Author Amanda Hocking's novel experiment comes to an end
The vanity press of the past existed for rich, fame-seeking aristocracy who wrote and wanted to see their name in print. Today, that's been replaced by the self-publishing phenomenon, facilitated by the technological revolution and the advent of e-books. After the credit crunch hit publishing houses, e-books found their niche and writers found a way to become published authors without the need for a middle man.
While publishers are often restricted by budgets, staffing, marketing and the recent economic downturn, self-published authors aren't affected to such an extent by these factors.
But has this self-publishing phenomenon affected the quality of books? While some authors play it safe and pay an editor to check their work before sending it into the ether, many also decide to save on the expense. Publishing a book without having a third-party edit is undoubtedly inadvisable and the removal of the quality controller has resulted in a mountain of badly written books finding their way into the public domain.
The success an author can gain through self-publishing, however, has been nowhere better personified than by Amanda Hocking.
Based in Minnesota, Hocking, 26, launched her first two self-published books in April 2010 after struggling to seal a publishing deal. She's now sold more than one million copies, made her first million and has published three series of books - two of which have become USA Today bestsellers.
Her Facebook page showcases an eclectic mix of fans and struggling self-published authors looking for marketing and technical advice, while her main website is a self-run blog.
Hocking is a different kind of self-published author, however, having now signed a publishing deal with St Martin's and Pan Macmillan in May 2011 after a fierce international auction.
Pan Macmillan published Switched this month, the first in Hocking's Trylle Trilogy, a release that will be followed by Torn next month and Ascend in March, in what is the first example of a successful self-published author signing with a major publishing house.
Switched introduces Wendy Everly, who has known she was different since her sixth birthday, an occasion marked by her mother trying to kill her, claiming she had been switched at birth. Ten years later and Wendy still keeps a secret from everyone around her - that she has the ability to influence people's actions, using only her mind.
Wendy's world turns itself upside down after she meets the handsome, mysterious Finn, who seems to know all about her. A strange encounter outside her house one evening forces Wendy into a new situation that changes her life forever and she's whisked away to a completely new community. Not only is it difficult for her to accept her powers and who she is, but Wendy also discovers she is the daughter of the Queen of the community and is suddenly expected to behave like a Princess. Along with her new discovery comes the burden of monarchic responsibility and life-endangering threats from rival communities.
As a young adult paranormal romance/urban fantasy novel, Switched ticks all the boxes for success in these genres. The title has found success for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fantastical aspect of Switched isn't so far removed to be unbelievable. Her setting and establishment of scenarios are realistic and she refrains from straying too far into the realm of fantasy. Secondly, Hocking's excellent characterisation of her leading lady Wendy is obviously very appealing to a young adult, predominantly female, audience. Using references that most teenage, female readers will be able to easily understand has ensured she relates well to her target market.
However, it seems Hocking runs out of steam by the close of the first title in this trilogy, ending the book with an unexpected conclusion that reveals itself as something of a letdown.
Whether Hocking will be able to retain her current popularity now that she is publishing through the traditional route is unclear. What is clear, however, as she candidly admits, is that the move won't be (and hasn't been) welcomed by some of her fans.
The cost of buying one of her self-published e-books stands at US$0.99, which is not a price that her new publishers will be able to maintain. Indeed, Pan Macmillan has put a £7.99 (Dh45) on the print edition and £4.30 (Dh24) on the Kindle release. After signing her book deal, Hocking received some harsh criticism from both fans and industry commentators and was accused of "selling out" by turning her back on self-publishing.
Feeling the heat, Hocking blogged that she took the decision because she wanted to "be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation," she wrote.
When announcing her decision to sign with the publisher, Hocking outlined how the change would affect her readers and her explanation is the embodiment of a pertinent comparison to self-publishing via e-books versus traditional publishing.
Under her new publishers, Hocking's novels will, she wrote, "get a bit more polished with some editing" as well as becoming readily more available for "the majority of the populace" who don't own Kindles or similar devices.
Hocking cites further reasons, including the fact that when the possibility of a film adaptation for the Trylle series was suggested, the author wanted her books to be available in shops. Taking the traditional route and publishing physical copies of the series is also going to address the queries she has received from those who do not carry their libraries around on a digital device.
However, what sets the young novelist apart from other writers who've found success through self-publishing is her willingness to attribute her achievement to internet users. Her books took off, she writes, largely as a result of bloggers discussing her work. She also had a shrewd business plan in place, too, charging $0.99 for the first book a reader bought and $2.99 for the second in the series - ensuring increased sales to fans.
In Hocking's case, self-publishing proved fruitful until she became too popular to be able to manage the publication of her books herself, as well as simultaneously writing new material, a point underscored by Switched being published with extended scenes and a bonus story related to the novel in paperback, international edition, young adult edition and e-book edition.
So is this scenario likely to recur? The New York Times said of Hocking: "In managing to reach people via the internet first and then breaking into the traditional book industry that way, she has become her generation's first literary phenomenon…"
Whether there's another Amanda Hocking waiting to be discovered depends on whether the digital model of publishing - one which has taken the industry by storm - becomes the new norm, or if Hocking is popular by talent and luck alone.
Alice Johnson is a freelance writer based in Dubai.
Updated: January 13, 2012 04:00 AM