In the annals of publishing, the power is starting to move from the publisher to the author.
Recently, Hugh Howey, author of post-apocalyptic thriller, Wool has reached a level of heightened success related to an unprecedented and innovative publishing deal.
Today, Wool is being pushed to the masses and released at both brick-and-mortar bookstores around the country and online. But prior to today, Howey had already hit the jackpot with his successful franchise without the book being released.
Publisher Simon & Schuster agreed to the print publication rights while Howey negotiated the e-book rights himself. This is a novel idea in the world of digital publishing and has started to help the evolution of how authors and publishers deal with the digital space. Before the sun even rose this morning, Howey’s Wool had been labeled a success with over half a million copies sold, generating close to 6,000 reviews on Amazon. That is some serious noise.
After being courted by multiple publishers, Howey realized that the seven-figure deals were not as important as retaining the digital rights to his work. That may prove to be a gamble, but in the past two years, digital publishing sales has risen steadily. According to a report from the Association of American Publishers, February 2011 results indicated that e-Books enjoyed triple-digit percentage growth, 202.3%, versus February 2010. E-book sales for adult titles in fiction and non-fiction have grown 36% in the first three quarters of 2012. That is some hefty growth, while at the same time, sales for paperback and hardcover sales has been in decline, no doubt aided in the proliferation of digital publishing and the availability of titles on Amazon and Kindle.
Aside from the tumultuous state of the digital publishing industry, Howey also had some luck and fate on his side. He initially wrote the first version of the serial Wool in less than three weeks while working 30-hours a week at a university bookstore. He sold the first version on Amazon for less than a dollar and was shocked when 1,000 copies were sold. That was in 2011. At that point, he would have no idea that the serial versions of books like The Hunger Games would have such commercial success in both publishing and Hollywood. Now, as publishers work to ensure Wool enjoys fame in the publishing world, he has already negotiated the film rights to producer Ridley Scott.
Today, you can read an excerpt of Wool on Scribd, and at the same time, Howey is receiving plenty of attention in blogs, newspapers and other online press about the highly unusual deal.
“I had made seven figures on my own, so it was easy to walk away,” says Mr. Howey, 37, a college dropout who worked as a yacht captain, a roofer and a bookseller before he started self-publishing. “I thought, ‘How are you guys going to sell six times what I’m selling now?’ “
It’s a sign of how far the balance of power has shifted toward authors in the new digital publishing landscape. Self-published titles made up 25% of the top-selling books on Amazon last year. Four independent authors have sold more than a million Kindle copies of their books, and 23 have sold more than 250,000, according to Amazon.
Publishing houses that once ignored independent authors are now furiously courting them. In the past year, more than 60 independent authors have landed contracts with traditional publishers. Several won seven-figure advances. A handful have negotiated deals that allow them to continue selling e-books on their own, including romance writers Bella Andre and Colleen Hoover, who have each sold more than a million copies of their books.
Howey himself further delves into the story of his unprecedented success in a dispatch on Huffington Post that reveals the intriguing nature and development of discussions that led to his unique deal with Simon & Schuster:
The problem was that publishers were willing to pay a lot of money to take all of my rights forever, but nobody wanted to do a print-only deal. Even major publishers (especially major publishers) could see in their balance sheets where the industry was heading. But there will always be a place for bookstores and great print editions, and I wanted to form that partnership without giving up a known living wage for an unknown jackpot. I just don’t have that ability to gamble (I never have).
It made it easy to say no, even though it was life-altering amounts of money being offered. The stability of a monthly income was more important, as was knowing that I would be miserable to sign my life away like that. I floated one final option, which gained zero traction. This was the idea of licensing the rights to the book for a finite period of time. This is how my foreign deals are structured. It seemed to me that this would eventually be the future of US publishing. But it wasn’t to be. A second round of interesting talks came and went.
As this week unfolds, it is a sure bet that publishing industry will be keeping their eyes on the sales at bookstores. Simon & Schuster released hardcover and paperback versions of the book simultaneously today, which essentially are competing with Howey’s digital publications. While the experiment unfolds, feel free to check out the digital excerpt below and available on Scribd’s homepage.