Going it on your own: the story behind Wool

I just finished reading Wool, a claustrophobic, terrifying, brilliant novel (or collection of stories) by Hugh Howey. The story behind Howey’s success with the book is just as interesting as the book itself. He originally wrote the first section of the novel as a short story and self-published it as an e-book. In The Insider’s Guide to Book Publishing Success, I talk about publishing in e-book format first, a strategy which Howey employed masterfully in this case.


Wool achieved such impressive sales figures in its first few months that he kept going, writing more sections and self-publishing them online. The BBC has a brief interview about the background behind the series, and The Washington Post published a review yesterday.  The best piece I’ve seen, though, is the Wall Street Journal article, which gives a much more detailed timeline of events, and talks more about exactly what Howey did to achieve his significant success.


The most important part of his marketing campaign was to have a really excellent book. If your book is mediocre, the word-of-mouth that was central to Wool‘s widespread popularity just won’t happen. An author or publisher can put an advance copy in a reader’s hands, but nobody can manufacture the type of enthusiasm that makes books like WoolThe Hunger Games, and even Fifty Shades of Grey into phenomenon.


Howey also took advantage of a lot of inexpensive online opportunities to promote his book, most of which involved connecting with readers–through Goodreads, book bloggers, and a Reddit AMA once he started gaining visibility. Reddit seems to be gaining a lot more attention as a way to connect with a fairly young, intelligent, and tech-savvy audience.


One thing that surprised me about Howey’s story is that he was able to negotiate a print-only deal with a major publisher for Wool. As more people read digitally, publishers are loathe to pick up an expensive project (or any book, really) without also picking up the e rights. That said, I think Jonathan Karp made a smart move in this case, as Howey has proven himself to be a strong marketer and there is significant enthusiasm for Wool and Howey’s other books. And who knows–if Simon & Schuster forms a good relationship with Howey, he might consider getting out of the self-publishing business at some point and letting them have all the rights so he can focus on the writing.


There are numerous other lessons to be taken from this story. I’m always happy to see a writer achieving success–especially on his own terms.


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