Surfing the digital boom
Bestselling author Hugh Howey.

From working in a bookshop, head brimming over with ideas, American author Hugh Howey has made a dramatic leap on to the New York Times bestseller list, the top of Amazon sales lists, and the brink of a blockbuster movie.

All in the space of less than one year.

“It’s been fascinating for me,” Howey says — a remarkable understatement.

“It’s been weird to watch this take place. It’s not like having a dream that you want to come true, it’s like watching something you had on the side completely take off. This dream you have comes and takes you.”

Howey always loved stories and claims to have spent a huge part of his life in bookshops — prowling the shelves and working, but along the way he had given up on the idea of writing for a living.

Then digital books and the huge leaps in publishing — basically, the ability to print books to order — changed everything.

“What I always wanted was to get my stories out there and have them available,” Howey explains.

“That was impossible before print-on-demand and ebooks. If you were self-published you had to make them enormously expensive. My books are still $10 for a paperback, which is what a paperback should cost.”

His first book was picked up by one of the army of small publishers in the US, but after watching the process, Howey realised they were using tools that were available to everyone. For his second book he decided to go it alone. Using Amazon’s Create Space, with the editing and cover art done independently, he was suddenly a published writer with an audience.

“Whether you publish traditionally or self-publish it requires a lot of work,” he says. “It’s more a lesson in what’s possible rather than what’s probable.

“But if you want to be a writer and have it available for readers, you can. You don’t have to wait for somebody to tell you that you can.”

It helped that his stories were very, very good. Howey has written across genres; zombie, horror, science fiction, young adult, with plans for some romance and mystery on the horizon.

“The good thing about being a self-published writer is that I can write whatever I want, I read it all and I want to write it all, I want to explore everything.”

But it was Wool — a collection of five linked novellas — that really saw him hit the big time.

Before he realised it, Howey found himself at book conventions sitting alongside sci-fi legends such as The Passage and The Twelve author Justin Cronin, and Ridley Scott had optioned the film rights.

“I didn’t market Wool at all, it just got big through word of mouth. I discovered that the best marketing was that you just write more,” Howey said.

“If you believe in your story, putting your work up on your website, making it available for everyone will lead to more success. It’s counter-intuitive and publishers won’t do it. But once you do that, the success of the physical book will come.”

Howey has recently signed with Random House for Australia and the UK but is still negotiating over the US rights. Talks are progressing but Howey said it was still hard for publishers to come to terms with all his publishing ideals.

“We have got closer and closer, and every time they come back they are being more adventurous with their conditions, but I don’t want to sign over my digital rights and I don’t want to commit to anything that will make my stories less available.”

Wool is permanently free as a digital book in the US, and with his other books, and in other markets, Howey wants the prices kept as low as possible.

“It is hard for publishers to get used to the idea of putting things out for free but more and more publishers are figuring it out, they are certainly coming around quicker than the other industries — music, film, photography — that went through this process before them.”

Wool is published by Random House ($29.95).

The West Australian

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