Fail Better

Information weather fronts move pretty fast these days. They’re easy to spot, and a lot of the time you can watch Twitter as they begin, build, crest and subside. The latest front to wash over genre fiction hit last night. Hugh Howey, self-published millionaire author of Wool, published a blog post on his site about an encounter with a bullying, arrogant female fan at WorldCon. It’s since been taken down, but whilst information weather fronts move fast, they never quite fade. It’s out there if you want to find it, as is a wide range of commentary on it.

Howey goes the whole hog too, not so much hitting the ‘sexist language’ button as mashing it until the housing breaks. Unsurprisingly, he got taken out for a ride. Slightly more surprisingly, Howey’s apologized, twice now, and stated the post was intended as parody.
Parody or not, the apology has been greeted with the full gambit of responses ranging from ‘you shouldn’t have done that’ to ‘you didn’t do enough.’ Howey has owned the possible interpretations of his language and that takes courage. Failing hurts. Being called on that failure hurts more and taking ownership of that failure is agonizing. It speaks well to him that the apology is there, regardless of whether or not any individual reader feels it’s appropriate, merited, or sufficient. Personally, I’m cautiously hopeful that the whole experience will end up being instructive for him, because, like it or not, genre fiction needs Hugh Howey. Or at least the idea of him.

Publishing is changing. I know, that’s one of those sentences like ‘the sky is falling’ that’s always true and never quite true. In the decade I’ve been following the industry, I’ve seen major new publishers appear, countless new authors arrive and the explosion of podcasting, digital publishing, e-readers and now, self-publishing. Publishing doesn’t need a Council of Nicaea, it’s been having one for years. And it hasn’t finished.
As a result, there’s never been a better, or worse time, to be an author. If you can get noticed, if you can make a mark, then you’re doing fine. If you can change the rules around you, like Scott Sigler did years ago with the EarthCore podcast, like Howey did with Wool and, whether you like it or not, like EL James did with 50 Shades of Grey, then you have the chance to not only make things better for you but make things better for everybody. That’s both a blessing and a curse.

Every author, freelance or not, is hammered flat by the constant cycling demands of creation, promotion, repeat. Every author I know would metaphorically kill to have the level of success Hugh Howey reached. That he’s done so is an incredible testament to both his ability and his luck, and it places him on a pedestal that I don’t think even he’s quite aware of.
Howey is the first self-published author through the Millionaire’s Door, one of that tiny breed who have the opportunity to draw their own maps. He’s a poster child, a trajectory to aspire to at least as much as an author to admire the works of. Whether he likes it or not, he’s become a figurehead. He carries with him the reputation of an entire classification of authors, all scrambling and clawing for recognition from an industry that’s either ambivalent or flat out hostile to their method.

So when he publishes a post called ‘The Bitch at WorldCon’, it doesn’t just make him look sexist. It makes him look like an idiot. An idiot who has apologized, but should have been aware of the implied responsibilities of his past successes. And worse, an idiot who handed a silver bullet to everyone wanting to denigrate self-published authors as being brash, unprofessional cavaliers.

That’s not the Hugh Howey genre fiction needs. Genre fiction needs an author who recognizes he was the first one through the door and acts appropriately. It needs him to appreciate the role luck played in his success, and it needs him to not just revel in that justifiable victory but hold himself to a higher standard. Hugh Howey represents every self published author right now, whether they want him to or not. And self-publishing needs all the bolstering to its image it can get. Genre fiction is a fiercely conservative beat when it comes to acknowledging new talent and news ways of writing. The day a self-published author wins one of the major awards is going to make the Howey controversy look like the tempest in a tea cup many people already feel it to be.

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