Hugh Howey is a very successful science-fiction author. He says he had two dreams: to write a novel and to sail around the world. To put it mildly, he has realized his dreams.
His first published work, Wool, was a dystopian novella that he wrote while working as a bookstore clerk at Appalachian State University. This was in 2011.
The first Wool story was approximately 12,500 words, and he sold it for $.99. After several months, he was selling 1,000 copies per month.
Spurred on by this success, he wrote four more Wool stories and was soon selling 20,000-30,000 copies per month of the five-story series.
In a whopper of an understatement, this enabled him to quit his bookstore job. Recently Apple began adapting the book to an Apple TV series.
Hugh is much more than a successful author. He helped to change the publishing business by achieving his success as a self-published author through Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.
This means that he didn’t use a traditional publisher. He wrote the book, uploaded it to Amazon, and collected a far larger percentage of the revenue. He is an inspiration to anyone who can’t get a book deal to self-publish and control their own fate.
If you know anyone who thinks “they have a book in them,” be sure to forward this episode to them. It will save many hours of effort, angst, and expense trying to play the traditional game of publishing.
Listen to Hugh Howey on Remarkable People:
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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Hugh Howey.
I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. This episode’s remarkable guest is Hugh Howey. Hugh is a very successful science fiction author. He said he had two dreams: to write a novel and to sail around the world. To put it mildly, he has realized both his dreams. His first published work, Wool, was the dystopian novella that he wrote while working as a bookstore clerk at Appalachian State University.
This was in 2011. The first Wool story was approximately 12,500 words long, and he sold it for $0.99. After several months, he was selling 1,000 copies per month. Spurred on by this success, he wrote four more Wool stories and was soon selling 20,000 to 30,000 copies per month of the five-story series. In a whopper of an understatement, this enabled him to quit his bookstore job. Recently, Apple began adapting the book to an Apple TV series.
Hugh is much more than a successful author. He helped to change the publishing business by achieving his success as a self-published author through Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. This means that he didn’t use the traditional publisher. He wrote the book, uploaded it to Amazon, and collected a far larger percentage of the revenue.
He is an inspiration to anyone who can’t get a book deal. If you know anyone who thinks “they have a book in them,” be sure to forward this episode, it will save many hours of effort, angst, and expense trying to play the traditional game of publishing. I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is remarkable people, and now, here’s the remarkable Hugh Howey.
Guy Kawasaki: Do you think it’s ironic, or logical, that a bookstore employee achieved success with self-publishing in the eBook format? IE, selling a book, not through the bookstores.
Hugh Howey: I think it’s a hundred percent logical because everything I learned about what’s wrong with the publishing industry that made me want to self-publish, I learned from working at a bookstore. I’ll tell you two main things that really jumped out at me and jumped out at me then and jump out at me now.
One was seeing that a brand-new book might sit on a shelf for six months and then disappear. It didn’t sell; it got returned to the publisher and it never got another chance. You had a six-month window to achieve success and if you didn’t write the right kind of story at the right time, like vampires, when vampires were hot or werewolves or hot, if you didn’t nail it, you were SOL for the rest of that book’s existence.
The publisher would never give that book a second chance. So, with self-publishing, your book is available forever and it can sit there and wait for the market to come around to it or develop a slope, a following. So that was one reason that I was really, kind of scared of traditionally publishing my works.
The other one that jumped out at me was meeting a whole bunch of authors who would come do talks at our, university where my bookstore’s located, and I would get to talking to them and they all had second jobs. New York Times bestselling authors, household names. Very few of them could support themselves with their writing.
Names that I recognize and have won awards, they’re lucky if they turned out one book every two or three years and they might get a $50,000, maybe a $100,000 advance for that book. That’s not a, that’s not a living.
They’re not getting health benefits; authors are terribly paid. It’s only the big name, the handful of the people at the very top that are making a, a fortune. So I realized, my books weren’t going to get much, chance. And if it, if they sold it wasn’t going to make much money. And that made the decision to self-publish quite easy for me.
Guy Kawasaki: And, basically you never looked back, but wasn’t Wool your seventh book? It took a while, right?
Hugh Howey: Yeah. Yeah. I went into it though, really thinking of it as a marathon. Now, my first book was with a small press and it was kind of in between self-publishing and a big traditional publisher, they have these small publishers that pay you peanuts, but at least it’s not like a vanity press.
Like you’re not paying your own money, they’re paying you and they’re covering all the costs of production and editing and cover art. And then after that I did not look back. I did not think about traditional publishers. I just was happy to write a book and within twenty-four hours of having all the edits done, it would be available to readers.
And I was having direct relationships with the readers and chatting with them and building up a, a small following. And, yeah, I wasn’t concerned with like making a million bucks off my first book. I was concerned with trying to write maybe over a ten-year period, trying to write like twenty books and, and I thought it would take that long to see if I was any good at this or not.
Guy Kawasaki: I’ve been traditionally published, I’ve been self-published, or I have self-published, and there are so many advantages to self-publishing, but most first-time authors have it stuck in their head that they’re going to write this amazing proposal and, New York is going to fall over itself because they’ve never heard of a book like this, and the next thing you’re on Oprah and…
Hugh Howey: Yeah. I remember thinking that, like, it was a buried thought, but I remember when I wrote my first book, I was like, “Oprah is probably going to be interested in this. I need to figure out how to…,” but that was another thing I learned from the bookstore is, how many books are published.
We would get these catalogs to order the books from, and we would only order a fraction of what’s in the catalog. And this was like, quarterly. We would get these calendars and they’re like phone books full of all the books that just got released. And, and those were the books that made it out of the slush pile, or made it out of the agent’s hands, and those were the books had been out of the slush pile. So, every one of these gatekeepers was winnowing it down by factor of 10x to 100x. And even when it got to me at the bookstore, I wasn’t ordering every book in the catalog. I was only ordering a handful of them. The chances of making it that route is just astronomical.
And I think people who, aren’t aware of how many books are being produced and how many manuscripts are going to agents, think that what they wrote is really unique and it’s usually not. There’s plenty of books that could fill that void.
Guy Kawasaki: I straddle two industries, both book publishing and high-tech entrepreneurship, venture capital. And the same is true in high-tech venture capital. People think that they have this widget, this idea, that venture capitalists are just going to jump up and down and ask for wiring instructions after five minutes in a pitch.
And they don’t understand how it’s such rarefied air there that, a venture capitalist, an active venture capitalist might do ten, fifteen deals a year having looked at 10,000. And they just don’t get it.
Hugh Howey: And a lot of those, a lot of those ideas overlap. I have a friend who’s a full-time inventor, like all he does is invent stuff. He’s got, a couple of hundred patents, and I had this idea of a luxury vehicle should have little cameras looking forward and adaptive shocks to smooth out bumps, predicting when they would get there and so you can just go over a bumpy road and it would be like you’re on air, and I sent him this whole proposal, I’m like “We should patent this.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, that’s been patented, and Mercedes is working it into their…,” this was a while back, and all these car manufacturers were working it into their technology and their high-end stuff.
So, a lot of it comes from people not being aware of how people are having the same idea, or that it’s already been done.
Guy Kawasaki: I think you’re brave to, to say this kind of stuff because most people won’t admit this, that how hard it is and what the likelihood and how much luck plays into it and all this kind of stuff.
Hugh Howey: I think it takes courage to say, “I’m a genius and I’m like, I did all this on my own.” Like that’s brave to put yourself out there. For me, the humility is much closer to the honesty. I was at a dinner with a bunch of tech people once and one of the guys there is a multi multi-billionaire and everyone just thinks of this guy’s super brilliant, successful, and I was shocked that he had read one of my blog posts and he said, “I read somewhere that you attributed at least half of your career to luck. And I really respected you from when I read that because I know that most of my career’s luck as well.” And it was really humbling to hear that someone that I would have assumed would have had that kind of, CEO, sociopathy, the narcissism that you often see.
The thing that they said that really stuck with me was, that they didn’t trust anyone who’s had success who doesn’t attribute a lot of it to luck that, that’s kind of like a hallmark for whether or not they want to have a conversation with the person.
I think if anyone says, “I can control this,” here’s another thing I learned from the book publishing world and working in bookstores, you cannot manufacture success. You can’t prime the pumps. You can’t pay for it. There’s, you can’t fake your way to a bestseller.
Because I watched Random House spend a million dollars, promoting a book and watched it flop. And so, I took that experience into talking to traditional publishers where they were like, “We’re going to spend $100,000 on marketing. We’re going to do this; we’re going to do that.” Man, I’d been on the other side of that before where they sent me the big cardboard stand that goes into the bookstore that people have to like, yeah, that’d be up to walk around, you put it right in the middle of the aisle, it’s just full of hardbacks, and people would walk right around that to go get something that no one thought was going to be successful. And so, I just never trusted anyone who thought that with skill and ingenuity alone, they could appeal to the fickle public. No one knows what the public wants.
Guy Kawasaki: A pessimistic or negative view of what you just said is, there’s no way to determine your own fate or at least enhance your fate, it’s just dumb shit luck?
Hugh Howey: Enhance it. Enhance it for sure.
Guy Kawasaki: How?
Hugh Howey: You can a 100 percent enhance it. And you can produce work that’s as free of error as possible. So if you’re self-publishing, get it edited: typos and egregious mistakes will pull even a dedicated fan out of a story. So you got to make sure the polish is there, you’ve got to tell engaging stories. You got to know what stories people want to hear. You need to study a story so that you understand that your character has to be an agent of change in the plot and not just a vehicle through which the plot takes place. And they have to change themselves because of the events.
They have to struggle; a lot of people want to write kind of fantasy fiction. And I don’t mean the genre. The fantasy of everything that protagonist needs, they get. And everything the plot needs happens in a perfect linear fashion. And that’s the first way that we all write our stories.
We write them very lazily. The protagonist doesn’t really have a past because it hasn’t been written, it’s not imagined. So they don’t have an ex-lover that they’re thinking about, they don’t have a job usually, there’s nothing in their pockets. They don’t have a middle name. Like all these, all the details that are true in the real world, like beginning writers don’t often put in their characters. So that’s just like one of a million technique things that I could tell you, you have to learn in order to increase your chances. In the world of fiction.
Guy Kawasaki: How do you keep all that stuff straight? Do you have a little cheat sheet that says, “All right, so I said, this is his middle name, this is where he went to school?” And so that it’s consistent through the book, or do you just remember?
Hugh Howey: No, I, I do make notes, but like only things for like names, like proper nouns. But for most things you have to, ask questions of your characters in your story and make up the answer pretty quickly. And, the key is to remember which questions to ask. You’ll notice the weather doesn’t change a lot, that a lot of very beginning, basic fiction.
People never eat, they never go to the bathroom. That’s not the story that a lot of authors want to tell. They want to tell a story of, of the kid who finds the sword and slays the dragon, and it’s just those bits. And they don’t remember the confusion of puberty, they don’t remember the way they got the scar on their elbow, from when they were eight and did some stupid thing.
So it’s not just like keeping up with them. It’s creating the chaos yourself as the author in order to make all of this believable and real and rich and vibrant. And that means, observing the world around you and your own life and trying to take as much detail from that into your story, so that it all makes sense. And having believable relationships, and, I think all of that is critical. I think if you look at successful fiction, you’ll see that it has those elements in it.
Guy Kawasaki: I can tell you as someone who’s only written business books, that it sounds much harder to write fiction than business books.
Hugh Howey: No way, dude. Because I can’t be wrong, especially if you’re writing science fiction. I had a science fiction story that had mentioned a coffee shop in Washington, DC, and some reader emailed me and said, “That coffee shop is not where you said it was.” And I emailed them back and said, “Yeah, they moved in 2028.”
What are you telling me? Like, it’s my world. Don’t tell me where that coffee shop is. They shut down. They expanded. Make up your own world if you want that coffee shop to be where it still is. I was wrong, of course, like I had screwed up, but like the beauty of it being my world is, I have an excuse for everything.
I think the best research tool authors have ever been handed is Street View by Google. I use it all the time. Authors used to have to travel to the places that they were writing about to try to get the feel of it.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah.
Hugh Howey: but, if your story’s jumping between cities, you can drop into Vegas and go down the Strip and like, just see this, all this, the concrete jungle and strip malls that lay outside of it.
And, yeah, I think tools like that have really helped.
Guy Kawasaki: One of my friends and past guests on this podcast is Paul Theroux. So I’m going to ask him, “So Paul, are using Google street view? You don’t have to travel anymore. You can just use Google Street View and write your travel books.” Life is good.
Hugh Howey: Don’t screw up, because he’s probably getting everything comped…
I’m going to get him in trouble.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah. Every, every novel’s set in the Maldives.
Hugh Howey: Yeah. All mine are based in Tahiti now
Guy Kawasaki: Mine are based in a closet in Santa Cruz. While we’re in this tactical level, can you just explain how you write? Time of day, setting, computer, longhand, software, what’s the tools that Hugh uses?
I use a MacBook Air, and it doesn’t matter where I am. I can get some writing done. I write better in the morning and I edit better later. First thing in the morning before breakfast, before coffee or exercise or anything, I start writing. Because my brain’s a little mushy still, and things aren’t concrete.
And so, I can kind of tap into a more poetic side of my brain. And then later in the day, everything is starting to get a little more solidified and, and, logical, and that’s when I’m better at going over and correcting the nonsense that I wrote in the morning. And the combination of those two times of day, I think generate the best drafts for me.
Guy Kawasaki: Let’s say you go through the whole day, is what you wrote for the day basically done, or do you go over it over and over and over and over again?
Hugh Howey: I go over it a bunch. I just finished, a book a couple of months ago, sequel to Sand. And I think it was version fifteen, was what I handed in. And so every time I do a full pass, I save a copy and number it. It’s like starting with a tree covered in bark and getting it down to polished wood. Every, every pass just gets rid of more and more and mistake.
Guy Kawasaki: I hear when people ask me how I write, I tell them, “So, I consider, I get it out on the paper as fast as I can.” So, the metaphor that I use is, I barfed out as fast and as much as I can. And then I spend the next twelve months picking out the little choice morsels of food from the barf and that’s all you see.
Hugh Howey: I love that. I’m going to use that analogy.
Guy Kawasaki: Feel free.
Hugh Howey: I, so I’ve always likened that to, to throwing clay. You have to have the clay on the wheel before you can make your vase. You don’t like, try to make your vase one piece of polished porcelain at a time. You’ve got to first have every bit of clay that you’re going to need for that vase on the wheel, and you might end up getting rid of a lot of it, but you got to have it all there. And that’s how I have to write.
Guy Kawasaki: Do you have any tricks? I’ll tell you some stuff that I do. So, when I’m editing my own writing, I search for every word that ends in “ly” because I’m trying to kill adverbs. And I look for every instance of the word “be”, because I’m trying to kill the passive voice. Do you do stuff like that?
Hugh Howey: My editor is pretty good at picking that stuff up, but I’ve gotten really, diligent about those, those two, especially. I avoid them. My very first draft I worked with an editor, at this small publishing house, and when she sent back the first few chapters, I had realized how many of these mistakes I had done throughout the whole book.
And so, I started editing ahead of her and sending her chapters that at least didn’t have those mistakes in them anymore. And then she would send me the next chapter to be some other thing that I was doing wrong, and I would rush ahead of her and edit that mistake out. And because of this, it got more granular and she was teaching me finer and finer details about good writing habits as I went.
And because I was applying them to an entire novel, it was like the best education I could have ever gotten. And a lot of that stuff that I learned through there, now, my first drafts don’t have those issues in them at all.
Guy Kawasaki: I’ll tell you, after, I probably print thirty times each manuscript, and when I turn it in and I’ve had dozens of people look at it and also give me suggestions, corrections, even at the level of commas and stuff. And so when I turned it in and I’ve done this fifteen times, in my mind, I’m turning in something perfect.
And I expect my editor to call me back and say, “Guy, in my fifty years in publishing, I have never had a perfect manuscript until today.” And every time, I swear to God, every time they find a thousand mistakes. I’m not exaggerating. A thousand mistakes. I don’t know how it’s possible.
Hugh Howey: I’ll tell you some of that is like, as we’re make, as we’re making repairs, we introduce new mistakes. So we put in a typo that everyone who looked at it before then, that typo wasn’t there. It went in on version fifteen.
Guy Kawasaki: I’m glad I’m not alone and…
Hugh Howey: No, and the reader finds all of them.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah, and then there’s still more.
Hugh Howey: Oh yeah. Go to your Amazon reviews and you’ll see every typo that’s still in there.
Guy Kawasaki: I know, I know. But that’s one of the getting back to the beauties of self-publishing, which is you can make that correction and twenty-four hours later, it’s correct. But if it’s a publisher, they’re waiting till the warehouse empties, if there’s ever another edition.
Hugh Howey: And they might not even, there’s times where they get a new edition and realize, “Yeah, it’s not worth it.” They do a time cost analysis and they won’t even fix typos. I’ve seen egregious errors in like classic works of science fiction; I’ll turn to the front, it’s like the twenty first printing of this paperback and the mistake is still there. There’s no way it hasn’t not been seen. They just decided to have people live with it.
Guy Kawasaki: Maybe they lost the file.
Hugh Howey: That’s possible. But, see, I don’t understand. I think Amazon should have, because so much of the self-publishing runs through KDP, I get notices from Amazon, “Hey, there’s a typo on this page.” And I’m like, “I’ll write the page and the typo, can I hit, “I accept” and just update the file on your side?”
No, you have to like, you have to download that file, make a change, do all this conversion, and make sure you don’t break the format and re upload it. It’s such a nightmare. There should be some easy way of just fixing those.
Guy Kawasaki: You would think. Yeah. Do you think book reviews matter at all anymore? Professional book reviews?
Hugh Howey: No, not professional book reviews. Reader reviews matter like critically. It’s the most important thing for, for, an author, there’s nothing more important for the success of a book than a ton of positive, honest reader reviews. But I know from working at a bookstore, we would see what was on the cover of the New York Times, the Sunday book section, and we wouldn’t see a bump in, in sales at all.
And a lot of people have done studies on this now. So here’s the exception; a professional book review from an, a place where there are no book reviews, is amazing. So I got a book review, like on the front page of, of Boing Boing, and that put me on the, in the top ten on Amazon immediately. Because Boing Boing had a lot of traffic at the time, and they were saying, “This is one of the best books I’ve read.”
And you’re getting a lot of readers who aren’t reading any other book review except that one. You know, that was like, they probably do one book review every, month or two months.
Guy Kawasaki: So just to be perfectly clear here, are you saying that Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, New York Times, and Washington post a book review in those things, will not move the needle anymore?
Hugh Howey: It’s a blip. It’s just does almost nothing. And you can Google all the people that have, that have done the studies on this, but yeah, it does not sell many books. Getting, getting nominated for an award or winning an award is the best thing. If you can get shortlisted on the Booker or the Pulitzer or the Hugo, or win one of those, that badge on the cover of a book will sell a lot more books than any critic or review.
Guy Kawasaki: But wait, you said that badge on the cover of the book, who sees the cover anymore? They’re not in Borders looking at jackets.
Hugh Howey: Yeah, but they’ll see it even on a website. Like if you go to scroll through Amazon, you’ll see these round, like I think every book should put some kind of round element somewhere on the front cover because like we’re just, those awards are always round. I’m going to start making that the “O” in Howey like look like, I want to put little frilly edges on it and it’s always silver or gold and it’s going to look embossed.
Guy Kawasaki: You should just add a round thing that says, “Written on a yacht.”
Hugh Howey: Yeah, whatever, man. From, your brain will just be like, “That’s probably a good book.”
Guy Kawasaki: So let’s talk about the overnight success of Wool and how it’s now going to become an Apple TV Series. But my research says that this is the third time somebody said it’s going to be made into a TV series. So can you walk us through how it took, all these years and three attempts?
Hugh Howey: Yeah, so it’s more than three. Not everything gets announced. And this is why I try not to announce a lot of Hollywood news, because you hear all the time that this has been optioned, and this is what’s so-and-so. It doesn’t mean anything. They might not even start writing on it. They might not hire a writer to start adapting it.
They might just be, grabbing ten things, and then they choose nine of them to push forward to the next level, and yours might be the thing that they don’t even touch again. I think there’s been some news about one of my books, Sand, being optioned by Amazon. And they went and hired a couple of writers and they made this amazing pilot.
And we just found out recently, they’re not going to do anything with it and we’re going to get the rights back. So, we could have made all these announcements about what was going on and it just would have been a big tease. So I generally don’t try to make proclamations that are unduly optimistic. A lot of our writing friends, I see it all the time, someone will say “Hey, this has been optioned. This could be a TV show now.” And you never hear from it again.
So I’ll tell you what happened with Wool — the first deal we did was with Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian and 20th Century Fox. And when I did that deal, I assumed it would never get made, but I was happy to have, Ridley Scott attached because he’s a household name and I can use that to sell books and get foreign deals, and I probably doubled the advance on all my foreign deals by having Ridley Scott attached, maybe more because publishers get so excited when a book gets any kind of adaptation, they sell a lot of copies. So that was purely market manipulation on our part to go with Ridley in that deal.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay.
Hugh Howey: But I assumed it would not get made. And, and we had two amazing scripts written by incredible screenwriters. We had directors attached, they were looking at what studio, where the sound studio was going to be, where we’re going to shoot. And, through all of that, I just assumed that something would fall through and it wouldn’t get made because I’d seen it happen to my friends.
And sure enough, we went through like five years trying to get this film made with 20th Century Fox. And the guys who worked on it were amazing. Like the, I’ve heard from so many of those, executives and producers, when they heard about the, the recent news last week, they were the first people to email me and congratulate me. And they’re super excited to see it because they, they loved the book and they believed in it and they were sad that they couldn’t make it happen.
When I got the rights back, the TV world have become more interesting, but also, the book sales were so good at that point that I thought, “Now there’s a decent chance someone makes this, I’d say there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance that this gets made wherever we land it.” So now what kind of show do we actually want to make, forget about names and Ridley Scott and whatever. Who has the right vision and where do we want this to appear? And, Apple and AMC were both two of my three finalists would have had to make this decision.
Apple hadn’t released their service yet. I had to sign an NDA to even to talk with them because they hadn’t even announced Apple TV. And so, the hesitancy there was, am I going to release this on a service that, that doesn’t do anything? So we went with AMC because they have done some of the best TV in the history of TV, and they were so passionate about the project.
And we got a great writer lined up, we wrote many versions of a pilot and just never got the people two levels up to say, “I’m willing to spend tens of millions of dollars making this.” We never got that level of confidence. And about that time, Apple heard that things were just going perfectly and said, “Why don’t we partner up? And more and more studios are doing this now where there’ll be like two different kind of, competitors working together on something.”
And that brought another layer of hierarchy, but also deeper pockets and bigger budgets, and we went out and hired another show runner and, it’s not like one show runner is better than the other, but if you keep trying enough times, you’re going to get lucky. And we, we had a good writer’s room, put together a good outline, we got permission to write ten scripts. We got the go ahead. And now we’re at the position of actually building sets and we’ve got the cast set. People are memorizing lines. It can still fall through, but like it’s supposed to start filming in July. So if things are going to derail, they got to derail pretty quickly now.
Guy Kawasaki: And what do you think is going through these movie executive’s or film, or whatever, executive’s heads? Are they thinking “Oh my God, we need our Margaret Atwood, we need our Handmaid’s Tale? We’ve got to find me a dystopian novel about people living in silos and, oh, there’s Hugh.” Is that how it goes?
Hugh Howey: That’s some of it. So in my case, I think every case is unique, so it’s hard to make generalizations. In my case, Wool became a New York Times bestseller as a self-published, serialized book from this kid working at a bookstore. And that was a unique story. And that was why the book was like, talked about in business circles as well as literary circles.
There were business websites and business magazines doing stories on how this was possible because it broke the mold of the economics of it all. That was how, like a, the front page of the Washington Post art section had a full page spread about this because it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
Now, if I’d been a bestseller and I was with Random House or any of those major publishers, that’s how it’s supposed to happen. So I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of recognition. So that’s how we got Ridley Scott to outbid several other interested parties, and then once Ridley Scott’s attached, then if you get the rights back, he’s had this imprint on it. Like he, that he okayed it. So it just becomes this kind of snowball thing.
I can’t say it’s because the book is like better written than anything else because I’m reading one of my favorite writers of all time, Neal Stephenson, has got like so many works that would make great adaptations.
And I’ve met people who actually own the rights and want to do this. And people just haven’t figured out how to make it happen yet. So it’s not the quality of writing, it’s just so many other little factors.
Guy Kawasaki: What a way to run a business.
Hugh Howey: It’s crazy! So fewer things are getting made and the budgets are getting bigger and, and that’s where TV is really saving the writing world because so much more as being made in TV that didn’t use to.
So as the film industry becomes more sequels and adaptations and superhero stuff, TV is filling that void, and I’ve got a friend who’s getting all kinds of offers to write kind of Hallmark made for TV, movies, and serialized TV stuff that’s lower pay, but keeping him employed.
Guy Kawasaki: I’m old enough to remember the day there were three TV networks and movies. That was it. Now, there’s probably two hundred.
Hugh Howey: How many times did someone tell you to watch something, you have to go Google what streaming service you have to boot up to find it, you know?
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah, I use Roku and if Roku can’t find it, I just give up. I’ve got ask you, so do you have any insights into the Amazon recommendation engine?
Hugh Howey: I used to. I used to watch it close enough that I got a sense of what was going on, but I haven’t looked, I don’t even look at my Amazon page anymore. I don’t know what, I couldn’t tell you the ranking of any of my books or how many reviews they have or anything.
I don’t even look at my sales dashboard anymore because you just go crazy watching that stuff. And that’s been, that’s been true for probably five or six years. But back when I was first, I can tell you that I think we underestimate how much data they use to recommend stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if they use completion rates or they use what time of day that you’re like, if you stay up late reading. I’m not saying they do this, but if you told me Amazon knows that you stayed up till two o’clock in the morning, reading this when you usually stop reading at ten, that they are using that data on self-published books to go look at that book more closely and make an offer to that author, and I’ve met enough engineers at Amazon who were super smart, and if I can come up with ideas for how you would find out which stories are most gripping before any competitor could tell, and they’re not doing that, I’d be very surprised.
But it’s a lot of “also boughts” — people who bought Dune, who buy my book and if they finished Dune and they give it five stars and then they finished my book and give it five stars, then the Dune page is going to start popping up with my book. I think if you price it the way Amazon wants you to price it, you’re more likely to get a recommendation. They’re not going to recommend free books or 99 cent novels, they’re going to recommend books in the $4.99 to $9.99 range.
They’ll be explicit and tell you, “That’s where we think these books should be priced.” So there are ways to game the system but I think they’re pretty transparent.
Guy Kawasaki: This is a whole new world. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around this thought that Amazon is tracking my use of my Kindle and figuring out that I read late into the night. So this tells them something about the book I’m reading. It makes perfect sense now that you explain it.
Hugh Howey: And they do it, I’m saying if they don’t do it, then they’re missing an opportunity and they should hire me because I’m somehow smarter than the Stanford grads that they’re paying half a million a year, starting. So I know that I’m not smarter than them, and hopefully they’re using that kind of data too.
People are so scared of being recommended a good product. And I don’t understand that. I want targeted ads, like take all my data and go find for me the thing that’s going to make me the happiest. I don’t understand this like, fear of my privacy being invaded, or my data being used. I don’t want ads for things I’m not interested in. And I don’t want book recommendations for things that I want to buy.
Guy Kawasaki: Hallelujah, Hugh. I feel the same way, like everybody’s so paranoid about privacy. Of course, now I’m going to get attacked or something, but I would love targeted advertising and, I wish it was more targeted in my news feed. I wish, I don’t know why my Google Newsfeed, for example, Google the smartest company in the world,
Hugh Howey: It got terrible
Guy Kawasaki: Why do they keep sending me stuff about MMA and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I have never clicked through on any story about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Tom Brady. And they keep sending me that shit. I don’t understand that, but…
Hugh Howey: I think that my Google Newsfeed thing just got worse, like four or five months ago. It just got a really stupid almost overnight. I felt like they flipped a switch on some thing they were testing, and it’s just awful now. And it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me because now I don’t look at my phone anymore.
I’m getting so much more writing done because Google has created this engine that almost is the anti-stickiness, like the opposite of every other social media company. They’re like, “We want you to go have your life back.” They maybe grew a conscious over there and they’re like, “Put your device down. Here’s a bunch of shit you’re not interested in.”
I guarantee you’re not going to look at any of them, but you also have the feeling like, “What’s going on out there?” Like they’re showing you a bunch of headlines and you’re like, “None of that’s interesting. Okay. The world’s boring today. I’m going to go write a book instead.”
Guy Kawasaki: Oh my God. Using the theory of Occam’s Razor, I would say that, that thinking is probably false.
Hugh Howey: But I’m not the only one who thinks that. I had, I saw Neil Gaiman was saying the same thing on his feed. He was like, “How did Google just stop learning anything about me overnight?” And it was about the same time I was seeing the same thing, so, I don’t, obviously they’d made a mistake.
Guy Kawasaki: Maybe they’re preparing for some Senate hearing in the future when Mitch McConnell says, “I’m getting such shitty results.” And they’ll say, “Because Mitch, we respect your privacy.”
Hugh Howey: Yeah, we know nothing about you. We can prove it.
Guy Kawasaki: Right. We’re sending you the autobiography of Hillary Clinton.
Hugh Howey: Yeah, they would think he was definitely being targeted then.
Guy Kawasaki: I don’t know who this quote came from, but you quoted in a story. I love this quote, “These books that everyone talks about as being important for literature are the ones no one finishes” As a bookstore employee, former, and an author, is that literally true?
Hugh Howey: Someone does a release like, every year I think, on the most unfinished books. And it’s the books that everyone says they’re reading that no one gets to the end of, and in one year, the number one book on the list was Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer. And, yeah, I think like, Capital was this economics book that came out a while back that everyone carried around with them and pretended to have read and almost no one read.
So, yeah, I think it’s generally, I think it’s generally true that the most important works are the ones that no one reads and the genre works that are considered garbage, people read them in a single day.
Guy Kawasaki: I would, I wonder where, when Bill Gates came out with his book, The Road Ahead or something, I wonder how many people actually finished that book?
Hugh Howey: I didn’t.
Guy Kawasaki: I never got past the dust jacket.
Hugh Howey: And Bill should have foreseen that.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay. He’s got bigger problems now that he should have foreseen, but that’s another… So, as you look forward in the future, for an author, do you think the future is purely self-published, traditional, hybrid? What’s your prediction for how it works out?
Hugh Howey: Are you thinking more just like novels and nonfiction? Because I’m starting to think more writers are going to have to go into writing for video games and TV and virtual reality and immersive theater experiences. I think there’s all these opportunities for writers out there that are not in book form.
And if you want to make a living with your creativity, I just got a virtual tour of this place in Vegas; it’s, a shopping, it’s a grocery store that you walk into and every product is kind of a meta joke of some sort. And there’s a mystery to solve as you go through this supermarket, and then if you go through a drink refrigerator, there’s a tunnel that takes you back into this world that just keeps opening up and telling a story.
And the supermarket is like one tenth the size of this whole building. There’s slides, there’s laser projection things, and there’s a narrative through it all, there’s a mystery to uncover, and there’s a team of writers, a whole room full of writers that had to put this all together and they’re compensated for it.
And, thinking about writing the story of a supermarket for this immersive experience is not what I thought of when I thought of becoming a writer, but it is an opportunity out there.
And, I think being a writer to write novels is going to be more and more limited as time goes on. More people are going to be reading serialized fiction on their cell phones, which is what they do in Korea and China now, and it’s coming to the U.S; It’s been more and more popular here. People are going to read in a browser, they’re going to be scrolling on the internet reading, reading stuff. They’re going to be reading a Reddit thread. So what it takes to be a writer, it keeps changing. But I think the future of books is eventually AI is going to be writing almost all of it.
Guy Kawasaki: What?
Hugh Howey: Enjoy it while you can.
Guy Kawasaki: Back up here. So how does Wool #25 get written by AI?
Hugh Howey: AI is already getting really good at; I can’t remember the name of this one program that I got to beta test just last year and you could just start giving it a couple of prompts and it would just write paragraph after paragraph. Perfect grammar, great dialogue. It would come up with the names of…it was the best I’ve seen so far, and we’re just at the infancy of this stuff.
And literally infancy, like we’re listening to babies kind of, mew, and we’re judging it for its like, literary qualities. But this is just an easily solved problem. It just requires a whole lot of data, and back learning. But machine learning will come up with ways to be creative and come up with stories that start with no seed at all.
Just its own story, perfectly written, with amazing characters and plot. And it’s, it’s just a matter of when, not if. It could be hundreds of years from now, but that’s the long-term future of, of fiction. Eventually, you’ll read a book that’s being written for you while you’re reading it.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh my God.
Hugh Howey: So, it’ll be just for you. If you loved it, you might have to tell our, save a copy and send it to a friend so they can read what you read, but they probably won’t be interested. They’re like, “No, man. I like the stuff that AI writes for me. It knows what I like.” Devices will be reading your pulse, it’ll know if you’re sweating during scenes, it will track your rate of reading and your eye movement, and everything. And your stories will just get better and better.
Guy Kawasaki: So everybody can have their personal dystopia.
Hugh Howey: Yeah, but this sounds like a utopia for me. Imagine every book you pick up you can’t put down.
You can say like, “Hey, I only want to be in this world for two more days.” And the AI is going to wrap it up in two days of reading time where you can say, “Man, I love this world so much. Like I would live in it for the next twenty years. Just keep, keep it changing and keep it going with these characters.”
And there’s not going to be any more like waiting on, George RR Martin to finish this series or, whether that’s a series that’s too long or a series that’s too short. Like, those are all problems to be solved.
Guy Kawasaki: I was on the Board of Trustees at Wikipedia and Wikipedia has this question of, who is the Wikipedia customer? Is it mankind seeking knowledge or is it the Wikipedian who is writing the entries? And many people believe inside the Wikipedia community that the audience is the Wikipedia editor as opposed to mankind.
And so one day I said, “What happens when AI can now write every Wikipedian entry? You don’t need Wikipedian editors anymore.” And I think that’s when they decided that maybe I shouldn’t be on the board. But that’s true! If they, if you’re saying that a novel can be written in real time, certainly a Wikipedian entry can be written in real time.
Hugh Howey: Yeah. I think it’s funny. The things that we think AI will do in the next twenty years that, are, are much more difficult than like writing a novel and we don’t realize that this isn’t going to stop this, the, pace of, of improvement of technology isn’t going to stop until we’re extinct. So whatever you think is crazy in two hundred years, like, what do you think 2,000 years is going to do? What about 4,000? So whenever people say “AI will never write a book,” I’m like, “What’s AI doing 10,000 years from now?” And they’re like, “Oh, in 10,000 years, of course it’s writing a book.”
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah.
Hugh Howey: Like you just told me it was never going to happen.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah.
Hugh Howey: But yeah, it may not be your lifetime, but like all this is inevitable.
Guy Kawasaki: Okay. My head is exploding about writing. So now let’s go to a more simple subject. So this is life, like what exactly is your lifestyle anymore?
Hugh Howey: My lifestyle? Ah, man, I don’t want to make, I don’t want to make listeners jealous by talking about how great my life is. I have a dream lifestyle. Like I, I just get to engage in my art all day long if I want. And if I don’t want to, I don’t have to. I’ve got enough income; I don’t even need income anymore. I’ve, I live a simple enough life that what I have in the bank will sustain me for the rest of my life. But, the books continue to sell and projects keep getting made, so, I’ve been super fortunate in that. That means that, I took five years off and went sailing around the world and now I’m getting up every day and working on stories and having lunches with friends and hanging out by the pool and read books or whatever I want to do.
Guy Kawasaki: The sailing phase of your life is over?
Hugh Howey: It’s definitely on pause. It was lucky timing. I put it on pause more for working on TV stuff and having access to internet to be able to get to LA, and try to give this, a couple of projects the best chance possible. But then the pandemic made it really fortunate timing because you couldn’t sail from country to country the way I’ve been doing for years.
And a lot of my friends were kind of trapped in countries where you couldn’t go ashore except for basics for a long time. You couldn’t move between islands, even within a country. So it was not a great time to be on a boat. But, yeah. Now, I’m designing, put a deposit down and been designing the next boat; it’s got a lot of improvements from things that I learned from my last trip and in the next year and a half or two years, I’ll be taking off again.
Guy Kawasaki: And, and so what is driving you anymore? Because if you have enough money and you have these series coming down the pipe, why write at all?
Hugh Howey: Man, when I wrote my first book, I didn’t think I was going to make any money. I just am a lover of books since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer since I was about twelve years old. And, you’ve written enough. It doesn’t even have to be in the fiction space, but the satisfaction of putting an idea in someone else’s mind that’s clear and communicates what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling and then them absorbing it and having some empathy for what you’ve created, is like a magical power that we take for granted because we’re used to it. But if I were to describe it to you in like this delayed telepathy, that’s really happening, it’s just supernatural. So for me, just using my imagination to create a world and people that don’t exist and writing it in a way that someone reading it believes, just for a moment while they’re reading it, that this is real, and it is happening. Like I’m giving you a waking dream. There’s just nothing to me more enticing than that. And so I would, I was doing it when I was a kid in middle school and no dream of anything getting published and I was doing it when I was working in a bookstore and no dream of getting rich, and I’ll keep doing it, probably until I can’t think straight anymore.
That may have already, that may have already happened.
Guy Kawasaki: As long as you’re questioning if it happened, it means it hasn’t happened. It’s when you stop asking that question you should get worried, right?
Hugh Howey: I think that’s a, that’s like a law that should be named after you, for coming up with…
Guy Kawasaki: That’s kind of Catch 22, but yeah.
Hugh Howey: There you go.
Guy Kawasaki: For someone who’s sailed all over the world, I got to ask you this question because I’ve, I haven’t sailed anywhere. What’s the most interesting place you sailed to? What’s the can’t miss, you’ve got to sail there once in your life?”
Hugh Howey: Yeah, I’m going to say this and then everyone’s going to sail there and just totally ruin it, but I’ll say it anyway because it’s so hard to get to that most people will never see it; it’s called Fulaga. It’s a small island in the Southeast corner of Fiji and it’s right into the wind, the trade winds from all the inhabited parts of Fiji, so it’s very difficult to get to.
And it’s the most pristine, remote, beautiful place I’ve ever seen. There’s three villages there with the most incredible people you’ve ever met, but it was like sailing into a different time. There’s, there’s caves, they’re full of human skeletons from their cannibalism that only ended fifty or sixty years ago.
And that the chief there, who had passed away since I was there, but he was in his nineties. So he was in his thirties still eating people. When you’re hearing those stories and you’re the only white person within five hundred miles, and they’re inviting you over to dinner that night, it’s, that’s starts to get to be a little adventurous travel.
Guy Kawasaki: That gives a whole new meaning to the term “you’re invited for dinner.”
Hugh Howey: I was just getting showed around the island by the, it’s the most, the most laughing, funny, warm, kind people you’ve ever met in your life. You wonder if it’s an act. That, this is true of all of Fiji. You just keep thinking, “These people are just being nice to lure the tourism dollars in or something.”
But I spent two years around these people and they never let up. And you finally realize, this is who they are. They are this friendly and generous and caring, and it makes it an intoxicating place to be around that kind of positivity.
But the young people were showing me around, like they would, they were joking about the cannibalism that was a serious part of their past, and to them now, they realize the hilariousness of it. To me, and my friends and so they would totally pray on that and give us, give us grief, these teenagers. It was a wild place. Definitely my, the best place I ever sailed.
Guy Kawasaki: Now when you’re sailing, just, is it just you on a boat or you got a crew of forty?
Hugh Howey: I don’t understand those big boats, man. I don’t, I don’t see the allure of being on a floating Hilton where everything’s taken care of. No, I’m by myself or, or I have a girlfriend or, maybe one friend with me because I, I want to be naked most of the time and I don’t want a bunch of crew around while I’m doing that.
I’m being, I’m being mostly facetious, but…
Guy Kawasaki: No, you’re not.
Hugh Howey: No, I’m not. I, I did, I did want to be naked most of the time. No for me, the allure is like doing it yourself. Something breaks, you have to fix it. You and you’re not surrounded by strangers. I don’t want to, I don’t want to have employees stuck on my, in my home 24-7, and have to worry about their needs and taking care of them.
Guy Kawasaki: One of my past guests was a guy named Chris Bertish, and he paddled across the Atlantic on a SUP. So that’s, talk about being alone that…
Hugh Howey: Yeah, I’ve seen his boat. It’s amazing. It’s a SUP that you can actually kind of crawl down in the nose of, there’s a flat part in the middle.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah, he’s quite the guy.
Hugh Howey: I have a lot of respect for him.
Guy Kawasaki: Going back to self-publishing because I’m just so curious. Do you write in Word and then just upload to Amazon? Or do you go to Word to InDesign, to Amazon? Or how, what’s your like, what’s the last mile in your self-publishing?
Hugh Howey: I write in Word because it’s terrible and everything is worse. And then for my eBook, I sent it off to a formatter who, it’s so affordable. They strip everything out and create an HTML doc from scratch and then convert it to an EPUB and a Mobi, and everything you need for the PDF, which you need for the print book. I use InDesign and I do that myself because no one will spend the time on it that I will.
Guy Kawasaki: Now we’re really getting down into the weeds. And so, do you, if I looked at your Word document, is every paragraph set to a particular style so that when you import into InDesign, it says, “Okay, so for this style, it’s this font, this size, this spacing, this whatever,” does it just roll in because you’re so disciplined using Word styles?
Hugh Howey: No, I do none of that. I, when I flow it in, I actually flow in raw text.
Guy Kawasaki: Oh my God.
Hugh Howey: Yeah. And because I want to go through the book, that’s the last pass that I do when I send out the PDF, I want to go through the book and even change the spacing so that sometimes dialogue ends at the end of one page and the answer to that dialogue requires you to turn the page. Because just that, that breath that you take while you’re waiting for the answer, while you’re turning the page, can change the reading experience.
So I don’t want any widows or orphans. I control hyphenation because I don’t want the kerning to be compressed on some lines and too much space in the other. I’ve even rewritten pages in order to have things land where I want them to land on the page.
I think of it as a painter. You should stretch the canvas so the canvas is a size that you need it to be. You should have, tell the museum what kind of lighting to use in what, what morph that lighting needs to be in which direction to hang it, which right side up or upside down.
I think you can’t just write words and that’s the story. You’re going to hand someone a book and it’s everything: it’s the cover, it’s the, the font choices, and if you’re not into that stuff, you’re not, you’re not thinking about the whole experience. Like how can you be a painter and not know about pigments or how paint’s made, or how light bounces through layers of paint and scatters?
If you’re not studying optics as a painter, I don’t know. It’s like, you’re just dabbling.
Guy Kawasaki: See, so that’s why you’re Hugh and most people aren’t. That’s the bottom line. This podcast, called Remarkable People, is sponsored by the reMarkable Tablet Company, and I’m going to send you one, if you want one, I’ll send you one, but, there, this tablet is…
Hugh Howey: You’re going to send me a tablet?
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah. I’m going to send you this tablet, this reMarkable Tablet.
Hugh Howey: You didn’t have to; I was going to do this for nothing. Now I’m excited. Tell me all about it.
Guy Kawasaki: So it’s a tablet and it has a pencil, and this pencil doesn’t need to be charged and you just flip it around and you can erase with this side of it, and it feels like you’re writing on paper. It’s not like the iPad pencil experience at all.
And it’s single purpose. So it’s not for checking email and looking at YouTube videos and checking social media, it’s for writing and note-taking. So in every episode I asked the same question, which is how do you do your best and deepest and most focused thinking?
Hugh Howey: I cannot believe the coincidence of this. The one errand I ran today was to a bookstore to buy a notebook and a pen because the story I’m working on right now requires so much, kind of graphing the plot and creating tables of people and what their physical powers are.
It’s so many things I’m having to keep straight and there’s no way to do that for me except through a, blank pages that I can write on. So this is such a weird coincidence. I’m sitting here looking at the notebook that I ended up with, which was like a big Moleskin, one of the large Moleskins and a beautiful pen. So I’m going to use the heck out of that thing.
Guy Kawasaki: And the benefit here is that, as soon as you write it down and it syncs to the Cloud, there’s a backup copy. If you lost that Moleskin you’re screwed, right? Or if the Moleskin burned, but in this case…
Hugh Howey: And then you’ll be able to go through your notes for like years and years, the more you use it.
Guy Kawasaki: I don’t mean to turn this into a sales pitch, but let’s say you print your notes, then you can have it OCR convert it to text so we can digitize your handwriting for you.
Hugh Howey: That sounds amazing.
Guy Kawasaki: Yeah. Anyway, anyway, back to the question.
Hugh Howey: I’m blown away.
Guy Kawasaki: Your best and deepest thinking.
Hugh Howey: It’s done, while I’m walking. So, walking my dog used to be the best thing when I had a dog, but then, it became like walking on a beach, walking around the city. There’s something about having your, my body in motion and changing my environment, stimulating my vision, that helps me work on plot, but it’s probably also because while you’re walking, you’re not tempted to stare at your phone or be distracted by other things.
You’re just in your thoughts, but that’s definitely what I solve most of my creative issues.
Guy Kawasaki: You’d be walking, and you’d be thinking, “Okay, so I like have to make this Silo do this,” and kind of thing?
Hugh Howey: Yeah. Or listening to dialogue, like listening to characters, debate something, and thinking, “Oh, that’s what this person needs to say that gets them to think they should do this.” But also just story idea, like, yeah I want to write a story about, a ninja falling in love with a pirate or something.
And then you just start. I use that example a lot. I’m eventually going to write that book because I, I love this idea like ninjas and pirates in the same world together.
Guy Kawasaki: Apple TV is going to listen to this and buy the rights right now.
Hugh Howey: Sold. Sure man.
Guy Kawasaki: In ten years from now, it’ll be out there. I love your whole approach to writing and publishing, it’s so contrary to, what everybody thinks, how publishing works because they have no clue.
Hugh Howey: Yeah, I agree. I love your approach to gift-giving. I’m a huge fan.
So there you have it. Hugh Howey. Legendary self-publisher working his way up from a bookstore.
His is an inspiring story for anyone who can’t get a book deal. If you can’t get a book deal or know somebody who can’t get a book deal, be sure to forward them this episode.
I’m Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. My thanks to Jeff Sieh and Peg Fitzpatrick for another remarkable episode. Until next time, Mahalo and Aloha.