Hugh Howey talks ‘Dust’ to Catherine Ryan Howard
An entire society dwells in an enormous, underground silo. Their only view of what remains of the outside world is a television screen that transmits images captured by video-cameras mounted above ground. Most of the time the screen shows nothing but a lifeless, desolate landscape with the crumbled ruins of a city in the distance—except for when someone is sent outside for ‘cleaning’, banished from the silo forever for voicing a wish to leave and tasked with wiping the camera lenses clean. And yet even though they know they have mere minutes to live in the toxic atmosphere, no one has ever refused to clean. No one sent outside has ever walked past the cameras. Each ‘cleaner’ has spent precious last moments on wiping the grit and grime off the lenses. Why?
The premise of Hugh Howey’s global bestseller Wool makes it the ultimate page-turner. As a reader, you have endless questions (why do these people live in the silo? Who built it? What happened to the outside?) and you can forget about getting anything else done until the pages reveal the answers. This mystery has helped drive Wool—originally self-published by Howey as a short story—into a phenomenon on both sides of the publishing divide, and director Ridley Scott has bought the film rights.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Howey for writing.ie, to mark the release of the third installment, Dust, and to find out more about his self-propelled journey to global bestsellerdom.
Hugh Howey: It all started with a version of Plato’s Cave analogy. Plato suggested that we can’t see the true forms of things but are doomed to sit in a cave and guess at what’s going on behind us by studying the shadows projected on the walls. Today, we glean most of what we know about the world from TV news, the internet, and newspapers. What does it do to our perception that these outlets are mostly (and understandably) full of bad and dire news? In Wool, a group of people live underground and can only see the world through a single screen. They are not allowed to doubt this view. Anyone who does is sent outside and never heard from again. At the heart of this book is a cast of characters who dare to hope, who have the courage to see for themselves.
CRH: What made you decide to self-publish Wool in the first place? Self-publishers the world over are now motivated by your amazing success with it, but what were your expectations back on that very first day, when you pressed the ‘Publish’ button?
HH: My expectation was that someone, somewhere, might accidentally purchase the story and live not to regret it. My very first novel was published with a small press, and I enjoyed the experience but decided that I would be happier publishing on my own. I wanted all the creative control, and I realized that it wasn’t all that much work. It might take you a year to write a novel, but it only takes a week (or a weekend) to create an account and teach yourself how to format and upload the thing. I was going to be responsible for the vast majority of my sales and promotion, anyway, so why not do the whole thing? I especially wanted to be able to control the price of the work. I would much rather sell a million ebooks at $5.99 than a few thousand at $14.99. I’m not great at math, but I can work a calculator. More importantly, as a reader, I knew what I would expect to pay.
CRH: For many authors, both traditionally and self-published, you seem to have achieved the ultimate dream scenario: you signed a deal that got your printed books in stores the world over, but you retained your e-book rights. Do you think this will become more common as time goes on, and is it the best scenario for everyone involved?
HH: My hope is that deals like this become unnecessary one day. The far better deal is the sort that we all sign with our foreign publishers, and that’s a limited term of license. Publishers should pay less money for books and have the rights to them for 5 years, say. After that time, the rights revert back and can be renegotiated. Another potential future is one wherein the digital rights for a work are handled so well that authors don’t mind giving them up. That could mean a higher royalty share, lower prices, bundling with physical editions, monthly rather than biannual payments, real-time sales data, no non-compete clauses, and the like. You can make a satisfactory deal that works for everyone, but not a lot of those are being made. Authors sign because they figure they don’t have any other choice. It’s worth pointing out here that I have been very lucky with my foreign publishers, and they show the sort of originality, creativity, and drive that we don’t see from most domestic publishers. I’m not against publishing houses at all. I’m just primarily for readers first and then authors second. There’s no shame in bronze medals. I love having publishers on the podium with us, especially my awesome publishers.
CRH: The UK hardcover edition of Dust that your publisher kindly sent to us is easily the most beautiful-looking book I’ve seen all year. It’s just stunning. How did it feel the first time you held one of these printed editions of your book in your hands, and how was it different to the same moment on a Kindle (or iPad, or Nook…)?
HH: I think this is the biggest misconception of my publishing history. I have always published print editions alongside my ebook editions. For the first two years of my career, print vastly outsold the ebook. I am a book lover and a longtime bookseller, and because of these biases, I concentrated on print and ignored ebooks. Sure, I uploaded them, but I spent far more time stuffing books into envelopes and mailing them to readers, doing signings around town, and going to craft shows and sitting at tables with stacks of books.
It wasn’t until my ebooks began outpacing my print books that I saw the swing in the market and began to focus my efforts on the digital. But all along, I have done print editions and cherished unboxing them for the first time. Of course, none of my books have ever looked as spectacular as what Random House cooked up in the UK. Jason Smith, the cover artist, knocked this trilogy out of the park. And my editor Jack Fogg and his team, like Natalie Higgins and Jennifer Doyle, put together a gorgeous package. I’m pretty sure I teared up the first time I saw these covers. I still get a bit weepy.
CRH: Has there been any aspect of the traditional publishing process that has left you thinking, ‘Back when I was self-publishing I didn’t know/think I needed this — but I do!’? And similarly, are there any benefits of self-publishing that you wish you could transfer to the traditional process?
HH: I went caravanning in Wales in the dead of winter with my editor Jack Fogg, and that wasn’t something I thought about as a self-published author. But I’m sure glad I went! There are always things you learn from working with others. My publicist Natalie Higgins stressed the importance of hitting every bookshop I could to sign store stock (and she taught me to walk at Olympic speeds to get twice as much done in a day). I have learned a lot about how blockbusters are marketed and managed. I have learned what goes into setting up media contacts, watched a revolutionary set of proof copies go out, and drooled over the cover art and the book trailer.
The things I wish publishers could steal from self-publishing is the access to real-time data, the monthly payments and royalty reports, the low ebook prices (or bundling ebooks with hardbacks), and for contracts to look more like a partnership than an acquisition. Of course, I have a lot of this with Random House in the UK, because of the nature of foreign publishing deals. What’s unique about our relationship is that I signed with Random House UK long before I signed a deal at home, so I see them as my primary traditional publisher. I view my editor there as my true editor when it comes to the traditional business. For most American authors, I don’t think this is the case.
CRH: We writers love hearing about the processes of scribes who have already achieved our dream of producing a universally praised bestselling book, because we live in the hope that some little detail — a favourite pen, a specific daily word count, a certain brand of computer — will open a jar of pixie dust and make it happen for us too. Please tell us a little bit about your writing habits. (Bearing in mind that, come on: we need all the help we can get!)
HH: If there is any secret I can hand out that might bestow success on others, I will do so in a heartbeat! I feel that I’ve had more than my share of good fortune and hope Lady Luck shines bright on the next guy or gal. Things that have helped me:
- A light laptop with a great keyboard. I went with a Macbook Air, but there are other options. You should have your writing tool handy at all times. Work whenever and wherever you can. I write in cabs, on planes, while my wife drives, whenever I can.
- Cut out time-wasting habits. Stop procrastinating. Make your story a little better today. This is a mantra for me.
- Make writing a habit. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Sit and stare at your work without checking email or Facebook, even if you don’t feel like writing. Sit and stare at it and think about it.
- Put the reader first in all things. Treat them with respect and serve their needs. Even if you only have one reader, value and cherish them. And all others who come your way.
- Learn that we aren’t in competition with one another. The best thing for your book is for someone else to sell lots of books. Readers come and go in waves, depending on whether or not reading is making them happy. We are all in this together. We need to make readers happy, and we rely on others doing the same.
CRH: Dust being the final installment of the trilogy, we’re sure we’re not the only Hugh Howey fans to wonder: what’s next?
HH: I am wrapping up two short stories right now, one for an exciting anthology that the editor has not yet announced and another that is my first stab at both fan fiction and my first stab at writing about my 9/11 experiences.
You can find out more about Hugh Howey on www.hughhowey.com. Dust is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers.
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
Catherine Ryan Howard is the author of Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing. Her blog www.catherineryanhoward.com has been voted on of the top 10 self publishing blogs in the world.