Monday, March 11, 2013

Some thoughts on trade publishing: @HughHowey, and the virtuous circle (part I)


UPDATE (2013.03.11:20:19):
I have to insist that you all read Hugh Howey's "How WOOL Got A Unique Publishing Deal" on the HuffPost. This article neatly ties up a couple of threads in this post.

A few weeks ago, I read article in the United Airlines Hemispheres magazine (January 2013) about author James Patterson. He's not someone on my radar screen, but it was a fascinating article that highlighted so much of what's wrong with publishing (writ large). Now, I have nothing against James Patterson, and in fact, see that he's taken honest advantage of many of the larger failures of the industry.

Some facts from the article:
  • 1 in every 17 hardcover books sold in the US is by Patterson (or written in conjunction with his team of partners)
  • current publishing contract is for 3 years, $150 million, and calls for 17 books
What I wonder is how much work the publishers but into those books. The Patterson brand has a huge (obviously) built in audience; his team of collaborators are most likely top-notch and don't need to avail themselves of what the Big 5.5 (I'm at 5.5 since I don't think that the Penguin/Random House merger has been mutually digested) call "editing". One thing they offer, I would guess is access to the markets where hardcovers are sold, namely, Walmart, Target, grocery stores and other brick and mortar non-book stores. Also, outlets for paperbacks (including all the previous, plus airports, the dwindling number of small chain bookstores, independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble (online and brick and mortar), and, of course, Amazon.

I'd like to contrast Patterson's story with that of the authors of a couple of books I recently read. 

The first may be known to many of you. Hugh C. Howey is the author of a number of books, adult fiction and young adult. Most prominently, he is the creator of the Wool series of science fiction novels. The first, Wool: Knitting, was self-published as a short story/novella. The response from readers -- for this fairly unknown author -- was so strong and positive that he created four more installments in the Wool series (gathered together as the Wool: Omnibus Edition) as well as a trilogy of prequels (The Shift series) and to be completed with the Dust series which is just getting underway).

2012.05.03-IMG_2043I myself discovered the series when my ever-cool colleague @Bathlander tweeted about Howey and Wool. For a small investment, $.99 on Amazon, I picked up the first installment, was quickly hooked and purchased the omnibus edition. Finishing up the prequel series (with the first volume of the third series to be in the next few months), I was stunned by Howey's inventive creation of an entire world (short view: sometime in the future, humanity seems to be reduced to a small population living underground in a 150 story silo -- or are they?).

Howey's command of language and characterization raises his work beyond the potboiler style many feel pigeonholes SciFi as a lesser genre. In all aspects, Howey and the Wool volumes are as literary and inventive a world and show as strong a command of the possibilities of language as an acknowledged "literary master" such as Margaret Atwood shows in her speculative fiction (for example, The Handmaid's Tale or the sublime Oryx and Crake) or the "big three" of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein or the brilliant, but sometimes dated/period work of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick.

So, as a self-published author Howey has not only achieved success in the world of ebooks, but the Wool series has been picked up by Simon & Shuster for print distribution and thus he joins the small, but growing world of authors who have created their own success and then had that success validated by the publishing establishment.

A particularly interesting aspect of Howey's work is that the world he has created has inspired a cadre of "fan fiction" building on his work. "FanFic" can be a mixed bag (for anyone who's read it) ranging from good to awful. Howey encourages (as all smart and unthreatened writers should) his readers in this pursuit. Howey  however, has taken it to a new level. On a recent blog post, Howey recounts how on encountering "The Runner" by WJ Davies, he not only encouraged the Davies in his work, but, convinced of the quality, implored him to actually sell the work. I picked up "The Runner" also (while waiting for the third volume of the Shift series to appear) and I would concur with Howey's take on the quality of the work (but also note that it is not up to that of Howey's).

Now here is a truly virtuous circle that is an exemplum for the publishing industry for the 21st century. Author, reader, reader/author all benefiting both creatively, and, in this case (which is of course not typical), financially.

END PART I

Continued it:

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