Many moons ago, long before I dreamed of seeking fame and fortune as a self-published author, back when I was of that peculiar age when young men choose to live in smelly apartments with other young and smelly men, I had as a roommate the incredible and talented drummer of Charlie's on Acid.
Rusty was a lovely chap with the long hair and authentic facial hair you'd expect of a rock and roll artist, and he was quite beloved for being considerably less messy than my brother and I. But what made Rusty a legend in my eyes (aside from the groupies) was his minor role in a feature film. Charlie's on Acid, you see, was the band chosen to play Brandon Lee's backup in The Crow. When they show band posters in the film featuring Brandon as the lead singer, those are my friends Sean, Rusty, Eric, and Toby in the background trying to look suitably boss.
My brother and I went to see the film with the guys right after it opened, and it was surreal to sit that close to honest-to-goodness celebrities. I wanted to stand up in the middle of the scene where they were featured (I very nearly did) and shout to the marginally packed audience, "Hey! That's these guys right here!"
I was, and remain to this day, a fan of my friend. I wondered what that felt like for him, sitting there, seeing himself on that big screen if even for a flash. I went to a ton of Charlie's on Acid concerts, rode in the van, wore out their cassettes, and told all my friends about them. This wasn't just an indie band, it was one I had a connection with. A band I wanted, more than life itself, to see succeed.
Fast forward fifteen years (yikes!) to my wife and I sitting in another crowded theater. Yes, I had finally found a woman who would take me in and clean me up. One who would, if you can suspend disbelief for a moment, attend the midnight premier of The Avengers with me (in 3D and on a work night!).
I was stoked. I'd been waiting on this film since comics cost me a very dear 75 cents! Like a dork, I sat with my glasses on through the very-much-2D previews, and that's when I had a sensation eerily reminiscent of that long-ago screening of The Crow.
It was during the preview for Prometheus (which is gonna rock, having heard from those who have seen it). During the mash-up of awesome action scenes, a name was blasted across the screen in huge 3-foot letters. Ridley Scott. One of the few directors whose name alone can sell tickets. A legend in his own time. A household name. The director of Alien and Blade Runner. Of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down.
I nearly burst out of my seat. I probably bruised my wife's arm.
It wasn't the same as seeing my friend Rusty up on the big screen, but it was awfully close. Because, you see, we were at that time in talks with Ridley Scott and others for the media rights to WOOL, a post-apocalyptic tale I had written wherein people live belowground because the outside world had gone where hand baskets generally take things.
At the time (a week ago, mind you), only a handful of people knew these talks were going on. I was forced to keep them a secret, which was fairly killing me. From the very beginning of my writing adventures, I've enjoyed keeping readers aware of every turn and decision I was making. And now I had associations with Ridley Freakin' Scott.
Equally exciting (as a writer) was the other superstar attached to the potential deal: Steve Also-Freakin' Zaillian, one of the most brilliant screenwriters in all of Hollywood. These two legends were interested in the rights to a little story I had written, a story that had been steadily climbing up the charts for half a year.
What would I have said if I had jumped out of my chair? It wouldn't be "AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!" because I had already yelled that at the top of my voice. Really. My wife was mortified. Or maybe she just felt sorry for me. Most likely a lot of both.
It would have been too much of a mouthful, I'm sure, to say that Ridley Scott had read my book and thought it decent enough to want the rights. It would have taken even longer to explain how unbelievably awesome Steve Zaillian is, that he won an Academy Award for Schindler's List and probably deserved a few more (Like for Gangs of New York. Or Searching for Bobby Fisher, one of my favorite films of all-time).
Besides, an actual deal seemed a long way off, a fanciful dream. Who was I? A few months ago, I worked part time in the university bookstore, dusting the shelves and tackling shoplifters to pay the bills. How could someone like that, who spent his mornings and lunch breaks pecking away at his keyboard ever get mentioned in a press release along the likes of Scott and Zaillian?
Word of mouth, is how. Which is also the reason I've been able to quit that day job and write full-time. And it's why the film rights for that little story I wrote now lie in the hands of Hollywood giants.
Now, this is still new enough to me to leave me in a daze simply from typing the words, but it gets even better: The same book--self-published, mind you--has been picked up by Random House in the UK for a major hardback release. And while domestic publishers have made offers that would have had me swooning mere months ago, I have chosen to remain independent here in the States.
I currently enjoy the best of both worlds: The ability to write what I want and enjoy the generous royalties inherent with self-publishing domestically, while also working with a major publisher overseas to hone my craft and produce the best physical books possible. Because of this avalanche of good news, I've been blessed by IndieReader to come here today and thank you all for turning what once was a fanciful dream into a mind-numbing reality. Yeah, I'm thanking you.
My inbox lately has become sprinkled with missives from other independent writers asking me for any advice I might have. So I tell them what you have taught me: Please the reader. Write your best works for them; make those works affordable; interact with your fans; and take their feedback to heart. Without a single dime spent in advertising, a short story I wrote and didn't even work to promote climbed to the top of the Amazon charts. It drew the attention of Hollywood. It landed me an agent and half a dozen foreign book deals. All because of word of mouth. Because I happened to please you, and you told someone else, and they spread the word further.
The first WOOL story came out in July of last year. At just over 12,000 words, it qualified as a novelette, and not much more. I forgot about the story until it began garnering a slew of positive reviews that could muster only a single complaint among them: Where was the rest? They wanted more.
So I began writing more. I released the rest of the story in installments, something I'd always wanted to try, and I enjoyed the quick turnaround and the immediate feedback from readers. The entries grew as the series went along, until the fifth and final WOOL story was the length of a short novel. Once the tale was complete, I collected the five books into an Omnibus, which was when it began to really take off.
The WOOL OMNIBUS is now roaring up the charts, and I like to think of the work as much as a collaboration as a singular effort. It was borne out of the call from reviewers for more and forged almost as it was being read. Cover art has been supplied by (and paid for, of course) by fans. Typos have been rounded up and summarily vanquished by helpful readers. And so the story of WOOL's creation has become as interesting (to me, at least) as the story contained in the book itself.
The success of the book is every bit the result of readers taking a chance on an unknown. It owes a debt to major media outlets like BoingBoing and Wired.com's GeekDad that dared review a self-published book. As we worry over what will become of the proliferation of self-published e-books, I say we shouldn't worry at all.
With sites like IndieReader springing up to support the plethora of great underground stories, and with eager shoppers looking for gems in the creek bed, I believe this is a process to celebrate rather than fear. No one worries about the boring videos on YouTube (which I amply supply). We're too busy sharing links to the best of them.
Decent stories will find great readers. Killer websites will amplify this process. And Amazon will continue to assist us by leveling the playing field, by allowing our books to be ranked according to your tastes, rather than the tastemakers. And the end result will be more great stories at lower prices and more writers able to transition from dusting bookshelves to stocking them with their own works.
The chances of a WOOL film ever being shot with Ridley Scott behind the camera and Steve Zaillian wielding a pen remain slim. Such is the nature of books attempting to become movies. However, the chances were much slimmer a week ago than they are today. Who would have thought that my friend Rusty would get to play Brandon Lee's drummer? Or get to meet the young actor before he was tragically taken from us? Not me.
That's why I nearly jumped out of my seat and did a dance fifteen years ago. It's why I nearly did it last Friday. Dreams do happen, people. They came true for me. Thanks, in large part, to awesome indie readers like you.
Follow Hugh Howey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hughhowey