As DBW Convenes: If Hugh Howey Ran HarperCollins

In Digital by Porter Anderson

Hugh Howey - Publishing Perspectives 2

Hugh Howey (Image: Mollie Howey)

Table of Contents

  1. The Loud­est Voice Not on the Podium
  2. If Hugh Howey Ran HarperCollins…
  3. Kristin Nel­son: “If WE Ran HarperCollins”
  4. How This Comes About
  5. What Authors Really Want

The Loud­est Voice Not on the Podium

By Porter Anderson

Hugh Howey and agent Kristin Nelson onstage at Digital Book World 2013 | Photo: Porter Anderson

Hugh Howey and agent Kristin Nelson onstage at Digital Book World 2013 | Photo: Porter Anderson

NEW YORK CITY — At last year’s Digital Book World Conference & Expo (DBW), author Hugh Howey and his agent, Kristin Nelson, joined conference chair Mike Shatzkin onstage in a session about Howey’s newsmaking print-only deal with Simon & Schuster for the first book in his internationally bestselling Silo Saga, Wool.

Today, as #DBW2014’s workshops and associated conference sessions open the week’s events at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel, neither Howey nor Nelson are on the speakers’ roster. But they’re certainly speaking to power. And they’re being heard.

What Howey is saying in a new, potentially controversial and starkly comprehensive essay, Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge, may carry more impact than some in the traditional publishing community at #DBW14 find comfortable. At this writing, nearly 100 comments have been lodged on the piece. And after we hear from him initially here, we’re going to include some additional comments from Nelson for the agent’s perspective, as well.

To help you take in the sheer sweep of perspective in this increasingly influential author’s viewpoint, I’m going to give you his 13 key messages in a stripped-down list, with only an excerpt of the detailed text he offers on each point in his essay. And then we’ll back up for some context.

In the year since his and Nelson’s 2013 DBW appearance, Howey has arrived as perhaps our most articulate champion of professional self-publishing. He is a New York Times bestseller with the Wool trilogy. A graphic novel treatment of the work releases in February. Wool’s screenplay has been written and producer Ridley Scott film has 20th Century Fox onboard, he says.

Sand omnibus by Hugh Howey, cover by Jason GurleyHis new work, Sand, is out in its five-part serial form and was just published late on Friday evening in its single-volume omnibus edition. His Vonnegut-inspired work for the Kindle Worlds fan fiction program, Peace in Amber, releases on Tuesday.

At DBW time last year, Howey had sold several hundred thousand copies of his books. Today, he has sold more than 2 million copies. He has 30 international publishers. He has completed a two-month European tour.

And in his new commentary, Howey is serious. Don’t be fooled: he frames his thoughts in a lighthearted, self-deprecating tone that helps explain the charisma with which he charms so many in the business. He casts this piece as if he’d been given the reins at HarperCollins, choosing that house at random.

But the opinions he’s laying out here are authentic and earnest. “Here’s how I would blow the doors off my competitors and become the #1 publisher in the land (overtaking indies, which I estimate now rank #1 in total sales). ”

Peace in Amber by Hugh HoweyThis new essay’s perspective is so compelling that Klopotek, a top European publishing services provider, has reached out to Howey to speak at its annual conference as a direct result of the piece. And Germany’s buchreport.magazin has translated the essay: Hugh Howey entwirft den idealen Verlag aus Autorensicht: Was Verlage von Selfpublishern lernen können.

Everything Howey brings to the table here is not new. Virginia Quarterly Review digital editor Jane Friedman, formerly publisher with Writer’s Digest, has noted very close parallels of several of Howey’s views with her own, recorded in a 2012 discussion with McSweeney’s John Warner, Interview: Jane Friedman on marketing and building an author platform.

What’s different today, however, is that we’re hearing those and more observations from a rapidly rising author, one who has worked both with traditional houses and, with undeniable success, as a self-publisher.

Have a look at Hugh Howey’s 13-point list.

If Hugh Howey Ran HarperCollins…

(1) “The first thing I would do would be the most important, and that would be to form a community among my stable of HarperCollins authors…a private forum for HarperCollins authors. The #1 advantage self-published authors have right now is a sense of community…And no publicity team at any major publisher can hope to compete. They can’t.”

(2) “Related to the above, I would henceforth require that my publicity department spend at least an hour a day on the popular self-published forums…interacting with authors, reading posts, and learning from the people who in just a few short years have overtaken us (HarperCollins) on the bestseller charts.”

(3) “[Release] every format, as soon as it’s available. Bestsellers happen through readers. Here’s another reason that WOOL was one of the only fiction debuts to hit the Sunday Times list in the UK last year: The e-book was out first…Readers are the ones who build buzz, on their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. On their review blogs and on Goodreads. Forget Publishers Weekly. Forget Kirkus.”

(4) “Related to this, we are bringing back the mass market paperback. Readers love them. I have also discovered that readers love the paper-on-board hardbacks …Print needs to appeal to the high end and the disposable end.”

(5) “Hardbacks come with free ebooks. Reading one of our books to completion is the best gift you can give us. Which is why none of our books employ DRM. It’s why we don’t combat piracy; we celebrate it.”

(6) “We are tearing up the escalator clauses. The reason major publishers can’t offer more than 25% of net on digital sales is because of escalator clauses in contracts with bestselling authors. These clauses state that the moment another author gets more than 25%, they also get this higher percentage effective immediately. These asinine and selfish clauses — agreed to by shortsighted agents and authors — have hurt debut writers while helping absolutely no one. Publishers are hamstrung. They can’t compete with the 70% that Amazon and others pay. Which is why one of my highest priorities as the CEO of New HarperCollins will be to have some hotshot lawyer strike down every one of these clauses.”

(7) “Hey, non-compete clauses. You’re history. We’ve learned from indies that more releases boost the sales of all books. So publish as much as you want, when you want, however you want…Publishers should be encouraging their authors to do this, not forcing them to sign clauses preventing it.”

(8) “If we like a book, and we know it’s going to be a trilogy, we’re going to hold back until we have the second book in the can and the third book scheduled. At New HarperCollins we understand that the #1 source for your books is online. Release schedules won’t be dictated by bookstores and sales reps but by reader demands and buying habits.”

(9) “We’re going to save the editors (and hire more) and get rid of the sales reps. Yes, our books will have lower orders at bookstores. They’ll also have lower returns. I’ve been there, at the bookstore, going through a catalog with a sales rep. You want to know why sales reps sell more books? Because we like them. Which means buying more books that we know we won’t sell, books we know we’ll return for a full refund (minus shipping).”

(10) “Finite terms of license…We will no longer buy your book forever. We will instead license the rights to your work for a set period of time. Probably five years. That means, no matter how well your book is doing, you get the rights back in 5 years. All the rights. Even the cover art we created and the edits we performed. And we hope you’ll sign with us again (knowing you’ll get the rights back again).”

(11) “No more advertising. Our money is going into editors and into acquiring new authors, not into merchandising dollars at bookstores and not into ads that don’t sell books.”

(12) “Goodbye, New York City. We’ll miss the expensive lunches on the business accounts, but we won’t miss the rent. We’re looking for a low-slung building in an industrial center near a nice airport. Houston would be a good choice. More of our employees will be working from home. Business will be conducted much as it already is: by email. We’ll see our friends at all the major conventions.”

(13) “Monthly payments and speedy sales data. Authors enjoy money and they enjoy metrics, and right now they have to wait too long for both. At New HarperCollins, we pay royalties every 30 days. And whatever sales data we have, you have. Simple as that. If self-published authors can have this, then our authors should have this.”

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Kristin Nel­son: “If WE Ran HarperCollins”

Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson

After Howey posted his essay with those points, Nelson, his agent, sent him a follow-up by e-mail. She has agreed to let Publishing Perspectives quote her here.

In her comments, you see the kind of day-to-day marketing-tactical perspective that an agent brings to the traditional system today. In fact, just this morning, #DBW14’s first workshop is agent Jason Ashlock’s “Driving Agency Growth: Fresh Case Studies, Models & Tools for Agents & Managers.”

This is the first-ever such event devoted to literary agents in DBW’s conference history, and Ashlock has written a preface to the session, Redefining the Middleman. Lori Bennett, an agent with Nelson Literary, is one of Ashlock’s participants.

Nelson, in response to Howey’s piece, adds what she calls “a complete shakedown in structure.” If they ran HarperCollins together, she writes (emphases hers):

“There would be pods which would consist of:

  • “One acquiring editor with vision—all she does is find the good stuff;
  • “One developmental editor—who would actually do the editorial work and nothing else (no meetings), so editorial can happen quickly;
  • “One Marketing/publicity coordinator—dedicated to this pod and these books only to help leverage what authors are already doing and getting more if possible.
  • “One Software engineer—her job is to constantly update the files, the metadata, the buy links, on a weekly basis for every title in the pod and this never goes away. When a new book is released, eFiles for all previous books are taken down, updated, and redeployed to coincide with a new launch.”

Nelson adds: “Copy-editing and art design would be outsourced—which is what mainly happens anyway these days. And if a book isn’t selling, change this, redeploy.

“[The schedule would require] two to three months from acquisition to publication for each and every title.

“Yep, that’s how I’d run the new HC with Mr. Howey—but don’t put us in charge….”

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How This Comes About

The development of Hugh Howey’s essay is not, in fact, keyed by the opening of #DBW14.

Amazon Author Rank, Science Fiction and Fantasy, from HughHowey.com

Amazon Author Rank, Science Fiction and Fantasy, from HughHowey.com

It begins, instead, with a startling observation the author made while looking at rankings on Amazon.com. He writes that he found “half of the top 10 bestselling science fiction authors on Amazon right now are self-published or published with Amazon.”

The Amazon Author Rank service he’s using to gauge writers’ current sales status, of course, is highly fluid. It updates hourly. This means, for example, that at the point he wrote his essay, his own rank in Science Fiction was 4. At this article’s writing for Publishing Perspectives, he’s at 10. (Here is a link to the Science Fiction and Fantasy category ranking he’s using — try it if you’d like to see how things shake out as you’re reading this article.)

Howey sees something else here, however: “I think it means that a sustained and profitable career as a science fiction author is more likely, these days, to have its origin in self-publishing.”

He notes that while “a massive new release could crack this list” on Amazon, at the moment, “we aren’t seeing that from the big houses.” This is, in part, he writes, a problem of major houses’ preference for literary fiction. If anything, his perspective here may explain why Howey seems less than impressed when some mention to him that his work shows literary potential.

“Part of the problem is that the major publishers ignore the genres that sell the best,” he writes. “This is a head-scratcher, and it nearly caused a bald spot when I was working in a bookstore. I knew where the demand was, and I wasn’t seeing it in the catalogs. Readers wanted romance, science fiction, mystery/thrillers, and young adult. We had catalogs full of literary fiction.”

He also suggests that traditional publishers’ presentation of new writers needs a re-think: “One book a year probably won’t cut it, maybe never will again. Look at what Random House did with E.L. James last year [with Fifty Shades of Grey]: All three books came out and buttressed each other. If they would have spread those out, the novelty may have worn off before readers got to books 2 and 3.”

He’s also careful to clarify that he does not wish publishers ill. “I want publishers to do well. I want them to help new authors break out. I want them to keep bookstores open and readers happy.”

But if in some parallel universe he were to become that chief of HarperCollins, he writes, everything he has proposed so far would only be for starters:

“That would be my first month at the job. My second month, we would really get busy.”

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What Authors Really Want

When asked for some additional comment on this latest essay, Howey returned to another recent concern for him and for many writers who follow his views and news of DBW’s programming.

The “What Authors Want” survey produced by Digital Book World and its sister F+W Media vertical Writer’s Digest has newly updated results, which will be released during #DBW14. On Wednesday, responses from a self-selecting sample of more than 9,000 people will be presented onstage by Writer’s Digest publisher Phil Sexton, and commented on by Queens College-CUNY Prof. Dana Beth Weinberg. Her presentation has the provocative title, “Should Traditional Publishers Feel Threatened by the Potential of Self-Publishing?”

Howey first tackled the author-earnings elements of the “What Authors Want” survey process in a piece titled You’re looking at it wrong. There is an extensive explication of Howey’s contention that the survey is wrongly comparing the earnings of only published traditional authors to all self-publishing authors in Writing on the Ether: Where Publishing Surveys Cannot Go with a battery of nearly 60 comments following it.

When asked, Howey talks about a fundamental flaw he says lies in the industry’s expectations of reader behavior.

“There’s a strong desire,” he says, “that starts with the editorial slush pile and goes right through to the bookstore buyer to will people to have different reading tastes than they actually do. The difference between what is supplied and what is demanded is the voltage across which self-publishing is being powered.

“The DBW survey tells us a lot about the readers of Writer’s Digest [who were asked to answer the survey as volunteers] and not much else. I don’t know of any authors in my circle who heard about the survey, and I am in contact with and friends of hundreds of traditional and self-published authors.”

From DigitalBookWorld.com

From DigitalBookWorld.com

Weinberg, in the run-up to #DBW14, has published a piece at DBW to preview part of the survey results, 2014 Author Survey: Indie Authors and Others Prefer Traditional Publishing…Slightly.

In that piece, she professes her own delight in a first self-publishing experience of her own: “As soon as I finish publishing this first installment,” she writes of her own book, The Kings of Brighton Beach, “I will prepare to self-publish the next. I’m hooked.” She then goes on to write, though, that many writers who responded to the survey say they feel differently.

“While interest in self-publishing was higher among those respondents who had tried it,” she writes, “few authors reported that they only wanted to self-publish their next book.”

Howey says, “What is most illuminating about the survey results to me is the fact that the authors who have published both ways (traditional and self-published) have the least affinity for traditional publishing. The people who have only traditionally published or self-published don’t know the pros and cons of both sides the way ‘hybrids’ do. So the group that should count the most tells us the most, and that’s the group least favorable to traditional publishing.

“What I see from DBW’s interpretation of the data is akin to this: People who only drink Coke prefer Coke. People who only drink RC Cola think Coke is better because of all the fancy ads. But the people who have tried both will tell you that they don’t have a preference.

“If we’ve gotten to the point where self publishing is viewed as equivalent to traditional publishing by those who have sampled both, and those biased towards traditional publishing see this as a victory (and spin it that way), then we’ve come a long, long way.”

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Quick update: As this article goes to the Web, Hugh Howey has posted a second essay, My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job as HarperCollins chief. In that one he looks at issues of the returns system with bookstores; imprints; internal competition; print on demand; free book programs; and new focus on “our authors [as] a brand, not their books.”


Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – HughHowey.com

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.