Hugh Howey: “When the People of Publishing Are Set Free”

Hugh Howey, “waiting to be interviewed,” earlier this month while in Taiwan at TIBE, the Taipei International Book Fair.
“Waiting to be interviewed.” Hugh Howey earlier this month in Taiwan at TIBE, the Taipei International Book Fair.

Porter here, to introduce a special post written for us by Hugh Howey in our “Inside Publishing” series. In my Friday piece, Sir Hugh and the Snail, I wrote about how Howey’s career has surprised some observers because he embraces not only self-publishing but also traditional publishing contracts.

I believe there are those in my own country who want to blaze new trails and forge new partnerships, and I welcome that. — Hugh Howey

Howey has just re-signed with Random House UK’s Century imprint, to publish his new novel, Sand — the same folks led by Jack Fogg who published his Wool trilogy in London. These contracts are for print and digital, even as he self-publishes those works in the States. And with more than 30 such foreign publishers, Howey has said that overseas houses are “nimble and creative…They get putting the reader first.”

On Friday, Writer Unboxed’s rich comment-conversation produced some excellent questions along the lines of, “Wonder what Hugh would say a publishing deal looks like when it’s right?” What makes the driving force behind the new initiative so outspoken in his enthusiasm for these partnerships with publishers?

So I asked Howey at 10:20 p.m. if he’d consider giving us a few thoughts on it. He sent the piece to me at 7:43 the next morning. (When we say the outliers work hard for their success…right?) The text is his. I added visuals. Thanks, Hugh.

“Whatever It Takes To Reach Readers”

When my editor rolled over in his bed, I could feel the entire caravan sway on its axles. A tiny gas heater sputtered and tried to keep the cold at bay, but it was March in Wales and the ground was covered in frost.

We were at The Weekender, a science fiction convention held every year on those caravan-studded fairgrounds three hours by train north of London. Random House UK had sprung for a deluxe caravan, which came with two bedrooms. But I didn’t doubt that my editor would’ve bunked up with me if the accommodations required it. That’s Jack Fogg for you.

I first heard about Jack from Jenny Meyer, my overseas literary agent. She said one editor in particular was pestering her about Wool at the London Book Fair. He kept cornering her to ask about the book. I liked him already.

But it was in the gator-infested and broiling Florida backcountry that I knew we were meant to partner up. My wife had just taken a new job in Palm Beach County. We were down looking at houses in May of 2012, and the UK auction for Wool was in full swing.

To pitch their proposal to me, Random House UK had created a custom website for me to log into. With turtles and peacocks outside, my wife and I sat in a rental car with the AC blasting and shared my laptop. Up came a montage of employees at Random House UK who had read Wool and loved it.

At the end, Jack Fogg came on and shared accounts of people who weren’t even supposed to be reading the work snagging copies from his office. He said people were losing sleep. While my wife and I waited to hear if we got the house we wanted, I waited and hoped that another auction would go my way.

It did. And the same enthusiasm and creativity I saw in that pitch was displayed throughout the release of Wool in the UK.

From a proof set created by Jennifer Doyle that should’ve won an award for industrial design, to cover art from Jason Smith, who read the book and then begged his boss to be assigned to the project, the release went better than I could have imagined. All the specific marketing plans were nailed. There were no empty promises unfulfilled. And the editorial process made the work better. I was flown over for a book tour and was swept up in the hurricane that is my publicist, Natalie Higgins.

Random House UK advertising in London's Underground. Photo by Sam Missingham
“Gorgeous hardback”: A Random House UK advert in London’s Underground with Jason Smith’s cover art for that cost-saving paper-on-board edition — under 10 pounds ($16.60). Photo by Sam Missingham

From the very beginning, my agent Kristin Nelson and I saw signing with Random House UK as a way to experimentally partner with a major publisher.

It wasn’t the people in publishing that my agent and I were trying to change; the people were magnificent. Without exception, they love books, love readers, and want to play matchmaker by the millions. Sometimes, they just aren’t allowed to. — Hugh Howey

We had turned down offers from publishers in New York, where ideas like changing the title and taking the e-book off the market seemed not to be in the readers’ best interest. Overseas, I was working with people who wanted to experiment, be bold and creative, and win readers over any way possible.

In France, Actes Sud was launching a new science fiction imprint under direction from Manuel Tricotreux.

In Germany, Thomas Tebbe was giving away the entire first part of Wool in print! The story could be found in those card racks in hotels.

In Spain, the purchase of a copy of Wool from one bookstore came with a free yellow hazard suit.

In Taiwan, the editor devised an elegant translation that followed Wool with Dust, both of which went on to be #1 bestsellers.

Back in the UK, Random House was producing a gorgeous hardback using paper-on-board, which kept the price under 10 pounds.

Wool covers, from left, in France, Germany, Spain, and Taiwan. Special thanks: Jenny Meyer & Kristin Nelson
“Elegant translation”: From left, Wool in France, Germany, Spain, and Taiwan. Special thanks: Jenny Meyer & Kristin Nelson
Wool covers, from left, in Italy, Latvia, Greece, and Hungary. Special thanks: Jenny Meyer and Kristin Nelson
“Unleash their creativity”: From left, Wool in Italy, Latvia, Greece, and Hungary. Special thanks: Jenny Meyer and Kristin Nelson

I saw similar creativity in the US. I met an editor at a major New York publisher who fought to get the kind of publishing deal I was interested in. We were dying to work together, but there were rules in place that couldn’t be broken for any project, even with the potential for both sides to do well and for the reader to benefit. It wasn’t the people in publishing that my agent and I were trying to change; the people were magnificent. Without exception, they love books, love readers, and want to play matchmaker by the millions. Sometimes, they just aren’t allowed to.

Simon & Schuster…When it came time to do another deal with the same terms, the answer from higher up was that these were no longer valid options. What looked like a turning point was merely a place to be turned back. — Hugh Howey

In the US, a handful of courageous and creative people at Simon & Schuster put together a print-only deal that brought Wool to more bookstores and more readers. They also agreed to a simultaneous hardback and paperback release, something I’d wished publishers would do in my time as a bookseller. Both editions hit their respective NYT lists upon release, and readers appreciated the choice of formats, proving that this was feasible. But when it came time to do another deal with the same terms, the answer from higher up was that these were no longer valid options. What looked like a turning point was merely a place to be turned back.

It’s not from lack of trying. The people I’ve worked with in publishing houses want to do whatever it takes to reach readers.

I spent more than half of last year on the road, meeting with and touring with these people. I consider them friends. They want to unleash their creativity in order to grow their readerships. In many places, they are allowed to do this, and I love working with them as partners. I think the same will be true in the US. I see publishers trying new things here as well. I think when the people of publishing are set free, and the rules that keep them bound are loosened, they’ll find an army of writers eager to team up with them. And readers will be the beneficiaries.

There is no one right path for publishing a book. But there are paths that I wouldn’t want to walk down.

On sale in Italy.
“Bold and creative”: Wool, wherever fine books are sold in Italy.

There are paths that lead away from readers rather than toward them.

There are paths snarled with brambles that will hang up an author and not allow them the freedom to turn back and try another way.

There are paths that serve no one, and some of these are the most trodden.

I’m not a publishing expert, but I’ve walked my fair share of trails and have tried numerous paths.

Where I find they make sense, I’m happy to explore and am glad for the company.

Much of this has been overseas, where I’ve partnered with over 30 publishers and have gotten to know many of them personally. I believe there are those in my own country who want to blaze new trails and forge new partnerships, and I welcome that.

Porter again, here to chase Howey’s insights with a couple of questions for the WU community. Picking up on his last line, do you agree that it has seemed harder for some US houses to “blaze new trails?” And if so, care to guess how soon we could see more such “new partnerships” Stateside? What would you like to see a publisher bring to your next release?



  1. says

    I admit to having been intensely curious about how the publishing contract in the US worked out for the Publisher and for Hugh. Especially since that overwhelming share that the Publisher normally gets was significantly less in the Print Only deal. If another deal wasn’t struck then I suppose that is a partial answer but it is also a telling one. While it may be true that the overseas partners are willing to experiment, most here are simply not. And that is who is having the biggest problem losing market share to indies, isn’t it?

    I know less about the publishing world than almost anyone except for how to get a lawyer to look at a proposal and then turn down said proposal because the terms are just egregious. Just my two cents.
    Ann Christy´s last blog post ..Freebies, Print and Major Milestones

  2. says

    It seems to me that the large US houses are a lot like many large institutions: accustomed to dictating terms and having all the power. No surprise there. And they will always fall back on the basic argument that they put up all the cash at risk when they print and distribute a title, so why shouldn’t they demand lopsided royalty terms?
    Until a lot of mega-sellers, indeed a critical mass of mega-names in the authoring business, start to balk en masse, I doubt much will change. Because the fact is that if a big house loses a few midlist authors, they don’t care.
    Mari Passananti´s last blog post ..Lottery

  3. says

    Let’s face it: most of the things we want publishers to do will lose them money. We want them to remove barriers to readers by lowering prices and offering more formats. We want them to spend more on marketing and personnel. We want them to give us more money. We get more, they have less.

    It is very difficult to convince people that they have to lose money in the short-term to make more money in the long-term. It scares them. It scares everybody. Say you’ve been getting $50,000 advances, but suddenly the publisher starts offering you $10,000. They say, “Look, we can’t afford to risk any more. We need to keep this business afloat. If you want to keep making money in the future, you have to lose money now.”

    Of course you freak out. From your perspective, it’s short-sighted and evil. From the publisher’s perspective, it’s necessary for survival. Now flip it: that’s exactly what we’re saying to them. “You’ve been getting 85% all this time, but now we’re demanding that you get 30%. Look, you can’t afford to keep treating us like this. We’re getting fed up and we have other options. If you want to keep making money in the future, you have to lose money now.”

    So what we have are two sides thinking the same thing: “We need to survive.” Publishers think writers are being selfish and demanding, and writers think publishers are being selfish and stupid.

    So yes, it is difficult for US publishers to blaze new trails, because blazing trails is a risk. Nobody wants to take a risk when it looks like things are shaky already. They want to minimize risk and hold tight to what they have. Are they digging their own graves? Yes. Are they likely to stop? No.

  4. says

    Thank you, Porter and Mr. Howey, for the inside look of your experiences of traditional publishing. I’ve never spent much time with traditional publishing, choosing to self-publish after querying only eight agents. After that decision was made, I kind of quit paying attention to traditional publishing issues. The differences in your experiences between publishers overseas and stateside are pretty shocking, though. Congratulations on finding people to work with and who will work with you!
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Special Edition: Coriolanus and Shakespeare

  5. says

    Great article, and fun to see the wheels as they turn since
    that is usually done in private. Hopefully, as these experiments in
    foreign markets bear fruit, more and more people will come to
    realize that things need to change – and if they do, everyone can
    benefit. Thanks again for the great article.
    Michael Bunker´s last blog post ..LEGENDARIUM Cover Reveal

  6. says

    What an incredible journey you’ve had, Hugh. I can’t help but wonder how you feel on the other side of the publicity, success, and touring. What sort of pressures are you under to deliver the next title? As artists, I think most of us get that we’re only as good as the next big hit. I’m not even swimming in the same pool as you and yet I feel them.

    Also, I am rather happy to hear how eager foreign publishers have been to work with you. I hope their willingness and, more importantly, flexibility, make an example that U.S. publishers may follow as the book industry continues to morph.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us here today! I look forward to following your successes as you tackle your next steps.
    Heather Webb´s last blog post ..Author L.J. Cohen and the Making of FUTURE TENSE + Giveaway

  7. says


    Congrats on the worldwide success of Wool. It’s excellent. I was recently re-reading (again!) Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and was reminded of what I like in your writing too.

    Thanks for sharing some of your journey in this post. I’m glad you’ve found supportive people in publishing everywhere. I’ve found that too. While the industry has its problems it’s also full of folks who truly love books, authors and what they do.

    I was particularly struck by this in your post: “There are paths that lead away from readers rather than toward them.”

    Now, that is a statement everyone should ponder. The isolation of writing is seductive and comfortable, but what concerns me about that is not that authors sometimes shy from engaging the public but that they sometimes shy from revealing themselves in their writing, too. They can hide both in their writing rooms and on their pages.

    Taking a path toward readers isn’t only about publishing, promotion and distribution. It’s about first taking a path toward oneself in one’s writing and using what one finds fearlessly and generously. The surest path to readers leads first through your own heart.

    Much success to you, Hugh. Your heart is apparent in your writing, including what you’ve shared with us today. I’m looking forward to more.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Andre Norton Award Nominee

  8. says

    This is such an interesting topic of discussion for writers at all levels of their career. We’re all watching what writers like Hugh are saying and doing, taking note, and avidly hoping the wheels of change begin to turn on this side of the pond. I’m a new Canadian writer just learning the ropes, so it’s nice to see that others further up the ladder (much further), are sharing their publishing experiences and getting behind the quest to level the playing field with traditional publishers. It’s scary business, this writing thing.

    Thank you to Porter, Hugh, and others willing to share the information so more writers can make good, informed, decisions about their publishing options.
    Debbie A. McClure´s last blog post ..Why Writers Are Crying Out Against Traditional Publishing Models

  9. says

    Thanks Hugh, for sharing this with us. Like other commentators, I must confess I was curious to hear how your interesting print-only deal went with S & S. That they didn’t renew is surprising perhaps but par for the course in the case of large corporations. Novelty is hard to stomach. And the greatest novelty in the digital age is our ability as writers to reach out to readers – which is of course what you do every day of your life, including with videos (I’ve watched you!) and now with your author earnings platform. And yes, I’m a reader of yours too, and as a writer, I will admit to having learned a lot from you…

    Transparency and honesty take courage, and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate, and I’m sure all your fans do, what you try to do to change the traditional mindset of publishers!
    Claude Nougat´s last blog post ..Is the Amazon Ebook Market Model Broken?

  10. says

    Thanks Hugh, for the most positive and hopeful piece I’ve read on the state of the publishing industry to date.

    As an aspiring author, I find the “fight” between the self-publishing crowd and the traditional crowd to be depressing, and daunting.

    Both sides seem to have an us vs. them mentality that does nothing for the industry or the readers overall.

    You are a unique, inspiring, and ground-breaking author on many levels; please keep up the amazing work and please keep telling us all about your experiences!
    Leslie Miller´s last blog post ..The Importance of Voice in Memoirs

  11. Denise Willson says

    Hugh, I love how open you sound, how willing, how positive. It’s refreshing.

    I wish you all the best.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  12. says

    Thank you for sharing your perspective, and you do it with such care. I like the positive slant of your piece. I’m about to jump into the pool, and was all set to self-publish when I met someone who connected me with a top agent, who now has my manuscript on her desk. We’ll see if anything comes of it. But articles like yours help me understand what’s at stake and what I need to know to make the right decision for my book. Now, I have to read Wool. Wishing you continued success.
    Diana Stevan´s last blog post ..Taking Stock