Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 13, 2013

WOOL – Self-Publishing Success

WoolWe have been discussing Self-Published books for the last few weeks and we have been talking for months about how the publishing industry is changing, so I thought I should make sure you don’t miss this article written by Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Alter. It is an excellent article and one you really should read (the whole thing). It is long, but worth the five minutes of time. If for some reason you can’t take the time to read it, click on the above link and at least listen to the interview with Ms. Alter about her article.  But in the article, she talks about how Hugh Howey got his book off the ground.

This just might be the article that keeps you going when things seem bleak. I just ordered Part One  of WOOL on Amazon.  It is free for download to your Kindle.

Simon & Schuster has put down six figures for print rights to a post-apocalyptic thriller called “Wool” that it believes could draw the same readers that made “The Hunger Games” trilogy a success.

Simon & Schuster’s print-only editions of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which brought in over a million dollars as a self-published ebook was published yesterday. Howey’s long holdout for a traditional publishing deal came a reality and allowed him to keep his ebook rights.

Hugh Howey’s postapocalyptic thriller “Wool” has sold more than half a million copies and generated more than 5,260 Amazon reviews. Mr. Howey has raked in more than a million dollars in royalties and sold the film rights to “Alien” producer Ridley Scott. And Simon & Schuster hasn’t even released the book yet.

In a highly unusual deal, Simon & Schuster acquired print publication rights to “Wool” while allowing Mr. Howey to keep the e-book rights himself. Mr. Howey self-published “Wool” as a serial novel in 2011, and took a rare stand by refusing to sell the digital rights. Last year, he turned down multiple seven-figure offers from publishers before reaching a mid-six-figure, print-only deal with Simon & Schuster.

“I had made seven figures on my own, so it was easy to walk away,” says Mr. Howey, 37, a college dropout who worked as a yacht captain, a roofer and a bookseller before he started self-publishing. “I thought, ‘How are you guys going to sell six times what I’m selling now?’ “

It’s a sign of how far the balance of power has shifted toward authors in the new digital publishing landscape. Self-published titles made up 25% of the top-selling books on Amazon last year. Four independent authors have sold more than a million Kindle copies of their books, and 23 have sold more than 250,000, according to Amazon.

Publishing houses that once ignored independent authors are now furiously courting them. In the past year, more than 60 independent authors have landed contracts with traditional publishers. Several won seven-figure advances. A handful have negotiated deals that allow them to continue selling e-books on their own, including romance writers Bella Andre and Colleen Hoover, who have each sold more than a million copies of their books.

Print-only deals remain extremely rare. Few publishers want to part with the fastest-growing segment of the industry. E-book sales for adult fiction and nonfiction grew by 36% in the first three quarters of 2012, compared with the previous year. Mass-market paperback sales shrank by 17% in the same period, while hardcover sales declined by 2.4%, according to a recent report from the Association of American Publishers.

When “Wool” hits bookstores next Tuesday, publishing industry insiders will be watching the experiment closely. Simon & Schuster will release a $15 paperback and a $26 hardcover simultaneously, competing directly against Mr. Howey’s digital edition, which costs $5.99.

“We would have preferred to own all the rights, but that wasn’t going to happen,” says Simon & Schuster President and Publisher Jonathan Karp. “It was a very unusual circumstance.”

“Wool” became a viral hit last winter, a few months after Mr. Howey began publishing the five-part series on Amazon. The novel takes place in a postapocalyptic future where a few thousand remaining humans live in a giant, 144-story underground silo. Couples who want to have a child have to enter a lottery; tickets are distributed only when someone dies. Citizens who break the law are sent outside to choke to death on the toxic air. Those who are sent to their deaths are forced to clean the grime off the digital sensors that transmit grainy images of the ruined landscape to a screen inside the silo. The images are meant to remind residents that the world beyond the silo is deadly, but some begin to suspect their leaders are lying to them about what’s outside and how the world came to ruin.

Mr. Howey says he was watching cable news one day when he came up with the idea of a future where people get all of their information from a single, unreliable screen.

“Wool” landed just as the entertainment industry was searching for a high-concept, dystopian hit like Suzanne Collins’s young-adult “Hunger Games” trilogy or Justin Cronin’s postapocalyptic vampire novel “The Passage.” (Mr. Cronin blurbed “Wool,” calling it “an epic feat of imagination.”) The serial format helped build buzz and anticipation among binge readers who were desperate for the next installment, while the 99-cent price tag made each installment an easy impulse buy. “Wool” was the most favorably reviewed book on Amazon in 2012, with an average rating of 4.8 out of five stars. The novel seems to appeal to both men and women, and has attracted hard-core science fiction fans as well as general readers, much like “The Hunger Games.”

Mr. Howey comes across as a charming, self-deprecating goofball (he posted a video of himself doing ballet on his lawn on YouTube after he signed his publishing deal), but he’s proven to be a savage negotiator and slick marketer. He sent free copies of “Wool” to book bloggers and reviewers at Goodreads, a social-media site for avid readers. Early raves prompted more people to try the book, and the reviews snowballed. “Wool” now has more than 12,500 ratings and around 2,200 reviews on Goodreads. He hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session on the popular website Reddit, fielding users’ questions for more than 12 hours. He encouraged fan art and fan fiction set in the “Wool” universe; his readers have designed book covers and written their own novella-length takes on the story. He conscripted 30 of his most ardent fans to be “beta” readers who edit early drafts of his books for free.

Mr. Howey grew up in Monroe, N.C., the son of a farmer and a schoolteacher. As a teenager he devoured popular science fiction books like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Ender’s Game,” and always had a wild imagination. He studied physics and English at the College of Charleston, but dropped out his junior year to sail to the Bahamas. He cycled through a series of odd jobs, working as a yacht captain, a roofer, and a technician for an audio-video company. Four years ago, he decided to give writing a shot. He and his wife were living in a 750-square foot house in Boone, N.C. He was unemployed; his wife, Amber Lyda, was working as a psychologist. He had an idea for a story about a young spaceship pilot who travels across the galaxy in search of her missing father. He sold the novel, “Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue,” to a small Indiana publisher for less than a thousand dollars. Sales were meager.

“When he first published ‘Molly Fyde,’ I’d call his wife and say, ‘How many books has he sold? Should I go to Amazon and buy three more?'” says his mother, Gay Murrill, who owns a yarn shop in Charleston.

Mr. Howey kept trying. He got a 30-hour-a-week job at a university bookstore that paid only $10 an hour but gave him some flexibility. He got up at two or three in the morning to write, and wrote through his lunch hour and after dinner. He designed his own cover art, enlisting his wife and sister to pose in photos. He would often jolt up in bed in the middle of the night to scribble down ideas.

“It was almost a compulsion for him,” says Ms. Lyda. Ms. Lyda said she pleaded with him to leave his pen open on his nightstand, because the clicking noise of his pen kept waking her up.

“Wool” started as a short story that Mr. Howey dashed off in three weeks. He posted it on Amazon for 99 cents in July 2011. Within three months, the story had sold 1,000 copies. Mr. Howey was stunned.

“I told my wife, ‘Baby, we’re going to be able to pay a couple of bills off this short story,’ ” he said.

Readers begged for a sequel, and in November, Mr. Howey released another installment. He sold more than 3,000 copies that month. The next month, he released two more installments and sold nearly 10,000 copies total. In January, he released the final installment, for $2.99, and published all five as a single volume, for $5.99. Collectively, he sold 23,000 copies of all the editions that month. “Wool” shot up Amazon’s science-fiction best-seller list. Mr. Howey quit his job.

Literary agents started courting him. The BBC proposed a television deal based on the series. Most of the agents wanted to auction off print and digital rights to the highest bidder. Mr. Howey wasn’t interested. One agent, Kristin Nelson, said she didn’t think he should sign away digital rights, but that she could help him with foreign rights and film and TV deals. He signed with her in January of last year. They sold the series in 24 foreign countries. Several British publishers bid on the book, and Century won rights for a high-six-figure sum.

Ms. Nelson also sent “Wool” to U.S. publishers, and received a few low six-figure offers. Mr. Howey turned them down. Through Amazon’s self-publishing platform, he was collecting 70% of royalties, which amounted to nearly $40,000 a month. Most publishers offer a digital royalty rate that amounts to 10% to 15% of a book’s retail price.

That spring, Mr. Howey began selling the books on Barnes & Noble‘s BKS -2.57%Nook and Kobo’s e-reader and through Apple’s iTunes store. An agent at United Talent Agency began shopping film rights. Three studios bid on the book. 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott, director of the blockbuster science-fiction films “Blade Runner” and “Alien,” optioned it. Indie writer and director J Blakeson is writing the screenplay.

After news of the movie deal broke, publishers pounced again. Mr. Howey flew to New York in May to meet with five major publishers. Four of them bid. Mr. Howey, who by then was making $120,000 a month, wasn’t swayed. Some of the publishers wanted to change the book’s title, a proposal that Mr. Howey called “comical,” since it would sabotage his online branding efforts. Others insisted that he immediately take down his digital edition, which would erase all records of the thousands of five-star reviews the book had accumulated, forcing him to start from scratch.

One meeting went better than the others. Mr. Howey sat down with Mr. Karp, the head of Simon & Schuster, who had heard about “Wool” from two of his top editors and from Dave Cullen, author of “Columbine,” a 2009 book profiling the shooters behind the 1999 mass killing. “When I read more about it and saw what a culture phenomenon it had become, I realized it was something we should take seriously,” Mr. Karp says.

Mr. Karp was unusually solicitous, asking Mr. Howey what kind of deal he would accept. Mr. Howey said he wanted a co-publishing deal, where he kept digital rights and Simon & Schuster held hardcover and paperback rights. Mr. Karp was noncommittal, and said he’d be in touch.

Sales soared over the summer. Mr. Howey and his wife moved to Jupiter, Fla. and bought a slightly larger house—900 square feet. Mr. Howey continued to write and self-publish new books, including a zombie novel and prequels to “Wool” that explore how and why the silos were built.

In October, Amazon discounted “Wool” for 24 hours as part of its Kindle Daily Deal, a discount program that highlights select titles. Amazon dropped the price on the “Wool” Omnibus, which has all five stories, from $5.99 to $1.99. Mr. Howey sold 20,000 in a single day. New offers from publishers poured in, some in the low-seven-figure range.

Then Mr. Howey’s agent got an email from Mr. Karp, asking if they would consider a print-only deal. Ms. Nelson says she wrote him back, “Is this for real?” and he wrote back, “Yes.”

Simon & Schuster now has to transform a digital hit into a traditional print blockbuster. The publisher is sending Mr. Howey on an 11-city tour, and has planned a bold six-figure marketing campaign that will capitalize on the film news and online reviews. They are releasing the book simultaneously in hardcover and paperback in an attempt to capture both the library and first-edition collectors market as well as retailers like Target and Wal-Mart WMT +0.85%. Much of the online marketing will fall to Mr. Howey, who has proved himself to be adept at digital self promotion. He’s still selling 50,000 e-books a month.

“A lot of the things we normally teach authors to do, Hugh has been smart enough to do himself,” says Richard Rhorer, who oversees marketing at Simon & Schuster.

Mr. Howey just returned from book tours in Germany, Scotland, Wales and England, where “Wool” recently hit the best-seller lists. He’s starting to feel more like an established author. “Publishing is changing so quickly that we are all equal experts,” he said. “We’re all trying to figure this out.”

Mr. Howey recalls feeling anonymous at a science fiction conference last summer in Chicago. He got excited for a moment when a woman approached him—he thought she wanted his autograph—but she was looking for the bathroom.

Nearby, fantasy writer George R.R. Martin, author of the best-selling series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” was signing hundreds of books. Mr. Howey went up and introduced himself. When it became clear that Mr. Martin had never heard of him, Mr. Howey told him his novel was No. 6 on Amazon’s list of science-fiction and fantasy best sellers, behind Mr. Martin’s five books. Mr. Martin gamely signed a book for Mr. Howey, inscribing it “To # 6—Keep trying!”

A few months later, Mr. Howey landed at the top of the list, just ahead of Mr. Martin.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Wow, that was REALLY enjoyable to read! It’s rare, but it CAN happen. It’s got to be a “perfect storm” scenario 🙂

    Like

  2. Wow! Great stuff! More power to him. So am I reading it right, in that he self-published his short story first? Sounds like that’s what the article says. Just curious, and good to know. I have one I’d self-pub., didn’t know one could do that. My children’s story is almost finished with illustrations, too. I hired an artist whose design work was featured on The Today Show!

    Like

    • Good luck to you, Chris! 🙂

      Like

  3. Thanks, Donna! You, too!

    Like

  4. I just got this book last week and can’t WAIT to start reading it. The buzz has all been good. It is awesome that this self-pubbed work was able to rise to stardom by mostly word of mouth. 🙂

    Like

    • Please let us know what you think! 🙂

      Like

  5. I read the first part for free and then bought the rest. He is a very good writer.

    Kathy

    Like

    • I don’t have an e-reader, but figure in print it should be the same. How many pages total?

      Like

  6. I like this article! Also, check out my RedSnow site here:
    http://www.redsn0w.us/

    Like


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