Author Hugh Howey on What’s Good About E-Books, Open Source Movements, and Fan Fiction

It’s no secret that the world of book publishing was changed forever by Amazon. After first dealing a hefty blow to the bricks-and-mortar marketplace by making book purchasing as easy as tapping a few keystrokes, Amazon’s self publishing model has also made it possible for you or me or Hugh Howey to achieve incredible, life-changing success by writing a great book and selling it directly to the public. This is what Howey did — after a few years of self-publishing other titles, mind you — when he hit the sweet spot with the beautifully written and unputdownable dystopian saga, Wool.

Wool was first self-published by Howey as a standalone story on Amazon in the summer of 2011. The sci fi/dystopian reading community clamored for morem and Howey wrote four more segments in the series, each more successful than the last. By making the series very affordable — and deliciously readable — Howey became the ultimate overnight success, except that it wasn’t overnight (and rarely is). The five Wool ebooks shot to the top of the sales charts first on Amazon and then The New York Times. An Omnibus edition collecting all five segments together was epublished. And then the fun really began.

Howey’s story, the riveting tale of societal interactions within a future world which is buried underground due to the poisonous outside environment, attracted the attention of filmmaker Ridley Scott, who bought the rights to develop Wool into a feature film. Book publishing companies began to circle Howey with tantalizing offers. He determined that there were some items on his publishing deal wishlist that were non-negotiable — like retaining the rights to the ebooks — and most publishers would not meet those demands. Late to the party was Simon & Schuster, but it came to the table and fulfilled all of Howey’s wishes in order to publish both a hard cover and paperback of Wool‘s Omnibus edition in March 2013.

Howey spoke to PopMatters about how the plot of Wool came to him, his writing process, genre fiction, and the future of publishing.

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What does the title of the book refer to, and did it come to you before or after you started writing?

The title came to me while writing the book. It refers to having the wool pulled over one’s eyes. The question of what to believe and what’s real permeates the first story and is carried throughout the work. The reason for the wool scrubbing pads was to give the title a literal meaning in order to obscure the figurative one.

What was your writing process with the series? Did you know when you wrote the first book that you had the rest of them planned out?

Not at all. I thought there would only ever be that one short story. But any work can be extended. Making up a world gives you complete freedom to do whatever you like within it. When I saw the reaction to Wool — with so many readers hungry for more — I sat down and plotted out the rest of the series.

Do you think Wool’s great success as an independent ebook had anything to do with the vast amount of loyal science fiction / dystopian fans? If it was a completely different kind of story, would it have had the same trajectory?

Genre fiction has an enormous advantage, both in self-published works and in traditionally published works. There are more readers out there looking for genre fiction. So yes, I think it absolutely helped. What also helps is that this doesn’t read like genre fiction, and so I’m finding an even wider audience. So many people have told me that they don’t normally read this type of work and then how much they’re loving it. Those are the best compliments. Hopefully they’ll go on to explore the genre further.

Why do you think dystopian themes are so popular in current fiction?

That’s a great question. Does it say something about our times? Our economy? Our outlook on life? The more I’ve explored this, though, the more dystopian works I’ve seen stretching right back through time. I believe there’s been a steady run of works like these, it’s just that social media has made us more aware of what everyone else is reading, and social media has magnified the reach and profitability of what’s hot. You could also say that comic book films have never been so popular, or science fiction films, or zombies, or Korean pop stars. Things just seem magnified these days, and I think that’s because of how we’re connected together.

What are your favorite books?

The ones that teach me. I mostly read non-fiction. Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is one, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken another. In fiction, I absolutely loved Ready Player One by Ernie Cline. That might be my new top book.

What is the latest news on the film, which I understand has been optioned by Ridley Scott?

That’s right. Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian optioned it with 20th Century Fox. The screenplay is being written right now. The meetings in L.A. with the studio executives went very well. I asked the production teams afterward what they thought the chances were of actually seeing this on-screen (knowing how few works get through the pre-production stage), and I was told that things look as well as they possibly can. I’m still keeping my expectations low, though. I won’t believe it until someone tears my ticket in half and says “third theater down on the right.”

I understand that you were at one time a yacht captain. It seems that kind of job would really be great fodder for the characters of those working in the silo in Wool.

Oh, absolutely. The people I worked with were quite varied, as were the people on all the islands and countries I visited. There was also a very delineated class structure. Among the crew, I may have been a captain, but to the guests and owners, we were all “the help”. You would pull into a marina on a 100+ foot yacht and feel like a top dog around the dock hands and marina staff. And then the charter guests would come in and you’d be picking up their towels off the deck and serving them drinks. What it taught me above all else was to respect my fellow human being. Being talked down to made me never want to talk down to anyone else.

Do you think hard copy books and ebooks can exist together in our changing marketplace?

They are going to coexist beautifully. I’m seeing that on this book tour. At every signing, I’m seeing crowds of people who loved the ebook and are now buying a physical book. They’re doing this all over the world. In the UK, a book that has been out for over a year in digital form hit the Sunday Times list the week it released in hardback. I think the key is to get the price of ebooks down so that readers can afford both. In a perfect world, we’ll give the ebook away with the purchase of a hardback. I think this will be a reality for some books within the year.

I’ve read that you encourage fan fiction, which is a remarkable thing to me since it flies in the face of conventional paradigms where authors seek to hold on tightly to the world they created. Much like Amanda Palmer in music, you’ve created a whole new model of how authors relate to readers.

I just saw Amanda’s TED talk last week, and it moved me to tears. She has taken the relationship and trust of her audience to a new level. I admire that. When I travel to a new city, I enjoy meeting up with readers and just hanging out, getting to know them, hearing about their lives. It’s enjoyable for me.

With the fan fiction, I can’t imagine having a different attitude. It would be as foreign to me as my philosophy must seem to others. I’m a fan of open source movements. I don’t like DRM (digital rights management, which keeps people from enjoying the stuff they purchase however they like). I also don’t mind piracy. I see it as a digital library. If someone loves my work, they’ll support it in some way. They’ll write a review, tell a friend, Paypal me a few bucks, or buy my next work.

David Adams, a science fiction author, was the first person to approach me with a piece of fan fiction. I loved it so much that I couldn’t imagine him giving it away for free. I begged him to publish the piece. I’ve done the same with everyone else who has approached me about fan fiction. If the popularity of my world can help another artist support his or her craft – what could be better than that?

I’ve read that Shift and Dust are coming out later this year. Are these sequels or prequels to Wool?

Shift begins as a prequel, but it catches up to the same time period as Wool. Dust will pick up where both of these books leave off and conclude the trilogy with a clash between the two groups. It’s an inventive narrative structure. At least, that’s what I like to call it. I think my editor would have different words for it.