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Amanda Hocking, John Locke: poster children for self-publishing success?

The surprising careers of self-published writers like Amanda Hocking and John Locke may raise as many questions as answers.

It is, by all accounts, a remarkable story. A 20-something writer is rejected by so many publishing houses that she finally sails right past them — straight up the charts and into the record books, rapidly propelling her self-published e-books on to sales of 500,000-plus. There’s talk of movie rights, more books, and then the e-book indie queen announces she’s coming out with four new books published by — you guessed it — a traditional publishing house.

The indie phenom and e-book millionaire is, of course, 26-year-old Austin, Minn., native Amanda Hocking, who’s made publishing history with her self-published “Trylle Trilogy” series, young-adult paranormal fiction available for download for between $0.99 and $2.99. Her new project: a four-book series called “Watersong,” for which she’s recently closed a $2-million deal with St. Martin’s Press.

Why the move?

“I only want to be a writer,” Hocking says. “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”

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Hocking’s story has raised new questions about the choice writers now have: self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Each route carries with it its own recommendations and baggage. Writers and publishers are only just beginning to consider the impact self-publishing has had on the industry.

Here’s a closer look at that choice and the questions it’s raising:

Self-publishing is how Hocking got her early success (remember, the traditional publishing houses rejected her pitches) and grew her own fan base. Although her case is unusual, Hocking is not alone in her self-publishing success: John Locke, a 60-year-old Louisville, Ky., businessman-turned-thriller-writer, has now sold more than one million Kindle e-books.

It’s hard not to see the allure.

For starters, self-publishing offers an accessible way to grow a fan base and build a name for yourself. “E-books are now a viable way of building your brand and getting word out about your company and expertise,” writes bestselling author Karen Leland in The Huffington Post. Hocking grew her base of readers (up to 500,000) herself, through self-publishing and aggressive marketing using social media like Facebook and Twitter. Because self-published writers aren’t paying hefty fees to their agents and publishing houses, they own the rights to their work, as well as a greater percentage from their sales.

“[I] don’t have to pay an agent 15 percent of everything [I] make,” Kaia Van Zandt, a self-publishing author told Forbes in an explanation titled “Congratulations, Amanda! But I’m sticking to self-publishing.” She added, “You earn more royalties. I’ll get about $6 per copy self-published. But just $1-$2 if I had a publisher.”

Perhaps most important, self-publishing gives writers control. “The self-published author has total control,” says Van Zandt, who chose to self-publish her forthcoming historical novel, “Written in the Ashes.” “I’ve chosen my own editor, my artwork, and my paper. Good luck ever getting that much choice at a publishing house.”

But the ease of self-publishing is simply the frosting on the cake, writes Leland, of The Huffington Post. “Oddly enough, the easiest part of e-book publishing is getting the finished product up and running for distribution.”

And now even Hocking, who certainly owes her early success to self-publishing, is looking to traditional publishing houses for help with the heavy lifting — administrative work, marketing, and credibility — and to give a further boost to her fan base.

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So let’s not underestimate the traditional route.

“Though self-publishing has a great indie, renegade spirit to it, and accounts for a thriving and valuable part of the market, being a major house’s author gives a writer an instant credibility that those who self-publish have to work harder to achieve,” young-adult author, Nina LaCour, told Forbes. Publishing is built on credibility and reputation and there’s no faster, surer way to get it than with the rock-solid authority of a traditional publishing house behind you.

Traditional publishers are, after all, the pros, people who’ve made it their business to sell books. Most writers are not natural salesman and are more than happy to leave the marketing to the experts.

“It provides a huge team of allies and advocates, people whose professional purpose is to bring books to the world and make sure those books reach as many readers as they can,” said LaCour.

Added Michael Bourret, vice president of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management: “By bringing on a traditional publisher, she’s getting the editorial help she wanted, along with marketing, publicity and sales teams that will get her work even further attention.”

And then, of course, there’s Hocking’s own reasoning: Traditional publishing houses take on the (creatively exhausting and time-consuming) grunt work so that writers can concentrate on, well, writing.

But questions — and caveats remain. Will readers buy Hocking’s new books at a higher price? How much of her success is owed to the low, low prices of her e-books, many downloaded for as little as $0.99? (Locke also prices his Donovan Creed mystery novels at $0.99 — and earns as little as 35 cents per Kindle e-book.)

Will Hocking’s success, built in the youth-friendly blogosphere and social media world of Facebook and Twitter, translate to the more traditional world of print? Who will get the better end of the deal in this self-publishing versus traditional publishing experiment? Will Hocking earn her two million dollar advance? Will she gain more readers and fans or will she lose an increasing percentage of her sales to St. Martin’s Press?

Hocking’s story presents a fascinating, real-world experiment in publishing and we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. But even in this rapidly changing industry, there’s one thing that’s constant: It’s the writing, not the means, that earns attention, accolades, and yes, sales. Self-publishing (or traditional) in and of itself is not the means to literary success. Readers ultimately separate the wheat from the chaff.

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So we’ll see how Part Two of Hocking’s publishing experiment unfolds. But for now, maybe the real news is that there is an actual debate going on about the merits of self-publishing versus the more traditional route. Today’s writers, it seems, do have a choice.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.