Monday, June 23, 2014

Nice Guys And Finishing First

There's the old saying that nice guys finish last.

I'm not a strong believer in it.

Or rather, I'm sure there's something to be said about nice guys losing the battle but winning the war.

I like to think of it as focusing on the long term rather than the short win.

You can push people down, step on them, worm your way to the top in a ruthless manner; or you can work hard and give it your all, commit yourself to something you are passionate about, build a solid foundation that grows slowly, but certainly, providing a base that won't crumble, providing a solid perk that is less likely to topple.

Hugh and a group of KWL team members hamming for the camera

I've met Hugh Howey several times in the past few years, usually in quick and pleasant exchanges at writer's conferences or sitting together on a panel discussion. But last week, when he was in Toronto, I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him.

For those who haven't met Hugh, or perhaps only met him briefly in passing at conferences, you'll know what I mean when I say that he gives off a sense of genuineness and charm. If you only know him through his writing, his blog or the interviews he has done, you'll likely get that same sense of his humble nature and generous spirit.

Hugh with Lorna Toolis at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy(He really didn't want to leave - it was like watching a kid in a candy store - but he did have to go and greet a huge group of fans waiting downstairs)

But when you get to know him, you realize that the charm, the genuine nature, the humble disposition and the generosity extends far deeper. I had the good fortune not only of spending time discussing writing and publishing with Hugh, as well as the manner by which he makes the most out of the extensive travel, but also seeing him interact with fans, fellow writers and strangers.

The man exudes an aura of brilliance upon all of those he meets. I watched him greet fans, writers, dogs and toddlers multiple times in the past week and he warmly embraced each encounter, making the absolutely best of each moment, each conversation, each interaction. He was truly basking in the moment and living in a very pure "carpe diem" way.

Hugh being interviewed for the Kobo in Conversation video/podcast
For many writers, Hugh is envied and seen as one of the top dogs to be; his success as a self-published writer, his incredible print-only deal with Simon & Schuster for WOOL and his unmistakeable influence on the industry are things that many others aspire to. Hugh himself is genuinely humble, in love with life and more interested in helping and promoting other writers than in pushing forth his own agenda. He doesn't just talk the talk, but he walks it brilliantly; putting most of his efforts into writing.

I heard him explain to a group of fans and writers last week that one of the most frustrating and upsetting moments in the past couple of years was when he realized that he would not have time to answer all of the fan mail that he receives. But it got to a point where he could spend a full day doing nothing but answering emails from writers and fans -- which would have taken him away from the activity that brought him there in the first place:  writing books that he could be passionate about. So he had to reconcile the fact that, in order to continue to produce the books he wanted, he would have to sacrifice something that meant a lot to him -- the in depth interactions. His auto-responder email jokingly suggests that he has been replaced by a robot and then goes on to explain that he is still reading every single email that he gets. And he appreciates them. He just can't respond to all of them individually. He says that having an assistant do that for him would be less personal -- he then breaks the auto-response into three main sections for Fans, Writers and Business Stuff. He also has a section for Nigerian Princes - because, even though it's an apologetic auto-responder chock-full of helpful info, it also contains his warmth and good humour.

From the look in his eyes when he tells the story of not being able to personally respond to everyone who emails him, you can tell that it still truly hurts him that he isn't able to fully engage with everyone who reaches out.

Mark Medley, Hugh, Ashleigh Gardener, Mark - Book Summit 2014 Panel on Non-Traditional Publishing Communities

He more than makes up for that fact, though, when he does public appearances; when he was at the public events in Toronto last week, he showed up early so that those eager fans who wanted to chat with him had the opportunity; and he stuck around afterward so he could engage in conversation with as many writers and fans as possible.

Hugh is successful because he focuses on the important things -- writing (a lot and consistently) and making real connections with people. The idea of marketing or using social media to do anything other than to connect with fans and other writers just isn't in his repertoire.

And with projects like the Author Earnings website he also focuses on helping shed light on the dark corners of the publishing industry, not as a method of attacking publishers, but of helping authors be aware of the reality of the publishing business and also to help publishers adapt and evolve to better suit the needs of readers and writers. The stated purpose of Author Earnings is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions and to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts.  To quote from Hugh's blog:  "I would make far more money investing this time in writing fiction, but I care more about change than I do about dollars."

He doesn't focus on marketing or self-promotion; he's quite uncomfortable with that, in fact. When I asked him what his favorite piece of his own writing is, he is enthusiastic about how much he put into the writing of I, Zombie (a book in which he addresses personal feelings regarding 9/11) but then he cautions me NOT to read it; suggests that I'm likely to hate it.

Here's the synopsis for the book

This book contains foul language and fouler descriptions of life as a zombie. It will offend most anyone, so proceed with caution or not at all.
And be forewarned: This is not a zombie book. This is a different sort of tale. It is a story about the unfortunate, about those who did not get away. It is a human story at its rotten heart. It is the reason we can't stop obsessing about these creatures, in whom we see all too much of ourselves.

The first thing I did, of course, after that conversation, was go out and buy a copy of it.

In any case, today is Hugh's birthday. And, in Hugh fashion, he's traveling at the request of the many people who are in demand for his time. When he was in Toronto, the Kobo Writing Life team brought in a birthday cake for him for a bit of an early celebration.

Hugh with an impromptu birthday cake

Happy Birthday, Hugh, you nice guy, you! Thanks for helping to support my theory.

Check out Hugh's books and stories.

Check out Author Earnings.

Listen to the interview with Hugh from the Kobo Writing Life Podcast.

1 comment:

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Everything I've seen from Hugh (shall I call him Hugh? I shall) tells me he's a class act. Thanks for confirming it, Mark. And happy birthday!