Friday, March 04, 2011

The Amanda Hocking factor

There's been a lot of internet chatter about Amanda Hocking and her self-publishing escapades this week. USA Today, The Huffington Post, Business Inisder, and her local NBC news affiliate gave her some air time (see video, though the first 30 seconds is just the anchors talking about wtf a Nook is).

"Rejected by countless book publishers" seems like a subjective phrase which *might* have just been blown out of proportion.  Ms. Hocking got fed up with the system at age twenty-five.  She submitted each subsequent novel she wrote to fewer and fewer agents (as per admission of her own blog).

Most agents will tell you that it's often not the first book you write that's the first book you sell.  In Ms. Hocking's defense, she claims to have written 19 novels, many as a teenager.  Now, no offense, but I remember what I wrote as a teenager and I teach teenagers writing and that teenage writing has about as much chance of making it with a publisher as I do of winning the lottery on any given day.  Eragon = lotto winner.

Also agents (and successful traditionally published authors) point out that most writers do rounds and rounds of queries--sending out ten queries a week for months--before they find the right fit for a successful agent-novel-author experience.  It's about finding an agent who is passionate enough about your book to want to sell it as much as you do, not finding someone to schlep paper for you.

Anyway, I bring this all up because I have my doubts about how the news media is portraying her "perseverance."  But that's just me.

But it turns out she didn't need to persevere or gain a sound understanding of the publishing industry.  She'd already done "market research" by browsing the Wal-Mart book rack (I didn't make that up), she wrote YA paranormal because she it was what she saw the most of.  She knew it was hot, so she stuck it up on Amazon, B&N, and several other epub platforms and made it available POD through Amazon's Lulu.  Less than a year later she's self-published eight novels and one novella out and, according to her blog, sold over 900,000 units.  Priced at $0.99 or $2.99, Ms. Hocking makes 30% or 70% of that as profit, respectively.  According to her local news station, she's made enough to buy a house in cash.

Ms. Hocking is twenty-six and impatient.  IMHO.

I don't mean to misrepresent her.  It appears that she already feels enough of the internet is doing that.  So I won't take some of the pot shots that I could.  But I'm the kind of person who believes in the strength of patience, perseverance, and education.  Formal education is helpful, but education is out there in thousands of different forms, you only have to ask for and accept it.  Reading agent blogs daily is a form of education.  Researching publishing is a form of education, learning grammar and style is a form of education.  Knowing you need a good copyeditor is a form of education.  Learning about things like book bloggers before you jump into the world of epublishing is a form of education.  Reading books on craft, being part of a workshop, finding a critique partner, subscribing to publishers marketplace, reading in your genre, reading out of your genre -- these are all forms of education, patience, and (if you keep writing with all you're learning) perseverance.  A classroom with a teacher in it isn't necessary to learn.

I'm twenty-seven, only one year older than Ms. Hocking, and I think that if there had been an easy way for me to throw my work into the sales arena when I was twenty-two, I might have done it.  But I'm not that impatient now.  And I shudder to think of my work when I was twenty-two given all I've learned in the interim.

Ms. Hocking also writes on a recent blog (to clear up things "the internet is saying ... about me"), that she feels a "tremendous sense of urgency, like if I don't get everything out now and do everything now, while the iron is hot, everything I've worked for will just fall away."  This also leads to the feeling I get from looking at all of the facts (those presented by her in interviews and those presented on her blog) that her ebook sale boom is the result of impatience.

The SF/F/H writer list serve I'm on is in a tizzy contemplating the viability of the e-publishing-- the phrase "future of publishing" has been bandied about so much that it's ceased to hold meaning for me.  Those who seem the most interested are people who are writing "between genres" or in not easily defined areas of the market who don't feel the traditional publishing market is open to them.  Meanwhile the listserve's many voices are not really paying mind to the fact that Hocking is writing in a market that's not just hot, it's hott: YA paranormal romance.

Ms. Hocking's first novel has a good concept, but its market niche is one that is begging for content.  My local Barns & Nobel has devoted an entire shelving section to "Teen Paranormal" -- more space than "Christian Fiction" gets . . . and on the conservative west side of Michigan, that means something.  This is the one genre where publishers can't put out enough material to meet the demand.

Believing that you can epublish in a different genre and take off the same way is a mistake.  IMHO.  What sells and what doesn't is always hit or miss.  No one knows what the next big seller is going to be.  But let me present a case to back up my opinion.

Consider this: as much as I am a part of the cult of Firefly, I knew the moment I saw the first episode why it had only lasted one season (obvi, I was watching on Netflix).  A space western could have been one of those things that exploited the interstices of genre and boomed, but it exploited the interstices of two declining genres -- dying genres, if we're going to be morose.  The space opera and the western haven't been doing well in print or on screen. Speculative fiction has been there, but all you need to do is look at the declining number of episodes each new cast/crew of Star Trek made to see the writing on the wall.

So just because the internet is a way to publish in a declining genre without the editors fearing the decline, doesn't mean success will come your way.  There's a guy out there trying to raise $3,000,000 to get Firefly back on the air (or air on the internet).  Will his internet grass roots movement catch fire?  Grass fire?  Prairie fire?  He wants people to pledge $40 per season to see the show online.  Maybe he'll make his goal.  Maybe he won't.  But he's got one giant plus on his side: people have already seen the show.  It's been on air, on TV, on Netflix, and in traditional theaters (Serenity).  This "unproducible" TV show was produced -- your "unpublishable" novel hasn't been published.

The point I'm making: could this Amanda-Hocking-success-story happen for a writer not working in Teen Paranormal?  Yes.  Would I bet on it?  No, I'd bet against it.  And I'd make a big wager.

What I do see as worthwhile, competent epublishing ventures or --go forth and epublish now:
  • Authors publishing their out of print backlist (or like JA Konrath, publishing the backlist and then writing more books in the same series and epubbing them)
  • Authors publishing short story collections of work previously published by magazines or anthologies (Chuck Wendig).  
It's very, very, very hard to convince a publisher to lose money on your short story collection -- because "short story collection" to a publisher is a bit like taking a lighter to money just to watch it burn.  The publishers who do pub short story collections do so because they are dedicated to art -- and usually have dedicated grant money. But if you can say look at my short stories published in magazines X, Y, and Z, now collected in one place for a low low price then hey, maybe I'll buy that.  Literally.

I'll post Monday on the how to be a professional and a self-epublished author information a publicist recently gave me after a discussion of the above news articles and blog posts.  It was all good information that I was going to put here, but this post has gone on far too long.

Highly Recommended