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LIZ COOK - The Kansas City Star
Quoted from kansascity.com
Author Hugh Howey gets richer by giving away his work
BY LIZ COOK
The Kansas City Star
Hugh Howey wants you to steal his book.
He can take the hit. The 37-year-old author and former bookseller made seven figures last year from self-publishing alone.
But Howey, author of the post-apocalyptic series “Wool,” doesn’t see piracy as the sales-killing threat that many in the entertainment industry do: To him, it’s another form of promotion.
“If your work doesn’t stand on its own, you’re not going to make money,” he explained in an interview while on a promotional tour stop last week at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kansas City. “It’s got to spread.”
Howey’s unique path to publication is a testament to the strategy: In an age of innovative marketing techniques, it seems word of mouth is still the best tool. When Howey first released “Wool” online, he regularly offered whole chapters for free.
“I give them away like a drug dealer doses out samples,” he joked in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on popular social news site Reddit.
The simile may be more apt than he realizes. Fans of the first book spread the word and returned to purchase further installments.
When Howey released the complete e-book edition of “Wool,” it sold more than 300,000 copies and soared to the top of Amazon.com’s Sci-Fi Top 100, passing even “Game of Thrones” author George R. R. Martin. The film rights to “Wool” sold just as quickly to a team that includes “Alien” director Ridley Scott.
That success gave Howey a unique bargaining power when traditional publishing houses came calling. Howey turned down more than one seven-figure offer from a major publisher before signing a rare print-only deal with Simon & Schuster. Simon & Schuster released paperback and hardcover editions simultaneously on March 12, but Howey retained the e-book rights that launched his career.
“Wool” follows in the wake of dystopian hits like Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” and Jeanne DuPrau’s “The City of Ember.” Howey’s series explores a chilling future when an inhospitable earth has forced the entire population underground to live in a giant silo.
Citizens who ask too many questions or talk about going outside are sentenced to “cleaning” — exiled aboveground to scrub grime off the sensors that capture images of the world outside and transmit them to the silo’s single indoor screen. Exposed to the toxic atmosphere, the cleaners seem to perish within minutes, but some of the silo’s inhabitants start to wonder if they can trust the images they see on the screen.
The silo’s 144 floors are divided like social classes: the upper levels house politicians and government officials, the mid-levels have social climbers who work in IT, and the “Down Deep”— the lowest floors — join the mechanicals, laborers and manufacturers who keep the silo’s electric generators and hydroponic farms in working order.
It’s a stratification that mirrors Howey’s own experience working as a yacht captain.
“I’d be down in the engine room covered in bilge water, and then I’d go up and serve foie gras to people up on the top decks laying out on beach towels. It was a floating silo.”
Howey’s experience selling his past work convinced him that self-publishing was the best outlet for “Wool.” When he finished his first book, he felt pressured by family and friends to ship it out to publishers right away.
“I just wanted to put it on my blog for free with a donate button,” he concedes, laughing. He went on to sell the book to a small press but became convinced that the middleman wasn’t necessary: “I realized that the tools they used to publish that book were the same tools available to anybody.”
Howey took those tools in hand when he self-published “Wool,” a decision that gave him the freedom to market it in a way he says would “terrify” some major publishing houses.
On any of his e-books, he encourages fans to share his work and refuses to use Digital Rights Management (DRM) — controversial controls that can prevent consumers from freely copying and sharing digital content after purchase.
Releasing his work for free (or with a donate button) might seem counterintuitive, but Howey, a sharp businessman and active social media marketer, explains, “What you think is logical in business is often not true.”
A quick glance at his sales figures makes it hard to disagree.
The pay-what-you-want model isn’t new. In 2007, English rock band Radiohead released its seventh studio album, “In Rainbows,” as a digital download from its website with a pay system that resembled a virtual tip jar. Fans could pay what they wanted for the album — even if that was nothing at all.
The band’s decision inspired a slew of other recording artists to follow suit. The model was trendy, but did it work? And if it did, would it work for print media as well?
Author Neil Gaiman gambled that it would. Like Howey, Gaiman is committed to the power of “free” — Gaiman himself is a patron of the Open Rights Group, a UK organization devoted to keeping online content democratic and DRM-free.
For his blog’s seventh anniversary, Gaiman convinced his publisher, HarperCollins, to let him release a free version of “American Gods” online for a full month. It was to be an experiment to see how sales figures might be affected . The results were surprising: Gaiman revealed on his blog that sales of all of his titles — not just “American Gods” — went up 40 percent in independent bookshops during the experiment.
But HarperCollins took the free version down once the trial month had ended, and sales dropped almost immediately to pre-free figures.
Hugh Howey is determined to give his story a different ending. Self-publishing has given him the freedom to try this model long term. Book One of “Wool” is still available for free on Amazon Kindle.
The first taste is on the house — Howey knows readers will keep coming back for more.