Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Amanda Hocking and the lure of self-publishing

with 4 comments

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine has a fascinating profile of Amanda Hocking, creator of the young adult Trylle franchise, whose self-published domination of Amazon e-book sales has sent shock waves through the world of conventional publishing. For those of us who are concerned about the future of books, Hocking’s story is a compelling one: after uploading her novels to Amazon, she became a cultural phenomenon almost overnight, to the point where she’s selling upward of 9,000 copies a day. At 26 years old, she has cleared more than $2 million in sales, with much more to come, thanks to a lucrative contract with St. Martin’s Press. And while I’m not exactly her target audience, I can see why some people feel that her example has called the model of the entire publishing industry into question.

It’s clear, though, that Hocking’s success represents the extreme end of a very long tail. And it’s important to remember that she tried very hard to place her work with a traditional publisher. According to the Times profile, she sent copies of her first novel to something like fifty agents, attempted to get published for years, and continued shopping her work around until just two months before uploading it to Amazon. She acknowledges that agents probably didn’t make a mistake in turning down her first novel, which she wrote when she was seventeen, and it’s likely that her fiction is better now than it would have been if she’d published it herself from the beginning. Which is why although traditional publishing may be on its way out, or evolving into a very different form, it’s still important for writers to try the conventional route, because it’s the only form of objective feedback they’re likely to get.

A year ago, when I was first shopping The Icon Thief around to agents, friends often asked me if I’d be willing to publish it myself. My answer, generally, was no, because if I did, I wouldn’t know if it was any good. While it’s true that an anonymous editor or agent may not be the best judge of an aspiring author’s work, the author himself is generally even worse. And while there’s some degree of arbitrariness about the publishing process, in which a novel has to pass through many ranks of gatekeepers before seeing print, it’s still valuable and mostly fair, if frustrating. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted my first, unpublished novel to appear in the form in which I initially submitted it. And paradoxically or not, it was only through responding to the criticism of strangers that I was able to find my own voice.

Publishing one’s own work certainly has its benefits. It’s perfect if you’re aiming for a smaller, specialized audience, or if you’re an established author who wants to cut out the middleman (as suspense novelist Barry Eisler has done). And I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a self-published collection of short stories somewhere down the road. But for someone just starting out, it can be a mistake to put your work online without subjecting it to the clarifying fire of traditional submissions. Constraints, as I’ve said before, are crucial to creativity, and to some degree, the rigors of publishing are the greatest constraint of all, forcing you to grow as a writer in ways that allow you to reach the audience you deserve. And while electronic publishing has its benefits, there are still advantages to a more traditional format. “For me to be a billion-dollar author,” Hocking told the New York Times, “I need to have people buying my books at Wal-Mart.”

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2011 at 9:47 am

4 Responses

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  1. In the stampede of wannbe authors to the putative riches of e-publishing, there’s a willful blindness to the hundreds and hundreds of e-books that do not sell. That authors believe will “go viral” and sell about 10 copies. We live in the age of the freak internet breakthrough as how-to manual. I love Amanda Hocking’s story because it proves how subjective judgment about books is; but I think it gives this pernicious idea that this is “the” e-publishing story.


    June 21, 2011 at 10:33 am

  2. Thanks for weighing in. I couldn’t have put it better myself.


    June 21, 2011 at 10:52 am

  3. Kirstenmajor — very smart comment. And I think people underestimate the importance of editors and criticism — I agree with you, Alec, that if you didn’t have that process it would be harder to know if it’s good or not. Or maybe not “good,” but to know the various options for what the book could be. I was well into a third or fourth draft before I realized what I actually wanted out of my book. I’ll never know about the sales difference if I’d self-published, but I’m grateful that the first (or even second) draft I wrote of the book was not the one that made it out into the world.

    Eric Simons

    June 21, 2011 at 1:07 pm

  4. There are always exceptions, but in my experience, if you’re writing for a general audience and can’t find at least a sympathetic agent for your book, it probably needs more work.


    June 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm

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