Winning at the Self-Publishing Game with Hugh Howey – The Knowledge Project

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Despite what the news or media may lead you to believe, people around the world are generally the same 
  • “Technology is for our brains what sugar is for our gut”
  • The fact that many tech CEOs and engineers don’t let their children use the technology products they’re designing should make you think twice
  • Self-driving cars will change the world in MANY ways
  • The best writing advice Hugh ever heard:
    • “Stop talking about writing, stop dreaming of writing, stop telling people you’re going to write… Sit down and write!”
  • “A lot of our calcification, the inability to launch our lives in a different direction, is the feeling that we should have done it 10 years ago and we’ve lost the opportunity. But 10 years from now we’ll think the same thing about this very moment.”
  • Self-publishing allows writers more creative freedom and opens up options down the road
  • With just one hour of writing per day, you can finish a novel within a year
    • It’s amazing what a small amount of effort added up over time can create

Books Mentioned


  • Hugh Howey (@HughHowey) is an adventurer, self-publishing phenom, and the author of a dozen best selling books, including his breakout novel – Wool

Sailing Around the World

  • Hugh is recording this interview from a boat on Australia
  • Ever since he was a kid, Hugh had a dream of sailing around the world (which he’s currently doing)
    • He began his journey in South Africa ~3.5 years ago
    • He’s traveling with his girlfriend
    • One of his favorite stops so far – Fiji
  • A sailing tidbit:
    • Wayfinding is the art of navigating across the oceans using natural signs (the stars, sun, cloud patterns, and water temperatures) 
      • It’s all about observing what’s around you instead of relying on technology

The Parallels of Sailing and Navigating Through Life

  • Over the last few years, Hugh has tried to set aside time every now and then to really take inventory of how his life is shaping out. He might ask himself:
    • Where do I want to be in life?
    • What are my relationship connections?
    • What am I proud of?
    • What mistakes have I made?
    • Which direction do I want to go?
  • Very often, humans have a tendency to just “drift with the currents” without taking charge or employing free will

What has sailing and travel taught Hugh?

  • Hugh frequently invites people back to his boat wherever he travels
    • He recently had a family from Fiji join him for a kava ceremony
      • Kava is an interesting compound – it’s a ground up root that if drank, gives you a bit of a buzz
        • The more you drink, the more sensitive you get to it (unlike alcohol)
        • When you’re drunk on kava, your brain goes completely lucid and the body goes completely numb
        • “It separates your brain from your body and leaves your brain in tact”
        • “It’s like forced meditation – you can’t do anything except be alone with your thoughts”
  • “The crazy thing I’ve learned from these deep immersions in these cultures is how universal human nature is and how similar we are”
    • Society focuses on slight difference and assigns labels – “But the things we have in common are so numerous. I think we take them for granted.”
  • “I’m a fan of open borders. I think people should be able to live wherever they want to live in the world as long as they obey the local laws and pay the taxes.”
    • “I think if we had open borders, the number of people who would actually move would be much lower than many realize”
      • Why? – So many people feel rooted to their homes and family connections
        • “For those of us who have wanderlust or who dream of living where we want to, I think we forget most people aren’t like that”

Theory of Mind

  • It’s human nature to try to convince others to be more like us
    • “We all want to be around people similar to us… I think it’s because we feel scared and alone with our thoughts and insecurities”
  • Most of our brain power is being used to try to figure out what those around us are thinking
    • Why is this the case? – Humans evolved to live in close, connected tribes
      • It’s thus helpful to know our standing and how others perceive us
  • “Trying to figure out what everyone is thinking… so much of our anxiety comes from this constant computation of what’s going on in other people’s heads”
  • “Having connection, trust, and honesty is so rewarding because it takes away some of that constant computation of what’s going on in people’s mind. When you can trust someone, you no longer have to do that.”

The Dangers of Tech

  • “Technology is for our brains what sugar is for our gut”
    • Our bodies have a natural craving for cheap calories and our brains have a natural craving for connection
  • Hugh is very close with Kevin Kelly, the first editor of Wired Magazine and a fellow world traveler (he’s been writing about tech for decades)
    • Kevin is the author of two books everyone should read:
    • Also, check out Kevin’s podcast – Cool Tools
    • Hugh brings up a great point:
      • The fact that many tech CEOs and engineers don’t let their children use the technology products they’re designing should make you think twice
      • “The people, like Kevin, who spend the most time with technology and the most time thinking about it are the most weary. That should give more of us pause.”

What does Hugh think the future will look like 5 years from now?

  • “In 5 years we won’t see much change”
  • We’ll probably see moire social media regulation, particularly in Europe (it probably won’t happen in the U.S. anytime soon)
  • Self-driving cars may become pervasive enough to alter the way we interact with transportation
    • This may happen 5 years from now, but definitely by 10
    • “Just like the iPhone is 10 years old and made the world completely different, I think self-driving cars will be the next thing that changes everything”
    • More side effects of self-driving cars:
      • More people will read/listen to podcasts on their commutes
      • Car ownership will become rare (~10% of what it is now)
      • Vehicles will be redesigned based on the idea of sharing them (certain parts of the car will only be owner accessible)
      • Parking spaces will be freed up within cities (self-driving cars won’t park, they’ll run errands/work for Uber when they’re not driving their owners)
      • Road accidents will decrease

How will information consumption change in the future?

  • “I’m a little worried about that, largely for myself. My book reading has really dropped off.”
    • Hugh used to read VERY frequently (~a book a day) – “I don’t understand how I was doing that now. There’s so many other things that distract my time.”
      • “I feel that getting a smart phone and using social media has caused my attention span to change”
  • Technology has made life easier and freed up time, but people just tend to fill it with Netflix
    • “We’re getting more free time, but we’re also getting more to fill it with”
      • Ex. – A trampoline park, better video games/TV

Writing Advice

  • Hugh says he writes best with 0 distractions
    • “When I’m writing, I’m seeing the story like I’m watching a movie. I’m just trying to describe the action and describe the dialogue as I’m hearing it. Anything that captures my attention away from the story makes it hard to dive back in.”
  • When Hugh wants to write more, he stops playing video games
    • “That’s the best writing advice you could give somebody”
  • Another piece of writing advice that helped Hugh:
    • “Stop talking about writing, stop dreaming of writing, stop telling people you’re going to write… Sit down and write!”
      • Hugh adds – The only thing ever stopping anyone from being a writer is yourself and your insecurities
      • This advice led Hugh to write ~15 novels in a 5-6 year period
  • “1 hour of writing a day, you’ll write a novel in a year… guaranteed”
    • It’s amazing what a small amount of effort added up over time can create

It’s Never Too Late

  • “So much of life is just living it and just doing the thing you want to do. We get in our own way so often, not making time, and being scared of failure.” – Shane
  • “A lot of our calcification, the inability to launch our lives in a different direction, is the feeling that we should have done it 10 years ago and we’ve lost the opportunity. But 10 years from now we’ll think the same thing about this very moment today.” – Hugh
    • Whatever you think you could have done 5-10 years ago, you can do TODAY
    • “The feeling that we know we should have made these better decisions earlier, for some reason, instead of learning from that, it paralyzes us…. I guarantee in another 5-10 years you’ll look back at TODAY as the day you had the free time, inclination, and talent to change your life”
    • ALWAYS BE ASKING YOURSELF – “What’s the me in 10 years going to think about what I did today?”

Hugh’s Writing Process (and the importance of daydreaming)

  • “Most of my writing takes place away from the keyboard”
    • Hugh’s very often daydreaming, thinking of story lines in his head 
      • Daydreaming the story line allows you to be totally flexible and reverse course extremely easily if you don’t like where things are going (it’s much more difficult to do so if you’re creating the story as you’re writing)
      • “For me, I like to basically have a movie I’ve seen, that no one else has seen, and it’s my favorite movie of all time. I want to describe it in such vivid detail to someone who can’t watch a movie. They can only read a book. That’s my writing process.”
  • One thing to note – Hugh has a ton of self-doubt at the start of every book (even though he’s written ~20 throughout his career)
  • Hugh adds – “That’s one of the hardest parts of being an avid reader and trying to write – we compare our writing to the great stuff we’ve been reading. We have to not do that.”
  • Realize that the books you love once existed as rough drafts
  • Hugh’s 2-part writing advice:
    • Actually sit down and write every day
    • Don’t read your writing critically – a rough draft is all about getting to the end of the story before you go back and polish it
    • A bonus – join a writing group
      • If you can’t find one, start one
  • After finishing the rough draft of a novel:
    • Hugh will first send it to his mom
      • “She’ll print the whole thing out, get out a red pen, and absolutely demolish it”
    • Hugh will then make some changes and send it to a group of beta readers along with his editor
      • He doesn’t ask anything specific of his beta readers – Hugh just collects their feedback
    • After that, Hugh will give it to his agent

The School System is Broken

  • “So many things that we used to get in trouble for in school turn out to be huge advantages” – Shane
  • In reality, teachers should encourage students to explore their strengths and interests, not the curriculum
    • If you think about it, teachers are really just trying to generate a whole classroom full of more teachers/students filled with a wide range of knowledge who are really good at school stuff
      • “Having a school system that has more diversity in expected outcomes would be a great thing”

Winning at the Self-Publishing Game

  • Hugh paid a publisher for his first book
    • But he soon realized there wasn’t anything his publisher was doing he couldn’t do for himself – Hugh has self-published ever since
      • “Most of these services are one-time costs – editorial, cover art, pagination, the layout of the words on the page… a publisher does that once and they keep more per sale than I get as a writer and that just seems crazy to me”
  • Self-publishing has allowed Hugh tons of creative freedom 
    • “What really took off for me was an adult dystopian novel called Wool. Had I been with a publisher, I never would have had the freedom to write it.”
  • That being said, working with a publisher does have some advantages:
    • They’re great at distribution and reaching book stores (book stores are hesitant to order self-published titles)
    • They’re also useful for helping to translate books and distribute it them around the world
  • “A lot of new writers get trapped into publishing contracts because hearing from an expert in the industry about how great their work is very enticing”
  • When Wool (which was self-published) took off and hit the NYT bestseller list, Hugh started getting a ton of attention from publishers/book agents
    • The way it typically works is a publisher offers you a lump sum advance for all the rights (electronic, print, audio, and foreign) to your self-published book
      • A typical advance is $15-25k
        • $50k is a huge deal
    • Hugh started getting $50k advance offers, but wasn’t impressed – he was making that in a month from his ebook sales
      • Then he started getting 6 and 7 figure offers… but his ebook sales kept going up
    • (One thing to note is that once a publisher buys the rights to your self-published ebook, they’ll jack up the price – if it’s successful – to protect their other ebooks)
  • The bottom line – Self-publishing gives you so many more options down the line 

Pricing Self-Published Books

  • For self-published Kindle books on Amazon, if your book is priced >$9.99, your royalty rate is 30%
    • Below $9.99, you get 70% of every purchase
    • Below $2.99, you get 35% of every purchase
  • Hugh has found pricing his self-published novels between $2.99-$6.99 is best
  • The first part of Wool has been free for ~7 years now on Amazon
  • Hugh doesn’t look at his Amazon sales dashboard anymore
    • It’s too anxiety provoking 

If you do decide to sell your rights to a publisher…

  • Consider including a date which you get the rights back to your book
  • Set price limits – Hugh suggests $7.99
    • “I think price limits should be in every publishing contract, but I think they’re in almost none of them”
  • Always assume the publisher doesn’t have your best interest at heart
  • Avoiding giving away worldwide rights – make deals individually by country
    • Why? – If a publisher is in charge of all foreign rights, they won’t have the same motivation to make it a success on a per country basis as does a publisher who only works within a specific country

Additional Notes

  • For self-published books on Amazon, parent categories are inherited by the child categories
    • For example: if you put your book in “General Books – Science Fiction – General – Dystopia” your book shows up in every one of those categories
      • Therefore, you wouldn’t want to put it under “General Books – Science Fiction”
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Notes By MMiller

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