Tips on Self-Publishing and the Writing Process From Hugh Howey

How the Successful Silo-series Author Changed the Publishing Game

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“I firmly believe that if a well-read author commits to honing their craft and writing two novels a year for ten years, they will be able to make a career out of writing. The beauty of self-publishing is that you can give yourself that ten-year chance. You don’t have to rely on being discovered by an agent.” – Hugh Howey

So you are working on a wonderful work of fiction. Perhaps a novel you desperately hope to reach the hearts of millions of readers. The writing part almost seems ‘easy’ you still need to find a way to publish and market your book. Do you want to submit your work to an agent and walk the traditional path, or are you going to take matters into your own hands and self-publish?

Enter Hugh Howey, who after years of pursuing his creative passion for writing (while working in a bookstore) finally became that “overnight success”. “Overnight success” doesn’t exist. It’s a fairy tale people love to believe happen to them. News flash, you have to work hard for it. And of course, there is a bit of luck involved.

Howey has almost personally changed the publishing game almost ten years ago. Perhaps you heard about it. Maybe you devoured his science fiction Silo-series, like me. Little did he know that a short novella he self-published on Amazon would end up becoming a series loved world-wide. A series that launched him into a bestseller author landing a publishing deal on his terms.

He too was once an aspiring novelist like you and me. So what made Howey successful in terms of self-publishing? What insights does he have in terms of writing and publishing? 

Hugh Howey’s Publishing Success Story

As said, Howey published a novella on Amazon that changed the game for him. This novella served as the first few chapters of what would later become ‘Wool’, the first book in the Silo series. But before he turned to Amazon, he published through a small press with little success. Because he was intrigued by the freedom of self-publishing he decided to sell the novella through Amazon.

When he reached 1,000 book sales in a month, this to him indicated people were interested. The more novella’s he sold, the more readers reached out to him asking for a full book. And so he did. Quite successfully. Although not intentionally meant as a novel, he now wrote further.

When things took off sales-wise, Howey partnered with a literary agent and embarked on a mission. The pair began having conversations with publishers about the type of contract they were seeking—one that would allow Howey to broaden his reach to bookstores worldwide while still thriving as a digitally self-published author.

He then famously walked away from several seven-figure advances. Then, Howey became the first self-published author ever to be offered a print-only contract-and a significant six-figure advance-by a major publisher. Simon & Schuster offered a print-only deal to expand it to other markets in print, like the big book retailers. Random House did the same in the UK. The movie rights for his Silo series were optioned to 20th Century Fox. (Which he later got back, since there was no project in development, unfortunately).

Sound pretty neat, right? Can you imagine? And to end up in the position that you can set the terms for the deal you want. To retain the digital rights of his work is a huge deal. “For me, I make 70 percent of the retail price [on eBooks]. If I’d done this traditionally – it’d be 12,5 percent.” That makes a huge difference.

Why You Should Try to Self-Publish

“I firmly believe that if a well-read author commits to honing their craft and writing two novels a year for ten years, they will be able to make a career out of writing. The beauty of self-publishing is that you can give yourself that ten-year chance. You don’t have to rely on being discovered by an agent.” – Hugh Howey

 Obviously, Howey is an advocate for self-publishing your work. Let’s explore why he did it.

It’s easy to self-publish an eBook through Amazon. You can do this with an Amazon KDP account. Not only can you publish a wonderful eBook, but you can also develop a paperback version of your book. The advantage of having a physical copy of your book is that you can bring it wherever you are. Plus, Amazon offer’s print on demand, which means you don’t have to keep stock or reach a sales quota. The royalties are quite attractive as well. You can even consider publishing an Amazon Audible audiobook of your work. 

Mind you, developing an eBook, paperback, and audiobook is a LOT of work. Plus, there is no guaranteed success.

On the other hand, there are a multitude of benefits to self-publishing according to Howey. Few writers earn any money from their work. The majority earns nothing. On average, self-publishing writers earn more than their traditional counterparts according to Howey.

With self-publishing, you have to do all the work. You’re not only the writer, but also the publisher, marketer, cover designer, and all-time hustler. That’s a lot of work, but being traditionally published doesn’t mean that you ‘just write’ and do nothing else. What’s more, it’s expected you have a decent platform or amount of social media followers. You have to promote your work. 

“Critics of self-publishing will say that not every writer wants to be a businessperson. Meanwhile, publishers expect just this of their successful writers.” – Hugh Howey

The benefit of self-publishing has mainly to do with the amount of control you have, says Howey. Control over your royalties of course, but also to continue your series if you have one (a traditional publisher holds the rights to your work and may pull the plug), or control of simple things like the cover art. That’s just a fraction, you have control over the entire process. What’s more, you have control over the publication date. Through traditional publishing, it can take up to a year before your finished work hits the shelves of bookstores.

“Assuming you haven’t signed away the rights to your work, no decision you make today is a final decision. You can always decide later on to sign the work over to a publisher. This is why signing with a publisher should be the last course of action you take, because it’s the last one you can take. Exhaust all the other options first while they’re still available.” – Hugh Howey


Hugh Howey’s Tips on the Writing Process


#1: On Finally Starting to Write Your Novel (or Short Story or Blog)

Howey put finishing writing his first novel off for 20 years. Dozens of book ideas got lost in the process. Until writer Caroline Todd said the following at a writer’s conference he attended when asked how one goes about writing a novel: “You stop thinking about writing a novel. You stop telling people you’re writing a novel. You stop dreaming of writing a novel. And you write!”. And then he did.

I too postponed actually writing for years. I was usually afraid. I thought no one would like it. I was ashamed of my prose and ideas. Although I always dreamed of being a writer, I wasn’t actually one. You’re only a writer if you write. 

True you have to be bold and look your fears and worries dead in the eye. You alone can decide to do. Not just say you do or dream how it will be if you do it. No, DO IT. 

“It’s okay to think you can’t write a novel. Live there, grow there, learn there. But at some point, stop thinking. If you’re thinking you aren’t doing.” - Hugh Howey

Only you can get in your own way. Move over, write, learn, become better, publish, gain feedback and finish that damn book.

“A successful writer is one who finishes what they start while striving to improve their craft.” – Hugh Howey

If you’re interested, Hugh Howey recently published a long four-part series with writing tips. You can start here.


#2: Read a Lot

“There aren’t any shortcuts around this. Successful writers read. They read a lot. And the best writers read a wide variety of books. It’s impossible to stress the importance of this insight. When aspiring authors ask my advice on making it as a writer, this is my most common first response: Read.” – Hugh Howey

By reading you learn more about how stories are structured. You learn about how a story is set up, about style, the use of paragraphs, how characters are built, how to write dialogue, etc. You don’t need a degree in literature, you just need to read. That’s just my opinion, and I live by it. All I know about writing and all I use in my writing is because of the fact that I read a lot.

Almost every famous author says you have to read a lot. If the likes of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling say it, shouldn’t you heed this advice?


#3: On Productivity

“I set ambitious deadlines for myself and almost invariably beat them. The trick is to create small goals.” – Hugh Howey

I read this quote about two years ago and I literally followed this advice. It’s great, but it leaves you a bit anxious too. Once you create ambitious, out of this world goals, you usually fail to achieve them. But I though myself not to think about it this way. When I’m done I achieved more than I ever hoped. Plus, small steps done consistently WILL get you ahead.


#4: On Plotting and Prose

“I have an idea of where a story is going to end before I [start writing]. I’ll even write a very rough outline of the last scene or the last chapter, so I know where everyone’s going to end up and where the story is going to finish. I read some books and they’re just meandering and trying to find their ending, and I like for my characters to have a destination. [I leave] some room for wiggling, and for characters to interact organically with their environment or each other.” – Hugh Howey

On his blog, Howey writes about two writing elements that are in conflict with each other: plot and prose. Plot is the facts of what happens in a story, to whom and where. The prose is the words used by the writer to describe the events of the plot.

What often happens is that authors spend too much time on either one of them, while you want to achieve a perfect balance between the two. So you have writers who write beautifully about nothing or writers who have a great story arc, but it’s not well written. What Howey argues, is that plotting is always the foundation. Most readers value a good plot more than good prose. They talk about the events that happened to the characters when they discuss books with other people, more than they gush over beautiful sentences.

If you can achieve both, however, you strike writing gold.


#5: On Pacing

“To become a better writer, it helps to understand how the delivery of words affects a reader’s mood and their retention of information. The most important tool in this regard is pacing.” – Hugh Howey

According to Howey, there are many ways of pacing a story. It’s basically how you present your plot and prose to your reader. How many chapters do you use? How is your story constructed? Do you use scene breaks?

People absorb stories and information in chunks, that’s how we’re wired. So take that into account. Also, make sure you take this into account while writing scenes and paragraphs. Watch the length, it influences the flow of your story. Use long paragraphs sparingly. A few years ago I started reading the first Proust novel in his 7-part series “In Search of Lost Time”. It’s beautifully written, but tedious, long and without structure. I stopped reading it. Of course, there are many readers who enjoy this but know that the majority of readers don’t.