July 6, 2011

Can any of us be Amanda Hocking?

By Patti Thorn, Blue-Ink Review Managing Partner

Mention Amanda Hocking’s name to a group of writers and just watch the dreamy look that comes over their faces. Hocking may be the one who fueled her career by selling her inexpensive self-published ebooks online and amassing thousands of fans and millions of dollars, but it’s really the dreams of all the rest of us that have, once again, been ignited.

If she can do it, the thinking goes, so can we.

This sort of talk among authors, of course, is nothing new. We said it when JK Rowling — an unemployed unknown writing in a coffee shop just to keep warm – hit it big with Harry Potter. We said it when Dan Brown – a failed singer-songwriter who decided to try his hand at novels  — hit it big with the Da Vinci Code. We even said it way back in 1993, when Richard Paul Evans made 20 copies of a story he wrote, passed them around to his friends, and hit it big with The Christmas Box.

Writers have always lived off the fumes of the success of others. But now, the fantasy seems so close, you can almost smell it.

In the digital age, publishing success appears to be just a small investment and a few Facebook posts away. The successes of ebook self-publishers such as John Locke and Joe Kornrath – not to mention Hocking — has everyone thinking that all an author has to do is study what genres appeal to ebook buyers, do the math regarding what price points yield the highest readership and profit, learn the ins and outs of social media marketing and proceed apace.

No more annoying agents. No more predatory publishers. No more jumping through one hoop, only to find three more waiting. Just write your book. Convert it to the right digital formats. Put it online. Then blast away – to your friends, their friends, friends of their friends…

And voila! Fame. Fortune. Dream fulfilled.

Right?

Uh.  Sorry to be a spoiler here, but the truth is: not so much. The odds of success are just as long as ever – if not worse, given the exploding numbers of writers entering the game. What’s more, book sales have never performed according to formula. And you be rest assured that they won’t now, either.

In a recent, fascinating interchange about ebook sales on Michael Shatzkin’s blog, even Konrath – a vigorous evangelical about the benefits of self-publishing — said as much.

“All of the marketing in the world also can’t account for an author ‘taking off’ like Hocking and [John] Locke did,” he wrote. “Yes, we can look at various factors (good books, covers, low prices, professional editing) but ultimately they both caught the same wave that makes successes out of all bestsellers: random chance.”

While one poster argued that hard work and careful study of the market ups an author’s odds, Konrath was exactly on target.  Study all you want. But if luck is not with you, you might as well publish your book in invisible ink, for all the good it will do you.

If you don’t believe me, just talk to Gary Pomerantz. Pomerantz wrote a fine book about a terrible airplane crash, titled Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds, only to launch the book the week of Sept. 11. Yes. THAT Sept. 11th.  Let’s just say that no one was aching to read a book about a fiery plane crash of the past when news of three very recent and horrifying fiery plane crashes were being written about in minute detail in the daily papers.

Pomerantz was left to douse the flames on his own dreams. And he’s not the only one who had the misfortune of finding their hard efforts dashed by bad luck. Current events, the cultural zeitgeist of the moment, a story too similar to another that suddenly hits it big… all of these intangibles figure into a book’s success.

What’s more, the chances of success in publishing has always been a numbers game. Many years ago, I was at a BookExpo America, where I met an engineer who was self-publishing a novel. Contemplating the difficulties he faced in getting his book out to readers, he crunched some numbers to figure out his chances of success (“success” was defined as the ability to earn a living off his books alone). The numbers were highly speculative, he admitted, but using some assumptions that I won’t take the time to detail here, he came up with the odds of making it at 1 in 380.

That was using 2004 figures, when the number of titles published  – including self-published books – was 195,000. In 2010, according to R.R. Bowker, that number had ballooned to more than 3 million. (Many of these are reprints of classic novels, but the fact remains that the numbers have taken off for the moon in recent years.)

“Would a pharmacist go to school if the odds were less than 1 in 100 they would get a job when they get out?” the engineer mused at that time.

He had a point.

Which brings me back to the original question: can any of us be Amanda Hocking?

The answer is: sure. But only in the same way that one of us might win the lottery one day.

In other words, go ahead and bet your troll, hobgoblin, paranormal plot on the dream if you have the time, the persistence and the self-assurance to think that you’ll be the one to buck the odds.

Just don’t bet the farm.

Patti Thorn is the former book review editor of the Rocky Mountain News and co-founder of BlueInk Review, a service devoted to providing honest, objective book reviews of self-published work.

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