When bookstore employee and indie author Hugh Howey published his short story “Wool” as a 99-cent e-book on Amazon in July of 2011, he wasn’t banking on the story transforming his career. He didn’t even post a link to the story on his own website. But “Wool,” about a post-apocalyptic future in which society has been forced to live underground in a vast silo, quickly became the most popular thing he had ever written. By the end of October, the story had made it on the Kindle sci-fi best-seller list. Howey started to get emails from readers asking him for the rest of the story. There was no rest of the story, so Howey decided to write it.
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Howey’s self-publishing Cinderella story is so compelling that it often becomes the mediastory about Wool. But way more fascinating than that is the way the world of Wool reflects our own world—and how Howey’s interactions with readers are overturning the traditional relationship between an author, his creations, and his audience.
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The intrigue of Wool (the title comes from the scrubbers used by people sent to clean the sensors on the surface) is enjoyable and thought-provoking, but it’s how Howey borrows from our present that really makes Wool resonate with readers. In many ways, the silo is a triumph of human survival and sustainability. It’s an energy-independent community with 100 percent employment and universal access to education and health care. But it’s also a carefully designed system with zero population growth, a lack of media, and social stratification created by the architecture of the silo itself. More than 100 floors deep and connected by only a narrow circular staircase, the silo is designed to limit mobility and communication, separating the mechanical department at the bottom, the mayor and sheriff up top, and the IT department as far away from both of them as possible. Readers’ fascination of Wool is powered not by the novelty of the silo, but the frightening familiarity of it. While most post-apocalyptic fiction invites us to imagine how civilization might evolve after the world as we know it ends, Wool instead invites us to imagine what it might take—and what the costs might be—to prevent civilization from ever evolving beyond where we are right now.
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The disenfranchisement of silo residents contrasts interestingly with the way the stories themselves invert the traditional power dynamic between author and fan. By reaching out to Howey and leaving reviews that asked for more, fans helped conjure the fictional world that has come to mean so much to them. And through the power of self-publishing and social media, Howey converted interest in the first story into dedicated fandom and hundreds of thousands of e-book sales. By publishing Wool serially, he was able to deliver stories quickly, building readership, excitement, and Amazon reviews that often resulted in Wool stories occupying multiple slots on the same Amazon best-seller lists.
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He’s even sprinkled a few references to specific fans in his more recent stories, including a mention of the navy ship USS The Sullivans, whose crew—living themselves in something of a “silo at sea”—wrote to him about how much they loved Wool.
Most intriguingly, Howey has encouraged readers who want to develop their own Wool stories to self-publish and sell their works. In an interview, I asked Howey about why he’s not just encouraging fan fiction but actually endorsing it. “There’s room for readers to become writers and play in this world,” he said. “I view fan fiction as the opportunity to teach readers how much joy there is in creating worlds instead of just living in them.” Right now—much to Simon and Schuster’s chagrin, one has to imagine—the first two of what are sure to be many Wool-related fan fiction stories are available for sale on Amazon.