Hugh Howey’s success as an author is well known. So I took a dive into his career to see what valuable tidbits I could find and share with you budding authors out there. I hope the following will help you get a foothold on your mindset and allow you to focus on the things that matter as you pursue your own successful author career.
- The overnight success fallacy: Hugh spent a good portion of 20 years dreaming of becoming an author. After meeting his wife he finally decided to leave his former, demanding career as a yacht boat captain to prioritize writing. At the age of 32-ish, he finally started publishing his own works for approximately two years. At that point his five-part, serialized collection “Wool” omnibus started to take off in the Amazon charts.
- Put yourself out there: Instead of tucking the manuscript away in a drawer somewhere (or leaving it on his hard drive to never be seen again) he provided it to family and friends to read, which lead to one of the greatest things an author can receive – feedback. Like many of you, Hugh had low self esteem and was terrified to share his writing with anyone. However, the feedback from friends and family was monumental in his career. It was the tipping point that got him motivated to take the next steps to getting published.
- Write to just have written: It is important to note that Hugh would write for the sake of writing. It was never about the money for him. This mindset is important for many budding authors to adopt because it focuses on the one major thing that you have complete control over – writing. If you’re going to focus on one thing as you’re starting out as an author it should be writing. In the beginning it can be tough to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), but there are ways to foster good writing habits. Write every day. It’s as simple as that. Don’t worry about reaching thousands of words in the beginning. Start small (like 100 words) and slowly increase that goal as you maintain consistency. For those of you that need structure – create a schedule with a specific number of words in mind. Make your writing time blocks like appointments you can’t miss. In either case, you will build a solid writing habit over time that will lead to increased confidence and motivation to bump your goal as you strengthen those writing muscles.
- Think small: You don’t have to write a series with three, 400 page novels right out of the gate to establish yourself as an author. The turning point in Hugh’s career was his first installment of the “Wool” Silo Series. It started as a 40 page, one part novelette. The story took off, and everyone was asking for more in the series. He delivered parts 2, 3, 4, and 5 over the following six months as demand increased. Things have been crazy for him ever since.
- Think long term: Hugh’s initial plan was to write for 10 years and build a backlist of about 20 to 30 novels. So in his mind he would just write for 10 years first and then start marketing. This allowed him to focus on writing books as opposed to worrying about writing query letters, getting rejections, or having his works suit an editorial taste. Instead he was able to write the work, edit it, get it to the reader, and then get working on the next book the very next day. Don’t be worried about making a profit right away as most authors don’t make a living with their writing. It’s OK to have those dreams but not as expectations. They can make way for disappointment. A better, healthier expectation is to complete the books you’re writing and aim for 500 sales, not 5,000.
- Create your own luck: Hugh owes a lot of his success to luck. But it wasn’t dumb luck. There’s a wonderful quote by Seneca the Younger that sums up this idea perfectly (paraphrased): “Luck is where effort meets opportunity.” This ties right back into Number 2) above. If you don’t put yourself out there you will miss the opportunity of having a successful author career. Hugh wouldn’t be cruising around the world today in his 50 foot yacht if he didn’t meet opportunity with the effort he put into his books and getting them in front of readers.
- Start with self publishing: A lot of authors finding their way into publishing often default to the traditional route. On the surface it makes sense. The publisher provides you with an editor, a cover artist, and maybe even a publicist. It feels safer, and it allows you to concentrate on your writing rather than worrying about your launch plan. However, getting to that point requires years of querying agents and even that will not guarantee you’ll be living off of your writing. Hugh summed it up with his first-hand experience working as a bookstore clerk:
- He would stock new books in the store’s shelves binding out, one copy, and deep in the aisle. No one was looking for that book. Three months later he would pull it off and return it to the publisher and then fill that space with another book. Only a handful of authors had end cap space, and only about 6-8 authors would break out (meaning that they made about $20k-$40k that year). There was also a visiting writer series at the book store where authors would do presentations. Every author he met had a day job. These were people that won major awards and had NYT bestselling titles to their credit. Also, all of his author friends at the time were NYT bestsellers, but they still had day jobs.
- From Hugh’s point of view self publishing has some perks that new authors should seriously consider:
- Royalties are higher: This increases the potential that you’ll live off of your writing, and those chances increase as your backlist grows.
- Longevity: You have longevity since readers will find your book and that’s the “publication” date to them. There is no shelf life with an ebook, and no book store clerk will take your novel off the shelf and replace it with another after a few months.
- You have complete control: You have the freedom to change your cover, blurb, etc. You don’t need to call the publisher and get the editing team involved. Also, you have control over price, and you can give books away for free.
- Go straight to the source: You don’t have to write for the middle man anymore – not your agent or editor. You can write for you and your reader.
- It creates leverage: Hugh was able to turn down seven figure offers from publishers because he was already making a living at it. It’s better to have a slow organic growth rather than a publisher giving you a huge advance and you don’t sell – this kills author careers before they even get started.
- Diversify (eventually): Hugh is generating income from several books in many different formats in various languages. He has predominantly self published his works, but, using the leverage he created in the indie world, he landed some large contracts with traditional publishers to increase his potential reach with new audiences using physical books and translation rights in over 30 different countries. To Hugh, his traditional publishers are his publishing partners, and they augment his output.
- 1,000 true fans: It’s not the quantity of followers, it’s the quality. If you can obtain 1,000 fans of your work then you can make a living off of your writing given you can produce ~4 books a year. The people to appreciate are not the ones you may lure into buying your book; it’s the ones that are already your fans. Check out this article here http://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/ if you want to learn more about the power of 1,000 fans.
- Enjoy it: You are a story teller so enjoy the process wherever you are in your career. You have the innate ability to take those wonderful stories in your head and share them with the world. People need your stories. So share on.
To your consistent progress,
Note: some of the ideas above were developed from the topics discussed in this interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=308h93B5pbo