Hugh Howey is a rock star in the Indie world. Publishers and production companies are literally throwing themselves at him for attention. Less than a year ago, he was a complete unknown. Today, his "Wool," series of Sci-Fi stories are the hottest commodity on the Amazon top-selling list. His "Wool Omnibus E-book," is constantly in the top 50 overall on the Kindle list and with 830 reviews, he has a 4.9 ranking. That means 811 of 830 reviews are either 4 or 5 stars. Plus, Random House has just signed on to publish the hardcover version in the UK in 2013. Wait, I'm not done. The latest USA Today Bestseller list has "Wool," listed #98 for overall books (Ebook and print book combined) and the NY Times, which normally turns their nose up at Indies, has "Wool," listed at #31 on the Ebook fiction list. Like I said, he's making a big splash in the pool and publishers are taking notice.
Oh, did I mention that Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Prometheus, etc . . .) has purchased the option for the movie. Pretty wild, huh? So does he have a big head about this? Uh, no. Even though he's been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Variety, and the Huffington post, he was very generous with his time as you can tell by his thorough answers.
Thanks, Hugh, we wish you all the best:
1- First of all, "Wool," is obviously tremendously written or it never would've received all the accolades, but the series seems to have touched a nerve. Do you attribute any of its success to the whole Fed-Up, Occupy, Anti-Establishment, Anti-Greed thing going on--or am I digging too deep?
"Digging too deep!" I like what you did there. I think anyone who's read the series probably just chuckled along with me. But yeah, I think you're right about this story striking a nerve with people. What's fascinating to me is that I have avid readers right across the political spectrum. Some are drawn to the struggle against injustice. Others see this as a case of the blue-collar class being able to rise to power and make the world a better place. There's also a lot of gray areas in the book. As despicable as those in charge can be, many readers come away with at least some understanding of why they do what they do. And then there's the question for those rising up: At what point are the costs of revolution greater than what is suffered under an unjust regime? Or is it right to ever willingly suffer injustice? These are questions posed but never answered in the books. Perhaps it's the complicated nature of these issues and the honest treatment of them that has so many people discussing the series.
2- What was it like to be contacted by Ridley Scott (or his people) to buy the rights to "Wool?" And how were you contacted?
I had a lot of amazing phone conversations during the media rights phase of all this. I spoke with producers whose work I absolutely adore, and I talked with people from TV who create some of my favorite ongoing shows. It was a jarring and surreal process. You're on the phone with five people at a time, all these people chiming in and telling you how much they loved the work, and that they can't wait to get started on this, and you just get so flattered by all the greasing-up that you want to sign up with anyone and everyone.
I became attached to several parties during this process and didn't want to upset any of them by making a choice. Then we heard Steve Zaillian was reading and really enjoying the book. Ridley Scott got involved. When I spoke to the people at Scott Free and Film Rites, the companies associated with both of these mega-talented men, they had the same passion I felt about the material. The more contact we had, the more right it felt. And when we took their offer, the other interested parties completely understood. I reached out to them to explain my decision, and their graciousness and excitement for me really took the sting out of having to disappoint them.
3-Walk us through the thought process of when and if you might sign with a U.S publisher for the rights to the hardcover version of the series? Do you secretly nibble on a loose cuticle or two trying to calculate the right decision?
is a test I will face in the next few days, actually. A publisher is flying me
to New York to sit down with them, and my agent has lined up quite a few
similar meetings for the three days I'm in the city. So yeah, I'm already
biting my nails and rehearsing.
The nice thing for me is that the decision to remain independent gets stronger with every passing day. The book is doing great. I'm on several outlets right now and selling well. The feedback from readers is excellent, and I'm getting major media mentions, like a half-page story in Entertainment Weekly and a mention in Variety. This kind of exposure normally requires a major publisher. I'm less eager to give my work away in exchange for something the word-of-mouth is providing on its own.
My question for publishers here in the States will be simple: What exactly are you guaranteeing me? Because I'm not handing over a manuscript, which is what they are used to dealing with. I'm handing them something with brand recognition, something with a major film option and huge names attached. I'm handing them over a hundred thousand fans. There are reviews, interviews, and articles on major web sites.
The last time we went to publishers, much of this was already in place, and they offered me the same thing they would offer a promising manuscript. One publisher wanted to change the name of the work! Another wanted to take everything off the market and re-publish almost a year later. These are old ways of thinking. What Century and Random House offered in the UK (which is why I am so excited to have signed with them) was far more progressive. Everything that worked over here, they want to emulate over there. They want to augment what I've already done. I need to hear the same from a domestic publisher. The ideal pitch would be to make an offer on the physical rights and leave the digital rights alone. There's a lot of money for them to make in printing a book and putting it in stores and feeding off the media mentions I'm garnering. The problem, though, and the reason I doubt I'll ever sign with anyone over here, is that they want to take everything I'm making and offer no guarantee in return. That may work for a hopeful writer with a manuscript. It's a more risky gamble to take when you've quit your day job and are trying to subsist on your existing sales.
4- Okay, we love a good rags-to-riches story. What's been your biggest indulgence so far?
Or have you had one yet?
There has been one indulgence. I'll get to that in a moment. First though, the story of the last few hectic months: Before any of this really took off, my wife sought a new job in Jupiter, Florida in order to be closer to her family. We've been dealing with all that's involved in that as all the book news poured in. So I've been writing on the road as we drive down for her interviews, again to look for a house, dealing with selling our house up here while buying one down there. The stress of owning two houses for a brief period has me very cautious about spending on anything. There's also the 60-day delay in getting paid from Amazon, which means I still haven't seen the vast majority of what I've made there, nor have I seen the advances from all the foreign deals or the film option. Those things take time.
Because of all this, and also from being keenly aware that the fall comes faster than the rise, we are being extremely cautious with our sudden good fortune. The house we purchases in Jupiter is 900 square feet. The list price on it was $125,000. My wife and I have had a happy ten years together by living simply, and I hope to continue doing so. My dream is to write for the rest of my life without ever having to get a day job again. That means saving up as much as possible. And it isn't like I'm making millions of dollars. Only a handful of writers make that kind of money in a year.
So what's been my indulgence? Cover art. I recently received some awesome cover art from a professional in the Netherlands named Jasper Schreurs. Simply breathtaking stuff. He's a huge fan of my stories, and so he created these original digital paintings for the covers of the Wool Omnibus and the first Molly Fyde book. You have to see these to believe them. They are dynamite. So I asked Jasper what it would cost to commission covers for the rest of the Molly books. He gave me a huge discount, and my wife still squealed when she heard what it would cost. And I'm doing it anyway. This is a lot of money for me to spend, but I am such a huge fan of Jasper's talent, and his work has already given me such joy, that I'm viewing this as a gift to myself.
Pretty lame, eh? My big indulgence is a business expense. Cover art. But really, there's nothing I could enjoy more than seeing what Jasper does with the sequels to the Molly series.
5- Since you dabble in science fiction--create a vision of what the publishing world will look like in 5 years?
Five years normally isn't all that long, is it? But I think you've nailed how quickly this industry is changing. Look at what Napster and iTunes did to the music industry. Or what digital cameras have done to film. E-books are showing phenomenal growth. We're talking triple-digit increases year on year while physical books see double-digit decreases. The trends point one direction. As someone who worked in an independent bookstore for the past two years, I've been watching this unfold from the retail as well as the production side.
I think the biggest change will come from the success of the indie writer, to be honest. And I don't say this because of what I'm experiencing. Rather, it's because of the dozens and dozens of friends I've met online who are having success with writing and publishing on their own. People are quitting their day jobs because their e-book sales are able to support them. They are now free to concentrate on their craft, supported by the small purchases of thousands of people around the world, all of whom have access to more choice in reading material than ever before.
As publishers see their market diminish, and I believe they already are, I think they are going to become open to working with authors in a more equitable fashion. E-book royalty rates have to change. They simply have to. The publisher offers almost nothing and in exchange they want almost everything. In five years, we'll hear about more and more authors signing physical print deals with major publishers while they retain e-book rights. That may not sound like much (since it's so logical and fair) but it will signal a monumental shift in how business is done.
Another change we may see, though I think this is ten or fifteen years away, is the end of stocking all titles on shelves, which has meant shipping books back and forth between printer and retailer and then back again for remaindering or pulping. It's a wasteful system. We have the technology now to simply print the book the reader wants in under five minutes, while they wait. I'd love to see more bookstores that highlight the social and community aspects of reading. A place to come and discuss books, to find out what's being written, to meet local authors and attend book signings. Bookstores are already becoming coffee shops that sell board games and children's toys. That trend will continue until they mostly carry bargain books and bestsellers, and everything else is printed behind a counter while you sip on a latte.
What won't change is the supply of books worth reading and people eager for each and every one of them. We have thirsted for stories since we received them around campfires. The method of delivery is not the thing. It's allowing another's words to stir our imaginations. And so we should concentrate on this and care less about the manner in which it happens.