The million dollar e-book man

Hugh Howey is the poster boy for self-publishing success on Amazon. Now he's signed a print deal with a twist. He talks to NBR Online.

Florida man Hugh Howey was working in a varsity bookshop, earning $US10 an hour, when he self-published his short story Wool.

He posted it on Amazon in July 2011, priced at 99 cents.

Three months later it had sold 1000 copies.

"Baby, we're going to be able to pay a couple of bills off this short story," he told his wife.

Did he do anything to promote his post-apocalpyse story?

"Not one bit. I published it and left it alone," Howie told NBR ONLINE. "I went back to my other works." (The author had earlier signed a sub-$US1000 print and e-book deal with a small-time publisher for his novel, Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue.)

It was after the story started outselling everything else I'd written that I began publicising the work. And the way I did this was primarily to connect with existing readers rather than attempt to lure new ones in. The best publicity comes from your fans."

Reader reivews, ratings and "also bought" prompts are are crucial in the world of online self-publising. But those fans didn't just give Howie good word of month.

They also started bugging him to write a sequel.

He delivered one in November 2011.

It sold more than 3000 copies in six months.

Like Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century, Howey was serialising his book.

In December he released two more installments and sold nearly 10,000 copies.

In January, 2012, he put the final installment on Amazon, for $US2.99, plus all five editions collected into a Wool omnibus for $US5.99 (these days it sells for $US9.99).

All told, he sold 23,000 copies during the month, hitting number one on Amazon's sci-fi best seller list in the process.

Now, he was really in the money. Amazon makes it easy for authors to sign up to its Kindle Direct Publishing programme (which has no up-front costs and offers various guides to formatting, dealing with tax issues, cover art and so forth).

Famously, it lets self-published authors keep 70% of revenue. The Wall Street Journal says a typical mainstream publisher would provide a 10% to 15% royalty rate.

However, a key point is that Amazon only offers its 70% rate once a book is sold for $US2.99 or more (and typically you can only charge more than the standard newbie rate of $0.99 once you have some sales momentum). Below $US2.99, Amazon's royalty rate is 35%.

Howey quit his day job.

Traditional publishers started sniffing f around with a couple sending him low six-figure offers for the rights to Wool.

But Howey, now earning $US40,000 a month, was not about to sell out cheap.

The BBC approached him, wanting to turn his book into a TV series.

And that autumn, three Hollywood studios entered a bidding war for film rights.

In May, it was optioned by 20th Century Fox and Alien director Ridley Scott.

By this point Howey was earning $US120,000 a month - well on his way to yet another milestone as The Wall Street Journal crowned him the first e-book author to have earned more than $US1 million.

The author was not just in the cat bird seat, but in a position to re-write the rules of publishing.

He signed with the venerable Simon & Schuster.

But in a move that shocked the industry, he managed to negotiate a deal that saw him keep the online rights.

Simon & Schuster (these days owned by CBS) has print rights only.

By contrast, 50 Shades of Grey author Erika Leonard (aka EL James) sold a handful of copies online before signing a conventional deal with a small publisher before she was picked up by HarperCollins.

The Wool deal points to a new world in which traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers. Whether plucky authors like Howey or the likes of Amazon or Apple's iBooks fill the power gap is still an open question.

But all up, it's hard not to see the shift as a good thing - not just for new authors, but New Zealand writers who are signed up to a mainstream publisher but will benefit from online stores where they always have global distribution, and are never out of print.

What's next?
On March 12, Simon & Schuster will launch print and hardcover editions of Wool simultaneously on March 12.

Can he say how many copies are being printed? "They don't want me to, but I was shocked. It's a lot," Howey says. "They're concentrating on the paperbacks, of course, but they have already ordered a second printing of the hardbacks"

(It's natural to wonder at this point about the ratio of ebook to print sales. Estimates vary. One measure: in August last year, Amazon UK said it sold 114 ebooks were downloaded for every 100 paperback and hardbacks sold).

The movie version of Wool is proceeding apace.

"We've had meetings with the production teams and the studio execs. Now the screenplay is being written by J Blakeson," Howey told NBR.

"The first draft is due in a handful of weeks, and then we'll see what needs to be done to it. We'll get a final draft a few weeks later, and then we'll see what talent we can get onboard. I've heard a few names floated.

"We're going for the top of the heap, which I'm told is quite possible as there just aren't enough strong female lead roles out there for possible franchises. We're in very good shape to lure in a blockbuster star."

In the meantime, Howey is doing his bit to help budding self-published writers, whose work takes up most of his tablet.

"I'm very active on the Writers' Cafe subforum of Kindle Boards, and I read other members' stuff all the time. A few of my favorite indie authors are David Adams, Matthew Mather, Erik Wecks, Amber Sweetapple, and Annie Bellet. Annie in particular is a name to keep an eye on. I think she'll win Hugos and Nebulas before her career is up."

A one-book deal
Howey revealed another surprising aspect of his Simon & Schuster contract: it's a one-book deal.

"It's just for Wool," he told NBR.

"I'm not a big fan of multiple book deals. I think it's better for all parties to see how a work does and approach the sequels - or don't approach them- if and how it makes the best sense," he says 

"The advantage of thinking of myself as a self-published author first is that I know I'll get the books out there and that some portion of my readership will want them. Whether or not a publisher wants to get involved comes after. I don't want to trap them into a decision."