more I feel like I own myself and my time. And everyone I know who has tried living like this has sworn by it.
Prior to WOOL being successful, did you try to get any of your work traditionally published? What was your experience?
Yeah, my first book was published with a small press. It was a traditional book deal with a small advance and typical royalties and terms. I quickly saw how much of the sales and promotion would still fall to me, and I decided that I could do the handful of things the publisher offered by hiring an editor and hiring out cover art. I liken this realization to working as a chef in someone’s restaurant, realizing that you’re the one making the sauce that people rave about, and deciding to open up your own restaurant. Is it more work? Yeah. But the job satisfaction and the ultimate creative freedom more than make up for it. And the pay is better.
Morkonon asks: With what used to be “The Big Three” now overshadowed by “The One”, with writers torn between the arduous submission processes of traditional publishing and the “just click” of on-demand e-media, with traditional publishers doing battle with a new e-giant in their midst, where do you think it will all end? Will the solution be a resolution or is there even a conflict that must be resolved?
I think the landscape will change even further going forward. There are five “major” publishers right now. I think we’ll see this dwindle down to three, just as it has in the music industry. With fewer places to submit to, a process that is far too lengthy, and the unwillingness to stick with midlist authors, more and more writers are going to try self-publishing. And they’re going to realize that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
What will keep publishers alive for a while is the number of people who want the perceived gravitas that comes with a major publishing house. But this will lessen over time. Gravitas doesn’t pay the bills. Writers chat with one another, and a common story these days is of having tried self-publishing and quickly out-earning what traditional publishing used to pay. Couple this with greater creative freedom, a direct connection with your audience, and the ease with which it can be done, and I don’t see a bright future for fiction with traditional publishers. Non-fiction might be a different case, but that remains to be seen. It could be that university presses take over that segment.
Pluralized asks: Your success with KDP is an inspiration to many aspiring writers. What recommendations can you make to a writer just starting out as a KDP novelist who wants to ensure wide distribution of their work?
Publish stories you believe in. Repeat as often as possible.
You need a healthy mix of impatience and patience. The patience is needed to make sure every work is a great as it can be. Do that extra revision. Do another pass, looking for any rough edges you can smooth. Trade editing work with another writer, study grammar to minimize mistakes, hire an editor if you can. Make it perfect.
But you need to be impatient when it comes to building up a list of published works. Write two novels a year and a few short stories on top of that. Set lofty goals and drive yourself to exceed them. Those who are having success with publishing (any kind of publishing, self or traditional) are those who work harder than most of their peers. So work harder than you think you ought to.
Pluralized asks: Self-publishing a novel on KDP is daunting because it immediately gets lost in a sea of other works. How can you make your own work stand out and get the attention of readers?
A single work stands almost no chance of standing out. You really need to build up a body of works. Having this long term view also helps sustain your effort while initial works aren’t selling. Don’t stress about that. Just keep writing. I told myself I would write two novels a year for ten years before I judged whether or not I could make a living at this. That’s the sort of view you need to have. It insulates you from your own self-doubts.
Part of the long view means branding your works from the beginning. Put your name on your cover in bold, blocky font. Publish your first work while thinking about your 20th, and that you’ll be a bestseller someday. Make sure your name looks similar across all works.
Good cover art and a nice blurb will separate you from 90% of what’s out there. You aren’t competing with all books published; you are competing with all the books that are published well. That’s your goal, so it’s what you’ll compete against. That pool of books might be smaller than you think, especially when you look at the genre you’re writing in.
What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing compared traditional publishing?
The main advantages with self-publishing are the speed to market and the nearly six times the earnings per sale. The main advantage of traditional publishing is the possibility of getting bookstore placement. But this advantage is diminished when you consider the fact that 99% of books are shelved spine-out and sit there for three to six months before being returned and going out of print. Self-published print books are online forever. And over half of physical books are now purchased online. I do far better with my self-published paperbacks than I do with the print deals I have with major publishers.
Honestly, having published every which way possible (save for a vanity press, which I’ll just assume is as horrible as most people claim it is) I can’t see much advantage with traditional publishing. I use the same editorial process, have greater creative input with my cover artists, get to audition my own voice actors for the audiobooks, and can track my sales in real time while being paid monthly. I write what I want when I want. I go directly to my readers. There’s nothing not to like.
What inspired you to write the WOOL series?
The 24-hour news cycle. When I got off boats and settled down, my view of the world shifted from the actual world to a small screen that showed slices of that world. It was like moving into Plato’s Cave. I wondered what this was doing to our brains, seeing bad news all day? Can people live like this? So I constructed a model of that world, with people cut off from one another and their view of the outside world one they can’t trust. The heroes in this world are those brave enough to go out and see the world for themselves, even if that means dying.
When you wrote the first WOOL novella, did you already have the rest of the story in mind?
No. That was the entire story. The rest was written after hearing from readers who wanted more. So I took the themes from the first story and expanded them, really retelling them in a broader scope.
How far ahead in the writing of subsequent parts of WOOL did you get before publishing them on Amazon? Did you find you were locked in to plot and character decisions that you may have changed otherwise?
I wasn’t. As soon as I finished one part, I published it. I started part 2 on November 1st of 2011 as part of National Novel Writing Month. By the end of November, parts 2 and 3 were both published, and I’d written part 4. This locked me in, but in a way that freed me up to push forward rather than second guess myself and get paralyzed with revisions. In a way, I was liberated by the process.
TerryD asks: Did you find any advantages in segmenting your release of WOOL as opposed to releasing the entire novel as a completed work?
Sure. I got immediate feedback, which motivated me to carry on and to work hard on the project to make sure it met with expectations of quality. It also heightened the visibility of the works. Shoppers saw five books with the title WOOL and probably wondered what in the world this was all about. A single book would have blended in with the rest. These were accidental bonuses that I recognized after the works took off, and I was wondering why in the world the series was doing so well. (Anything not to have to credit the actual writing.)
We understand the importance of wool in the story but how did you go about choosing that as the title?
It comes from the saying “to have the wool pulled over your eyes.” It’s all about deceit.
We’ve read that when you were initially meeting with New York publishers, one of the things that was mentioned was changing the name of WOOL. Aside from the important fact that at that point in time WOOL was a brand, how did you feel about it?
My agent and I both laughed. It was insane. The work had already sold over 50,000 copies and had hit the NYT list. I’ve seen a lot of bad ideas from publishers, but this was one of the weirdest. They wanted the title to sound just like everything else, so that no one would notice it. There’s so much risk in publishing that people play it as safe as possible. It reminds me of NFL coaches. Statistics prove that they’d win more games if they went for it on 4th-and-short. But coaches play not to lose rather than playing to win. Publishers do the same thing.
What is your favorite work that you’ve written? Why?
Either PEACE IN AMBER or THE WALK UP NAMELESS RIDGE. Both are intensely personal and auto-biographical. They’re also both short stories. Of my novels, I’d say I, ZOMBIE is my favorite, again because it’s so personal. These were also the hardest works I ever tackled.
What is your favorite work by another author? Why?
GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathan Swift. It’s a perfect blend of entertaining and enlightening. It works on the satirical level to highlight failings of the human condition, but kids can read and delight in the whimsy and slapstick. It’s the Pixar of books.
Pluralized asks: What’s next for you?
THE SHELL COLLECTOR hits in less than two weeks. Then I’m writing a sequel to SAND. After that, it could be any one of a half dozen story ideas. There isn’t enough time to write them all.
Tell us about your latest book.
THE SHELL COLLECTOR is about a world where sea life has been decimated. Shells are so rare and lusted after that prized specimens sell for ungodly sums. It’s the latest Dutch Tulip Craze. The story is about Maya Walsh, a reporter for the Times. She’s working on a series of pieces about the foremost shell collector in the world, Ness Wilde. Ness is a fourth-generation oil tycoon, and she blames him and his family for wrecking the world that he now profits off of. Now she wants to bring him down.
When and where will it be available?
December 14th. It’ll be on iBooks, Amazon, Kobo, and the Nook store. Paperbacks will be available on Amazon (M.S. Corley did the cover, and the book is absolutely gorgeous). The audiobook will hit in January.
Is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t asked?
Nope. Just keep writing! Despite what some people say, there can never be too many books in the world. There’s a reader out there looking for the next great thing. Give it to them.
To learn more about Hugh and his writing, visit www.HughHowey.com