Monroe author is making millions online with 'Wool'

When Publishers Weekly finally reviewed the dystopian sci-fi thriller “Wool” last month, its assessment was lukewarm. The reviewer called Monroe native Hugh Howey’s characters bland and his writing immature.

But it didn’t much matter. By the time the review came out, Howey already had sold more than half a million copies of his “Wool” stories, the saga of a post-apocalyptic civilization that lives in a giant underground silo. He even missed the review, because he was busy meeting fans on a book tour in Australia and New Zealand.

Howey’s self-published sci-fi hit, which took off as an e-book, demonstrates how digital technology continues to transform publishing. But his particular story has made headlines for another reason: When he parlayed his success on Amazon into a mid-six figure print deal with Simon & Schuster, he negotiated to keep the e-book rights.

It’s rare for a publisher to let an author keep those lucrative rights. But the deal shows that, at least in some literary genres, authors, not publishers, now hold the upper hand.

Howey’s personal story is as unusual as his publishing deal.

As a young man, years before becoming a New York Times bestselling author, he fixed computers at Computer City on Independence Boulevard, waited tables dressed as a court jester at a Charlotte restaurant, captained yachts, shingled roofs and worked in Appalachian State University’s bookstore.

He quit his bookstore job just over a year ago, after his e-book sales took off.

Howey, 37, who now lives with his wife in Jupiter, Fla., said in a telephone interview that he didn’t expect this success. In fact, he doubted “Wool” was marketable. It is a dark story, and it doesn’t end happily.

A dream at 99 cents

Howey grew up in Union County. His dad, Hamp Howey, who now lives in Colorado, was a farmer. (Perhaps the farm’s grain silos subconsciously inspired his son’s fictional subterranean silo.)

His mom, Gay Murrill, taught at Monroe’s Piedmont High School. She now owns a yarn shop in Charleston.

Howey graduated from Piedmont, then went to ECPI, a for-profit university in Charlotte, where he learned to repair computers. He graduated in 1994.

Later, rebounding from a failed marriage, he sold most of his possessions and enrolled at the College of Charleston, where he lived not in a dorm, but on a sailboat.

“I’m pretty impulsive, I guess,” he says.

Though he’d always been a voracious reader, Howey says he was a lazy student. He finally got serious, he says, during his sophomore year at Charleston. But he was also becoming a serious sailor, enamored of Joshua Slocum’s 1900 memoir, “Sailing Alone Around the World.” He ended up leaving college to pilot yachts.

More jobs followed. After moving to Virginia with Amber Lyda, his wife, he worked as a roofer for a couple of years while she worked on her PhD in psychology. Roofing was a “perfect daydreaming job,” he says. Perched on roofs, he thought up ideas for his books.

When Lyda took a job at Appalachian State, Howey got the bookstore job and wrote in his spare time.

In 2009, he published the novel “Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue,” the first of a series. It’s the story of a spaceship pilot who travels the galaxy in search of her father.

He put his first “Wool” story on Amazon in July 2011 for 99 cents, opening with a sentence designed to grab readers: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.”

The original story, a longish short story at about 12,500 words, describes a society forced by a toxic atmosphere to live in an underground 144-story silo. Every so often, someone is sent outside to clean dirt off sensors that bring in light. That’s where the book gets its title. The cleaning is done with industrial-grade wool. The downside to the scrubbing job? No one has figured out how to get the person back into the silo alive.

Within a couple of months, to Howey’s surprise, his sales began climbing. He sold about 1,000 copies in October 2011 alone. Readers posted glowing reviews – and told him they wanted more.

He got busy. Three months later, he had published four additional “Wool” stories and was selling thousands of e-books a month on Amazon. “It was just an incredible trajectory,” he says.

Once sales began climbing, Howey used Facebook and his website, hughhowey.com, to publicize the books.

By March 2012, less than a year after selling his first “Wool” story on Amazon, he was earning enough to quit his bookstore job. He generated more buzz by hosting an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit.com: “I’m a self-published author who quit his day job,” he wrote, and invited people to ask him anything.

For 12 hours, he sat with his laptop answering questions and giving self-publishing advice.

As sales rose, literary agents offered to represent him. After the BBC contacted him about making “Wool” a television show, he says, he hired an agent and ended up selling film rights to 20th Century Fox. Director Ridley Scott is interested in adapting “Wool” to the screen.

$100,000 a month

Howey was determined to retain e-book rights. Publishers offered seven figures for a print and e-book deal, but he turned them down.

Howey says it simply made no sense to sell those digital rights. His e-book sales were bringing in more than $100,000 a month. A publisher, he suspected, would double the $5.99 e-book price of his “Wool” five-story omnibus, a move sure to dampen sales. In the U.S., Howey says about 90 percent of his book sales are in e-book form. Abroad, that number is about 55 percent.

Eventually, Simon & Schuster agreed to buy print rights only. Asked by the Observer why the publisher agreed to make the deal, a spokeswoman declined comment.

But the deal seems certain to make the publisher money – just not as much as it would make with digital rights. Though e-book sales are growing – they accounted for 20 percent of publishers’ revenues in 2012, up from 15 percent in 2011 – print still dominates. A Bowker Market Research survey of regular book buyers found about 75 percent bought a print book only while 17 to 20 percent bought an e-book only. About six percent bought a print and e-book.

In March, Simon & Schuster published “Wool” in paperback and hardback, and Howey embarked on a book tour that began in Europe and ended in New Zealand. He didn’t make it to North Carolina, but says he plans to do an N.C. tour in July, when he returns home for a family reunion.

Howey is modest about his success. “Wool,” he says, has probably received more attention than it deserves. “I read better books all the time.”

Why did it succeed when most books don’t? There are many possible reasons. The stories, priced at 99 cents, encouraged impulse buys. The cryptic title, “Wool,” didn’t sound like science fiction and may have attracted non-sci-fi fans. And the fact that five “Wool” stories were showing up at the same time as Amazon top sellers may have piqued readers’ curiosity.

Undoubtedly, glowing reader reviews were key. “There’s nothing you can do that replaces reader word of mouth, which nobody knows how to generate,” Howey says.

Breaking out

Howey’s success offers more proof that e-books – and self-publishing – are in their ascendancy, says Danny O. Snow, a senior fellow with The Society for New Communications Research, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

These days, self-published authors such as Bella Andre and CJ Lyons regularly appear on New York Times bestseller lists. Self-published titles made up 25 percent of the top-selling books on Amazon last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. “The stigma of self-publishing,” Snow says, “has largely vanished.”

Howey believes self-published authors are succeeding because traditional publishers aren’t meeting readers’ demands for certain literary genres, particularly science fiction, romance and erotica. E.L. James’ three-volume erotic novel, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” is a prime example. Random House has sold more than 70 million print, e-book and audio copies of the trilogy, which began as a self-published book.

Howey understands why publishers are reluctant to lard their catalogues with these genres. “It would be jarring if half the Penguin catalogue was erotica,” he says. “I think their self-respect is more important than the bottom line.”

He says he also knows that many authors – more than the literary establishment realizes – are making a good living through self-publishing. Months ago, he did an informal survey, posting a message on an Amazon Kindle forum asking for examples of self-published writers earning $100 to $500 a month.

He got at least 1,000 responses, he says, with many people noting they were earning a lot more than the range he had posted. “I’ve heard from people making tens of thousands of dollars,” he says, “and I’ve never heard of their books.”

Rising above the noise

Snow believes Howey was smart to retain e-book rights. In fact, he argues that an author whose e-books are selling briskly would make more money by self-publishing print books and bypassing traditional publishing completely.

That’s exactly what Howey is doing now. He doesn’t regret his foray into traditional publishing, but in January, he self-published “The Shift Omnibus,” a prequel to “Wool.” He’s writing “Dust,” the third and final part of the saga, and he has no immediate plans to publish either of those books traditionally in the United States.

You can now get his first “Wool” story on Amazon for free, by the way. “I’m of the idea that it’s so hard to rise above the noise, free is a good way to break out.”

Howey argues that more traditional publishers should allow self-published authors to retain e-book rights, as he did. “It’s only fair,” he says, “if you’ve already published with e-books and are successful.”

Though Publishers Weekly wasn’t crazy about “Wool,” other reviewers have raved. “The characters are well drawn,” the Washington Post wrote, “with a rousing protagonist and antagonist, and the plot races forward without resorting to melodrama.”

Most importantly, readers have raved. Howey’s “Wool” now has more than 4,700 Amazon reviews. They average 4.7 out of five stars.