How to Make Your Book a Best Seller, Learn From WOOL

WOOL is the latest astonishing hit coming from the world of self-publishing. The author, Hugh Howey, "independently published" his book (as Wikipedia delicately puts it)  as a serial novel - meaning it started coming out in parts, each about as long as a novella and all linked together by their post-apocalyptic setting. The first came out in July 2011 and seeing the demand from Amazon reviewers pressing him for more, Howey continued producing parts until it had developed to a full length serial novel (5 parts, 528 pages printed).

An astounding success, especially considering this is his debut novel! He hadn't published anything before WOOL, he was born and raised in Monroe, a small town in North Carolina, and he'd worked as a yacht captain, a roofer and an audio technician.  Yet WOOL won Amazon's Best Indie Book of 2012 Award  and gathered, just for its Part One, 711 customer reviews, averaging an astonishing 4.5 stars out of five. The book today, two years after it's come out, is still ranked #1 in the Kindle Store for science fiction >short stories (no doubt a leftover from the early times when it started out as a short story) and #2 for science fiction >post apocalyptic. Howey has sold the film rights to Twentieth Century Fox and reached an agreement with Random House to distribute a printed version of  WOOL to book retailers in the UK starting in March this year, while fully retaining his e-book rights. He's also begun to sell his international rights, notably in Brazil. In short, he's a savvy self-published wonder, someone all self-pubbed writers could learn something from.

So what are WOOL's secrets for success? Perhaps Hugh Howey has better answers to that one than I do (and he does blog about it on occasion, see his piece on Salon here ), but there are certain surprising things about his experience that I think are worth highlighting.

There are five things all publishing gurus tell you that you need to get right: the title, the cover, the pitch to attract the readers' attention, a marketing strategy (know who your audience is) and of course, content quality.

Now how does WOOL fare on all five counts? Be ready for some surprises!

1. The title: do you believe this title works? To me, when I first heard it, I thought it had something to do with knitting, LOL! Honest! Actually, the title derives from a small detail in the first story, the pad to clear the lenses is made of wool...Does that tell you anything about the book as a good title should? Can you guess it's science fiction? Of course not. So forget the title, that is not what made WOOL's success.

2. The cover: Look at it, it's reproduced here. I don't know whether this is the original cover Howey came out with, but even if it is an improvement on whatever the first cover was, I can't imagine a less enticing cover. The texture, the colors are awful. Of course, it's all a matter of taste, but for me, the cover does not work and I imagine that it doesn't for a lot of other readers too.

3. The pitch: Perhaps this is a little better in that it has the virtue of being superbly short. Here it is: "Thousands of them have lived underground. They've lived there so long, there are only legends about people living anywhere else. Such a life requires rules. Strict rules. There are things that must not be discussed. Like going outside. Never mention you might like going outside.

Or you'll get what you wish for.

Okay, once you've read it, you can see why this is a good pitch. It's well written, snappy. But the trouble is: if you haven't read the book, you can't quite imagine what's in store for you...Therefore, yes, the pitch is not bad but it could certainly be better.

4. Marketing strategy: clearly Howey had none. He first used a small press called Broad Reach then he abandoned it for the next four parts and used Kindle Direct Publishing. When he first published it, WOOL Part One wasn't really part one of a serial novel, it was just a long short story or a short novella, take your pick. It grew organically as a response to reader demand. No marketing strategy here!

5. Content: bingo! Yes, this is where the secret of WOOL is revealed. This is very well written, full of suspense and makes you wonder about the post-apocalyptic world Howey has dreamed up. You want to know more about it, you buy the next part. Simple...

Anything else? Yes, there is something else. Howey's marketing strategy is rather more sophisticated than what may appear at first glance: his book is upheld high in the Kindle rankings by the simple expedient of maintaining Part One of Wool permanently free. Now some people object to making books free on the theory that readers equate free books with worthless books. Yet, in the case of a serial novel, it makes perfect sense: the preview sample on part one of a serial novel that is essentially nothing more than an ultra short book, i.e. novella-length, is simply insufficient (barely 2 pages) to enable anyone to judge whether you want to go on reading or not. Therefore, making Part One of a serial novel free is merely the equivalent of providing a free sample preview of the book, something Amazon routinely does for all its books.

Yet Amazon, if you ask them, won't allow you to set the first part of your serial novel free. I know because I asked. I wanted to make Part One of 2213:Forever Young permanently free, exactly as Hugh Howey had done for Part One of WOOL. I got nowhere even though I asked three times (!). Now I've asked a fourth time and I'm still waiting for an answer that would go beyond what they originally told me, and I quote: "Due to operational costs it is currently not possible to set a book as permanently free through our KDP platform. The minimum list prices allowed with KDP are $0.99 for the 35% royalty option and $2.99 for the 70% royalty option."

Yes I knew that already. Their next point is also something that came as no surprise: "However, from time to time, we may match free promotions on other sales channels, but we retain discretion over our retail prices." Right. If you want Amazon to lower the price to zero, you have to set your book free on other platforms that allow it, like say on Smashwords...and hope for the best! 

Is that what Howey did with his WOOL? The answer is no, his book is only available on Amazon or from his own website.

Oh, another remarkable aspect: Howey is a fan of YouTube videos, here's his latest one:

So far, he's done...62 videos where you can follow his book production travails, step by step, month by month. Fascinating look into a writer's life! And you'll notice, now his book covers are, as he put it, real artwork, professionally done.

Yes, Hugh Howey has come a long way...How about you? Are you selling books and if you are, what do you think is the single most important factor explaining your sales?

Post-scriptum to my readers: henceforth I'll publish only one post per week, normally on Sunday. I'm currently working on Part Three of 2213:Forever Young (called The Immortality Trip) and I simply haven't got the time to write two blog posts per week as I have done in the past. Sorry, but I need to finish my book!

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Yes, he did everything wrong (more or less) except one thing, the most important thing: the content! His storytelling is superb, and in the end that is what counts...There is a lesson here. And it's also why I have to refrain from posting on my blog more than once a week - sorry about that,I love to blog, I love to get your comments but my writing is a-calling and I can't resist. I simply have to finish 2213:Forever Young!
An absolutely amazing success story. No formula. No strategy. The novel simply caught fire and no one knows why. It is brilliantly written, but I have a lot of really well-written books that never sell. It is the conundrum that frustrates us all.
Anonymous said…
But a lot of us have superb content - so how to get it noticed? Frustration is the word.
I agree. An indecipherable conundrum. It's like fashion, you never know what will suddenly sell. Or go viral. I suspect it has something to do with "the general mood" in a market, economic and political news blowing a wind of recession or conversely optimism, a succession of unrelated events, each one small, yet they add up to something big, a new situation, it's what Nassim Taleb calls the Black Swan...
Emandyves, yes, very frustrating. The only thing to do is not to worry about it!
An update: I still haven't heard from Amazon and have no idea how Hugh Howey managed to keep WOOL Part One permanently free...
Stephen Woodfin said…
Claude, On the permanent free deal, in David Gaughran's new book, Let's Get Visible, he covers a couple of techniques an author can use to create perma free. I doubt Amazon is going to allow the direct approach you are hoping for, so a person has to wire around it.
Thanks Stephen, I guess I'll have to follow David's advice...I'm always the ingenuous sort hoping for straightforward methods when everyone else knows they don't work! This said, I do find it surprising that Amazon won't adapt to this new form of novel, the serial novel, when they are so quick to embrace novelty, as they've shown when they set up the Kindle Single program...