Let’s see, about 23 days since my last post here. The Fall 2013 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine has been a . . . chore to finish, and has occupied all of my time and energy. Plus are editorial offices our moving—more on that tomorrow—and we have to be all packed up by Labor Day. Hence the unplanned and prolonged hiatus.
But now I’m back, with a few lines about the story I’ve most liked in the last few weeks: “Shattered Worlds,” by Alicia Lutz in the most recent issue of College of Charleston Magazine. It’s a profile of alumnus Hugh Howey, who incredibly became rich from a self-published science fiction novel titled Wool. Howey had already written nine novels or novellas and published all of them himself when he sat down at his Macbook Air and tapped out a 40-page short story and used Kindle Direct Publishing at Amazon to zip it out to the public. It cost $0.99 to download and read and Howey sold a thousand copies (so to speak—we’re talking electrons here) in three months. That encouraged him to write four more installments over the next two months. In January 2012, he released, again for Kindle, an omnibus edition of all five stories as Wool, and 23,000 readers bought copies in the first month. Before long, the author was pulling in $150,000 a month from sales of the ebook; Amazon named Wool the best indie science fiction title of 2012.
Hugh Howey has always gone his own way. He’s always done what suited him. As a kid, he was somewhat of a loner, an introvert. Not that he was antisocial or disruptive – not at all. He was a good student, a good athlete and a good classmate. He had one close friend, but got along with everyone. Still, he always preferred the company of the book sticking out of his back pocket.
In high school, he managed to stay above the fray – remaining completely unaware of the peer pressure that plagued his classmates. He grew his hair long, played soccer, rode a skateboard and listened to his parents’ rock ‘n’ roll.
“I thought of myself as a romantic, reading and writing poetry all the time, which often led to interest from girls who would grow frustrated by my lack of moves and run off with my best friend,” Howey sighs. “It worked out great for him.”
What makes the story work is Lutz’s sure hand with a narrative and her consistently sound judgement in what to harvest from Howey’s oddball life. It took the writer three tries to graduate from Charleston because he kept leaving to go to sea on various boats. He was on a boat at the base of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Howey eventually made history, of a sort, by signing a substantial print-only contract with Simon & Schuster. The publisher would bring his work out in print, but Howey would keep the digital rights and keep on selling his ebooks. He’s peddled the film rights for Wool to Ridley Scott.
Two other things make this a great magazine feature package. One, Charleston convinced him to pose for Jason Myers (who is a hell of a portrait shooter) in what looks like a circa-1962 spacesuit, the sort of thing that would not look out of place on the cover of a 1950s pulp science fiction magazine. (I know this because I was once an avid reader of such magazines.) And second, illustrator Justin Fields did some killer art for two of the spreads. The story runs 12 pages in the magazine, including a page devoted to an excerpt from Wool, and it had to be expensive. But College of Charleston does this kind of thing really well. Nice work.