Hugh Howey doesn’t look like someone engaged in changing the world of books.
He’s a mild-looking, inquisitive 38-year-old, who enjoys playing with his adored dog Bella in a 900-square-foot house in Jupiter while his psychologist wife is at work.
But in the past five years, he has gone from writing a series of science fiction short stories called “Wool” that he put up for sale on Amazon at 99 cents apiece to becoming a best-selling e-book sensation and landing a print deal for the combined stories with Simon & Schuster. Ridley Scott has even optioned rights for a movie.
How big is Howey?
“In terms of Kindle copies sold in the science fiction/fantasy category,” says Jeff Belle, vice president of Amazon Publishing, “Hugh is right up there with George RR Martin, JRR Tolkien, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. He’s one of the smartest, hardest working authors I’ve ever met.”
And it’s possible none of it might have happened if he hadn’t been on a yacht in the Hudson River on Sept. 11, 2001.
‘Just like the movies’
Born to a farmer and school teacher in Monroe, N.C., Hugh Howey segued from reading fantasy to sci-fi in middle school. The titles were typical: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” L. Ron Hubbard’s “Battlefield Earth.” He went to the College of Charleston and dropped out, but not before reading all the classics he had resisted in high school.
Peripatetic by nature, he worked as a roofer for a time, then captained private yachts. He loved the sea, and the work was reasonably lucrative and carried a low overhead — yacht captains earn about $1,000 per foot of ship and live on board. All told he worked on yachts for almost nine years, and filled his spare time by reading.
Twelve years ago, writing was still far into the future. On Sept. 11, 2001, Howey was in New York, captaining a 74-foot Sunseeker motor yacht for a wealthy hedge fund manager. The boat was moored in North Cove Marina, at the base of the World Trade Center.
“When the planes struck, they did so directly overhead,” he remembers. “The first one was an accident, of course. That’s what we all thought. I remember watching the second plane bank hard and come screaming down Lower Manhattan, and I still thought this was some sort of accident. Your brain just turns off. I was silently yelling for the pilot to pull up, was thinking of some sort of malfunction, the kinds of things I was too smart to believe. But the truth was too evil for me to comprehend.
“I remember the heat from the fireball. I remember thinking ‘It’s just like the movies.’ And then the people started running and screaming, and I thought that was just like the movies as well — the panic in everyone’s eyes.”
Howey’s boss said they had to get out of there — everybody believed more planes would be hitting momentarily. “I cranked the engines and started throwing the dock lines. People asked if I was leaving; I said that I was, and if they wanted to come, they should get on board. I remember asking them to take their shoes off, and how that seemed wrong even in the moment. My wires were crossed.”
Howey steered the ship across the Hudson to Liberty Landing Marina, but there was no room, so Howey tied up at a restaurant. A group of construction workers asked if Howey would take them back to the site of the Trade Center. They wanted to help. He agreed, dropped them off and then picked up others. He would see the same construction workers later when they came back for the lunch pails they left on the docks, and told him about the looting they witnessed.
“It’s easier to talk about now, but I didn’t for the longest time. We sat on the bow of the boat and watched WTC 5 (or was it 7?) fall, the radio bursting with the news before the rubble even settled. We watched both buildings come down. The night before, we had sat in Windows on the World at the top of one of the towers and looked out over the city. That spot was now in empty space.
“It seemed surreal. Still does.”
Low sales, then sudden success
After that came a cooling-off period. Howey piloted the boat to Fort Lauderdale, where he met the woman he would later marry. For a while, he followed her around the country as her career took precedence.
Seven years after the Trade Center came down, Howey began writing. He wrote a couple of e-books in a young adult series concerning a young spaceship pilot who travels the galaxy in search of her father. When he started writing the stories that became “Wool,” they were living in Boone, N.C., where Howey was quite happily working in a bookstore.
Working there taught him a lot about the realities of writing. “Only one book sells at a time. Harry Potter, “Twilight,” Stieg Larsson, “Gone Girl.” Authors would come in for appearances. Their books were well-reviewed, but I noticed they were all professors — there were no full-time authors.
“They were making $50,000 a book, paying 15 percent of that to their agent and then more to taxes. If I hadn’t seen the parade coming through, I never would have known that very few authors support themselves on their books. That’s part of the reason I kept my cost of living so low.”
Howey’s idea was to publish his books serially on his blog, mostly because he researched conventional publishing and it sounded like a huge pain. “Three years to find an agent? By that time, I’d lose interest. And with a small publisher, there’s a small advance. I wanted a say in the cover, I wanted a say in the font. I believe that pagination is important — widows and orphans can help or hurt the reading experience.”
He was sensible about it; he figured that “Wool” wouldn’t be much different than his other e-books. “If I put $200 in the bank over the lifetime of the work, that was fine. I was doing it because I loved it. I really had no idea what was in store for me, and my expectations were subterranean.”
The first “Wool” story was finished in July 2011 and consisted of 12,000 words. He was so indifferent to its success he didn’t bother linking the story to his website and simply put it on Amazon for 99 cents. The opening sentence was a grabber, as opening sentences should be: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.”
“Wool” is about a dystopian post-apocalyptic society, where people are forced by the toxic atmosphere to live in an underground 144-story silo. Procreation is allowed only via lottery. Someone has to be sent outside to clean dirt off the sensors that bring in light, said cleaning being done with industrial-grade wool. The narrative tension derives from the fact that once someone is outside, there’s no way to get back inside the silo alive.
Initially, Howey’s expectations were met: Nothing much happened. But after three months, a faint rumble was heard; rave reviews started appearing on Amazon and word-of-mouth — or word-of-chatroom? — began to work its magic. Sales began rising; people began asking for more.
It was October 2011 when everything changed. That month, Howey sold a thousand e-books. On the last day of the month, he stayed up till midnight watching the numbers come in. When he realized what had happened, he sat down and began to write the second story in the series. He would rise at three in the morning to get in his hours at the keyboard before going off to work at the bookstore. “I was consumed.”
In November, the second story was available on Amazon. By January 2012, Howey was making $200 a day, more than he was making in a week at the bookstore. He quit, although not without a great deal of angst — he was about to try to be one of the few writers who doesn’t have a day job.
So far, his luck is holding just fine.
“Wool” was published (in print!) in England, where it became a best-seller. It has now sold to 32 different countries. Ridley Scott has optioned the book. Howey calls the entire experience “life-altering,” and he’s not exaggerating. He returned to South Florida, and the Jupiter house he bought a year ago is paid for.
Howey was lucky in one respect — science fiction, along with romance, have very avid fans. Amazon’s Belle says that, “The most active, engaged and well-organized reading communities online are groups of science fiction, fantasy and romance readers. If you write a book that catches readers’ attention and makes them want to share their thoughts about it, these groups can spread the word very quickly.”
Howey says that the reason literary fiction is not particularly dependent on word of mouth is that story is less important than prose and style. “With science fiction and romance, you kind of know going in what the experience is going to be.”
All told, “Wool” is a fairly grim book, as is “I, Zombie,” a book Howey brought out in 2012, which he refers to as “a literary horror novel.” In “I, Zombie,” the creatures can remember all of their previous lives, even as they are helpless to control the desires that compel them to eat people. Some of the gloom derives from Howey’s consumption of a great deal of philosophy and a gradual loss of belief in free will that probably derives from witnessing 9/11 at close range.
“9/11 pops up in most of my works. I’ve been writing about it obliquely since my very first novel. In that debut work, an entire planet is razed, and the protagonist watches from a distance. I remember bawling while writing the scene. It was painful but cathartic. In the ‘Wool’ series, several of the silos are brought down much like the twin towers. I don’t think I’ll ever get that day out of my head, but writing about it helps, even if I’m the only one who knows that’s what I’m writing about.
“ ‘I, Zombie’ tackles that day head-on. Maybe that’s the reason I don’t recommend the book to people and even put a disclaimer in the description. I don’t care if anyone ever reads that book; I just had to write it.”
It was only a matter of time before conventional trade publishers came calling for “Wool,” but Howey turned them down because the standard publishing deal mandates e-book rights, and he was making in the vicinity of $100,000 a month through Amazon, which had priced “Wool” at $5.99 for the five-story omnibus version.
Finally, Simon & Schuster bought the book for print only. The book has done well, but not as well as the e-book version; Howey says about 90 percent of his American sales are e-books, and it’s possible that the e-book has skimmed off a lot of potential readers who would otherwise have bought the print version for a higher price.
Open to fan fiction
Howey has taken his success one step further: he’s encouraging others to share in it by allowing writers to use his settings and characters for their own stories. In other words, he’s opened up the “Wool” series for fan fiction. This would give most writers an aneurysm, but Howey is sanguine.
“I grew up in a different time, with open-sourced projects. Wikipediaand the Encyclopedia Britannica. I don’t have an affinity for a canon; I don’t feel a sense of protectiveness about it. I don’t ask to see anybody else’s story before it goes out.”
Fredric Shernoff, 32, lives in Wellington and works as a real estate developer. He recently published “Angels of the Earth,” a “Wool” story that has been selling 20 to 30 copies a day at 99 cents apiece on Amazon. “There are some general rules,” says Shernoff of the Amazon program, “but they allow the rights holders to set the parameters. Hugh is very open. You can kill one of his characters off, you can revisit a plot he already did.”
Shernoff says that the author of the fan fiction gets 35 percent of the proceeds, Howey gets 35 percent, and Amazon takes the rest. (Amazon doesn’t talk about contractual matters, so won’t confirm or deny the royalty split.) Howey was given an advance once he agreed to the fan fiction, which he took to be a licensing fee.
“If I make a penny in royalties beyond this advance, I’ll be donating those royalties to a literary charity,” he says. “I don’t mind the licensing fee, but I would be uncomfortable earning royalties on another’s work.”
Howey says that he thinks of fan fiction as training wheels for new writers. “I’ve already made more money off ‘Wool,’ than I ever planned, so seeing other people get a leg up because of it is cool. It’s also surreal. One guy told me that he made enough from his story to pay his rent for the month. Worrying about copyright pales next to that. Fan fiction teaches readers that they can become writers too, and that’s exciting.
“I like books like ‘The Road’ and ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale,’ books that cross boundaries. I’m just thrilled that ‘Wool’ has done some of that. I have no ego about the work — I just want it to be as good as possible. I’ve lived a simple life, so this is like winning the lottery. I’m grateful, but I’m also prepared to go back to shelving books.”
Next: sailing the world
Right now, Hugh Howey is enjoying his good life.
He has completed another book entitled “Dust,” which wraps up the Silo saga. “I don’t want to write the same characters over and over,” he says.
He gets up in the morning, gets the paper from the driveway and reads it over a bowl of cereal. He writes until lunch, after which he takes Bella to the beach. Afternoon is for emails and business.
In five years, Howey and his wife plan to retire, buy a boat and sail around the world. He’ll write a serialized memoir about their experiences and post it on his blog. Maybe he’ll even sell it — there’s a long history of sailing adventures staying in print for a century or more. Hugh Howey, meet Richard Henry Dana.
Howey rubs Bella and contemplates his good fortune, which is diametrically opposed to his vision of a world bathed in brutality. He is not unaware of the irony.
“Right now,” he says, “I’m just soaking up every minute of it.”