Shattered Worlds

Shattered Worlds

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This is the new world. The world where the people have the power. This is the world that – along with million-dollar-deals, Ridley Scott–optioned movie rights and a dedicated cult following – brought about a whole new vision for the publishing industry. This is the world that Hugh Howey built.

by Alicia Lutz ’98

Photography by Jason Myers

Illustrations by Justin Fields

This is the order, the way things are done. It’s strong. It works. It always has. This is what’s keeping it all together. There’s no reason to question it, no reason for change. Besides, what could possibly be done differently? Look around. There is no other view to be seen. There is nowhere else to go, no other path to take. There is no such thing as a “better” way – there is no other way. There’s no space for imagination to wander, no capacity for envisioning a different route. Veer off on your own, and it’s over. You can’t make it out there all by yourself.

Those who try? They never make it far.

This is the backdrop to Hugh Howey’s story. It’s a world that he knew all along was ripe for revolution. It couldn’t keep on like this. It was only a matter of time before someone came along and set things in motion. And he had just the right character to make it happen.

Bestseller

Hugh Howey wasn’t thinking about the world of publishing – or changing it, for that matter – when he sat down to tell the post-apocalyptic story of a totalitarian society living in an underground silo. He wasn’t trying to sell 500,000 e-books, rake in a million dollars, be a New York Times bestseller or be the Kindle Book Review’s Best Indie Book of 2012. Movie rights and comic adaptations were the furthest things from his mind.

He was just sitting at his MacBook Air – sometimes in the early morning in his 8-by-8 home office in Boone, N.C., sometimes during his lunch breaks in the storage room of Appalachian State University’s bookstore, where he worked in the trade books section – doing what he loves to do: write.

He was writing because he wanted to. That’s the only reason to do it. As he learned with the other nine novels and novellas he’d self-published before, the reward is the writing itself. And so, in July 2011, when Howey published the 99-cent e-book that would turn out to be the first part of a series of science fiction novellas called Wool, his expectations were low.

He published the 40-page story using Kindle Direct Publishing and moved on.

It was, he knew, a good premise: this idea that a whole civilization could survive among the 144 levels of an underground silo for generations and generations after the Earth’s surface had become uninhabitable – and all the measures that would have to be taken to ensure that rules were followed, that order was kept. Curiosity must be quelled, talk must be quieted, conjecture must be punished. In Howey’s silo, the various levels of society (the governing and law enforcement bodies, teachers, shopkeepers and IT workers on the top 48 floors; the farmers and supply workers in the middle; the blue-collar mechanics on the bottom 48 floors) are effectively cut off from one another, connected only by a worn spiral staircase and the porters zipping up and down it.

“The setting is kind of unusual in that it’s not a wasteland; the people are kind of locked in a bottle and trying to get along with each other,” says Howey, who grew up climbing on top of and inside of the two silos on his dad’s farm in Monroe, N.C., and playing on the spiral staircase at his family’s beach house in Figure Eight Beach, N.C. “I have a very romantic attachment to that staircase, and I’m sure that played a huge part in giving the stairs such a central role in the middle of the silo.”

But the idea for this world within the silo, where people are isolated not just from one another, but also from the world outside – their only view of which is through a single screen –
was born out of Howey’s concerns about a society that gets all of its news, all of its facts, through some sort of monitor.

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“I had always traveled a lot and so being suddenly domesticated by my wife and being in one place and then seeing the world through news outlets rather than by being out there on my own feet: That made me realize that when you’re out in the world, you see the good and the bad (and most of it is good), but when you get all your views of the world through the media, you get a skewed vision of what’s going on out there,” says Howey. “It made me worry: What does this do to our concept of the world? And, when you’re in a setting that filters what you think you know, who do you trust?

How do you know, in other words, that the wool isn’t being pulled over your eyes?

This notion had the foundations – and the setting – for further exploration. So, when more than 1,000 copies of his short story sold within the first three months, Howey made a shrewd move: He tabled his other writing project and revisited the world within the silo. Between October and December 2011, he wrote four more e-book installments. The second, “Proper Gauge,” sold 3,000 copies in a month; and the third and fourth, “Casting Off” and “Unraveling,” sold more than 10,000 copies in a month.

The rapid release of the series helped build buzz – and Howey’s knack for writing a tantalizing cliffhanger built readers’ anticipation with each new 99-cent installment. But it was readers’ word of mouth that really gave Wool the momentum it had when 23,000 copies of the five-book omnibus edition sold within a month of its January 2012 release.

“It was absolutely crazy,” says Howey. “I wasn’t doing anything to promote it, but it was just taking off.”

With over 5,260 reviews and an average rating of 4.8 out of five stars on Amazon, Wool became Amazon’s most favorably reviewed book of 2012, as well as one of its bestsellers in several categories, even bumping Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin to No. 6 on the top sci-fi list. Beyond Amazon, Wool was a two-week New York Times e-fiction bestseller, a USA Today bestseller and recipient of the Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Best Indie Book Award in the sci-fi/fantasy category.

Within a few months, Howey was selling 20,000–30,000 digital copies of Wool – and raking in a $150,000 salary – each month.

“At that point, I decided, Well, it’s time to quit, and just concentrate on my writing. If I have to get another job, I can,” recalls Howey, whose entry-level position at the university bookstore had paid him less in over a week than what he was making in a day from the Wool sales. “I’d never thought it’d be possible to quit working my day job and be a professional writer, but it had always been a dream. That was a huge moment.”

He’d made it. He was making money – and a name for himself – in the dog-eat-dog world of publishing, and he’d done it all on his own: from writing, editing (with help from mom and 6–8 beta readers, usually unpaid fans, per work) and publishing his books, to interacting with his fans, to managing the demands from Entertainment Weekly, Forbes and Wired and the constant courtship from the likes of AMC, Showtime, HBO, BBC and the SyFy Channel. He seemed to be doing just fine out there on his own.

This would have been the perfect time to let the agencies and publishers swoop in and take things from here. That would have been easy – it would have been the norm.

But then there wouldn’t be a story. Then nothing would have changed. Then he’d be just another self-published author who caught the attention of the big guys – just another guy willing to give it all away for the right deal, the right amount.

That’s not the kind of guy Hugh Howey is. It’s just not what he’s about. Which makes him perfect for the role that makes this story his.

New Release

Hugh Howey has always gone his own way. He’s always done what suited him. As a kid, he was somewhat of a loner, an introvert. Not that he was antisocial or disruptive – not at all. He was a good student, a good athlete and a good classmate. He had one close friend, but got along with everyone. Still, he always preferred the company of the book sticking out of his back pocket.

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In high school, he managed to stay above the fray – remaining completely unaware of the peer pressure that plagued his classmates. He grew his hair long, played soccer, rode a skateboard and listened to his parents’ rock ‘n’ roll.

“I thought of myself as a romantic, reading and writing poetry all the time, which often led to interest from girls who would grow frustrated by my lack of moves and run off with my best friend,” Howey sighs. “It worked out great for him.”

He married young and was divorced by the age of 20. It was 1995, and he left his job as a computer repairman in Charlotte, N.C., packed everything he could fit into his Ford Probe and headed to Charleston for a fresh start.

“I got to town, got an apartment off Meeting Street, enrolled at the College and found a job as a CPA assistant all in the same day,” Howey says. “I just drove down there, started my life over, and to this day I still feel like Charleston is my home city. That’s where I found myself, where I discovered myself, and it was the best period of my life.”

Howey didn’t find much in common with his classmates, but he made some fast friends in mathematics professor Doug Holmes and the owners of Jack’s Café and Clara’s Café.

“I spent months of my life hanging out at Clara’s,” says Howey, adding that Rainbow Café was another favorite: “A group of us used to hang out and play chess on that massive set they had on the ground with the 12-inch chess pieces. You sit on burlap coffee bean bags, drink coffee and play chess or kibbutz over games in progress. That was my social life at CofC.”

It was a good life – especially when he moved onto Xerxes, the 27-foot sailboat he’d bought and sailed from Baltimore in freezing weather with his best friend.

“We spent 36 hours in massive seas, unbelievably sick. We should have died. No autopilot, no idea what we were doing, just making every mistake in the book,” says Howey, who taught himself to sail on the small Sunfish that was kept in a garage of the Figure Eight Beach house his family visited every year. “That Sunfish felt like a massive boat to me when I was 10 years old, requiring a Herculean effort to pull down to the sound and step the mast. But when I was out on the water, I felt completely free.”

That sense of freedom is what Howey was chasing when he left the College after his junior year.

“I was living on my sailboat at Buzzards Roost Marina, and I was terrified of graduating and getting a job, and my life just flashing before me, so I decided I was going to take off and sail around for a while. I was going to try to sail around the world, but I didn’t make it,” he says. Instead he spent a year “just hopping around” the Bahamas, working as a yacht captain and getting caught in a couple of hurricanes. “There in that late season, I went a space wherein I didn’t see another living soul. Just for the fun of it, I made a point of not singing to music or saying anything, just to see what that would be like.”

His conclusion? “Our minds were not meant for such loneliness.”

Although Howey did return to the College, he almost immediately was offered a job he couldn’t pass up on a boat bound for Hong Kong. He enrolled for his third and final time at the College upon his return.

“Every time I came back, I took school more and more seriously,” says the one-time physics major who eventually switched to English so he could take more classes with now-retired English professor Dennis Goldsberry. “He was just this cantankerous old man, and I just adored him. I took every one of his classes that I could. He was up on the third floor of one of the English houses, almost in the attic, up these creaky steps, and I would just go up there and bug the hell out of him. I was up there all the time.”

“Hugh Howey was the most outrageous, disruptive student I ever had,” Goldsberry recalls affectionately. “I had to bite my tongue to stop from laughing at some comic things he said in class just to keep order. Howey is crazy enough to be a great writer.”

As many of Goldsberry’s classes that Howey took, he still didn’t manage to graduate before he left the College in 2000 to take a job on a boat in New York. He was on that vessel, down at the base of the World Trade Centers, the morning of September 11, 2001.

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“What I remember most are the crowds of people and how curiosity became terror. I watched the second plane come screaming from the south. I could see the emblems on the tail, see that this was a commercial jet and likely full of people and I remember screaming in my head for the pilot to pull up, wondering, What in the world are they doing: Don’t they see the building? And then this great ball of fire and debris rained down, and the crowds, who had been watching the north tower burn, started running and screaming. And I just wanted to join them. But I had this boat there that I was responsible for, and so we had to get them out,” Howey remembers. “The scariest part was having to go down into the engine room to start the boat. I couldn’t see the sky, couldn’t see the imagined third or fourth or fifth plane come in. I was down there for a minute or two, and I was convinced that I wouldn’t live through that moment. The terror was of not seeing the end come.”

That terror stuck with him, made him uncharacteristically irritable and antsy for years to come and has cropped up in his writing more than a few times – informing, for example, the pitch-black scenes in Wool.

These are the kinds of autobiographical elements that Howey brings to Wool: the mechanical experience he got in the engine rooms of ships, the surge of utter fear he felt on 9/11, the unnatural silence he practiced in the Bahamas, the go-it-alone tendencies of his character.

“I think most of my characters are built on who I am and my own personality traits. I think that’s maybe true of a lot of authors – you exaggerate your own inner demons or your hopes of your beneficial qualities – and you try to craft a character of the best and worst parts of yourself,” he says. “And in that way, all my characters are from Charleston, because when I moved to Charleston, I moved there to start over. I feel like it’s where I was born.”

It is, in other words, where his story began. It’s where he developed the kind of character that – like his protagonist in Wool – is unafraid of going out there alone, unconcerned with the expectations and pressures of the world. The kind of character that has both the foresight to envision a different way of doing things and the courage to carry it all the way through.

Even when faced with the force of the Big Six of the publishing world.

Page Turner

All eyes were on Hugh Howey. And – as he turned down seven-figure offer after seven-figure offer – it was clear he had the upper hand. The power had shifted. The Big Six publishing houses had lost to a self-publisher. Howey was forging a new way.

“I am not the story of self-publishing,” he insists. Maybe not, but – as the first self-published author to be offered a print-only contract and a significant six-figure advance by a major publisher – he is certainly the hero of self-publishers everywhere.

“It’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done – so many authors are watching this and congratulating me and hoping this becomes a trend,” says Howey.

It all started with a call from the Nelson Agency. Kristin Nelson was not the first agent to contact Howey about representing Wool – a reversal of roles in and of itself – but she was the first to agree that he shouldn’t sell the rights to the book, something he’d adamantly refused to do since it would mean going from earning 70 percent of Wool’s royalties to somewhere around 12.5 percent. Like Howey, Nelson knew this didn’t make sense.

“She suggested that we just get the conversation started with the publishers – not because she thought anything would come of it, but because it would lay the groundwork for industry change down the road,” Howey explains.

In the meantime, the Nelson Agency signed 24 foreign publishing deals for Wool and shopped out the movie rights, which ultimately went to Blade Runner and Alien director Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox.

“The Ridley Scott deal was huge,” says Howey. “Just to have people with that much experience and that much clout that read as much as they do to enjoy it was really humbling.”

It also gave Howey more leverage than ever. With the help of Nelson, he turned down all the major U.S. publishers, one after another – some more than once.

“The offers started getting quite large, and I was leaving a lot of money on the table, but I was also making enough to pay my bills and set up a retirement plan for myself,” shrugs Howey. “I didn’t have to be motivated by money; I could be motivated by principle, and that freed me up to make what I thought was a good decision.”

All he really wanted was a partnership and a fair contract in exchange for an already-established fan base, a bestseller and a brand. He didn’t think it too much to ask. And so he stuck to his guns when, one after another, publishers offered contracts that would double the price of his e-books, take away his digital rights and enforce no-compete clauses. All deal breakers.

It all paid off when Simon & Schuster made an unprecedented print-only offer that secured Howey’s digital publication rights. It was more than Howey or Nelson had ever imagined, and it shook up the entire publishing industry’s notion of what was possible – of where self-publishers and e-books belong in this world.

“My goals never waivered. And neither did I,” Howey observes. “It turned out it was easier for the publishing industry to change just a little bit, just a smidgen, in order to accept me just the way I am.”

The paperback and hardback editions of Wool hit the stores on March 12, 2013, marking a momentous event in publishing – and landing Howey interviews with The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and Writer’s Digest

“The most exciting thing for me was to break down some barriers in industry practices. I feel honored to have been here to watch the changes happen so closely, and I’m excited about contracts that just make more sense for the reader, the writer and the publisher,” says Howey, explaining that no-compete clauses in traditional contracts kept authors from publishing whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. “That prevented readers from having more material from their favorite authors, and that prevented everyone from having a better standard of living. So, holding off on that and getting that out of contracts has been wonderful.”

Still, Howey is reluctant to take any credit for the progress publishers are making.

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“All these things that have happened were always going to happen – and whoever was there, whoever it happened to, would be fortunate. They would get recognized for something that really, they have little control over,” he says, adding that the deal he made with Simon & Schuster is a win-win for both parties. “The only way they would have been able to sign me in to get my digital rights would have been to have paid me a whole lot more money, like several million dollars. So, I think they’re better off this way: They’re paying me less money and they get a guaranteed profit because the book has been tested, and they know it’s going to do well. They’re going to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on the book – and what publisher wouldn’t want to do that and chance making zero, or losing money?”

With more and more big publishers looking at indie and self-published authors, it’s certainly not the last deal of its kind. Self-published books made up 25 percent of Amazon’s top-sellers in 2012; e-book sales for adult fiction and nonfiction grew by 36 percent in the first three quarters of 2012; and, in that same period, mass-market paperback sales declined 17 percent and hardcover sales 2.4 percent.

“I see myself more as a slight outlier within an overall trend,” says Howey, citing multiple friends and colleagues who are selling millions of their self-published books. “These days, authors want control, and they know things don’t have to be like they used to be. There are thousands of writers paying bills with their work, so that’s not anomalous; that’s a shifting of the bell curve.”

So, no, maybe Howey didn’t single-handedly tear down the order of the publishing industry – maybe he wasn’t the only reason that the power has shifted back into the hands of the people. It was, after all, long overdue for some kind of transformation; things had to change to keep up with the digital media and e-readers. But – like his Wool protagonist, who dared to dig a little further, to break away and see what else was out there – Howey took the first opportunity to step outside of the publishing silo.

And that one step made everything else possible.

Open Book

Ultimately, this is Hugh Howey’s story. It doesn’t belong to his best-selling book. It doesn’t belong to the publishing industry, e-books or indie writers. It belongs to him and it belongs to his readers. This is the story of a real author-reader relationship, of mutual respect and of empowerment. Because, without the readers, this story would not even exist.

“No matter what path you take, your book has to prove itself to the readers. They are in total control,” Howey admits. They are the ones who bought that first short story, the ones who reviewed it, passed it along to their friends and created a buzz around it – something that Howey is not comfortable doing himself. “I don’t even like asking people to read my book. What I like doing is interacting with people who’ve already read it and enjoyed it.”

At first, when there were just a few Facebook friend requests and emails trickling in, Howey got in the habit of getting to know the fans and being available to them on Twitter, email and his blog. Now with close to 4,000 Facebook friends, Howey somehow manages to stay plugged into his growing fan base – spending his mornings writing and then the rest of the day responding to emails, Facebook and Twitter, as well as conducting interviews and posting to his blog.

“I really don’t take a lot of time off – I am always doing something toward the writing and publishing and interacting-with-reader process because I enjoy all three phases of it,” he says, noting that the readers have become a close-knit community since this all began. “I’m having fun getting to know my readers, giving them writing and self-publishing advice.”

On his Facebook page and website – and in the Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) he conducted last spring – Howey remains a humble, down-to-earth open book, encouraging fan fiction and fan art based on the world he created in Wool – or, as fans have come to call it, the Wooliverse.

“I think fan fiction should be celebrated. It’s like writing with training wheels,” says Howey. “Once people get addicted to writing fan fiction, they’re like, Oh, I can do this, too, and then they’ll start writing their own stories. And then they’re a writer, and that’s such a beautiful transformation. They are self-made artists.”

The way he sees it, reading his fans’ works is part of the deal: This is a two-way street. Besides, he’d rather be seen as a mentor or fellow writer than some sort of idol – a role he’ll never get used to.

“The fans make you feel appreciated, and it’s hard to put a value on that, even an emotional value. Still, the massive reactions always freak me out a little,” says Howey, who spent
February through March traveling through Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States on book-signing tours. “I don’t feel like I’m supposed to be famous. I keep telling myself that I’m not.”

Admittedly, it’s been an adjustment going from having a few to a few thousand readers – and the thought of putting his work out there for so many people to read can paralyze his writing process

“As my readership has expanded, I have to remember to write the stories that I want to read and to stay true to my vision of what a good story is – not write what I think will please a whole bunch of people. It’s been very difficult to think that, OK, now I have a readership of hundreds of thousands, so this next book should be dumbed down, or made more Hollywood or become something other than what it just needs to be to be the best story possible. That’s been a challenge, so I’m just trying to tell myself that I’m still writing for a dozen people,” he says.

The even-keeled Howey has managed to keep Wool’s success in check in other parts of his life, as well. Including in his wallet.

“Before my books started selling, I was making $300 a week before taxes and living comfortably. I never worried about money before this happened to me, mostly because I don’t take on debt and I live a very simple life,” says Howey, who was living with his wife in a 750-square-foot house in Boone before Wool’s success. They have since moved to a 900-square-foot house in Jupiter, Fla., where Howey’s wife took a job. “We would have done that anyway. I love living in a small house. It means you own less stuff; you keep your life simpler. I’d rather spend my time outside of my house in nature than have a massive cave to roam around in and stockpile things.”

Aside from trading in his truck for a Ford Focus (which boils down to trading four-wheel drive for AC), the only “big splurge” Howey and his wife have made is a pair of paddleboards to take out on the water with their dog, Bella.

“The biggest change, I suppose, is that I now have the ability to plan for retirement – and my ability to write full time, which means I can treat writing like a job instead of a hobby that eats up an extra 40 hours a week on top of a job,” says Howey. “The money I’m making is incredible, but I won’t be earning off my writing forever. Every day I keep thinking, OK, this has gone on much longer than it deserved to have, and I just keep my résumé ready. I’m ready to go back to work in a bookstore at any moment.”

It may sound downbeat, but that lack of ego and lack of confidence are what motivate Howey to stay humble, stay grounded and stay true to his character.

“Every step along the way I kept thinking, This is kind of insane, this is the absolute top of my journey and then it’s just going to be downhill from here,” he says. “I’m constantly surprised when things go further.”

But – with Wool’s prequel, Shift, already out on Kindle and paperback; its sequel, Dust, due out in July; its screenplay waiting to be green-lighted; and its comic adaptation slated for reveal at this fall’s New York Comicon – the story of this mysterious, fragile Wooliverse isn’t going anywhere.

And – if his photo on the cover of the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest is any indication – neither is the story of Hugh Howey and the new path he has forged for self-publishers and e-publishers alike.

More than just a poster child for a new way of publishing, Howey has emerged as the hero in this story. It’s a role he never intended to play, but, faced with the opportunity to escape the old order – the old way of doing things – Howey took it, stood his ground and made it out of the siloed restraints of the publishing industry.

He went his own way. And he’s made it farther than anyone ever thought possible.

12 comments

  • Great article about a good writer. I love Science Fiction and I love my Kindles. I am glad to see that more of my money spent on ebooks is going to the writer. It just makes sense. The Internet is changing how we read, listen and learn. That is good.

  • Thanks for the great summary of Hugh’s journey. It’s nice to learn a bit more about the man who, if not the reason why the publishing industry is changing, is certainly the catalyst.

  • You forgot to mention the phenomenal push given to “Wool” when it was recommended by BoingBoing. I wonder if it would’ve taken off so rapidly without that mention, or if it would’ve had a slower rise?

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  • Great article Alicia! I’ve been following Hugh since almost the beginning, yet learned a few new things about him reading your piece.

  • As just one of the thousands of FB fans, I am so proud of Mr. Howey. His writing is addictive and provocative. But his humanity, passion, principles, and his devotion to his readers are what makes us love him beyond his stories.

  • Excellent article. I’d heard some of this already either from Hugh online or at meet ups or in other articles, but there were some really interesting additions. I’ve been hoping for a graphic novel adaptation for a long time, so that is excellent news.

    I’ll vouch for his genuine likability and humility. I’ve met Hugh a couple of times and emailed back and forth, especially in the early days before it got crazy. I sent him an email asking if he would mind if I sent him a list of typos I found in his books, afraid I would insult him in the process, but his response was enthusiastic and supportive. He loved the idea of his fans helping him clean up the text.

    I can’t think of someone more deserving of the success he has earned.

  • Fascinating man, awesome writer, and this is the best article I’ve seen about him.

    I’m amazed that Howey keeps his job resume ready, just in case the success peters out. Not gonna happen, because his books are really addictive. He earned the fan base fairly. I think his story captivates cynics in particular, because we’re so relieved to see that it’s possible for hard work, focus, and honest talent to pay off.

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  • I love Hugh Howey as a writer and a person. He’s truly as genuine as this article makes him out to be. The writing and reading worlds are lucky to have him.

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