eWriter Hocking Scores . . . Against Us

IT'S BECOMING INCREASINGLY OBVIOUS that wannabe authors can find success by self-publishing their works as e-books. There is perhaps no better example of that than 26-year-old Amanda Hocking, a writer of paranormal romances and thrillers. In 2009, Hocking wrote five 300-page novels targeted at the young adult market. In early 2010, she wrote three more -- one every two to four weeks.

Working from a $250 a month home that was all she could afford to rent, she fueled her writing with Red Bull, Sweet Tarts and cold cans of ravioli and SpaghettiOs. She wrote for twelve hours a day, every day, using the rest of her waking time to chase agents and publishers. She failed to find anyone interested in her work. By April 2010, Hocking had completed eight novels but still had no agent or publisher. She had accumulated "Hundreds. Maybe thousands," of rejections by that time, she said. "All my other friends had either gone to school or they had decent jobs or they were getting married or they were doing something. And I was still just sending off query letters."

Up to this point, she had only published stories on her blog. Now she decided to publish the novels via Amazon’s Kindle store, adding one more title along the line for a total of nine e-books. "I sold 50 books the first month,” she says. It picked up over the summer, then really took off in November (2010)." In February 2011, sales for Hocking, as evidenced by online proprietary accounts, were: Amazon (via its e-book portal, the Kindle): 227,515 units for all nine of her works, including about 60,000 for her best-selling novel Switched. Barnes & Noble (the Nook): 55,135 units. CreateSpace, an online "print on demand" service: 2,948 units.

That’s a total of 285,598 sales for the three platforms in February 2011 alone. Hocking says that total is about 100,000 copies shy of the real sales. That’s because the figures don’t include sales via Apple’s iBook, Kobo (Borders) and Sony’s eReader -- or sales of three other e-books she is selling in a different format through Barnes & Noble.

Hocking is almost certainly now the world's best-selling e-book author. She says that failing to get published by the conventional route worked to her advantage. "It allowed me to put a lot of books on the market quickly, so if people liked them, they could immediately buy another." Her best-selling Switched, the first novel in a trilogy, has already sold nearly a million copies. "I didn't expect it to be anything like this. I was hoping for around ten percent of where I am now," she said.

Hocking is now making millions self-publishing through Kindle and other platforms. Much of her success is based on volume sales. She sells her work for only $0.99 to $2.99 a pop. That means lower revenue, but she has literally no overhead. She just has to forfeit Amazon’s thirty percent cut and keeps the remaining seventy percent on $2.99 sales for herself. Earnings so far: Somewhere between $1.4 million and just shy of $2 million, she says, most of it in the last four months.

In mid-March, the book she believes to be her best, Switched, was the fifth-best-selling book on Kindle, behind mainstream authors John Locke, Lisa Gardner and Laura Hillenbrand. She had seven titles on the USA Today 150 best-sellers list, including Switched, at No. 28 after peaking at No. 16.

And the money doesn’t stop there. In late March, major publishing houses bid for the rights to four more novels by Hocking. Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins all dropped out as the price rose beyond $2 million for the English rights. St. Martin's Press eventually won out and is set to publish her four-book “Watersong” series, with the first book to be released in the fall of 2012. The publishing company, part of Macmillan, has not disclosed how much it paid for the rights. Further, Media Rights Capital, a prominent film financier and production company, has snapped up the rights to the Trylle Trilogy series by Hocking. The company plans to make three novels into two movies, and Terri Tatchell, a co-writer of the hit science-fiction film “District 9,” is already at work on the screenplays.

The three novels -- Switched, Torn and Ascend -- follow an emotionally damaged high school girl, Wendy Everly, who realizes that she may not be human. With the help of a boy, Finn Holmes, she discovers the mysterious world of Trylle, which is populated by beautiful trolls. Media Rights Capital did not disclose terms. The next step is to line up a distributor, which should not be difficult given the company’s close ties to studios like Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures.

Is Hocking now an outspoken advocate for self-publishing e-books? Heck no. She strongly defends the traditional publishing model. While her success was remarkable, it was exhausting. Hocking posted a defense of her pursuit of traditional publishers on her blog. "I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend forty hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation," she writes on the blog. She also cites book availability, increased quality of editing and career stability as factors in her decision. Nonetheless, the prolific writer who has written nineteen books so far promises her fans she hasn't abandoned self-publishing. "I have a few titles lined up this year yet to put out via the self-publishing. And I'll have more in the future."

(sourced from Southern Review of Books)

For my part, I will say just three things:

1) Obviously, ePublishing can work, if you can find a market. The volume sales model clearly works.

2) Hocking is fortunate to have found an audience, which must have something to do with the "young adult" label, which I eschew, because it usually means books in fact aimed at adults but written to a child's level. This is sad, because there is so much great literature out there for adults, but no one reads it anymore. Every adult woman I know read the Harry Potter series (with her kids, so she said), but few of these women have read Poe, who wrote adult thrillers; thrillers that still thrill, if you have the vocabulary and life experience to relate to him. If you don't, you will tell me Stephanie Meyer is a great writer, and that is incorrect and sad, in my view.

3) So, combining the above points: unless you're writing the kind of stories that can be fueled by Pop Tarts and Red Bull (sugar-high caloric brain bombs), and not well-thought-out, well-researched, and powerfully evocative books that cannot be regurgitated in two weeks, you will probably reach for the ePublishing brass ring in vain.

I don't intend to try. I intend, for good or bad, to write books for adults with adult ideas and, yes, even adult language (i.e., polysyllabic words). When I was a kid, as soon as I could read well, I wanted to read grown-up books. Now, it seems adults are retreating en masse from adult writing, which they often (rightly) identify as pornographic. But there are still adult-level books out that are not lascivious, and such books are infinitely more satisfying than YA books, just as the art of Carl Bloch is infinitely more satisfying than that of Andy Warhol. But such art must be sought out and savored, not read or listened to on CD in tandem with millions of others who want the fifth-grade level storytelling of Meyer and Rowling. Great art is often found in distant lands and you have to sacrifice to go there and find it. Bloch's masterworks are esconced in out-of-the-way churches in Sweden and Denmark. Warhol's is found on tee shirts.

You will decide which is inherently more valuable. Unfortunately, right now, you are deciding, at ninety-nine cents a pop, that "beautiful trolls" are great art and you're making books like Switched into bestsellers and blockbuster movies.

1 comment:

martin said...

There was a very similar article on this topic in a recent WSJ - it featured an author named John Locke who can boast similar numbers for his books at a $0.99 price point.

I suspect that these guys are the innovators. Once more folks jump on the bandwagon and there is a plethora of low-price point books in this format, it may be more difficult to reach such numbers.