THE BLOG
03/11/2013 05:43 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Hugh Howey and the Bestseller Myth

Hugh Howey, who grows more famous by the second, is a friend of mine. No, not a genuine friend. A Facebook friend.

Howey is having his moment right now, selling more than half a million copies of his novel, Wool, and being feted on at least two continents.

I read the Wool Omnibus after it became a phenomenon but before it achieved full phenomenon! status. Which is to say, before he was published in any nation by a Big Pub outfit and before the Wall Street Journal wrote an article admiring Howey's business acumen.

Because Howey is a "friend" of mine and I've followed his work, I can say with confidence that the Journal's assertion that Howey is "a slick marketer" -- or at least the implication that this played any significant role in his success -- is utter bunk, and I think he'd be the first to admit that.

The Journal also labels him a "savage negotiator." This is closer to the truth, but it's important to note that when it came time to negotiate with Big Pub, Howey was doing so from a position of strength, a position where perhaps one in 50,000 authors ever sits.

It's worth making these distinctions because, inevitably, people have begun looking at Howey's success as something instructive, something which struggling novelists can emulate and thereby make themselves bestsellers, too.

The reality, however, is this: Many novelists fail commercially while doing things a certain way, but those that become first-time bestsellers do many of those same things while managing to succeed for unique reasons -- or no reason at all. The fact that agents and publishers often advise authors to emulate any given path to the bestseller list probably says more about all of our desire to find order in a disorderly world than anything else.

Consider the following advice, meted out to aspiring authors ad nauseam.

Write the best book you can write.

Writing a good book may be its own reward, but you could build a stairway to the moon with all the good books that never made a plug nickel for anyone. Wool is a good book, in my opinion, and a story that displays a great deal of originality. But the problem with the above advice is twofold.

First, if Howey is to be believed (and we have no reason to doubt him), he didn't set out to write a book at all in this case. He wrote a short story, and that story became so popular that he decided to spin it into an entire novel.

Second, most self-published bestsellers I've read aren't very good. Some of them, in fact, are quite bad -- at least by the standards of mainstream critics or Big Pub. Therefore, Howey writing a good story does not affirm anything about the value of writing a good book as a strategy for creating a bestseller. Too many books have defied this law to give it any validity.

Fiction titles matter.

I don't know what Howey thinks of his title. By the standards of Big Pub, it sucks. It's not poetic, doesn't pique one's curiosity, and does nothing to communicate its genre to the prospective reader. This explains why Simon & Schuster tried to talk Howey out of using it. Of course, by then the book had established itself as a huge bestseller, giving the title invaluable brand recognition. Howey didn't have to be a business genius to recognize the counter-productivity of a title change at that point. He does deserve credit for not allowing himself to get steamrolled by conventional Big Pub wisdom.

Get reviews.

The Journal makes a point of noting that Howey gave books away to book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers. This is a sensible strategy. It's so sensible, in fact, that everyone does it. I'd venture to say that your average book blogger can stop accepting submissions tomorrow and have enough free books to keep her reading for the next hundred years. So the mere fact of sending free books around to bloggers, while a necessary marketing step, hardly predicts success.

He did receive some good reviews from websites -- BoingBoing and Wired.com's GeekDad among them -- that seemed to give the book a boost. In contrast, many other novels have received similar treatment on well-trafficked websites without seeing any effect whatsoever on their sales.

It is possible that Howey did hit Goodreads at just the right time -- just as that particular social network was going hyperbolic. There is some evidence that those who are active on any given social network just as it's hitting warp speed can establish a name for themselves by being in that right place at that right time. There's a word for being in the right place at the right time. The word is luck.

Have a platform or an impressive following on the social networks.

If nothing else, perhaps Howey's success can drive a stake through the heart of the social media imperative that has, like the song of the Sirens, drawn so many novelists to misdirect their creative energy in utter futility.

Did Howey build his bestseller upon an impressive platform? No. The current numbers say a lot. Even after all his success, Howey has (as of 3/10/13) 6,067 Twitter followers where any number of authors you've never heard of (and never will) have tens or even hundreds of thousands. He has 2,941 Facebook friends and, so far as I can tell, no official author page. He has 1,268 friends on Goodreads.

If you care about this sort of thing, these numbers are nothing to write home about. Fortunately for Howey, they don't matter nearly as much as we've been told.

A marketing platform may be essential for your average non-fiction author, but Howey proves how unnecessary it is for the novelist. Howey has something far more valuable than a stellar social network: paying readers.

Engage your fans.

Here Howey has done another admirable thing (besides writing a good book). To quote the Journal: "He hosted an 'Ask Me Anything' session on the popular website Reddit, fielding users' questions for more than 12 hours. He encouraged fan art and fan fiction set in the Wool universe; his readers have designed book covers and written their own novella-length takes on the story. He conscripted 30 of his most ardent fans to be 'beta' readers who edit early drafts of his books for free."

The problem with this series of actions as a piece of advice, however, is that they suffer from the chicken-and-egg problem. I challenge the average unknown novelist to host a chat on Reddit, for example, and see whether he gets 12 minutes worth of questions, let alone 12 hours. Before you can profitably be nice to your fans (or conscript them), you actually need to have more than a few. In order to have fans, you need to have readers.

So, to review, Hugh Howey has done a couple of things right. For one, he wrote a good book. But many good books fail to become bestsellers and many bestsellers are not good books in the eyes of critics. Therefore, as a source of insights into bestsellerdom, this offers nothing tangible. He engages his fans, but until an author has fans there's no one to engage. So that observation also remains unhelpful to the average novelist.

He's also done a couple of things wrong (by the standards of what the experts tell us). He put a seemingly poor title on his book and he has not scaled on the social networks.

What Howey has most benefitted from is a large volume of reviews, which makes sense because he has sold lots of books -- more than half a million. On Goodreads the Wool Omnibus has 12,726 ratings and 2,219 reviews. By contrast, however, John Grisham's The Firm has nearly 20 times the ratings. Weirdly, it does have the exact same number of reviews (or it did when I checked on 3/10/13).

In these last numbers we can maybe get a glimpse into the mechanism of Howey's success. It takes more effort to write a Goodreads review than it does to rate a book, and the batting average that Howey has for reviews is quite high. Which indicates, I think, that he's forming an emotional connection with his readers.

Yet here we are back at the chicken-and-egg problem. No doubt you can fill entire libraries with authors whose work forms an emotional connection to readers. Unfortunately for these authors, more of them than you can count go undiscovered by the masses.

What, therefore, at the end of the day are we to make of Hugh Howey's success? Perhaps we should make of it precisely what Howey himself does. He is charmingly honest about the serendipity that turned him into the No. 1 science fiction novelist in America. In a recent article for Kirkus, he begins, "I wonder if lottery winners get emails asking for advice on how to win the next one," before noting, "I really do believe luck plays a large role."

Last May on the Huffington Post he noted his film deal and his publishing deal in the U.K. (he didn't have a U.S. publishing deal at that time) and gave the following explanation for his success: "All because of word of mouth. Because I happened to please you, and you told someone else, and they spread the word further."

This is as close as we'll ever come to knowing what makes a novel take off commercially. You can do everything right and fail. You can do everything wrong and succeed. Usually, as with Howey's journey, you'll get some things wrong while getting other things right.

But -- and this is important -- there is no formula, and there never was. Big Pub knows quite well how to profitably publish the 10th novel of a brand-name author, but they're generally pretty hard-pressed to explain how the first bestseller came about.

Likewise, what works for one indie author doesn't necessarily do squat for another. You can sit back and admire how your Facebook friend hit it big, and you can even root him on, but you can't learn a thing from him about how to replicate that success.

Hugh Howey, to his enduring credit, knows that as well as anyone.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.