March 10, 2011

Fear not publishers, Amanda Hocking is not a monster


Amanda Hocking

Amanda Hocking has become something of a celebrity. A part of that celebrity is also the unique ascription of harbinger. The popular theory about Hocking is that she is anathema to publishing and a prophet of the unfettered vistas of the book’s electronic future. Funny thing: Hocking thinks that’s a lot of nonsense.

Recently on her blog, Hocking posted a very clear-eyed and somewhat stern assessment of her current rise to literary stardom and the circumstances that have surrounded her fledgling celebrity. Namely misconceptions about the process. You see, apparently there’s a few steps she has to take in order to churn out her books. Hocking explains:

I don’t think people really grasp how much work I do. I think there is this very big misconception that I was like, “Hey, paranormal is pretty hot right now,” and then I spent a weekend smashing out some words, threw it up online, and woke up the next day with a million dollars in my bank account.

At a later point in the post she morbidly sums up the pressure she feels to produce while the audience is still there for her.

I also have this 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. For the first time, I truly understand why workaholics are workaholics. You can’t stop working, because if you do, it unravels all the work you’ve already done. You have to keep going, or you’ll die.

Or at least that’s how it feels.

A bit melodramatic, but Amanda Hocking has obviously done just fine with that coin. More than anything she comes off as a “pack-your-lunch” sort of writer, which is the kind of attitude and productivity required to chase the sales rankings in this literary culture. In her post she also laments that her books are not edited as well as they could be, despite having gone through a large number of freelance editors. Even after second and third revisions (a process uniquely accelerated by the ebook format) she still finds mistakes and though she forges ahead these errors still bother her. The picture she paints is one of long hours, tireless effort and a feeling that nothing is ever actually done. Sounds a bit like publishing.

The fact is Amanda Hocking has to work harder and longer than a typical writer because she also has to publish the books. Sure, Amazon is now a powerful publicity force working for her and probably a source of some of the anti-publisher spin being put out there, but at the end of the day it is Hocking that has to shoulder the management of her books. It is she that must look over the copy one last time or write to a new editor, media outlet and probably now translators. That’s a lot for one millionaire to do. If she were writing elaborate historical fiction that required months of research and preparation she might find herself a little more inclined to go the route of traditional publishing.

This brings me to the aspect that I most enjoyed in her post, namely her confusion over why she is being dubbed as “scary” for publishers. Hocking writes:

Here’s another thing I don’t understand: The way people keep throwing my name around and saying publishers are “terrified” of me and that I really showed them.

First of all, no publisher is afraid of me. That’s just silly. I’m one girl who wrote a couple books that are selling well. That doesn’t scare them – they just want to be a part of it, the same way they want to be a part of any best seller.

Later on, after giving an example of a perfectly good writer not succeeding with the same platform that is making her a millionaire,  she adds this reality check:

Nobody knows what makes one book a bestseller. Publishers and agents like to pretend they do, but if they did, they would only publish best sellers, and they don’t.

I guess what I’m saying is that just because I sell a million books self-publishing, it doesn’t mean everybody will. In fact, more people will sell less than 100 copies of their books self-publishing than will sell 10,000 books. I don’t mean that to be mean, and just because a book doesn’t sell well doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It’s just the nature of the business.

Self-publishing and traditional publishing really aren’t that different. One is easier to get into but harder to maintain. But neither come with guarantees. Some books will sell, some won’t.

There is something irrational and ahistorical contained in the Hocking as foe to publishing arguments. She doesn’t represent a new paradigm in publishing nor a threat to it. Erma Rombauer‘s The Joy of Cooking was self-published. A Time To Kill by John Grisham was as well. James Redfield‘s The Celestine Prophecy is another astounding seller. Not to mention the legion of bestselling self-help books that were self-published. Chicken Soup For The Soul and What Color Is My Parachute? come to mind. Let’s not forget Dianetics, but really who wants to linger over that. There are literary titles too. Huckleberry Finn was self-published by Twain and James Joyce self-published Ulysses. I ask you though, what would the fate of Joyce’s masterpiece be if it were published exclusively for the Kindle?

Would some of the large publishers love to have Hocking among their ranks of authors? Sure. Just like those publishers looked on Scholastic’s J.K. Rowling days with green eyes. That’s nothing new. Even indie publishers look at a fellow small press’ coup with tinges of envy (no one here at Melville House does that of course).

It is refreshing to see that Hocking, who could very well have borrowed the limelight to rouse her fan base, instead maintains an even keel. She’s not reinventing the game. But she will play it for all it’s worth.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.