Indie News Beat: Indie Superstar Hugh Howey and Wool

If you haven’t heard of the novel Wool by Hugh Howey, then it’s likely you will at some point in the near future. It has been hailed as science fiction’s answer to 50 Shades, although only in the way that a self-publishing author has broken out, rather than any similarity in content. Wool began as a short story of just 60 pages, first published in July 2011. By the end of that year, Howey had added a further four parts to bring the story up to the generally-accepted idea of novel length. Momentum kept building throughout last year, to the point where today Howey enjoys all the trappings of a successful, A-list fiction author (Ridley Scott has the film rights, Random House are handling the print editions in most territories, and the book’s Amazon page now boasts over 3,300 reviews).

So how did he do it?

Recently, under a review of Wool in a UK national newspaper, Hugh Howey joined the comments thread, and was at pains to point out the role of luck in his success. When one commentator wondered how he’d done it, Howey said: “I still don’t know how it happened. If I had an answer, all of my books would be rocking the charts. They aren’t. […] I attribute a lot of this to dumb luck. Things just take off sometimes. You can use post hoc arguments to search for reasons, but it could’ve been anyone.”

Wool is based on the familiar science fiction trope of a group of last survivors on Earth, who live in silos below ground because the atmosphere outside is poisonous. Criticisms levelled at the book include a similarity to Hunger Games, Logan’s Run, and that it is a novelisation of the computer game “Fallout 3”. Howey’s response is sanguine: “…my influences are more numerous than just a single show here or there. My characters and plotlines come from every TV show I’ve watched, every comic I’ve read, every book I’ve absorbed. I would wager that’s true of all writers.” However, a glance at Wool’s more than 2,000 5-star reviews shows repeated praise for the skilled writing and faultless editing. Readers seem to be impressed with the language standards in this self-published book almost as much as with the story itself.

Regarding promoting Wool, Howey is adamant that he made almost no effort, due in large part to another series of books he was writing at that time. He said: “This story [Wool] was dying to get out, so I finally wrote it as a short story, published it, and forgot about it. I went back to my novels. In October (3 months later), the Wool novelette sold more in a month than I’d sold of everything else that year. I can only attribute this to word of mouth, as I never promoted the work, didn’t have a link to it on my website, had effectively forgotten about it and ignored it.” Howey does suggest that publishing the book a few short chapters at a time may have helped spur the increasing interest from October 2011 to January 2012, by which time the first literary agents had begun knocking on his door, sensing the bestseller it has become.

So what can other Independent Authors take away from this story? The indications point to tactics which are generally well known, but which bear repeating:

1. Having a backlist. At the time of releasing Wool, Howey had already published eight titles, selling in total about 5,000 copies. The point here is that he didn’t just write a few titles then spend his free time on FaceTwit promoting them to death: he cracked on and kept writing more stories.

2. Practice makes perfect. Readers are very quick to rubbish a self-published book with poor use of English and which is full of typos, while many Indies complain that mainstream-published books have typos in them as well (not that this was ever an acceptable excuse for poor editing). In the reviews for Wool, we can see the flipside of this: reviewers express their amazement that a self-published book was not only so well written, but that it was typographically flawless. This is exactly what all Indies should aim for, and the more stories we write, the better we’ll get.

3. The power of word of mouth. For all the talk of platforms and promotions and brands and blogs, as has always been the case word of mouth is what really counts. Readers need to be so moved by a story that they tell their friends, who tell their friends, etc. This was the catalyst for Wool: the word of mouth recommendation began the snowball effect which led to a Kindle daily deal, which led to more sales, which led to agents showing an interest. But without that original word of mouth, none of what followed could have happened.

In essence, Howey did what all authors try to do every day: write compelling stories as well as possible, but, as he insists, an element of luck may have been involved. Nevertheless, while his success is another step on the long road to the acceptance of Independent Authors by the general reading public, from his experience we can all draw one inescapable conclusion: If you write and publish one book, or two or three or four books, and promote them, but the word of mouth recommendations don’t happen, then you have a clear choice: keep on with FaceTwit and hope, or knuckle down and write the next, better, story.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

56 thoughts on “Indie News Beat: Indie Superstar Hugh Howey and Wool”

  1. I have been hearing about ‘Wool’ though I must admit that I noticed the title because I’m a knitter. Never underestimate the power of fibre-fanatic fan-base.

    I appreciate the way you’ve outlined his success and agree with you completely; it ultimately comes down to compelling stories and luck.

    As always, a most excellent post, Chris.

      1. Wooly Bully….

        I don’t really understand why this is the huge seller with 7 figure advances, and other, better, books aren’t.
        But you see that a lot with huge books that actually suck. There’s an enormous luck of the draw factor.
        I don’t think any of those “reasons” explain the book’s success whatsoever.
        My guess would be that he’s very active on gaming groups and forums, like the 50 Shades of Grey writer was active on fan-fic boards.
        He seems to be a REALLY nice guy. But I doubt that explains it, either.

        1. Gaming groups and forums? Good grief. I think knitting stores are a much better idea 😉

          Actually, I was only half kidding when I said the fibre connection should not be underestimated. People are drawn to titles and book art in the absence of storyline information, aren’t they? Those too may be in the mix of Howey’s success; however, I still agree with Chris’s focus points…and yes it is nice to see a nice guy doing…er… nicely.

        2. I think you make a fair comment, Lin. But however much “luck” was involved, the rest of us need to look and learn and (hopefully) get the odds in our favour as much as possible.

          1. Of course we do.
            Do you think that if we have multple titles, practice, and talk it up we’ll have big success?
            It’s well to be realistic. One thing I notice about some of the phenoms like Hocking and Howey and the 50 Shades perp is that very little of their tips for success really make much sense, or are something anybody else can apply.

            Not that I blame them. 🙂

      2. Thanks, people. That’s a picture of cute kitty playing with a ball of wool going on the front of my next sci-fi novel 🙂

  2. Great post, Chris. I’m both heartened and dismayed by the news that Howey didn’t do anything special to promote his story — other than, y’know, write a great story and edit (or have it edited) thoroughly. And you’re right, it shouldn’t be such a shock that an indie wrote such a professional-caliber book; that’s what we should all be aiming for.

    1. Thank you, Lynne. I was quite taken when I read the story, as I write in the same genre, and so am happy that a sci-fi book has broken out like this. As I mention to Lin above, we all need to get the odds as much in our favour as we possibly can, so it’s useful to see what Howey has to say about it.

      1. I just finished reading the Wool omnibus a couple of weeks ago, and liked it a lot. Still deciding whether to shell out for the next two books. I like reading some sci-fi — I just can’t write it myself. My imagination isn’t futuristic enough, I guess, lol.

  3. He say she didn’t do anything to promote the book, but as you said, he did the most important thing, which was to write 8 books before it and have enough of a following that there were enough mouths to actually spread the word once his breakout story arrived. Thanks for this article Chris; it is an inspiring reminder to keep writing, get better, keep writing, get better….

    1. Thanks, Krista. It’s also a good lesson to show that you’ve got to be in it for the long run. You can’t quit if the first few titles don’t take off. I think there’s a kind of “lag” here, where people still think that they can write a million-seller right off the bat. That may still be possible, but you’d need to be picked up by a mainstream which would then have to be sufficiently convinced to throw millions out in publicity for an unknown. I think those days are pretty much over now.

    1. Yvonne, I think the backlist element certainly adds something to the odds of getting interest, but at the same time, with Howey it was the story what did it – he likely could have had fewer titles and still broken out with Wool.

  4. He had multiple books, but when Wool started to take off he had just the initial story and I don’t believe the success of Wool has spread to or from the other books. The idea of multiple books leading to taking off is (in theory) because you’ve got more irons in the fire and that when one slacks off one of the others will take off. That might apply partially here, but only partially in that he had more books with a chance of taking off. The “best thing you can do is write another book” idea also applies here to some degree and obviously to write a good book, although what qualifies as a good book for readers (who are what matters in this equation) is often different than how authors define that.

    My take on Howey is that he really hasn’t done a lot to market his book and what engagement he’s had on forums and such has been more at the prompting of fans than any planned marketing effort on his part. What he’s done, he’s always very gracious and certainly helps his books chances rather than hurt them.

    But from what I’ve observed, the word of mouth he gets isn’t the normal word of mouth.Normal word of mouth is, “this is a good book, you might like it.” Howey’s word of mouth is evangelical:

    “You’ve got to read this book, have you read it yet?”

    “Not yet, well hey, I just gifted you the book and I expect you to read it, let me know what you thought.”

    “What did you think, what did you think?”

    And to be clear, this isn’t an exaggeration. It went down exactly like this or I probably wouldn’t have read it yet. Now the question of how to make that happen is a question without an answer, which is Howey’s consistent response to “how did you do it?”

    1. Excellent comment, Al, thanks for pointing out that intensity that Wool created for him. It will be interesting to follow him now and see if, indeed, his other sci-fi novels do take off (I think they will since he’s rapidly going to acquire brand power)

    2. Really good analysis, Al.

      I see the “have a bunch of books and they’ll start selling themselves” thing a lot.
      Well… I have a dozen titles. And a couple more by other authors.
      Which means trying to build up 10 reviews and word on a lot of books, instead of just one.
      It’s not like having more than one book is an automatic sales machine.

      Frankly, I think there a certain amount of disengenous report there. Not as much as John Locke’s outright lies, but I get several hotsheets and remember seeing Wool all over them. I even have a free copy.

      That’s marketing… and even paid advertising.

      Smashwords is full of authors with 20 titles, none selling.

      1. Thanks, Lin. I think the common wisdom about more books and good books (although we could easily quibble about what that means) are part of the equation and the part you can control, but we can’t predict what is going to take off any more than the traditional publishers that have a ton more data to evaluate can. Luck figures into any break in life, but you won’t be the recipient of the luck if your ducks aren’t all lined up too.

        1. Agreed, but we can’t argue with the obvious conclusion: the more titles you have, the greater your chances. The fewer, the smaller.

    3. A recent review on Amazon had a similar account. Copy/pasted:

      “I have so far purchased two more kindle copies and emailed them to my friends…and I have written several more asking them if they would like to try it as well. I would buy ten copies of this book and give them out if necessary.”

      What’s crazy about this is a reader meet-up I put together in Denver last year. One of the readers who showed up admitted to having purchased 10 physical copies to hand out to friends. I know of another reader who bought 12 copies to give to his book club. And I hear about people gifting Kindle copies all the time.

      As someone said in a comment below, you can’t overstate the power of that kind of word of mouth. But it’s also hard to understand it. I think if this book had been released in bookstores originally, it wouldn’t have an evangelical following. There’s a sense of discovery because of its origins, perhaps. And maybe readers are less critical of a work when they know it was self-published. I don’t know. If you ask me, READY PLAYER ONE is ten times the book WOOL is. It should be getting ten times the hype.

      1. Hugh, I do appreciate your sentiments, but all’s fair in love, war, and the publishing industry. You got everything just right with Wool, and that’s something for you to celebrate, and, as I mention elsewhere, for other Indies to take heart from. You wrote a compelling story that has readers enthralled; your story, your way. Maybe Ready Player One will be the next breakout?

    1. Oh, absolutely. It’s kind of like “every boy can grow up to be president”. Now it’s “everyboy, even black boys, can grow up to be president”. Next step, “any kid can grow up to be president”.

      Doesn’t mean everybody will, but it really means something when somebody does.

    2. You’re welcome, KD. IT’s all about getting the odds in our favour as much as possible. A bit like a certain game that I know a certain someone enjoys 😉

  5. Fascinating stuff, Chris. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never heard of Wool, or Howey. Obviously I’ve had my fingers in my ears and my blindfold firmly in place for the past few weeks or months. It’s good to know that so many reviewers are emphasizing the appeal of Wool being well written and free from egregious grammatical errors. Perhaps that will encourage some writers to become more intimately acquainted with their copies of Elements of Style. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the perceived need for a hefty backlist will supersede the impetus to hone skills. Time will tell…

    1. Hey Kern, many thanks for commenting. I agree with you: although Howey’s success is inspiring, it’s truly difficult to know what the actual catalyst was for Wool – but strong word-of-mouth seems to have played a bigger part than backlist or quality (although they helped too). Hope you’re keeping warm over there in chilly Vancouver! 🙂

  6. Cracking job Chris. This post has come at exactly the right time for me. I have been mulling over my approach to how I get my name out there for months and it is becoming increasingly obvious that a backlist is important. You have helped me make a huge decision today and I am going to abandon some of the paths I have been scooting along, in order to write more. I’ll still promote and market because as you know, I am fascinated and slightly obsessed by that side of things, but all this FaceTwit nonsense (and some of my lesser obligations that take up too much time) will have to be shoved to one side. Thank you – I mean that wholeheartedly. x

    1. Aye, Carol, it’s a tricky with limited time to know where to put the emphasis – where to be seen and where it’s not going to make a difference. It’s all trial and error to a degree… A bit like being an Indie, in fact! 🙂

  7. Good article, Chris and you summed it up perfectly “knuckle down and write the next, better, story”. I loved Wool and I’m not a sci-fi fan. I thought it was a great story and it was exceptionally well-written.
    And, Al is right, the buzz from this book was contagious and those sci-fi readers seem to be a breed unto themselves. They don’t make suggestions. It’s like they don’t want to be the guy who hasn’t read Wool.
    Hugh seems like a good guy, too. I’ve emailed him to ask him questions and he was kind enough to answer almost right away. I’m glad to see him doing so well, and yes, it gives us all hope doesn’t it.

  8. As another sci-fi fan/writer, I’m going to have to read Wool. I’m also going to have to get cracking on my second book because a body of work is important. Another writer friend recommended Jinx Schwartz to me and I’m now onto her third book. Because I liked the first one so much.

  9. Hey Chris, enjoyed the write-up. The comments, too! Awesome to see blogs with active commentary. Speaks to good content, I believe.

    I agree with everyone’s frustration on not knowing why some things take off. I think what normally happens is that the lucky beneficiary of sudden success assumes more credit than they deserve. Or maybe that’s my lack of self-confidence talking. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but the response Lin alluded to above is what I see in my inbox. I get a dozen or so emails a day gushing with praise I don’t feel I deserve. Believe me when I tell you that if I had a secret to success, I’d be giving it away for free. I want to understand these things as much as anyone. I find myself bewildered.

    The one piece of advice I give is the piece of advice I lived by for years: Write because you love it. My happiest days were spent working in a bookstore for near minimum wage while writing in my every spare moment. I would go back to that in a heartbeat. I was happy then, and I never expected any of this. I feel grateful for every single reader. I take nothing for granted. I will cherish this ride once it’s over and I’m back to shelving books again.

    Something else that I believe helped me: I reviewed books for a blog before I started writing. It honed my critical eye, had me drowning in free books, and inspired me to reach out and interview bestselling authors. I covered book conventions and saw that these heroes of mine were regular folk. It gave me a sense of the industry and also established some contacts.

    Also: The common advice is to write a lot. I would add that we should write a variety of things. Write in several genres and varying lengths. Each book is a lottery ticket. Choosing the same number over and over is a bad idea. WOOL is unlike anything I wrote before it. I could have trapped myself in a dead series (it’s what I was doing, actually), but I broke out here and there and wrote some fiction, some horror, some YA, some short stories, two novelettes, etc. I’ve started a romance book, a fantasy, and a work of chick lit. And I intend to finish them!

    Best of luck to everyone.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and for your gracious comments, Hugh. Whether anyone ever really knows why they succeeded does not diminish the success itself. You’re an Indie hero and a gentleman, to boot. Nothing wrong with a little basking. Congratulations.

      I hope you’ll stop by Indies Unlimited every once in a while to rally the troops. 🙂

    2. Hugh, many thanks for taking the time to comment. As Steve said, the how doesn’t lessen the fact that you have succeeded quite spectacularly. Moreover, you and Wool have become a trail-blazer for all Independent Authors because your success is another important step to Indie acceptance among the general reading public; because what you’ve done will be tremendously encouraging for other Indies (some evidence of which you can see in this thread); and because you told a compelling story well.
      Likely only a very few books can rise to the heights Wool has reached, and will continue to reach, but I’m pretty sure a lot of us here will realise that it is possible, with enough talent, hard work, and a good story, to really get somewhere.
      Write on!

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Angela. It is true that for all our social networking concerns, word of mouth seems to me to have been the most important aspect of Hugh’s breakout.

  10. Great post Chris,
    Stories like this really help keep us in the game. Times like this make me want to do nothing but write. I love the fact that he has jumped out of his genre in both types of audiences and length of story. I often thought of publishing a couple of my short stories but have been steered away from doing it because of advice from others that say I’ll “damage” my brand! HAH! Brand, give me a break. I think I’m going to rethink that concept. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I feel just the same, and am so happy that this breakout came from the sci-fi genre. Last year I thought “self-publishing” would become a by-word for cheap erotica, then – bam! – a regular, genere novel comes along like this and breaks out. Happy days.

  11. As a reader, not a writer, I think that the real element that causes this kind of success is writing a story that resonates with the readers. I am amazed at how often the underlying question is “what is so special about this book?”. I don’t care how well written or literary a book is if it doesn’t grab the reader and transport them out of their own life and into another it will not do well. These are the types of criticisms I see all the time for the likes of Rowlings, Meyer and Collins. What it tells me is that when you try to break down a work of art into techniques and skills you will never be able to distinguish the element that makes it work because it is about synergy. Books, movies, paintings, music etc can be critiqued for all their individual elements but ultimately SUCCESS is about resonating with the audience. If your word fails there, all the technical skills in the world will not help you.

    A great writer may write the perfect book and still never be successful if the audience is not there for it. Part of the synergy of a great success story is having a story that people can relate to. Some of that is releasing the right book at the right time that the masses will enjoy. For decades publishing houses have tried to figure out the formula for what makes a book successful, and it is not always the book that is the most technically perfect book.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Vickie. I second Martin, seldom have I seen the elements of success put so clearly. I think I’m going to copy and paste your comment, stick it in a little frame, and put it next to my computer. Really, spot on! 🙂

  12. Awesome post, Chris. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I appreciate the author’s honesty. I have heard it before and it has altered my game plan a bit. I just need the luck part now. 😉

    1. Thanks, brother. He’s a remarkable young man and it’s so inspiring the way he explains it all. Fingers crossed for you over here buddy!

  13. Way to go Indie author! I hope someday to join you in success…in fact, that all of us ‘unsung’ heroes do so!

  14. This was a remarkably insightful post with excellent commentary — thanks to everyone involved.

    It’s great to see someone with Hugh’s success stop by and share his accumulated wisdom.

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