The Wool Omnibus, by Hugh Howey

For Christmas this year, my wife put together Amazon wish lists for both of us.  This turned out to be a neat trick.  Sticking religiously to the wish lists, my family wound up buying me two identical copies of the Wool Omnibus, a book by Hugh Howey.  My wife then returned the duplicate copy to Amazon for credit, which she then spent on a yoga mat or something.  Clever girl.IMG_2028

Halfway through reading Wool, I realized that Mr. Howey had also pulled off quite an interesting trick by publishing the book himself.

My grandfather self-published a textbook in the 1970s, so I grew up with the knowledge that you could write a book and get it professionally printed and bound without going through the rigors of satisfying some publisher’s editorial board.  But in my experience, those books rarely circulated beyond the bookshelves of family and friends—and here was a book, with cover art and an ISBN!  A book we’d discovered through normal searches on Amazon, that urbane purveyor of new literature and yoga mats!  In other words—a self-published book procured accidentally through wholly normal means!

As it turns out, things have changed since the 1970s.  Wool is a collection of five novellas, the first of which was distributed on Kindle in 2011 as a $1 short story.  It was a hit on the Kindle market, so Mr. Howey wrote more—a lot more.  The five novellas in Wool range in length from 40 pages to nearly 200, adding up to a healthy 532 pages cover to cover.  That said, it’s not very dense reading; I got through it in a just over a week, and I’m not a particularly dedicated reader.

Wool is a well-written book about a unique dystopian future I hope humanity never faces.  Particularly due to the book being self-published, I was pleasantly surprised by Mr. Howey’s unoffensive writing style and tantalizing plot progression—two points on which I can be a bit persnickety.  In fact, I found myself impressed by Mr. Howey’s ability to captivate my interest in his bleak world, which he reveals through a thrilling and deliberate plot progression.  Let me say right here that I happily stamp the book with my seal of approval.  Go read it.

That said, I do have my complaints—as I do with all new literature (and by new, I am referring to all literature where the author is not yet deceased).  The original short was written to be a standalone story, and it shows: the story does little more than set the stage for the rest of the book.  On the other hand, the rest of the book suffers from an opposite malaise, beginning and ending like TV season premiers and finales, unable to stand alone.

This carries into my second complaint, which is that the story is not finished even in Wool‘s 500 pages.  Although it concludes at a good resting point, my understanding is that Mr. Howey is still writing new portions.  I must sarcastically note here that the Bible handles creation in a few paragraphs, and Mr. Howey is struggling to destroy the world under a thousand pages.

The most thought-provoking aspect of Wool, however, was the process by which it got into my hands.  The book was made available through Amazon’s print service, which allows authors to send a book-length text and cover art to Amazon, and advertise in the Amazon marketplace for a minimal initial cost.  When someone makes an order, Amazon hits the print button, sends a book to the buyer, takes a 15% cut off the profit, and sends the remaining cash to the author.  Thus, when my sister and mother both decided to buy the book, Amazon printed two copies and Mr. Howey got a $34 check.

On its face, it seems like this process would wind up flooding the literary market with junk.  I could, after all, send Amazon the text of the blog I kept in college, put it up for $5, and make four bucks every time someone decided the cover art looked worth the purchase.  One successful online ad campaign later, my college travails could be on some snarky bestseller list.

On the other hand, crowd-sourcing the editorial process opens the market to authors and ideas that previously would have been dismissed in favor of yet-another-favorite-from-last-year’s-bestselling-author, a la everything published since 1974.  When you consider the number of writers there are in the world, and think about how few authors are featured or advertised at Barnes & Noble (and as a former B&N employee, I should know), the old model doesn’t seem particularly robust, after all.  Do we really, actually, need yet another novel from Steven King?  Or Mary Higgins Clark?  Or Nicholas Sparks?

Wool is a great example of what can go right in the new democratized publishing process.  A well-written, intriguing short story can propel hitherto unknown authors into overnight fortune and relative fame, inspiring more from the minds with the best ideas.  I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Howey’s work, and will probably read more from him in years to come.  In his case, the crowd turned out to be right.

And yet, I worry that the crowd will often turn out to be right only about the story—and not about literature.  One of the most important aspects of literature is its ability to impact culture: to voice ideas and shape the context of debates in ways we hadn’t thought about before.  And while great literature does this through great storytelling, it seems to me that what wins in a crowd-sourced book market is not the greatness of an idea, but the greatness of a well-told story.

Wool is a captivating story and a unique concept.  It’s a world worth exploring.  It prompts questions worth asking about the role of central governments, the frailty of human plans, and the value of human life—but only, it seems, accidentally.  Truthfully, Mr. Howey needed a stricter editor to make him finish the story.  He needed a sharper critic to help him cut his story’s many extraneous portions and overburdened explanations.  In short, he needed a publishing house to help him iron out his natural imperfections as a writer, because despite his obvious talent, none of us is as good alone as we could be with good editors.

There are the seeds of a great book in Wool, but unfortunately the process by which it came to be—this delightfully 21st century crowd-sourced book market—has, in my opinion, robbed Mr. Howey of the opportunity and the environment needed to make Wool a true work of literature.  As it stands, of course, I still regard the book (and its many portions yet to come) as a fascinating, well-told story, quite worth reading.  But probably only once.

Wool, by Hugh Howey (2012), $20
Pages: 532 / 16,463

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