Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

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

My Publishing Values

Value listing is one of the more important thought exercises I’ve discovered over the years. I was introduced to this by a friend, and my first attempt was to list my top 10 overall values in the world. This sounds easy enough, but you have to do it in order. So what goes higher on that list, family or friends? Where do you rank truth and honesty, without which most of the other things we value can’t exist or be trusted?

Does science make the list of things we value, considering the lives it has saved and made more pleasant? Where do you rank education and democracy? One way to answer these questions is to look around the world at places that enjoy the benefits of one more than the other. Would you rather live among one of the remaining hunter/gatherer tribes with no science? Or in a country like China with no democracy?

The list you end up with is not nearly as important as the act of creation itself. It’s the wrestling with the thing that matters. As you imagine going without what’s dear to you, your appreciation of them can grow. And as you order the things you value, you can ask yourself if you are putting your energies into the things highest on the list. Quite often we find ourselves living by someone else’s values and not our own. Because we too rarely sit down and suss these questions out for ourselves.

All this came to mind recently when someone emailed me an old blog post of mine about what we should value in the publishing industry. When I used to travel to book conferences and give talks, a frequent theme of mine was that readers and writers should be the focus of this industry, not bookstores and publishers. That might sound quaint or obvious, but it’s not how the industry is covered. It’s mostly seen as a transaction between publishers (the producers of books) and bookstores (the retailers). How those entities are doing, what they need, where they can improve and grow, was pretty much every article in the trade press for many decades. People obsessed over what B&N was doing and then later Amazon. The rest was agony and gossip among and about the big 6 publishers (now the big 5).

That began to change when Amazon came along and decided to sell books online. And this change was not because of self-publishing or e-books. The Kindle was many years away. It was because of Amazon’s 1995 innovation, the customer review. Suddenly, readers mattered. We take this innovation for granted, but at the time people thought Amazon was making a mistake. Customers would rant and complain! They’d bash the very product the retailer was trying to sell! This happened, of course, but mostly people shared the pros and cons and helped other shoppers make better decisions. A lot of Amazon’s success comes from this early trust in its users.

When Amazon launched the Kindle and allowed anyone to upload a book to its website, an even louder contingent of pundits would decry the decision. This would end bookselling as we know it, they said. It would destroy the book discovery process, they lamented. Even authors got in the act by predicting a tsunami of crap that would make it impossible to find decent reads. First, Amazon was giving the reader way too much power and now they were doing the same for writers. For an industry that valued publishers and bookstores the most, Amazon’s every decision was anathema.

But was that really everyone’s value list? If you ask most people to rank their publishing values, publishers would probably end up near the very bottom, perhaps just higher than professional book critics. Bookstores would go near the very top of most snap lists, but where would they really rank if a proper value list was made? The only way to answer that is to wrestle with our own list and to ask others to do the same. In a very long-winded way, I’m going to do that right now. Come along with me if you like.

One of the joys of value listing are the chicken-and-egg problems that arise immediately. Can you have books and not authors? The answer is yes. Perhaps there’s a future where no new books are written, but we still have all the classics and what came before. Okay, can you have books and no readers? Of course. I wrote books for quite some time with no readers. They just sit there. So is it books we value the most? Or is it the act of them being read?

What about readers without books? It’s not technically reading, but we had a very long and rich oral tradition before writing and literacy became more common. Would I rather have stories being told and enjoyed over a world full of books that no one can read? Now we’re zeroing into the top of my list. Readers win out over books themselves, because if the physical things went away, we could still have Story with a capital s. Audiobooks and the oral tradition could survive. This would be a world without writers, so no new stories, which is a shame. But it’s better than a world full of writers if none of their stories are being heard.

My list thus far:

1: Readers

I’ve already decided that the shape story comes in is not as important as the act of them being told and enjoyed. So books and bookstores are not yet a priority. Right now I just have people enjoying previously concocted stories as they are spoken aloud or listened to from a recording. What we need are more stories, so to the list we add writers:

1: Readers
2: Writers

The audience and the artist. Getting these two down in this order makes almost every decision I’ve made as an author, bookseller, speaker, publisher, blogger jump right out at me. Lower prices and more reading options for readers. Better pay, better contracts, fewer barriers to entry for writers. This is why value listing is so important. If you rank books #1, you value a world of dusty or bare shelves. But with these two down, do books now come third? Or is an e-book only world better if it includes publishers or agents and the value they add? Or is a retailer for e-books more important than a world full of books but not a single bookstore? Where do I rank books, publishers, and bookstores?

Behind editors, that’s where.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors

Whoa. Really? Yes, dear reader. I wouldn’t have published a single book without the input and courage I received from my editors. That includes my mother, sister, cousin, online friends, and my writing club members. Editors go back to the oral tradition mentioned above. They were the people honing and refining story to make them better, offering suggestions and input, often becoming storytellers themselves. They are the super-reader. The beta-reader. The book-perfecter.

Would you prefer a bookstore full of unedited manuscripts over an oral tradition of finely honed masterpieces? I doubt many sober lovers of story would come to this conclusion if forced to decide. Perhaps those who have never seen a rough draft and don’t realize how far that last level of polish takes a work.

Editors are key. They are more important than physical books. and I have to rank them accordingly. Within this group are the agents who act as editors but do so much more. Again, this is why these listing exercises are so useful. Editors add tons of value but are rarely discussed when we talk about our love of books. Speaking of which, can we finally add books to the list?

Not so fast. We are back at the dreaded retailer/book/publisher question from earlier. What does a world without a book retailer look like? This means no sidewalk shops or bazaars. No online retail. No used bookstores. No place that transacts for the sale of a book at all. We have eager readers, talented authors, capable editors… do we want them producing book-shaped things but nobody can earn a living from their efforts? What about having a retailer like Audible, which would allow easy access to all these books, a steady income for many authors and editors, but no physical books?

It’s the earnings side that has me putting bookstores next on my list, before we even have books! So e-books and audiobooks only. For many, I know books would have shown up by now, and that’s a fair call. But then authors and editors are working for free forever. And that’s something I can’t value over the physical shape a story takes.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Retailers (digital only)

Painful, I know. It’s not supposed to be easy. Surely we get books now, please?! I’m writing this as a kid who was obsessed with books and who has remained surrounded by them ever since. I can’t walk past a bookstore without popping inside. When I visit friends, I often end up standing in front of their shelves reading spines, comparing tastes. Any antique rummaging begins and ends with the boxes of books. And yet … they aren’t going to make my top 5. Because now that writers can earn a living in my value list, I have to add the institutions that make sure everyone has access to books. Next on my list is libraries.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Retailers (digital only)
5: Libraries

Libraries without books? I’m as aghast as you are. But if you are going to give stories the shape of a book and not allow libraries in this world, I beg you to reconsider. Libraries are so critical that I very nearly rank them #4 on my list, except that this makes the career of a writer impossible. Libraries do more than provide a place for people to enjoy stories for free. They provide expertise in finding those stories and in cataloging them. As stories have become more and more digital, libraries have added even more value. Yes, I rank them higher than books. But thank goodness the physical object can finally go on the list.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Retailers (digital only)
5: Libraries
6: Books

Whew. Man, that hurt to wait so long, but I can’t reason through it any other way. Now that we have books, we can reclassify retailers as bookstores. Of course our old world could have had e-book kiosks and digital-only brick and mortar stores. All that’s changed is the container our stories go inside.

Once you get past the really hard decisions, it’s tempting to slap the rest of the list together. Resist this temptation. Weigh the rest with the same level of care. Make sure you aren’t leaving anything out. We still need cover artists, audiobook narrators, publishers, professional book reviewers. These will round out my top ten (I consider large scale printers covered by the category of “books” itself).

It’s difficult to choose between cover artists and narrators to be honest. Both deserve much more recognition than they get. Good cover art can make or break a story’s success. But as audiobooks have grown, and to pay homage to the critical importance of how this industry got its start with oral storytelling, I have to give narrators the nod. I know audiobookphiles who choose their next purchase over the voice more than the writer, and for good reason.

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Bookstores
5: Libraries
6: Books
7: Narrators
8: Cover artists

That leaves publishers and reviewers, who should not feel completely diminished. Making the list at all is something. There are entities that add tons of value to the storytelling enterprise who aren’t even mentioned here, like formatters and typesetters, booksellers and bloggers. But the final list goes:

1: Readers
2: Writers
3: Editors
4: Bookstores
5: Libraries
6: Books
7: Narrators
8: Cover artists
9: Publishers
10: Critics

That’s my list. Disagree or agree? What would your list look like? Who didn’t make the list and should have?

15 replies to “My Publishing Values”

I love the idea of making a list to see where one’s values are. It fits in practically with the lifestyle that I am trying to achieve. Thank you for the idea.

My pleasure. It’s a fun exercise that you can do with pretty much anything. Helps with big decisions in live as well. For me, it’s more useful than a pro/con list.

Dear Hugh, I agree with most of the list, and I would have made many of the same choices, but where I deviated was when you came to writers–I would have put in the term story-tellers. Not just because I wanted to broaden the category of what I valued right from the beginning to include whatever the media of delivery (books, audiobooks, film) but because what I value is how important developing and then sharing narratives (fiction and non-fiction) are to me. This is how I develop empathy, understanding, experience the world around me. The emphasis is on sharing–which is why I also agree with your decision to put readers (but I would include listeners and viewers) higher than my story-tellers.

If there is no one to listen to my stories, no one to give me feedback (ah yes, I do agree with the “beta reader/listener/viewer” role you have described.) then I am just talking to myself. I also think by broadening the term to story tellers–I am accepting that there are stories being told within the gamer universe (which I have never played and never understood) and of course through visual mediums.

Following that logic, I guess I would change bookstores to stores, and yes libraries–although I really might have to put libraries above stores, feeling that the only reason they are lower down in importance right now has been the decision by stores like Amazon to limit how libraries can access many of their ebook and audiobooks.

I am afraid I just couldn’t put publishers on the list–unless I am referring to myself and other indie authors. Because, if I and so many other indie authors weren’t willing to do the work of publishing–then so many of the stories I have been enjoying and hope to enjoy in the future wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day.

Finally, I am going to have to think long and hard about the choice of Critic on the list. While I find the customer reviews very important in giving me the information I need as a reader and writer, it seems that this is really the role played by the reader/listener/viewer (gamer?) when they simply take a chance and borrow or buy the media in which my stories and all of our stories are told.

But then, I guess sales rank, or even sales numbers probably aren’t as useful as the stars and reviews if the problem is simply that I, as publisher, haven’t done the work I need to do to give them a chance to find the story.

But thank you so much for prompting my thoughts on this. I found it very valuable, (smile).

GREAT point about how we label writers. Storytellers is much preferred. It covers a wider gamut.

Any thoughts on where FanFiction written works would fit into all this? Would they just be another writer in the mix? I struggle with the confidence to share my own work and part of me wonders if I should strike out first with sharing my written works that are companion pieces of the work of authors? Does FanFiction ever effect the original author?

I see fan fiction writers as regular writers. Almost all of Shakespeare’s works were fan fiction or based on historical figures. We tell the same stories over and over with our own style or flair. I make no distinction.

Great list. Can’t disagree with your logic. I’ve lived by lists and value debates forever, but I’m not sure I have ever brought them together? Hmm surely not. Anyway, great idea.

Your point, or trick over selecting by acknowledging the oral tradition of storytelling – still massively alive all over the world, and how stories like The Flood, came into being – and can be traced through those traditions and versions that were eventually written down, is fascinating.

It has never occurred to me to connect the modern writing/reading processes and facilities. Travelling storytellers must have been like the movie theatre or TV coming to town. And each story had been told and retold, feedback accepted, honed and adapted, until the exciting product could be unboxed in the next town, and the next.

But, it’s more than that even. We do this everyday. Events in our lives become stories and tell our great stories the rest of our lives. How much do they resemble the original events? We edit them continuously, while trying to keep the core events truthful of course. Maybe we get bored hearing them ourselves or are aware the our partners have heard them so many times, that we remove some of the extraneous parts and get right down to the core story. And this is all wrapped up in what you say about readers and editors.

But, I’m going to put Story, or our need to tell abs hear Story, and our imagination and survival instinct to learn by Story, and our human predilection for gossip that drives story – and appears to separate us from other animals, and almost certainly drove our evolution and development, at the top.

It’s my love and need for Story: telling abs listening, that drives everything – and I love it 😀

Also, your point about narration is SO important. Only recently I saw a dramatic production of David Nichols – “Us” with a great cast abs excellent screen adaptation.
Previously I had “only” heard the audio book. A book I almost didn’t finish. The main character is SO unsympathetic it is maddening. Made much worse by the narrator who made me want to strangle him.
Some might say this made it better or more powerful, because Nichols writing was brought to life in such an emotive way! Maybe. But the dramatises version was no less powerful to me, but was a little easier to accept abs understand, without having to fight through the barrier of terrible narration first.

Of course, the vaccine of having read it already might have dimmed the impact of the TV version – I’ll never know 😀

Hugh, please remove my comment from the blog. I wanted to write my own review for your article, but it didn’t work out. I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m not comfortable here. I do not understand at all how the wind brought me to you.

I appreciate your list exercise, as I am a structured list person. Which comes first, is dependent upon which side of the book you are on, so to speak.

I would place writer first. Why? Because it was writers who instilled the love of reading in me as a child, carrying into adult life. Over the past two years, I set a goal to read and review 52 books a year. I’ve become acquainted to new indie writers and seasoned writers.

I became an author, because I was encouraged by an author to write my memoir. It was another author who kept encouraging me to release my book, when I began to have doubts. It was reading authors blog posts and books which helped me to keep writing and exploring different genres and writing styles.

It has been the Twitter writing community of authors which has helped guide me and refine my writing and marketing skills.

So for me, writers will always be #1. For they have changed my life, and have been a guiding source to me becoming an author. I will always be grateful for those who crossed my path, even for just a small moment in time.

When I sit down to write, I think of them, who several have now become my readers. It is a beautiful circle of love, for the written word, which will pass the test of time.

I would put cover artists above narrators, but I think it depends on which audience you are writing for.

My wife wrote a book and I was horrified when I saw the cover art -some arcing lines on a black cover. I knew right away the impact that was going to have. Mercy, that is boring cover art. Even I wouldn’t want to read it, if I didn’t know what went into it. She did not have control over it.

It became clear that when she writes her next book, cover art will be a non-negotiable part of the contract.

She also did not have control over the price, at first. They listed it for $176!

Because she works with marginalized groups (she is a professor that works with informal waste pickers – really, an amazing woman), this was immediately offensive. Not only to her, but her readers as well.
In short order, she picked a fight with the publisher (Routledge) and demanded that the digital version be free. And she won. But not the rights to that cover art…

The publisher obviously sees her work as targeted to libraries, institutions, and students that they hope to gouge, but my wife just wanted the work to be out there and accessible. She has no interest in the money at all. Publishers feel differently on that point.

Negotiating a book contract without anyone to properly inform you can be a hard lesson in how some publishers work. I’ve since shared with her some of your lessons on publishing, so that she can approach it a bit differently next time.

What is a person like you on this list? You’re not an agent. A disruptor? (I hate that term). Truth-sayer? Beacon? Sage? None of these are working quite right. But getting information to help authors get their work out there in the way that they want it to be out there… that’s priceless. You gave it up for free.

I don’t know what you would call that on the list, but I think it should be there somewhere. Probably at least above critics.

Greg,
I would call Hugh an “advocate.” He has a tendency to draw people to the best, most important aspects of this process of storytelling. His personal experience, his well-written examples, his cautionary tales of what works and what doesn’t, and his continual admonition to all his readers to be involved in the process certainly qualify as Advocate activities.

In some small way, I feel the same way…have done similar things…on a local level. For the past 6 years, I acted as a Municipal Liaison (in the town where I live) for the yearly challenge of National Novel Writing Month. It’s a “no holds barred, fly by the seat of your pants” event predicated on writing 50,000 Words in 30 Days with 0 Excuses. I expects participants to get off their “but” and just WRITE! No mucking about with editing during the process; that’s for afterwards, when you actually have content ~to~ edit. In my role as a Municipal Liaison, I found myself acting as a cheerleader, a guide, a counselor, an editor, an event host, a caterer, a hotelier, a friend, a confidante, a taskmaster, a tech wizard, a supply chain supervisor, a matchmaker, and a plethora of other roles to steer the local writers toward success.

Hugh Howey, and any author who shares their experience, is a valuable asset by dint of sharing with the rest of us, so we can engage and become a vital part of this whole process of storytelling. For that, we can be grateful. Kudos!

~Sam

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