How One Successful Indie Author Marketed His Work Up the Bestseller Lists

From Wikimedia Commons by Lewis Clarke

Today’s guest post is by Sabrina Ricci: author, e-book developer, and entrepreneur. Her startup, Write or Read, is a subscription site for e-books that gives readers access to a wide variety of titles and helps writers build their platform and become more successful. Sabrina earned her M.S. in publishing from NYU, and while she was in school became interested in e-books and self-publishing.

It’s fascinating how much the publishing industry has changed in the past three years . . . I started self-publishing and working on my startup to get a better feel for the process and figure out how to best help writers. For this particular article, I loved hearing Hugh’s techniques for marketing. There are so many articles about using social media and being constantly online trying to find new readers. But it’s nice to know that other approaches work, and that they allow time for authors to do what they love best: writing.

Check out Sabrina’s blog and her books; follow her on Twitter @sabsky and find her on Facebook.

The Year of the Reader: How One Successful Indie Author Marketed His Work Up the Bestseller Lists

Hugh Howey, author of Wool, has sold at least a million and a half books.

You hear about it more and more frequently these days. A successful indie author creates a bestseller and is able to quit his day job to pursue his lifelong dream of writing. But how does an author get to that point? For Howey, it was a combination of strong storytelling—Wool went viral and sold 1,000 copies per month before he even started actively marketing it—and innovative, subtle marketing.

Unlike some indie authors I’ve talked to who have had successful marketing campaigns using social media and reaching out to new readers, Howey has a slightly different approach: he only contacts existing readers.

“I try not to at any time tell new people to check out my work,” Howey said. “I spend all my time interacting with existing readers. And I find that to be much more effective because the only way you’re going to have any kind of viral growth is with readers telling other readers about the work.”

Howey said he neither enjoys nor has the confidence in his work to constantly promote it and tell strangers to read it.

“No one wants to listen to a writer talk about their work,” he said.

It’s All About The Readers

In early 2012, Howey posted a YouTube video of he and his sister doing “The Time Warp” dance from The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the middle of Times Square, NY, as a thank you in honor of getting his 100th review of Wool on Amazon. He had promised the dance to his fans a while back, and one of his friends waited to be the one to post the 100th review.

“She wouldn’t let me forget,” Howey said. “At the time I had a very small readership, so I had no idea it was going to be seen by lots of people.”

Howey admits that he enjoyed making a fool of himself, though it’s probably not a marketing strategy many people would want to adopt.

But, this video is just one example of how far Howey goes to reach out to his readers and show his appreciation (he has other YouTube videos, which are easy to find). Being the down-to-earth guy he is, he’s always willing to go the extra mile, even if it means just reaching one fan. In an IndieReader article from May of last year, Howey wrote:

“The WOOL OMNIBUS is now roaring up the charts, and I like to think of the work as much as a collaboration as a singular effort. It was borne out of the call from reviewers for more and forged almost as it was being read. Cover art has been supplied by (and paid for, of course) by fans. Typos have been rounded up and summarily vanquished by helpful readers. And so the story of WOOL‘s creation has become as interesting (to me, at least) as the story contained in the book itself.”

And it’s clear Howey’s readers love him back. Charla Arabie, one loyal fan, posted a YouTube video showing how happy she was to get a signed hardcover copy of Wool. She explains that she had sent him a book to autograph and return to her, and he had shipped it back, but forgotten to sign her copy. Because she had his phone number from an old business card, she called to ask why he didn’t sign her book. He apologized, and sent her a free copy, which he signed 12 times to make it up to her. He also signed the box it shipped in four times, for good measure.

“This is what makes Hugh different,” Charla said in her video. “He’s a cool guy.”

“The book is signed all over the place, and I am absolutely overjoyed,” she said. “[…] It was absolutely the best thing to share with everybody.”

Getting True Fans

Kevin Kelley wrote in 2008 that artists only need 1,000 true fans to earn a living because true fans buy everything the artist releases; they stay loyal as long as the artist is in constant direct contact with them. Howey has successfully built a base of true fans.

Howey said he started off with 12 to 14 books, which he had worked on for four years. His only readers in the beginning were friends, family, and a dozen people he had befriended via a forum.

“We posted back and forth and became close enough that when I submitted sample chapters of my work they read it,” he said. They became his earliest fans.

One of his biggest fans was his cousin Lisa. Howey said she fell in love with his first book.

“She told everyone about it,” he said. “And of the 100 people she told, maybe five picked it up. Because you don’t trust someone when they say their cousin wrote a book. But when those five people read it, they tell someone, ‘Hey, I just read this great book.’ Now you might get two readers for every one, and then you get some growth.”

Howey was able to sell his first 5,000 books this way. He also worked at a university bookstore, allowing him to meet professors and creative writing students who would come in and “talk shop.” He offered to give talks to classes on completing manuscripts, and it helped spread the word about his books.

Never Saying No to Readers

Being the adventurous type, Howey also attributes his success to never saying ‘no’ to an opportunity.

“Part of it is just the thrill, the newness of it all, having an adventure, and challenging myself,” he said. “I think each of those small risks helped build towards having the readership I have now.”

One of Howey’s most memorable opportunities occurred when a woman emailed him asking for a signed copy of his book for her son, who was a fan and had a birthday coming up, he said. The woman’s son was an Eagle Scout, about to graduate from high school and start life in college.

Howey said he happened to be visiting his family in North Carolina at the time, and he noticed the woman was writing from an area three hours north of him. He suggested they meet halfway at a bookstore, to surprise the boy with the signed book and then take him out to lunch.

“I think that he’ll remember that for the rest of his life,” Howey said. Even if he doesn’t remain a fan, Howey said he was happy to reach out. “Stuff like that, I’ll never forget,” he said.

Howey has also successfully recruited a number of true fans to become his beta readers, all of whom are volunteers. Some are English majors, others are professional editors, and all love his work.

“[They] help to smooth out the wrinkles and make it the best work possible before it goes to the public,” he said.

Subtle Marketing Techniques

Howey has a very straight forward website. He regularly blogs to give his readers updates, and he provides links to his books. But he also has a very powerful marketing tool in the upper left sidebar: word counts.

Howey shares the number of words he’s written so far and the percentage of the work completed for each of his current short stories and books. This not only shows fans he’s hard at work on the stories they are clamoring for, but it also gives them a good idea of when they can expect to read, and most likely buy, his next book.

He said the word counts he gives himself always comes out within five percent of the actual word count for each story. Not all of his works-in-progress will be paid content, however. Howey offers some of his short stories on his site for free, and Wool itself, part one of the series, is permanently free.

Howey also believes that having his work pirated ultimately helps him with word of mouth marketing. He wants people to enjoy his stories.

“I think they’ll either reimburse me directly or they’ll tell other people about the work,” he said.

A Typical Workday

Howey spends about half his time writing and half his time taking care of the business of writing, he said. He rises early, writes at least 2,000 words, and then usually spends the afternoon signing books, shipping copies, attending meetings, and doing interviews.

Lately, he is traveling a lot to promote the release of his book in different countries. His print only deal with Simon & Schuster also sent him on a book tour around the country, where he continued to directly reach out to his current readers.

He was happy to “meet readers I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

Marketing Inspirations

Howey’s marketing ideas come from unique places. When he first started self-publishing, he said he wasn’t aware of many other indie writers. He said he followed more in the footsteps of photographers and artists who were just trying to make their work visible.

“I didn’t really think of authors as making it this way,” he said. “I never expected to make it this way. I was trying to get one reader at a time.”

And it worked. Just as photographers have to “get out there” with their portfolios, and push for paying gigs, selling prints, and showing people their work in hopes of getting more work, Howey focused on enticing one person at a time, in hopes of earning more.

“I was thinking, ‘Okay, how am I going to get one more person this week to read my book?” he said. “And that was my attitude.”

Howey said he never intended to become a full time writer and make a lot of money.

“There was no plan to get to where I am now,” he said. “This is beyond my wildest dreams.”

How do you reach readers? Reach for your dreams? What are some of the unique things that inspire your marketing?



    • says

      I agree! I love hearing these kinds of stories, and I think Hugh’s been doing some really great things this year, like give away free copies of Wool to fans on a a specially made flash drive.

  1. says

    From your post, here are the marketing strategies I like best:

    “Wool went viral and sold 1,000 copies per month before he even started actively marketing it.”

    “One of his biggest fans was his cousin Lisa. Howey said she fell in love with his first book.”

    “He wants people to enjoy his stories.”

    I like Howey’s one-at-a-time focus. I admire his allocation of time: 50% writing, 50% selling. But how odd…nothing happened for him until he had stories that people loved to read.

    I wish more indie authors fed the horse before hitching up the cart. Thanks.

    • says

      Thanks! I’ve heard about a few other authors who weren’t successful until after they had a few books out there. I think what helps is when a new reader gets into one of the books, they start to trust the author’s style and decide they’d like to read more. So if more books are already out there, they don’t have to wait and the author doesn’t risk a new reader forgetting about them.

  2. says

    Time Warp in Times Square? That, by itself, has me dying to buy this book.

    Love the idea of keeping the marketing up close and personal – the story of taking the kid out to lunch is awesome.

    Sabriina, thanks for this great story.

  3. Carmel says

    The message I love here is, “What can I do for my readers?” not “How can I push myself up to the front?”

    • says

      Great point, Carmel and a point I want to remember: “What can I do for my readers?”

      I also like Hugh’s focus on one reader at a time. That keeps it simple.

      Re: How do you reach readers? Reach for your dreams? What are some of the unique things that inspire your marketing?

      — I give readings and presentations. I really enjoy those.
      — In the past, I’ve done giveaways, including giving away 30 copies of my book to teens with a postcard and asked them to write back with what they liked. Five of them did!
      — I donate books to groups and organizations that support at-risk teems.

      Thanks for the post, Sabrina!

  4. says

    Excellent advice — I remember getting an email from a reader asking if my book would be available on a lesser known site, one that I’d skipped with that release because sales didn’t seem to be worth the effort. My answer to her was, “tomorrow” and I uploaded the book there in multiple formats. Put the reader first is something we need to remember.


  5. says

    Saw Hugh speak at Tampa Bay Comic con a few weeks ago–there were all of fifteen people in the room, but he played to a full house–a genuinely lovely gentleman who had nothing but encouraging words for the inspiring authors in the room and advice to his readers for finding the best of other indie authors. And his panel was all about succeeding by doing things differently. He was friendly, approachable, and behaved as though he was just having coffee with a bunch of friends. For this alone I’m buying all his books, and telling everyone to do the same. He deserves every moment of success.

  6. says

    I’ve given away so many copies of my book I wonder if there will be anyone left to read it when it’s published in February. But when it does come out, I’m counting on my beta readers to recommend it as I know that every “you’ve got to read this” is priceless and moves a writer down the road to building a permanent audience.

  7. says

    What a great piece. It just goes to show that nice guys don’t finish last. Sounds like a good book, a kind heart, and interacting with your readers goes a long way. Loved Wool, so it was great to hear how Howey interacted with fans to achieve success.

  8. says

    It was good to read that Hugh Howey’s fans enjoy tracking his progress. I share my author journey every Thursday on my blog. But I’d read comments from other authors, on their blogs, like, no one cares about your word count. It’s boring. It’s good to learn once again that there’s always two sides to the coin.
    You asked what I’ve done to promote my work…
    -I’ve given author readings on stage, over the radio and on podcasts.
    -I’ve given short stories away for free at craft fairs. Writing is a craft. Right?
    -I’ve given short stories away for free on my blog. In fact, there’s one there now. Something Good to Eat is speculative fiction inspired by Icelandic folk lore.

  9. says

    This verifies what I’ve heard from indies about selling books without ever talking about the book itself, just interacting on social media. I keep telling authors it’s important to reply to comments on my blog blog, but not all of them do. Somewhere, I heard it takes 3 contacts to sell. But the number goes down with a great cover and a good review from someone you trust.