In less than a year, Hugh Howey’s Wool series has become a major hit. Set on a devastated future Earth where humanity has retreated into a giant underground silo, the series currently stands at six books. Here, the author talks about his approach to writing and his plans for the future.
Imagine you’ve just been put in charge of one of the big US publishing companies. You’ve been given complete control. On your first day, what’s the first thing you’d change?
I’d send out one of those internal memos that’s designed to become external — you know, leaked to the press. It would announce a change of course that set our publishing house apart from the others. To begin with, we would drop the price of our e-books by half. We would start releasing the e-book several weeks ahead of the print book, so readers would know who published a title. Right now, readers don’t know and don’t care. However, if their favorite author was suddenly available early to e-readers, they would begin to differentiate between us and the competition. They would also know to expect our e-books to be cheaper.
Coupled with this, I would offer 50% royalty rates to authors, and to help subsidize these costs (and then some), I would move our offices out of Manhattan and somewhere more affordable. I would teach our staff to use Skype. Lastly, I would start signing more authors to digital-only deals with print releases contingent on e-sales. This would expand our stables, keep talent in-house rather than see it go the self-pubbed route, and use the marketplace as a tested slush pile.
I would then take the next day off.
Do you remember the very first story you ever wrote?
Absolutely. It was a semi-hilarious knock-off of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It involved a talking bedpan, an unlikable hero, and a planet Earth that was really a spaceship, but with all this mouldy stuff called “life” on its hull. Humanity was, basically, the slime that grew among barnacles. It was probably only funny to me, and I never made it past the third chapter.
Did you want to write from an early age, or was it something that came to you later?
I’ve wanted this for as long as I can remember. I was an avid reader from Dr. Seuss on up. I used to daydream about having written a bestseller and making enough to stay at home and participate in interviews like this, people calling from Hollywood, me turning down six-figure deals from big publishing houses, articles about me in Publishers Weekly, people phoning and saying, “I have so-and-so on the phone for you.”
Really, I dreamt all this stuff up. Which is why I seriously doubt any of it is happening right now.
Are there any writers who have influenced you?
Absolutely. Neal Stephenson and Peter F. Hamilton are favorites of mine, as a reader. And then there are those who have helped me personally, like Douglas Preston, Daniel Suarez, and Jonathan Hayes. There are those I interviewed way back when I was a book reviewer, like Tana French and Charles Todd. So many in this profession gave me a leg up or an emotional boost.
Do you know where Wool is headed? Is there a master plan? Is it open-ended?
I know the last scene of the last book right now, and it is a doozy. Sure, there’s room for stories to be told after that scene, but I probably won’t. Readers will be able to imagine all that takes place. I just have this one last plot twist, a seed that was planted with First Shift: Legacy, that everything will turn on. I think readers are going to love the ending and hate me, which is what I’m aiming for.
At what point did you realise you could write full time? Was that something you ever expected to happen?
It occurred to me in January that I was losing money by going to my day job. This was before Wool 5 was even out. I couldn’t keep up with the PR and media demands, much less reader e-mails and my writing duties. Something had to change. My wife has been very supportive, and all our best hopes and wishes have so far played out.
I’m telling you, this is all a dream. I’m making it all up. Which is why I’m surprised the questions are this good.
The individual Wool books are each fairly short, and one of the things that interests me is the idea of serial fiction becoming popular again via ebooks. Do you think readers are interested in that model?
I think they are. Who wants to wait a year between books? Feed me a few chapters a month at a buck apiece. Keep me interested. Let it flow like a TV series or a comic book. The model of 500 page books every two years is dated. We don’t need to justify printing costs when there are no printing costs. Just entertain me and do it on the cheap!
How do you write? Do you force yourself to write a certain number of words every day?
Yeah, I have word goals. I try to write 2,000 words a day. Sometimes I write more; sometimes it’s less. I have a lot of things going on at once, so I focus my energy where it feels most useful every day. My strategy is to write early in the morning before the emails start pouring in. I can often get my word count satisfied by 10:00, then have the rest of the day for business stuff.
It’s now possible to embed software, music, videos and even smells in an ebook. Does that kind of thing interest you, either as a reader or as an author?
It absolutely does. I’m just too dumb to know how to do it. Anyone want to lend a hand?
How important is reader feedback to your writing process? Do you get a lot of comments, and do you take that feedback into account when you’re writing?
Supremely important. If I stopped hearing from everyone, I would probably stop writing. The reviews in particular drive me forward. Readers clamor for more, and I do my best to satiate them.
You recently announced you’d be dedicating a book to the memory of a reader’s late wife, Tongjai Bell. How did that come about?
That was an incredible exchange with a reader. I commented on an Amazon review, where a reader said that this was the book that got them into fiction again, which they had not been able to do since the death of their wife. We went back and forth in the comments, took it to email, and I learned about his amazing wife who succumbed to cervical cancer at a tragically young age. This man’s emails made me weep (and everyone I shared them with, it seems). The link is here, if anyone is interested in the full story:
Finally, what’s next? What do you have lined up for the rest of 2012?
I’m releasing a zombie book in July that’s unlike any other zombie book. Next up will be Second Shift: Order, the next book in the Silo Series. I hope to have the Shift Trilogy complete by the end of the year, and then I’m taking a pause to get the next Molly Fyde book out. On top of all this, my wife and I are moving to Florida where she has taken a new job, so it’ll be hectic.
My goal is just not to be forgotten this year. Just one more year, please! I’m not ready to wake up from all this.
Hugh Howey’s books, including the Wool Omnibus Edition and First Shift: Legacy, are available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers. You can also visit his website and follow him on Twitter.