What I've learned from Stephen King and Hugh Howey
Updated: Apr 17
Image from Simon & Schuster official publisher page
Stephen King and Hugh Howey and I have almost nothing in common, but I’ve learned a lot by following their careers.
Two important lessons I’ve learned from them could help emerging authors and even some established authors.
First, a great way to reach more readers is to share your work for free or almost free. In 1982, the same year King published the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, he put some material from an unfinished novel into a chapbook and sent it to acquaintances as a Christmas gift.
In 1983 and 1985, he used free chapbooks again to distribute more material from the unfinished novel. In 2000, he offered downloadable installments of the unfinished novel on his website and attracted more than 500,000 downloads at $1 each.
Second, self-publishing is a great way to break through the barriers erected by traditional publishers. In July of 2011, Hugh Howey self-published his short story Wool as a 99-cent eBook novella with 60 pages, which he expanded into a five-part series over six months.
By July of 2012, he was earning $150,000 a month from the self-published series. Why wait for months or years while agents and publishers are deciding whether to bring a book to market?
Why am I telling you all this? Because many authors could benefit from both lessons, especially emerging authors.
During the past year, two aspiring authors I know have been reluctant to embrace these lessons from King and Howey.
One is delaying pitching a trilogy fiction project to agents until finishing all three books. One has spent years writing a novel and is hoping that a traditional publisher will want it someday. Now in his early 80s, he’s running out of time.
You need people to start reading what you write and liking it and telling others about it. Delaying and hoping for the best can result in a slow agonizing death for publishing dreams.
One option is publishing short eBook chapbooks or novellas for free or at 99-cents to test reader reaction or promote other works by the same author.
Other options include writing and posting free snippets on a platform like Medium or in a blog. And Amazon has launched Kindle Vella to attract and promote more new authors.
Personal perspectives about pricing: I understand that not every writer is willing to give away their work for free or as 99-cent eBook versions. But it worked well for King and Howey.
It also worked for Darcy Chan, who self-published her debut novel and priced the Kindle version at 99 cents. It was a runaway bestseller and led to a lucrative contract with Penguin Random House.
More recently, it has worked for Laura Friedman Williams. She had never published anything before her 2021 tell-all account of trying to recover from her husband’s infidelity that destroyed their 27-year marriage. Pricing the Kindle version at 99 cents has boosted her success at Harper Collins.
Everybody in the marketing field knows that price is one of the four pillars of marketing (product, placement, price, and promotion). Business schools teach this. A future article will discuss book promotion. For now, let's focus on price.
Price discounts attract buyers for everything. Fast food. Groceries. Clothing and accessories. Furniture and appliances. Vacation packages. Even big-ticket items like overpriced vehicles.
A price discount for books also attracts more buyers, as evidenced by the stacks of discounted books in bookstores and on Amazon.
Several indie authors I follow, including Carmen Amato and Jinx Schwartz and John Scherber, offer frequent freebies or 99-cent specials for their backlist Kindle titles. You can click on their names to go to their Amazon author pages and follow them for alerts about their future promos.
Schwartz says she has given away hundreds of thousands of free Kindle titles during the past decade while becoming a best-selling author recognized by USA Today.
Actually, King and I have one thing in common. It’s from 2014, right after I discovered that he used those free chapbooks to promote his early work.
Right away, I formatted one of my unpublished short stories about family Christmas traditions as an electronic chapbook and published it on Amazon in December of 2014.
Since then, I’ve offered it free for five days every Christmas season through the Amazon KDP Select program. Every time, it has attracted lots of downloads from people who have never heard about me or my writing.
To reward you for reading this article, my 2014 electronic chapbook is FREE on Amazon from March 27 through 31 and you can click here to download it. Enjoy!
If you click to “look inside” the Kindle version, you’ll see that it’s a primer and an example of how indie authors can use Kindle chapbooks to promote our work. The key feature was including a link in the back of the chapbook to help promote sales of my aging 2011 paperback.
This spring, I’m going to reduce all my backlist Kindle titles to 99 cents and start offering freebies more frequently to reach more readers.
And I’m planning to make some of my older Kindle titles permafree, “go wide” by taking them out of the KDP Select program and offering them free on Kobo, Apple Books, Smashwords, and other platforms. Why not?
Realistically, I’ll never attract huge numbers of readers like King and Howey and Chan and Williams and Amato and Schwartz and Scherber. But I would rather have a lot more readers than a little more royalty income.
I welcome your feedback by posting a brief comment or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And I hope you’ll go to my website and click to join my network and receive regular updates.