Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

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

We don’t lose. We create. We win.

In response to yesterday’s blog post, the brilliant and insightful Dave Strom said:

Well, Hugh, my writing actually will cost me money.

I just sent a short story to an editor and a cover artist. They won’t cost me a lot of money, but I think it will be money well spent. Maybe I’ll break even?

Years ago, Harvey Pekar did a comic where he figured that with the money he would save by not collecting tons of old jazz records, he could self-publish a comic book. Hence, American Splendor.

This is a great way to look at the cost of publication, and I think it’s a point that doesn’t get made often enough. Where you once had vanity presses that suckered people out of tens of thousands of dollars for crates of books that would never get sold, you now have the ability to make professional-looking books that are in print forever at a fraction of the cost. And people still want to focus on the fact that “most authors lose money.” No shit. Most musicians lose money. Most painters lose money. Most photographers lose money. It’s art. Nobody is really losing anything. We are creating something. We are expressing ourselves. We are doing something positive and lasting with our free time. There’s no losing here, only winning.

The fact that some of us are then going on to make a living or are earning  enough to fill up our car with gas is amazeballs. Musicians have always had this path to discovery. They could play small gigs, have a good time, earn a few hundred bucks in a weekend, improve their craft, and maybe build a local following. I lived with a drummer in a modestly successful band out of college, and I got to see what was involved with their lifestyle. It has a lot in common with what I went through as a writer just getting started. This is a huge and important development for our craft. We now have a path from the ground level that can take us as high as our ambition allows (and that doesn’t have to be any higher than just wanting to publish something for the experience of it).

Here is what happened in the past few years: The cost of book production and distribution has dropped nearly to zero. I want to repeat that and bold it: The cost of book production and distribution has dropped nearly to zero. This is a massive economic force, and it’s the reason the book industry is being upended. It’s the reason anyone can enter this field. It happened practically overnight. No other artistic endeavor has a lower barrier to entry than writing currently does. This is true for two reasons. First, practically everyone already has the tools necessary to participate; there aren’t any expensive gadgets or musical instruments or supplies to purchase; most everyone has access to a computer. Secondly: We all — to some degree — practice  at reading and writing in our everyday lives. The tools and skills were both already handy when the price to participate plunged to zero. That’s incredible.

It’s incredible as a market force, which is great for those who enter this field to make money. It’s even better as an artistic force, as anyone with the inclination and dedication can write and enter the market similar to how a musician can play sidewalks, small bars, small venues, larger venues, etc. Writing is a pleasurable act. A creative act. The only ones who stand to lose a thing these days are those with a dream, a yearning, who don’t follow their hearts and plunge themselves into a story, just to see what they are capable of. If it costs you a few hundred bucks to make an infinite supply of your book, which will be available until humanity goes extinct, and anyone is going to claim that you lost something in this exchange, tell them to go talk to an amature photographer. Photographers enjoy a good laugh.

54 replies to “We don’t lose. We create. We win.”

I assume the few hundred bucks your referring to is for cover art and editing? I haven’t even spent that much money to make my art available. That may or may not prove to be most unfortunate. But I don’t have a few hundred dollars to throw around to well-deserving people to help make my art better. I’ve had to learn to make my own covers, to write my own blurbs (as on the back of the book and the synopsis that Amazon requires) and use friends and family who are willing and capable of doing a great deal of editing, making me cringe when they tell me a few chapters really stink and need to be entirely rewritten or else they’ll give me bad amazon reviews. Yeah, I have friends like that. And they’re the best one’s you can get in this business. By the way, thanks for promoting that book, Write. Publish. Repeat.

That’s been a good book so far. Even better than some of J.A. Konrath’s blog/books about writing and producing work.

Ah hell, thanks for all your (shared) thoughts on the matter of self-publishing and writing. Keep blazing that trail, and we’ll keep trying to catch up!

Yeah, I’m talking about the middle road of costs. I didn’t spend a dime on my works until money was coming in and my time became more valuable than the cost of outsourcing. It can be done for nothing and done well. But I’d rather promote the cheapness of spending even hundreds of dollars on a book. That’s nothing compared to other hobbies!

I agree–it isn’t much compared to most other hobbies. Writing is as cheap as it gets. I don’t even have hundreds of dollars in my bank account, so have no choice at the moment. And you’re right to promote it the way you did. Not all aspiring writers are as poor as I am–thank goodness!

I was just writing a letter to a young writer this morning, encouraging her to keep pursuing her art, not lay down the pen at 18, like I did. You see, no one could “make money” at art. That wasn’t for “serious” people. And so I went and did something serious, because I was nothing if not a serious young lady. How I wish I hadn’t put down the pen! How I wish I had kept at it, if only dabbling, if only to have my art grow with me.

I can only hope that the ease of publishing now will encourage more people (of all ages) to stay in the craft and bring great creative works into the world.

When I started self-publishing I was unemployed and essentially homeless. I couldn’t afford to hire an editor or pay for more than cheap stock art. I busted my ass, writing a bunch of novellas and shorts with terrible covers using royalty free stock art.

I was making $200 by the end of my second month, and by month six was hitting four figures, and was able to stop looking for outside work. Along the way I learned to make my own covers with professional looking layouts, though I do prefer to spend a few hundred dollars commissioning art when I can.

Nicely said. I guess I need to look at it more this way. I wrote a middle-grade novel and got an agent, who really helped me edit my manuscript so it became much stronger. (I also hired a freelance copyeditor to make sure we didn’t miss any errors.) My book was ALMOST picked up by one of the biggest publishers. (The editor loved it, but marketing said they “weren’t sure how they’d position the book.”)

I think self-publishing is a great option, but there is the issue with discovery. I’m sure there are some wonderful books that are out there, but which remain undiscovered. However, I think what you’re saying is that at least they are out there and they have an audience, even if it’s one person.

I obviously spent a great deal of time writing the book, and it would be great to actually make some money, but I’d really be no worse off than I am now if it didn’t sell copies.

Thanks, Hugh!

Leslie – ‘discovery’ is such a rich word – I found Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series by a chance reading of a blog that covers free books for the Kindle. And the rest is history … If you write it, they will find it, especially if Amazon’s involved…

The visual art world is going through the same kind of changes. Digital “painting” digital video and still cameras and editing software. It cost next to nothing to produce “art” and publish it on print on demand sites. There is still the entrenched art “experts” nay saying this, and the ability to invest in one off original pieces and not a print will most likely keep those of us who create our art using a computer will have a disadvantage there, but the people can now create and have their works seen by many, and art can now be owned by all.

Well said indeed! I never even considered being a writer when I was younger, and wet on to study acting – BWAH HA HA HA! Look where that gets you! Yes, there’s always a bit of am-dram and the odd panto, but if you want to make money out of acting… good luck! The gatekeeper system that used to prevent regular hacks like me making a living from writing, has now become largely obsolete, and the opportunities… Well, is something worth devoting my life to! Because there is actually a decent possibility of success, by whatever yardstick you choose to measure it.
Roo on the future!

The trap a lot of people fall into is the “Field of Dreams” syndrome. “If I write it, they will buy.” Simply writing a story and posting it for sale does not guarantee any sort of success — even if you spend money to edit and have an eye-catching cover. Self publishing is a lottery, just like the traditional route. The bright side is: there are many more small payouts for buying a ticket.

To anyone who is writing because they think it’s a fast an easy way to make money, just stop. Write because you love it; write because it’s something you’re compelled to do.

Would I like to be hugely successful from my writing? Of course! Do I expect it to happen? No way. I’ve positively touched a few people through my stories and that is an amazing feeling. Create for creation’s sake. Great message, Hugh!

Here, here. Some readers will always be better than no readers. I published my first book in September and my sales have not enabled me to quit my day job. But I have readers! Honest to God readers who enjoyed something I wrote and sent me emails and wrote reviews to tell me they enjoyed it. A woman in England sent me a message that my book kept her up all night. I live in Indiana. My story traveled over the ocean and was enjoyed by someone I’ve never met. That never would’ve happened if I’d left that manuscript on my shelf. It’s not J.K. Rowling success, but it’s more than I’ve ever had. If I’d known that was possible, I’d have published years ago. As is, I’m looking forward to publishing my next book.

Say I wrote book, and I now want to get it printed, just a few copies to start with to send to friends, family, etc. Maybe sell from my own website. Where do I start? Who do I contact?

Cool story, Bro. You should tell it at parties.. ;)

Ok, only messin’ there, Hugh! You single handedly changed my life in March. I just happened to stumble across your name in a write-up on some website. I clicked over and read your story, and was amazed. Just so happened that you were in Denver the following week, and I hauled the family out to meet you. By that point, I had just started reading the first part of Wool. After that meeting, I have never been more inspired to write. I have had the dream since the late 90’s, and it wasn’t until you come along did I actually do something about it. You signed my book Dare to Dream, I think. That’s what I did. Thank you so much, Hugh!

“The only ones who stand to lose a thing these days are those with a dream, a yearning, who don’t follow their hearts and plunge themselves into a story, just to see what they are capable of.” <– THAT. That is the reason why I wrote my first novel.

I was a commissioned artist and then a photographer, before becoming a writer. If I'm not creating something, I go nuts. :)

In 2010, after years and years and years of fruitless sending out manuscripts, collecting rejections, signing with agents, firing agents, and massive time and money wasting, I started publishing my own books–both paper and digital. Since then I have paid cash for a new car 100% from digital book profits and continue to, at minimum, pay the rent every month with enough left over for anything from the utilities to beer and a pizza. I am thrilled and cannot complain! Thanks, Hugh.

And YOU are the story of self-publishing. Congrats on your success!

My hope is that we start to see true comparisons on what an artist can hope to achieve by the various routes open to them. If we keep making unfair comparisons, authors will continue to think their best chances lie with middlemen. And I don’t think that’s true. It isn’t post-hoc reasoning, either. I didn’t think this was true 5 years ago when I got my start. The most pernicious thing about the way this data is being reported is that it gives aspiring writers pause. It guides them into making bad decisions. I don’t know why anyone would want that. I don’t think the fine folks at DBW want that. They want what’s best for artists as well. So they should couch these results as:

Those who HAPPEN to land agents and then HAPPEN to get publishing deals, tend to make MORE MONEY than those who self-publish. Which effectively tells us nothing. This is one of the many cases where no results would be better than these results. People will act on this, and they will miss out on the opportunities you’ve enjoyed, Kathleen. Which is why we need to make sure a comparison of the two routes is done fairly.

I am far from a conspiracy theorist, BUT there is a definite pattern in the misreporting of information from a lot of folks who benefit directly or indirectly from traditional publishing. I have nothing against traditional publishers or authors who choose to go that route. Self-publishing isn’t the path everyone WANTS to follow. Anyone who publishes good literature is advancing reading, and that’s a good thing!

While I’m always interested in learning new facts about publishing and commend the survey’s designer for her ambition, you’re absolutely right about the results not really telling us anything useful. There is a huge difference between a voluntary study of people who happen to read DBW and a full-blown, scientific study. The number of respondents and their distribution by categories is not even close to a representation of the author population and its various segments. I could go on and on about the flaws in the design (and totally validate my nerd card), but I won’t. To her credit, the sociologist who designed and reported on the findings admits that limitations do exist. She just doesn’t admit to the full degree of them, and that is SUBSTANTIAL.

In other wings of traditional publishing, there’s a lot of denigration of self-publishing and those who choose that path. Sometimes, it’s disguised as “good advice.” The other day, I read an agent’s “good advice” to unpublished authors. In essence, it was a warning that if they ever intended to publish traditionally, they should really consider NOT self-publishing first. I was so upset that I HAD to write about it.

What disturbs me most about both the agent’s article and the survey results is that it’s a trend that ultimately attempts to discourage writers from self-publishing, and these attempts are disguised as “good advice” and “science-based fact.” In my opinion, these examples are neither. All I could think when I read the agent’s article was, “How many writers will just give up because they’ll take this advice and then NOT get published?” The same was true when I read the DBW articles: “How many writers will turn to traditional publishing and end up disappointed, all because they believe they’re reading something based on scientific evidence?” For a glimpse into the impact, just look at the comments to that agent’s post. (http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2013/12/10/long-term-query-dos-and-donts-tip-your-decisions-now-do-affect-later-relationships/) They’re heart-breaking.

Stories like Kathleen Valentine’s and countless others are the stories that unpublished writers need to be reading! Thank you for giving them a place to tell those stories!

Yup. I’ve been beating this drum almost as long as I’ve been writing. More people should BEGIN their career by self-publishing, whether or not that’s where they hope to END UP. It’s the best entry into this business (the second best is to star on Jersey Shore).

This is true for other artistic endeavors. It is now true of writing. But if you tell this to the gatekeepers or those who really want kudos from the gatekeepers, they go into fits. I was run out of a writing forum a couple years ago for making these same arguments, which were just as correct then as they are now.

I’ve never made a dime off of music, because I continue to invest almost everything I make back into the band, via upgrading/maintaining band equipment, my personal gear, promotional costs, recording costs, printing CD’s (for those who prefer to listen to the band on the way home from the show instead of downloading from iTunes), etc.

Will I ever “break even” or even actually make a living at this? I doubt it, but if it happens I will consider myself extremely fortunate and will appreciate every second of it. Will I continue to play every weekend gig in some random bar as if I was on stage in an arena? Will I continue to create and record and enjoy seeing people sing along to lyrics that I wrote? Hell yeah I will!! I don’t do it for money (although having an extra $400 to buy Christmas presents for the kids this year is nice), I do for the joy of creating and performing.

Today is my author birthday–one year since I first published, and now three books to my name. It is a wild ride full of doubters and dismissers, including friends and family. That is tough, but the lovely readers from around the world who have given my books squee-level enthusiasm and the incredible indie authors I’ve met make this journey so gratifying. Thanks for this post!!

I am at work now (tech writer on a Google gig), but I’ll take a moment to say thanks, Hugh. “Brilliant and insightful”? You made me day. I thought I’d better a little now since this topic touched off so many comments. Hugh, you are an inspiration to us would-be indie writers.

Okay, back to work. I’ll likely chime in once more, so get ready to scroll.

I just gave my editor the go-ahead. This is my first time being professionally edited. I doubt I’ll break even with this first story (I’d have to sell a few hundred copies). But I get a clean story AND some education.

(Well, Anya has edited me before, but lightly, in an anthology she put together for charity. Click my name for details on my website.)

Sure, I’d like to make a little money doing this. I love writing, so I’d likely do it anyway. And I get something else: I perform my writing at open mics, and that is FUN! I had a great audience at the San Francisco Nanowrimo party, it made the nasty drive up there worth it. Seeing people drink in your words is a rush. (Of course, not all readings go well, but when they do, wow.)

Oh, I also get to create something the world needs: a superheroine (and a rather fun one). Ask people to name a few. “Um, Wonder Woman?” Name another. “Er, Catwoman?” We need more, so I am doing something about that!

This is precisely why I continue to work a regular job even though I’ve actually made some money off of my writing. It’s an art, and I am an artist. It’s the avenue through which I can express my creativity despite working in a mind numbing field of law during the day. I decided to become a writer because I liked to write and wanted to write a story I knew only I could create, not because I wanted to get rich. Although I’m still working towards the dream that I’ll be able to quit the day job, and suspect the success I’m looking for is just around the corner, it doesn’t mean I don’t see this as creative expression. I feel privileged to have the ability to publish my own work and take great pride in knowing that I don’t owe anyone anything. My book is mine (copyright registered and all) and will continue to be mine for as long as I live. Whether I make a bunch of money off of it or not, it is my creation, and that is enough for me (and should be for any writer)

I was 38 when I returned to writing after a 20 year break. I wasn’t going to spend the next few years waiting for publishing companies to give me a yes or no, so I took the plunge and did it myself. I have learned so many things in such a short space of time. There are so many resources out there that help cut costs, as the self publishing community grows.

Originally I began writing for me. If someone liked what they saw enough to buy it, it was a bonus. A year into my journey and I’ll make more money this month than my day job, Plus, I get that kick from creating something, and I’m in control. :)

The costs of writing novels are far, far more than a few hundred or thousand dollars for covers and editing. The opportunity cost of spending thousands of hours writing is huge! These are costs and risk any author has to bear. Against this the cost of covers and editing is negligible, and an investment in your work anyway.

It’s interesting that what ‘they’ are always telling us to pay for can just as easily be gotten for free or at a fraction of the cost, and often with better results for ourselves. College anyone?

Hugh, well put… and the biggest beneficiary of art is the artist themselves. Writing has enriched my life immeasurable. With each book, I’ve grown considerably as a person. I’ve met some incredible people along the way, people I would have otherwise NEVER met, and I’ve been able to fill up the gas tank occasionally too… it’s win, win, win.

What is missed by people who have “lost” money is that if you continue to make books you will continue to make money and continue to be discovered. I believe because of the “Long Tail”, given enough time, you will make your money back.

I got a little lucky, my first book was “profitable” very quickly, my others this year have yet to be profitable. But the books will still be for sale in 2014 and beyond. And oh yeah, more books should be added to my catalog thus, hopefully, increasing my audience.

Plus, I am still amazed that anyone would buy any of my books. At this point every sale is a victory and celebration.

It’s surprising that some people overlook the fact that writing is great fun, and that sharing makes life more fun.

To put it another way:
ebook: $3.99
First royalty check: $30.72
Reading a positive review of your first book: Priceless

I don’t know if others had a similar experience, but those first positive reviews from total strangers are a real thrill, no matter how many books you sell in the first few months.

Excellent post. I’m just about finished with my second novel, and I intend to get a good start on the third and polish up some old short stories before I even consider jumping into marketing and such. I’ve recently realized my two answers to the question “Why do you write?” It’s not money, though a little would be nice. It’s not fame, because I’m too much of a hermit! I write because I learn so flippin’ much every time I sit down and look around inside my head, and I write because I’m so excited to find out what happens next. If I don’t write it, how will I ever know?

The other thing that occurred to me recently is the time will pass no matter what I do or don’t do. Why not notice that not only have years gone by, but I’ve also finished a lot of great writing? If someone likes it, awesome. If someone wants to pay me a little for it, even better. It’s what I get out of it that keeps me going though.

Peace.

I got an email last year from a woman who lives in little town in Alaska, a hundred miles from any other settlement. She said she loved one of my books and asked if I was doing signed copies. I immediately signed and posted a copy to her. I didn’t ask for money. I didn’t want her money. She sent me an email a few weeks later because somehow the book had arrived the morning of her birthday.
Now, I live in a small town in the UK, halfway across the world, and yet one of my signed paperbacks is sitting on a shelf in a remote town, on a continent that I’ve never set foot on.
I wonder who smiled the most? I think it was me.

I guess I’m one of the lucky ones. I got an agent and my book is coming out in the UK next May. But of course that is no guarantee of success – or income. I just want to say I am as excited by the revolution in publishing as my self-publishing peers, and it is an option I would certainly consider if the time comes. Thank god we do now have options!

I started reading Wool because the beginning bit with Holston was just riveting. I read the rest of the story because I fell in love with Juliette as a hero – she was someone who would unapologetically stop at nothing to make her life better, on her own terms. But the whole time, because you wrote every perspective with such care and empathy, I couldn’t shake the fear that I was reading a story written by a madman who didn’t think his own hero could or should succeed.
I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and it is obvious that my fears were unfounded. This post is my favorite so far. Creation is always winning. Not enough people understand that. Keep moving forward, producing, making, creating anything, and you stand to gain everything.
Thank you for writing all this awesomeness!

Amen, Hugh! And, “right on the money!” Great to see you spreading the word about the wonderful world that writing/self-publishing is these days! I do the same thing, and recently gave a free public talk about self-publishing here in my home town.This is such a great time to be a writer, it’s almost unbelievable! I’m very thankful!

Comments are closed.