Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Listen to Yourself.

I just had a reader point out an ancient blog post of mine, and boy, does it make for an interesting read in light of the success of WOOL. A snippet:

Here’s what I was thinking: First, the books come out in a serial format, instead of one giant chunk. Each section would be around 30 pages (10K words) and have a basic beginning and end with a little hook to keep the reader enticed. At the end of ten sections, you have a completed work (and it just so happens, my first two books have this precise format).

 

You give the first section away on the Internet via your blog, scribd, etc. After that, each section is a mere $0.99. Half a cup of coffee. Two sticks of gum. One third a comicbook. The sections are released on your website with PayPal, cc, etc. and on the Kindle (their lowest price option is $0.99).

 

After 10 sections are released, you give away the epilogue (which hooks them for the next book) and they only have to wait another month to continue the journey! Meanwhile, that first book is bound and printed and sold via traditional means, on your website, at book conferences, in brick-and-mortar stores (if your book catches on enough) and to loyal fans that want a hard copy.

 

The constant micro-transactions replace traditional royalties. You stay connected with your reader year-round. It’s all about developing an excited fanbase that spreads the word. And at these prices, the entry can be an impulse-buy, not an agonizing internal debate.

 

With my first manuscript complete, and not yet turned into a book, I was thinking about publishing it in much the way that I would eventually publish WOOL. But all the advice I was given at the time was that I needed an agent and a publisher, that books must be books, and that you have to get into bookstores to have a career as a writer. I remember questioning these beliefs but being too scared and too aware of my own ignorance to take a chance and go with what made logical and creative sense to me.

It wasn’t until I saw how manuscripts are transformed into novels that I realized I could do this on my own or with a little one-time help. I ended up publishing with Nadene and NorLights—who I mention in that ancient blog post. It appears we hooked up a mere three days after I began querying Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue to agents and publishers. I learned a lot about writing and editing from Nadene (WOOL 2 was dedicated to her). And I watched NorLights Press employ print-on-demand technology that was open to anyone. I helped them get an ebook developed and published, and I saw that I could do this on my own. I became a little less ignorant and a little less afraid.

A year later, I started voicing ideas about where I thought the publishing world would go, and the more entrenched and expert my audience, the more vociferously I was told that I was crazy. Or just dumb. Or that I probably needed to work on my writing if I wasn’t making inroads with major publishers. I asked on a popular forum if agents would ever cull self-published books from the bestseller lists, and agents and fellow writers told me that this profession had better things to do with their time, that they were busy enough with slush piles. I suggested that authors might get better deals from publishers with an existing readership than they would with a promising manuscript, and I heard that this was what failed writers surely said.

The lesson here isn’t that I was right about anything. Anyone can get lucky. The lesson here is that I was afraid. I was cowed by those who purported to know better than me. In more than one case, I was practically bullied for thinking outside the box. Which is why I want to declare, right here, for those of you who email me or read my blog for tips, that I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Last summer, I was on a panel at WorldCon in Chicago about the changing publishing landscape. The moderator had us give introductions and make brief statements, and my opening remark was to tell a packed crowd that we were not experts up there on that panel. None of us are. I offered the position that everyone in that room was equally prepared (and unprepared) for the future of publishing, because the landscape is just changing so damn fast. The panel, then, should be thought of as a conversation, a collection of opinions and anecdotes, and those of us up on that dais have just as much to learn from the audience as the other way around.

At least a dozen people stopped me at some point over the next few days to thank me for this introduction. And I wanted to tell them that I know where they are coming from. They have bright ideas, new ideas, and they just aren’t sure about them. I urge you all to be braver than I was. Don’t sit on your dreams and ideas for two years before stumbling, luckily, down a path you spotted much sooner. Ask for opinions, but listen to your own.

Most of what I’ve learned in these last few years has been from other authors groping about alongside me. I found the Writers’ Cafe at KBoards, where people happily admitted that they were clueless or had problems, where they shared their experiences and their valuable data, and where authors help each other out. Where authors build each other up rather than tear each other down. Here was a place where new words were invented rather than the meaning of old words argued over.

At book conferences, I sat with rising stars at little tables off in the corner and listened more than I talked. I learned about audiobooks and metadata, about new outlets like Kobo; I studied other authors’ POD books and how they were paginated; and I kept reminding myself that I was just as dumb as everyone else. Which means maybe some of my ideas and thoughts might be as good as any other.

If you take anything away from this, it’s that you should listen to yourself. I didn’t, not nearly as well as I should have. But maybe you will. Maybe you’ll be the first person to act out a few scenes from your book with friends and post those scenes on YouTube. Or you’ll be the first person to spread the news of your novel with an album of music. Or you’ll go back to our roots and hand-sell your work to independent bookstores, one ARC at a time, one reader at a time. There is no idea that is wrong except the one not acted upon. There is no person who is wrong except the one who claims others are. Let’s flip this around: Why don’t I start emailing you all for advice? Or at least let me go back and read some of my old blog posts and be a little braver this time…

16 replies to “Listen to Yourself.”

Awesome advice, that is, for us to give some weight to our own intuition and to listen to, and share with, others. I’ve started to reach out to local writer’s groups myself and didn’t know about kboards, so there are some things to follow up on right there.

Thanks Hugh!!

Great post. I remember hearing the same thing when I first started, and I thought, ‘there has to be another way.’ Well I entered a writing contest, met many new friends – aspiring authors as well – and we seemed to motivate each other and help each other to find new ways of entering the publishing world. This was just when self-publishing on-line through Createspace and KDP had entered the arena. I got a lot of backlash from some folks saying they were waiting for a traditional publisher to request their manuscript. They would never stoop to the self-publishing level. But you know what? I spend most of my time writing instead of querying and filing rejections. I’m learning a lot from other authors via social media – which also helps in my marketing. Maybe I could have made it bigger faster, but that wasn’t the point. The point for me was and always will be writing. I’m selling what I write and I’m having a good time doing it. I like this ever-changing world. There’s never a dull moment.
Thanks again for the post. :)

Awesome advice Hugh. In my opinion, The past few years I have continually put tasks aside. Not working on my goals or even attempting to accomplish them. I believe from fear of failure. You are totally right I need to listen to myself. Chase my dreams. And if I fail, hell just try again!

I’m a biologist and I’m always amazed when my creative world and my scientific world collide. If scientists listened to all the “Experts” every time an experiment wasn’t giving the expected results, half the innovations of the past 20 years would never have come into existence. Example – Bacterial therapy (aka: Fecal transplants) to cure Cloistridium difficile infections.

Thank you for the reminder to follow one’s own instincts in both writing, publishing (and science), even after listening to the “Experts.”

I’ve been thinking of publishing my novel in serial form for years and have a social network that allows fan work. Then I saw that you did that. I’m glad you acted. You’re right about many authors being afraid to go the self-publishing route. I was like that, too, but was even worse because I never submitted my book for fear of how it would be received. I hope to change that in the next few months. By the way, I enjoyed reading Wool!

Hugh, what’s happened in publishing is a validation of what we had tried to do many years ago. We are John and Cathie Celestri blending our writing talents into the voice that is Cathie John. We’ve been together as husband and wife since late 1979; and have been writing together on and off since 1996. We authored and self published five crime fiction novels back in 1997 through 2003.

Back then, our noir/hard-boiled crime fiction novel “Little Mexico: An Original Sin City Novel” was a finalist for the Barry Award in 2001 as Best Paperback Original.

A lot has changed in publishing since we were last active in the crime fiction community. We are starting to catch up on the new realities of the literary marketplace. When we self published back in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the process was looked upon as “vanity press”, writers not good enough for the major publishers and book chains…except we actually were a small independent publisher. We handled our own writing, editing, layout, cover art, etc, and used a service to print our books in trade paperback and hardcover. We were distributed through both Ingram and Baker & Taylor, and were stocked in brick and mortar stores such as Barnes & Noble, many independent mystery bookstores, and on Amazon. Our novels got great reviews in The Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Enquirer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and all the mystery review publications.

Circumstances forced us to stop in late 2003, but we are now ready to relaunch our writing careers, publish our efforts as eBooks, write our crime fiction stories, and re-issue our five novel back list over the next year or so.

Our first eBook re-issue is “Little Mexico” on Amazon.com. When it was first published, the thought of being accepted as real writers was a dream—now self published authors such as yourself are on The New York Times and USA Best Seller lists. It’s a whole new world!

The take away from this is to listen to that voice deep within yourself. Sometimes the world has to catch up with you.

Hey John & Cathie, congrats on the re-launching of your writing careers! Authors such as yourselves, with so much experience and savvy, are well-positioned to excel at self-publishing, I think. I look forward to hearing how things go for you.

Hi Hugh,

We have just started the long process of (re)connecting with readers. The eBook edition of “Little Mexico” has been up for only 11 days (as of this writing); so, we’ll take it one step at a time. Working on prepping the sequel (“In the Name of the Father”) for eBook release in about a month from now.

Wow, Hugh. Thank you so much for this post. It’s actually quite relevant for me on many levels so it’s inspirational to have someone I admire so much as a person and professional to get on a public forum and tell people to not be afraid, to hit the ground running, and not let someone else who doesn’t have to live in your skin, tell you what you are or aren’t capable of.

This is probably the best post I’ve read in a long time. I have been taking workshops and trying to figure out what my platform should be. My gut pet telling me exactly what you said:

“I kept reminding myself that I was just as dumb as everyone else.”

This quote wasn’t new to me but what followed was. It answered my question better than any paid program did. I don’t want to build on a program already thought of, I want to be the first or at least one of a few doing something different. Thank you for validating that not just with your voice but with your own journey.

Very inspiring, as a writer, for anyone who has ever been scared to take a leap of faith. I’ve held back putting my own work out there until, quite honestly, yesterday. I made a declaration. I will just do it. And I have a feeling that it will soon feel very good for some of my stories to finally have a home instead of own my hard drive or in my notebooks. Thank you for writing this.

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