Power to the People, Authors, That Is

While most authors would kill for a deal with a major publishing house, Hugh Howey actually thumbed his nose at offers from publishers. (That distant roar you hear is writers everywhere, cheering.)

Howey first published his postapocalyptic thriller WOOL as an e book on Amazon, charging ninety-nine cents for each of the series’s five parts. A year ago, WOOL – which takes place in a postapocalyptic future where a few thousand remaining humans live in a giant, 144-story underground silo – went VIRAL.  It has sold more than half a million copies and generated more than 5,260 Amazon reviews. Mr. Howey has earned more than a million dollars in royalties. The film rights have been sold to producer Ridley Scott.

So, no wonder Howey has not jumped at six- and seven-figure offers from traditional publishers.  Publishers did not want just the print rights to his books. They wanted the lucrative e-book rights as well. Howey wasn’t about to give those up. On his own, he keeps 70% of his books’ royalties.  Most publishers offer a digital royalty rate that amounts to 10% to 15% of a book’s retail price.

 “I had made seven figures on my own, so it was easy to walk away,” Mr. Howey told the Wall Street Journal. “I thought, ‘How are you guys going to sell six times what I’m selling now?’ “

Last fall, Simon and Schuster offered Howey a print-only deal.  And he took it. The deal is so unusual that it has generated a lot of press – and also that sound of writers cheering. “It’s a sign of how far the balance of power has shifted toward authors in the new digital publishing landscape,” the Wall Street Journal says, adding, “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.”

Since our business is manuscript editing, we have our own reasons for being excited about the e-book revolution. But we were once novel writers. We were what is known as mid-list authors, which is to say not best sellers. Our books sold in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, and nobody ever thought they were going to do better. We were treated accordingly by our publishers: small advances and no book tours. A few years later in the mid-1990’s, publishers pretty much stopped printing mid-list books at all, not enough return.

For mid-list authors, which is the vast majority – the 99.9% of authors – e-books present an opportunity where lately, there has been none. Hip hip hooray!