Amanda Hocking is the exception, not the rule

The web has been abuzz lately (for example) with stories of Amanda Hocking’s incredible self-publishing success (and similar success by other indies). In a nutshell, Hocking has nine self-published works available on Kindle (and other ebook stores) and is selling hundreds of thousands every month and making more money than most writers ever dream about. Well, we dream about it, of course, but never expect to actually see it. Hocking sold 450,000 books on Kindle in January alone. At a 70% royalty that’s some serious moolah. Traditional publishers won’t be picking her up because none of them can offer a deal that’s even close, let alone better than the one she’s managed on her own.

Naturally when a story like this comes along, everyone immediately starts shouting stuff about how the world has completely changed and publishers will no longer be required. People everywhere can self-publish on Kindle and make themselves a million dollars a second. Of course, it’s all bollocks.

Anyone that knows anything about me will know that I have no problem with quality indie or self-publishing. The keyword there is QUALITY, but that’s another post. I’m absolutely chuffed for Amanda Hocking. It’s fantastic to see the kind of success she’s had. But let’s get realistic for a moment. She’s an exception, not a new standard benchmark. Remember Dan Brown and J K Rowling? They’re phenomenally successful authors with traditional print deals. Did every other traditionally published author suddenly become a sales behemoth because they did? Of course not. The fact that it can happen doesn’t mean it will every time.

I blogged back in January 2008 about a Japanese girl that wrote a novel on her phone and ended up with a print deal and 400,000 sales. Did Japanese girls everywhere start making fortunes with mobile phone novels? No.

When it comes to Kindle self-publishing there are some people making huge money and selling massive numbers (like Hocking, or J A Konrath, who used his already high profile to take control of his own ebook sales). There are also some people making moderate to good sales, some making poor sales and some making none. I don’t have any figures, but I’ll bet you that the people making none or low sales outnumber those making high sales by a factor of hundreds of thousands. Just like in print publishing. The music industry is the same – for every Justin Bieber there’s a million wannabes struggling to get noticed. Just because massive success can and does happen occasionally, doesn’t mean it can and will happen to many.

Also, every overnight success is usually on the back of many years of hard work. Just because these people shot to fame and success in short timeframes doesn’t mean they spent no time getting there.

Hocking posted this on her blog a couple of weeks ago, which includes these salient points:

So much of what people are saying about me is, “Look what Amanda Hocking accomplished in a year,” when they really should be saying is, “Look what Amanda Hocking accomplished in twenty years.” Because that’s how long I’ve been writing, that’s how long I’ve been working towards this goal…

There is a common misconception that I published the first novel I ever wrote, and that is not true. The first book I ever published was My Blood Approves, and that was the eighth novel I’d written…

There are no tricks or schemes with self-publishing. It’s just about writing a good book, polishing it really well, getting a good cover, pricing it right, and putting it out there. There are no short cuts. If you want to be successful at this, you have to do the work.

You should really read the whole post, it’s very good. I would also point out that even if you do take Amanda’s advice (which every writer should) and write well, polish, edit, get good covers and layout and so on, you’re still not guaranteed success. You’re giving yourself the best shot, but becoming the next Amanda Hocking or J K Rowling is akin to winning the lottery. It happens very rarely in the grand scheme of things, to a very lucky few. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t chase that kind of success, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you and it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it. We all deserve recognition for the hard work we do. The truth is, most of us get a lot less recognition for our hard work than we’d like. That’s life.

Work your arse off and aim for the stars, but don’t get lost in unrealistic expectations. With any luck your hard work and attention to detail and quality will pay off. Certainly we’re going to see more and more people achieving very satisfying success indie publishing their stuff. Things are changing, self-publishing is losing its stigma and new vistas of success are opening to all of us. But even so, success stories like Hocking’s are likely to remain the exception and not the rule.


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14 thoughts on “Amanda Hocking is the exception, not the rule

  1. I had blogged about this not too long ago, and I completely and totally agree with what you’re saying. It surprises me that people think that just because books are changing format that somehow everyone will get millions and the quality will be total shit and everything will just become chaotic.

    It’s foolish and I like that you grounded that idea in reality with real facts. Hocking is the ebook version of Meyers, simple as that. They’re in the same genre and everything (from my understanding at least).

    Elisa Michelle

  2. I have read a fair amount of self-pubbed books, including several of Amanda Hocking’s. I can tell you now that her success has a lot to do with the quality of her writing. If writers are thinking about self-publishing, they would do well to invest in a good professional editor (not one of those book doctor types) and have several readers pre-screen it. Once the feedback is received…listen to it! There is a lot of mud to dig through before a reader can find a diamond like Amanda.

  3. A good post.

    I guess I really don’t get the whole “it’s only worth doing if I can make millions doing it without putting any real work in” attitude.

    To me, what does Ms. Hocking’s success say?

    It says that indie publishing has come into its own. And while there will certainly be other people who reach her level of success – like there are a small crowd of superstars like Rowlings, King, Brown, Roberts, and others in traditional publishing – that’s not a realistic goal.

    But making a living writing? Absolutely. Because for every person selling millions of books per year, there will be thousands of writers selling tens of thousands of copies every year. Hey, for me, at 36,000 books a year I can write full time and support my family.

    If Amanda can sell 450,000 in a month, a buckletload of people can sell 3000 a month. I want a piece of *that* pie. 😉

  4. I’m ahead of where I would be with a big six publisher. Traveling that route I would be sitting in slush piles looking for an agent. As an indie I already have some sales.

    I’m happy with that. There are no guarantees when a work stands on it’s attractiveness alone. As snarky posts on other blogs lament, good writing is not required for a book to be desired by readers. The art of attracting readers has many elements, most of which seem to be unknown.

    My works are not written to please Ms. Grammar. I crave no help from middle school English teachers. I want to connect with readers and share ideas in a comfortable-to-them fashion. Probability analysis alone says I will fail. If I beat the odds and start to succeed I may hire an editor to advise me.

    The main advantages of self-publishing for me:

    *) Less contact with bureaucracies
    *) More control of presentation and content
    *) Ability to quickly test and improve after publication
    *) I’m already seeing sales, if published I would have to wait another year, probably longer.
    *) My books will stay in print, at a price I determine, as long as I wish

    The main disadvantages of being an indie author for me:

    *) Fewer vanity perks, no potential for a New York Times review or list
    *) No joining published author’s clubs
    *) Fewer prearranged interviews and book signings
    *) No inside connections with distributors to schools and libraries (a listing as available is not the same as professional representation)
    *) No editing and rewriting to last year’s formula for success

    I choose not to write about vampires and the teenage girls that love them. There is little evident demand for novels about hacktivists fighting cyberwars for human rights. If such demand existed today, with a large publisher would reach the shelves two years to late — if ever. I doubt I would be selected for publication in any case.

    You mention J A Konrath. As I recall some of his beat selling self-published books are ones he couldn’t get publishers to buy. Those works sat lonely and dejected until he went indie. These attractive books were never invited to run the sprint of big six publishing.

    Perhaps that is the largest consideration. Getting published is a low odds wager for limited opportunities. Bureaucracies pick books based on what they believe, and what fits their plans and needs.

    I’m much more comfortable with letting readers decide if I’ve guessed correctly. I’ll learn a bit more today, Are there readers wanting what I’ve written? Let the marathon begin.

  5. Thanks for the great post. One question: Is there something you think that accounts for Hocking’s success? I haven’t read her books but I am wondering if it is the writing, or that her books touch on the cultural zeitgeist of the moment ( like Stephanie Meyers)? Some say it’s about quality regardless of the delivery method.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    suzanne – I haven’t read Amanda’s books either, as they’re not really my genre. I tend to write and read stuff a lot darker.

    But I can tell what her success is based on: She wrote good books that appealed to the people that are fans of her genre; she did indeed land well in the zeitgiest; she produced professional quality books in terms of cover, layout, etc.; she made herself and her work open and accessible; she worked bloody hard; LUCK!

    These things above and more are all contributory and luck is a massive part of that. I don’t say that in any derogatory way – all of us would love a fraction of the luck Amanda’s had. She wrote good books and worked hard, but she also got lucky with timing and getting noticed. Luck has always been a large part of publishing success and it’s not likely to change because the delivery methods are changing.

    But I’ve always been a big fan of that old adage: The harder I work, the luckier I get.

    My own books are doing pretty good. They started self-published then got picked up by Gryphonwood Press. I’m getting better and better sales with short fiction and I’m currently working on a new novel. I’m working bloody hard and hopefully I’ll get a bit of luck along the way too. But all the luck in the world isn’t going to do anything for you if you haven’t got quality work out there. So all these things matter.

    Someone above mentioned that they’d be happy with 3,000 sales a month. So would I! I know a lot of writers and I can count on one hand those that make a living from their writing alone. Just about every writer I know has a day job as well, myself included. That could change a bit with these news methods that are emerging, but I wouldn’t count on it. By all means, as I said in the original post, aim high. But don’t give up the say job just yet.

  7. Great post! The key to Amanda’s sales is she has great books that connect with readers. Plain and simple. If you’ve read her work, her writing style is so fluid, it’s like having a conversation. She is also writing in a very popular young adult genre, paranormal romance, with all the right elements: great plot(no holes), likable characters, pacing is in check, and the reader invest in the story. Some have attributed her success to bloggers and getting the word out, which is just one piece of the puzzle. BUT…if her books were crap, those people who heard from bloggers wouldn’t tell more people, and those people wouldn’t tell more people. It would have stopped at reviews. She is an exception to the rule and no matter how her books got out there, they were going to be a success in my opinion. Also, just FYI to anyone who hasn’t read her books, her work is addictive like some were to Meyers, but her books are not like Meyers at all. She is unique and I adore her. 🙂

    I agree with your post whole heartedly and if you decide to self-publish, make sure what you are putting out there is the absolute best it can be. At least crap published by publishers has editors in place to cut down the crappiness. Self-published needs to get those crit partners out, beta readers, whatever you can, to help ensure the gains made for self-published authors continues to grow.

  8. Julie – what you say is true, but there are lots of people out there writing stuff that is equally as good or better than Amanda’s that will never get her kind of recognition. And there are people turning out tripe that *will* get great success.

    But you’re right in that you have to turn out quality work to give yourself the best chance.

  9. Wait a minute. Aren’t we missing something here? Now I haven’t read Hocking’s “My Blood Approves” series, but I did read her Trylle series. So maybe what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to her vampire books. Hasn’t anyone caught the fact that there are many, many typos and plenty of broken “rules of writing” in her work? There are a lot of redundant words (“I glanced back over my shoulder.”) and a LOT of stating the obvious.
    While I did mildly enjoy the story and characters, what kept me going was curiosity over how she was so popular with such a poorly edited book. I wanted to see what she gets away with. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a grammar maven, or any better a writer than Hocking. In fact, trying to get these same problems out of my own work is frustrating. But I am a big reader and, while I applaud her evident efforts and the hard work she has put into selling herself, I can’t help but worry about the state of our literary world when it’s so easy for anyone to publish and sell anything. On the flip side, I’m excited about the prospects of such freedom! So, I suppose it’s a big Catch-22, isn’t it? Authors have new opportunities to sell stories that major publishers might not see as marketable (and we all know they can be wrong about what is and what isn’t!) and that’s wonderful. But, will the quality of what we all read decline along with the opportunities? I don’t know what the answer is, but it bothers me that such a poorly edited book has been this successful even though I got some enjoyment out of it.

  10. Thanks for pointing out her post, Alan. I’d heard a lot about her recently and wondered what the story was behind it all. It’s going to be difficult for me to ever believe there’s a magical solution to publishing, or that any one success story reveals all.

  11. Kim – I haven’t read any of Amanda’s books so can’t comment on that. But there’s plenty of evidence of really poor writing and errors in Big 6 published best sellers as well. There’s usually far less in the way of typos and layout issues than with self-publishing, but many trad published books are pretty awful and I’ve seen lots with a shocking amount of typos. Usually when the book is pushed onto the shelves quickly to ride the hype and editorial time is lost as the author’s name will sell the book regardless. It’s not a good thing, but not something restricted to self-pubbing. However, I think it’s really important that everyone, especially self-pubbers, take it upon themselves to make those kind of things disappear. There will always be occasional typos in something 100,000 words or more long, but we need there to be as few as possible.

    Jen – very true. There is no secret formula.

  12. What I see too often is people thinking that self-publishing is a short cut. I have never worked so hard as I have since deciding to go indie on future books rather than sticking wih my current publisher.

    What you sacrifice to get the extra money and the control of your career is time, long days, and having to balance a bazillion things at once. It’s incredibly hard work, but in my opinion, worth it — if for nothing else than the control of the time and final product I put out.

  13. Yeah, it was the same thing really when Julie who blogged about Julia Child’s recipes became an overnight success after she got made in a movie. It’s amazing to see how many new bloggers came up like mushroom after rain wanting the same kind of success. But just like Amanda Hocking, these kinds of things are rather the exception than the rule. There’s a lot of real work involved in any kind of success, be it money, fame or whatever else. That is why the exception is never the rule.

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