By Hugh Howey
This past week, my latest self-published book debuted at #7 on The New York Times bestseller list. Crunching some numbers, it appears that I’ve sold a million books in the last two years. You might think I’m living the best days of my life right now, but that isn’t the case at all. I’ve had a lot of careers and have gone through quite a few distinct phases in my life, and several were happier than being a bestselling author.
There’s the decade I spent as a yacht captain, delivering boats all over the world. There are the years I lived on a sailboat while going to the College of Charleston, or the year I spent island-hopping through the Bahamas. I had a blast installing custom home theater systems in expensive homes, and I worked as a computer repair technician back when personal computers were first exploding onto the scene. But the two happiest years of my life were spent in Palmyra, Virginia while working at Rockfish Roofers.
My wife and I moved to Virginia in 2005. She was placed at UVA for her internship after completing her doctorate in psychology at Nova Southeastern University. I was still working on yachts, but I wanted to get out of that industry and be home more. The guy I bought my house from, Saul, told me to call him if I was ever looking for a little work. He had a roofing company, and they were getting ready to paint the metal roof on a massive community center out in the middle of nowhere. I never turn down an adventure, so I decided to drive across the county and see what the job entailed.
I loved it. The thrill of the heights, the hard work, the ache in my bones, the sweat-soaked clothes. For the next two years, I worked with Saul and David A. on dozens of roofs. We did a lot of slate, copper, and cedar shakes. Some of these jobs were enormous, and we would spend months at the same place. Others were quick fixes. I spent two years driving all over some of the prettiest land I’d ever seen, spent my days looking out over verdant valleys, watched the seasons change, enjoyed rainy days off, and reveled in the company of two highly educated and morally attuned human beings that I came to see as family.
I was home with my wife every night. We had a beautiful house out in the country and a dog that we loved immensely. We had flower gardens and vegetable gardens, a framing workshop, a stream, a water feature full of fish, and lots of places to go and hike or kayak right around us. We cooked more than we ever had before, gathered blackberries and baked them into cobblers, got to know our neighbors. Our bedroom was high off the ground in a canopy of trees, and when it rained and we kept the windows open, it felt like we lived in a birds-nest. We nearly cried when we first saw the house with our realtor and we did cry when we sold it two years later and drove away for the last time. It was more than the house, though. It was those two years. They were great.
I did most of my mental writing during those two years. I came up with the character of Molly Fyde and the idea of the wallscreen and Wool. I did my physical writing during a later stage of my life, which was nearly as glorious. And this is the point I want to make, because I spend so much time supporting the growth of literature through self-publishing, and I don’t want people to think it’s because I am one of the outlying success stories. That’s not the point. My happiest days were spent writing, not being a bestselling author.
I wrote most of my stories while working in a bookstore for very meager pay. It helped that I have been debt averse my entire life. My wife and I lived in a 750 square foot house that I paid $112,500 for. It was our third home together. I spent a lot of time and energy on all three of those homes fixing them up and making them better, mostly because I wanted to improve our environment. Even in the down market, and never thinking of “flipping” a house, this industriousness not only made me happy, it meant that every house we sold turned a profit. Rather than take expensive vacations or buy fancy cars, we put that money into debt reduction until we were debt free and fully owned our home. It meant I could work for $10 an hour, Amber could be a student/intern/postdoc resident for ten years, and we didn’t have to worry about money. We were poor and wanted for nothing. We hiked and did things that were free. That was part of the key to my happiness, and it required working hard for over a decade and forgoing immediate self-gratification for even longer.
All of that meant that I could work a 30-hour job at a university trade bookshop for just over minimum wage and fill my hours with writing. It was here that I began advocating writing to others. I hung out with creative writing majors in the bookstore, and we gabbed about craft and genre. I got to know professors who were also authors, and we discussed industry news. I met publishing reps and talked trade developments. I joined the Highcountry Writers and spent every other week critiquing works and learning about the art. I spoke at my public library, volunteered with the youth writing NaNoWriMo group, talked to middle school classrooms and college classrooms, all as a non-bestselling author.
I never went into these programs to hawk my books. Ever. It was about promoting writing, not myself. The talk I gave to college classrooms centered on a Stanford study that suggests we live in the most literate age in human history, a study that looked at all the myriad ways we read and write that have nothing to do with novels. I urged people to take reading and writing seriously since we do so much of it, since we are judged by it, since this is the face we put out there for public consumption. And I talked about the joys of self-publishing—not as a commercial venture but as a way of producing art and making it available to others. I saw myself as a small-time painter or musician might. Nobody tells these people to stop putting their works in local galleries or to quit playing local bars. We don’t rail against the proliferation of YouTube videos from aspiring filmmakers or DeviantArt accounts from future designers. We celebrate the act of bettering our craft by producing early works. This was my message to classrooms, to anyone who would listen. It still is.
Today, I saw a comment on a self-publishing success story from yet another cynic who thought that nobody should self-publish. Their argument was that these success stories are the exception, not the rule. But who says the only reason to self-publish is because someone wants to get rich? And who says publishing, any way you do it, is a route to financial independence? I think we all know it isn’t. I knew that better than most from working in a bookstore and meeting so many bestselling authors who had day jobs. That isn’t why we write. It isn’t why we publish. Do these cynics tell the youth strumming their guitars on the street to stop right then, to give up creating art because there’s no future in it? What about the present in it?
I’m just as fond of pausing in front of a friend’s refrigerator to study the magnet-mounted art their child created as I am walking through a national gallery. Or the art shows in the center of shopping malls from local schools. Or the local craft fairs. Here are the stages of creation. Here is genius of all ages.
If you are twelve, and reading this right now, know that I was twelve once, too. I was twelve, and I dreamed of being a writer. I filled composition books with stories, but I never finished them. Part of that was because there was no youth NaNoWriMo group showing me what was possible. And there was no KDP or Smashwords to give me the freedom to turn my stories into books. There was no easy outlet for my rampant imagination. Now there is, but it means ignoring those who say you shouldn’t go for it.
Remember that it’s okay to write and publish just to make yourself happy, to make yourself fulfilled. There will be authors out there, readers, publishing experts, and booksellers who say that this outpouring of unprofessional drek is ruining the industry, which makes me wonder if these same people drive through neighborhoods yelling and screaming at people gardening in their back yards, shouting at them that, “You’ll never be a farmer!” Or if they cruise past community basketball courts where men and women unwind with games of pickup and shout at them, “You’ll never make it in the NBA!”
There is a kid learning to dribble a basketball right now who will go on to play shirts-and-skins, lead their high school to a national championship, get drafted in the first round and make millions, and this is no reason for the rest of us to not go out and experience the thrill of a 3-pointer heaved up and swishing right through the net. There is some parent teaching a child how to grip a putter right now and take aim at a clown’s mouth, and that kid will get a $50 million endorsement from Nike, and this is no reason not to go whack a bucket of balls after work. Implicit in the message that only some people should publish is the stance that all publishing is commercial, it’s all about making money, about being a bestseller, a pro. But that’s not the reason I do it. It isn’t why I celebrate writing and encourage people to self-publish. I’ve been doing both for a long time. So if anyone tells you that you can’t do it, that you shouldn’t do it, that you’ll never make a living at it, I urge you to agree with them. And then go do it anyway.
Hugh Howey is the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga and The New York Times and USA Today bestselling WOOL series.