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When the idea for the Open Book series was suggested, I really didn’t have to do a lot of thinking about who my favourite author is. What some might find odd about my choice as a sci-fi reviewer, is that the author I picked is a relatively new one in the grand scheme of literary things, but the impact he has had both on me as a reader and also to the industry as a whole has been nothing short of phenomenal.
As I write this, I’m checking Hugh Howey’s Facebook feed. It’s that time of year again and the Comic-Con of Comic-Cons, SDCC 2015, is upon us and I’m fascinated by a group photo of him with two of the biggest names is sci-fi from the past two years, Ernest Cline and Andy Weir. This is rock star status in book terms. All three have sold the movie rights to their novels, with Weir’s The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, due for release in November and Cline’s Ready, Player One, soon to be directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. Scott has also optioned the rights to Howey’s most popular book, Wool, and news has broken at SDCC that the rights to Sand have been sold and it will be developed as a major TV series. No small feat, considering that four years ago none of these authors were on anybody’s radar.
Having spent almost a decade as a yacht captain, Howey decided it was time to return to dry land and pursue his dream of being a writer. Taking up a job at a bookstore, Howey would write from early morning until he went to work and also during his lunch hour, continuing when he arrived home, sometimes into the small hours of morning. His first book, a YA space adventure Molly Fyde And The Parsona Rescue, released in 2009, was his first attempt and was well received, as were the subsequent books in the series and provided Howey with some invaluable experience in self-publishing, which at the time was still in its infancy.
But it wasn’t until 2011, as Howey sat at his computer and decided to publish a 65 page short story he had written called Wool, that his life changed forever. After the initial publication, he began to notice after a few days that sales were beginning to rise, and the all-important Amazon reviews were starting to come in with very favourable star ratings. Sales of tens of books quickly turned to hundreds, and then thousands. What surprised Howey the most was that he had done little or no marketing or publicity for the story. It was selling purely by word of mouth. He quickly learned that those mouths wanted more, and began expanding his story, eventually collecting it into an omnibus edition as an entire novel, and signing a lucrative print deal with Random House in the UK and Simon & Schuster in the US, while retaining his digital rights, something previously unheard of in the world of publishing.
Wool was deservedly a phenomenon. A brilliantly-written story of a world devastated and its only survivors living underground in a giant silo, it’s a gripping and frightening reality check of how we trust those who lead us a lot more than we should, as well as a frank look at class divisions within society. Tense and claustrophobic, it benefits from detailed world-building and strong, memorable characters drawn together in a complex conspiracy. When I read it, I felt excited by science fiction in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. I wanted to tell people about it, which effectively kickstarted me on the path to blogging and reviewing. It has since sold over two million copies worldwide.
The other thing that could be attributed to Howey’s success is his interaction with his fiercely loyal readership. He offers a level of accessibility that’s hard to find with mainstream authors. He posts on Twitter and Facebook regularly, accepting friend requests, blogging and answering emails and his Youtube book unboxings are the stuff of legend. His regular blog posts since the start of his career provide a valuable insight into the world of publishing. He also goes to great lengths to meet his fans and other writers wherever he is travelling, often arranging impromptu meet-ups on social media. Of the fifty or so authors I’ve reviewed in the last few years, I can count on one hand the few that ever even acknowledged a message I’d sent them, much less engaged in conversation. On a personal note, when the final book in the Wool series, Dust, was about to be released, I emailed him to ask if I could have an ARC. I had already reviewed Wool and the second part Shift on my blog. He replied saying that he hadn’t planned on giving ARCs for this book, but in my case would make an exception. He sent me a copy and agreed to let me publish the world first review on my blog. I was blown away, both by how good the book was, and by his gracious treatment of a lowly blogger.
As Wool became more successful, some fans began to write their own pieces of fiction based in the world Howey had built. He gave his permission and allowed many to sell their books and keep the profits for themselves. Some of the novels inspired by Wool brought many talented writers to the public’s attention, one in particular being Jason Gurley (who also ended up becoming Howey’s cover designer), who recently signed a major book deal for his previously self-published novel, Eleanor. This practice later developed into what is now known as Kindle Worlds.
His next project Sand, while still sticking with the post-apocalyptic dystopian theme, was a radically different and unrelated work to Wool. A much grittier (pardon the pun) affair with stronger adult themes it was in many ways the opposite to Wool, transferring the narrative from a controlled society to a completely lawless one. Although many classed it as a high-octane actioner, it had more emotional undertones than one would expect from such a story and it was Howey’s masterful character development that gave it the necessary human edge missing in much of modern science fiction.
Much of Howey’s work, unlike many of his male peers, also features strong female characters, but the author is careful not to allow them to fall into the preconceptions many have of strong women in science fiction. “When I create characters, I don’t like to allow their genders to define them. One of the problems I see with a lot of strong female characters in fiction is that their strength seems to lie in displaying a masculine toughness. There is so much more than flexing a muscle or knowing how to kick someone’s butt. A greater strength, I think, lies in not wanting to fight at all but to find some other method of resolution.”
The freedom of being a self-published author has also given Howey the chance to explore other genres and characterisations. Last year he published an illustrated children’s book Misty The Proud Cloud and his last release, The Shell Collector, while still based in speculative fiction, was a thinly-disguised romance novel as well as his own love letter to the sea. He has begun to publish a series of self-help books covering everything from food and fitness to positive mental health. He has also returned to science fiction with a new series, Beacon 23, an intriguing space mystery.
His no-nonsense attitude to the publishing industry has made him a hero to some and a pariah to others, especially during the infamous Amazon/Hachette dispute last year, with many describing him as an outlier who struck it lucky, but it is clear that he will not be swayed and continues to publicly ask questions and challenge an industry whose business practices remain a mystery to many and always seem skewed in favour of the publisher.
“I’d rather excite the imagination of a legion of readers and make pennies from each of them than hold off for a larger chunk of change from only a handful of fans.”
He is also embarking on a new chapter in his own life. In three weeks’ time, Howey will travel to South Africa and take ownership of “Wayfinder”, a large custom-built catamaran, and return to the seas which will become his new home as he travels to wherever his fancy takes him. “It marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another,” he has said of his impending adventure. “And you know me, I’m a fan of cliffhangers. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
I’m hoping one of those stops will be here. I owe him a pint.