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Releasing Singles and Listening to the Audience by Hugh Howey

I love that this conference has the word “Indie” in the title. That’s been a source of contention among writers and publishers of late. There are indie presses out there that have a rightful claim to the term. For a long time, they were seen as the alternative to the major publishers. But times change, and the meanings and uses of words change with them. We writers have to care what words mean, but we also have to respect the process by which words slough their meanings and don new ones.
With the rise of self-publishing as a viable means to a writing career, the differences between small publishers and large publishers nearly vanish. Sure, those differences are the same as they’ve always been, but this new path veers wildly and goes its own way. It differs from the others in kind more than degree. Which is why it’s only natural for the freedoms inherent in self-publishing to make it the new indie. The word is short for independent. What could be more so than publishing on one’s own?
Look at the similarities with the music industry. Indie labels and indie musicians share half of their compound selves, but there’s no mistaking the differences. I don’t see anything wrong with an indie press calling itself an indie press. Those in the business know what that means. Same goes for someone saying they’re an indie author. We know that means a self-published author. But it means so much more. It means someone who cherishes their freedoms and the complete ownership of their works. If I heard someone say “I’m an indie,” I’m going to assume the unspoken half of the compound phrase is “author.” If someone says “We’re an indie,” I’ll assume it’s a publisher. No harm. Group hug.
This is all preamble to another thing indie authors have in common with indie musicians. No, it’s not the groupies and the wild, drunken orgies – it’s beyond that. What we have is an audience that will suffer an album, but what they really want is that one single. I learned this by accident. But what I have concluded from my lesson has played out with so many other indies, that I can no longer consider it anecdote or exception. Dean Wesley Smith laid this out better than anyone (enough so that the method now bears his name). The idea is that we should be laying down more tracks and seeing what gets the most air time. And then play more of those tunes that makes the crowd bang their heads or break out their Zippos. We should be releasing singles.
For three years, I wrote with physical books in mind. I was creating full-length albums, because that’s what the bookstores were looking for. There were print costs to consider. Heft-to-price ratios customers make while weighing a book (literally). Those distinctions and needs have eroded with the rise of e-books. It’s similar to what mp3s did to CDs.
I had six novels out in the wild before I learned my lesson. It was a short story that I never promoted that took off. The best decision I ever made was to play more of the tunes people wanted. I listened to the reviews, paid attention to the banging heads. The luckiest thing I ever did was write works that were completely different from each other. This increased my odds of having a hit. For every album, I could have released a dozen tracks. Lesson learned.
Erotica writers, if you pay attention to the highest-earning indies, have this figured out better than anyone. They release at a furious pace. They keep their works short and digestible. They pack in the entertainment value. They price their works in the maximum earnings G-spot of $2.99. They vary their work across several series, but when their audience signals something feels extra-nice, they listen like a good lover should.
I admitted earlier that I learned much of this by accident. But other authors have attacked the process more deliberately. I’ve since watched this method work for a lot of indies. It seems to benefit readers as well. They get works they can finish amid their busy lifestyles. They get variety. They have reduced wait time for works from their favorite authors. And dollar-for-word, they are still paying less than they would for a hardback.
Right now, I’m still riffing on my chart-topping tune. Soon, my audience will get sick of hearing this song. But I’m prepared. As soon as this winds down, I’ll be writing Western shorts and erotica shorts and mystery shorts and all the great stories percolating in my imagination that I’ve always wanted to explore, all the genres that I’ve enjoyed as a reader. And I won’t use pen names. I won’t have any expectations that any of my stories will be read or enjoyed. I’ll just write them the way an indie musician strums a guitar, looking for something pleasing to his or her own ear. And if I happen to get an audience – if a crowd gathers – then I’ll jam that tune for a little while. I’ll just have to suffer the inevitable groupies and the wild and drunken orgies that come my way.

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Hugh Howey’s the Wool series became a sudden success in the Fall of 2011. The Omnibus has spent considerable time in the Amazon top 100, has been a #1 Bestseller in Science Fiction on Amazon, and was optioned by Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian for a potential feature film. The story of its success has been mentioned in Entertainment Weekly, Variety, and Deadline Hollywood among many others. Random House is publishing the hardback version in the UK in January of 2013.
When Hugh isn’t writing, he likes to go for hikes with his family, take a stroll on the beach, and keep up with my reading. He currently lives in Jupiter, Florida with his wife Amber and his dog Bella.
This Post Has 31 Comments
  1. I had lunch w/two writer-friends almost a year ago, and they were grousing about readers only wanting to pay 99 cents for a novel (that might take a year to write). I joked, “We should follow the iTunes model and just sell our books for 99 cents a chapter.”

    (…seriously! I’m not being Al Gore here.) 😀

    Point: I think shorts are a smart approach. Great post~ <3

  2. Hi Hugh! You are so AWESOME, lol. I love how you embrace being Indie! In a prior life I played in the indie singer songwriter circuit and found it to be one of the most vibrant, fun, challenging, boot-stomping, rattle-shaking, experiences on the planet. The cutting edge of art is ALWAYS indie:) And i think readers are discovering this…

  3. That was one of the funniest things I have read in a long time. It may be my early morning delirium, or the fresh snowfall, or the lack of caffeine, but that post had me rolling!

    Catching my breath and setting a faster rate on my coffee IV, I do have to say that I am encouraged to see that singles are selling well and are popular. I tried REALLY hard to write a long novel and could only stretch myself to 75K words. I just don’t write like that. It is nice to know my shorter books will go somewhere.

    Now all I have to do is book that penthouse suite for the groupies and drunken orgy. Hmm… Might have to be in a different town, this one is WAY too small to support that level of debachery. LOL

    (BTW, not having spell-check right now is a bit unnerving, see what I mean?)

  4. Lisa: I do recommend trying the Kindle Singles route (the royalties are double at the 99c price point). If you get rejected, you self-publish on the same platform but take half the pay. It’s still more in the long run than most anthologies or magazines would dole out.

    Jessica: I encourage readers to find these stories wherever possible. I post some of my short stories on my blog for free, the ones that I feel are too short to charge for. I have one as a Kindle Single, and the rest self-published. Diversity is key, I think.

    Also, this is more about publishing singles than serials. I’m a fan of serial publication, but only if the works hold together on their own or have some sort of internal arc. The process of doling out chapters can backfire. I would rather write self-contained stories and move on, only writing a sequel if the demand dictates it.

  5. This is a GREAT post, and captures what a lot of my friends and I have been talking about lately, too. My one friend and fellow writer has long lamented that being a “garage band” or “singer songwriter” is cool and hip but being a “garage novelist” or “indie writer” has had a strange stigma. Finally, that is changing. Bring it.

    I am a nonfiction writer, and I’ve long been trying to get book proposals through the system, but often was told my stuff was too short. I was asked more than once to add to the book to make it longer, but that seemed like artificial padding to me. Great ideas would collapse under the weight of trying to be something they were not — it was like my ideas were asking to punch out of their fighting weight. Simply put: A lot of things that are great to read just don’t make for long books. But publishers don’t make enough money on the shorter books in print.

    MEANWHILE as someone who loves to read nonfiction, I find a lot of books seem longer than needed, and I can tell that someone else told those authors to pad it so that it would be adequate in length. I find myself flipping through superfluous chapters to get to the good stuff, and find that a lot of chapters seem repetitive and unneeded. Its like you have to troll through the book to find what the heart of the story really is… which I don’t recall happening years ago.

    AND THEN in another corner, as a freelance journalist, I find that there just aren’t the markets for long feature-length stories in large print media. Magazines are closing, newspapers cutting back…there’s no place to write the long feature story of 10,000-12,000 words any more. But there are loads of GREAT stories out there waiting to be covered the way features used to be covered.

    Thus it seems to me that the nonfiction single is about to experience a golden age. Even the NY Times is in the game now, with full page ads touting their offering of singles.

    I am hungry for more about non-fiction e-book publishing!!!

    Thanks again for a great post. You really articulated what is happening for e-book singles right now.

  6. I think one of the great things about indie publishing is that it’s allowed short stories and novellas to flourish. Novels have been getting longer, and longer, and longer. They were also getting more and more expensive. For me, I stopped reading for “entertainment” and barely read anything that hadn’t won a PK Dick or Lambda award (or both). One of the great pleasures of getting a kindle was rediscovering the joy of reading genre fiction for simple entertainment.

  7. I think that you have something, now we can do not what others would have us do but what we would have us do, and by doing this we can create new compositions, and have new conversations.

    I am looking forward to the new idea memetics that will be spread into the ideosphere for all of us to play on mindscapes, dreamscapes, and phantasmagoric imagio.

  8. You’re going to write romance/erotica/shorts? That goat I sacrificed must have paid off.

    🙂

    Seriously, I’ve been seeing indie-author-friends succeed with their serials and I’m about to jump in that pond myself. While that success was on my radar, I didn’t decide intentionally to do that, as much as stumbled on a story idea that just fit with the concept of episodic storytelling. I’m still feeling my way through it, but I like it. Short, high-density-content, future-noir… and my beta readers love it. I can’t wait to publish, simply because I want to share it. Which is the absolute best part of being indie.

    And if no one likes it? Well, there’s still that steampunk novel I’m working on.

    Q: Do you think readers are ready for old-time serials again? The true episodic storytelling that mimics (and predates) TV-style-storytelling?

    1. Talk about serendipity! … I’m trying a serialised story this year on my blog … it’s going to be an interesting ride! … I signed up to follow yours, (blog) to see how it works out for you!

  9. Awesome post Hugh and I am definitely doing some novellas next. I really enjoyed Wool as well and love seeing it all over the London Underground at the moment. I keep nudging my husband and saying ‘check it out, he’s an indie!’

  10. Great inspiration, as usual for Hugh! What works in the indie writing world keeps changing. What might have looked like too “little” ebook — say, 10,000 words for 99¢ — now looks like a hot new story form that is on the cutting edge of short fiction. Easy to read on your iPhone, your tablet, etc. And as Hugh points out, it gives writers the freedom to dabble and switch it up by writing whatever strikes our fancy.

    I’m loving this brave new eworld.

  11. This article was very timely for me, thank you!

    Plus, after the first couple paragraphs I saw Wayne and Garth rockin’ out in my mind’s eye so, what’s not to love!

    Thanks Hugh!

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