I first learned and wrote about Hugh Howey about four years ago. At the time, he was one of the first real breakthrough successes as an indie author, making tens of thousands of dollars a month exclusively through Amazon for his self-published futurist novel, “Wool”. As soon as I could track him down, I invited Hugh and his agent, Kristin Nelson, to speak at the next Digital Book World, which they did several months later, in January 2013.
In the years since, Hugh has had a very public profile as a champion of indie publishing and as a critic of big publishers. When I first encountered Howey, he and his agent had already turned down more than one six-figure publishing deal. Nelson ultimately did a print-only deal for “Wool” with Simon & Schuster, a deal consummated before the big publishers made the apparently-universal decision that they would not sign books for which they didn’t get electronic rights.
This week there was a lengthy interview with Howey done by DBW editor Daniel Berkowitz published on the DBW blog. In this piece, Howey reviews many of his complaints against publishers. According to him, their royalty rates are too low and they pay too infrequently and on too much of a delay. Their authors are excluded from Kindle’s subscription revenue at Kindle Unlimited. Their ebook prices to consumers are too high. And, on top of that, they pay too much rent to be in New York City and they pay their big advances to wealthy authors who don’t really need the money, while aspiring authors get token advance payments that aren’t enough to give them time off to write.
Howey’s observations are not particularly welcomed by publishers, but he has a deep interest in indie authors and, by his lights, is always trying to help them by encouraging them to indie-publish through Amazon rather than seeking a traditional deal through an agent. He has organized the AuthorEarnings website and data repository along with Data Guy, the games-business data analyst who has turned his analytical skills to the book business whom we featured at the most recent Digital Book World this past March.
Howey and I have had numerous private conversations over the years. He’s intelligent and sincere in his beliefs and truly devotes his energy to “industry education” motivated by his desire to help other authors. Yet there are holes in his analysis of the industry and where it is going that he doesn’t fill. Given his substantial following and obvious comfort level doing the marketing (such as it is, and it appears Howey’s success as an author hasn’t required much) for his own books as well as his commercial performance, it is easy to understand why he would never consider publishing any other way but as he has, as an indie author who is “all in” with Amazon. But he seems to think what worked well for him would work best for anybody.
In this interview, Howey says that any author would be better off self-publishing his or her first book than going the route of selling it to a publisher. And he actually dismisses the marketing effort required to do that. Howey says the best marketing is publishing your next book. He thinks the best strategy is for authors to write several books a year to gain success. In fact, he says taking time away from writing to do marketing is a bad choice. Expecting most writers, or even many writers, to do several books a year strikes me as a highly dubious proposition.
It is impossible to quarrel with the fact of Howey’s success. But he makes a big mistake assuming that what worked effectively for him makes self-publishing the right path for anybody else, let alone everybody else.
Howey also has an unrealistically limited view of the output of big publishing. If you read this interview (and I would encourage anybody interested in the book business to do so), you see that he thinks almost exclusively about fiction or, as he puts it, “storytelling”. Books come, like his did, out of an author’s imagination and all the author needs is the time to write. Exposure through Amazon does the rest.
He gives publishers credit for putting books into stores (although he would have them eliminate returns, which would cut down sharply on how effectively they accomplished that). But he thinks stores will be of diminishing importance. (We certainly agree on that.) He gives credit for the indie bookstore resurgence to Amazon, which would be true if you credit Amazon with the demise of Borders that wiped out over 400 big bookstores and created new opportunities for indies. But the idea that Amazon is allied with indie bookstores is contradicted by two realities. One is that the indie stores won’t stock Amazon-published books. The other is that Amazon, now in the process of opening its second retail store, may plan dozens, hundreds, or thousands more to come! We really don’t know. Certainly, very few indie bookstores would be applauding that.
Here’s how Howey sums up his advice to authors.
“Too few successful self-pubbed authors talk about the incredible hours and hard work they put in, so it all seems so easy and attainable. The truth is, you’ve got to outwork most other authors out there. You’ve got to think about writing a few novels a year for several years before you even know if you’ve got what it takes. Most authors give up before they give themselves a chance. It’s similar to how publishers give up on authors before they truly have a chance.”
This seems like sound advice, but it isn’t how it appeared to work for Howey. He published a novella which was the start of Wool and his Amazon audience asked for more. Three more novellas later, over a period of just a few months, and the four combined became his bestselling novel. Six months after he started, he was making $50,000 a month or more and had an agent selling his film rights. Then his agent started selling his book rights in non-US territories and in other languages. Meanwhile, Howey continued to earn 70 percent of the revenues from his ebooks, in a deal Amazon offered that matched what they paid to agency publishers, the biggest publishers. (Would Amazon be paying authors 70 percent if publishers hadn’t come up with that number for agency? Should big publishers get some of the credit for the very good deal indie authors are getting?)
The logic that Howey offers about how self-publishing stacks up against doing deals with a big house is very persuasive, but there are two pieces of reality that contradict it.
One is that, at this time, four years after Howey did “Wool” and eight years after the launch of Kindle, there are no noteworthy authors who have abandoned their publishing deals for self-publishing. (It appeared briefly that Barry Eisler was the first such author, except that it turned out he signed an Amazon Publishing deal after turning down a Big Six contract; he didn’t go indie. And, frankly, while he’s somewhat successful, he’s not a show-stopper author for any publisher.) In fact, Amazon’s own publishing strategy has apparently switched away from trying to persuade big commercial fiction authors to do that and is focused on the genre fiction that is the core of the self-publishing done through them. Howey has been offering the same analysis for quite a few years now but so far, the publishers have lost hardly anybody they care to keep to self-publishing. And we’re now in a period where the split of books sold online (ebooks and print) to books sold in stores (where publishers are beyond helpful; they’re necessary) appears to have stabilized — at least for the time being — after years of stores losing share.
The other is that Howey’s analysis totally leaves out one of the biggest categories of publishing: big non-fiction like history or biographies or industry analyses that take years of research and dedication to complete. Unlike a lot of fiction, those books not only take time, they require serious help and expense to research. In a imagined future world where all books are self-published, aspiring fiction writers give up very little (small advances) and successful fiction authors have the money to eat while they write the next book they can make even more money on doing it the Howey way (even though none have). But big non-fiction books like Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” (or anything by David McCullough) took years of research to put together. “Dark Money” was undoubtedly financed at a very high level by the Doubleday imprint at Penguin Random House. How books like that will be funded in the future is not covered by Howey’s analysis.
Now, that’s not to say they must be. Economic realities do rule. Howey’s thesis that things are shifting in Amazon’s direction and away from the ecosystem that has sustained big book publishers is correct. He predicts that there will be three big publishers where once there were six and now there are five. I concur with that. As that happens, maybe the big fiction writers will take Howey’s advice.
But that solution is no solution for authors like Jane Mayer or David McCullough. A world without publishers where authors do the writing and the publishing might give us an output of fiction comparable to what we have now. But the biggest and best non-fiction would need another model if publishers weren’t able to take six-figure investment risks to support them. Amazon’s not offering it and neither is Howey. If the future unfolds as Howey imagines it, we’ll never know what books we’re missing.