Mr. Howey kept trying. He got a 30-hour-a-week job at a university bookstore that paid only $10 an hour but gave him some flexibility. He got up at two or three in the morning to write, and wrote through his lunch hour and after dinner. He designed his own cover art, enlisting his wife and sister to pose in photos. He would often jolt up in bed in the middle of the night to scribble down ideas.
"It was almost a compulsion for him," says Ms. Lyda. Ms. Lyda said she pleaded with him to leave his pen open on his nightstand, because the clicking noise of his pen kept waking her up.
"Wool" started as a short story that Mr. Howey dashed off in three weeks. He posted it on Amazon for 99 cents in July 2011. Within three months, the story had sold 1,000 copies. Mr. Howey was stunned.
"I told my wife, 'Baby, we're going to be able to pay a couple of bills off this short story,' " he said.
Readers begged for a sequel, and in November, Mr. Howey released another installment. He sold more than 3,000 copies that month. The next month, he released two more installments and sold nearly 10,000 copies total. In January, he released the final installment, for $2.99, and published all five as a single volume, for $5.99. Collectively, he sold 23,000 copies of all the editions that month. "Wool" shot up Amazon's science-fiction best-seller list. Mr. Howey quit his job.
Jonathan Karp of Simon & Schuster described it as an "unusual circumstance" to separate the print and e-book rights in the mid-six-figure deal, which is code for "Rats! How did he get all that leverage?!"