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Amanda Hocking, the writer who made millions by self-publishing online

When historians come to write about the digital transformation currently engulfing the book-publishing world, they will almost certainly refer to Amanda Hocking, writer of paranormal fiction who in the past 18 months has emerged from obscurity to bestselling status entirely under her own self-published steam. What the historians may omit to mention is the crucial role played in her rise by those furry wide-mouthed friends, the Muppets.

To understand the vital Muppet connection we have to go back to April 2010. We find Hocking sitting in her tiny, sparsely furnished apartment in Austin, Minnesota. She is penniless and frustrated, having spent years fruitlessly trying to interest traditional publishers in her work. To make matters worse, she has just heard that an exhibition about Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, is coming to Chicago later that year and she can’t afford to make the trip. As a huge Muppets fan, she is more than willing to drive eight hours but has no money for petrol, let alone a hotel for the night. What is she to do?

Then it comes to her. She can take one of the many novels she has written over the previous nine years, all of which have been rejected by umpteen book agents and publishing houses, and slap them up on Amazon and other digital ebook sites. Surely, she can sell a few copies to her family and friends? All she needs for the journey to Chicago is $300 (£195), and with six months to go before the Muppets exhibition opens, she’s bound to make it.

“I’m going to sell books on Amazon,” she announces to her housemate, Eric.

To which Eric replies: “Yeah. OK. I’ll believe that when it happens.”

Let’s jump to October 2010. In those six months, Hocking has raised not only the $300 she needed, but an additional $20,000 selling 150,000 copies of her books. Over the past 20 months Hocking has sold 1.5m books and made $2.5m. All by her lonesome self. Not a single book agent or publishing house or sales force or marketing manager or bookshop anywhere in sight.

So let the historians take note: Amanda Hocking does get to Chicago to see the Muppets. And along the way she helps to foment a revolution in global publishing.

I’ve come to Austin, legendary birthplace of Spam (the canned as opposed to the digital version), to find out what this self-publishing revolution looks like in the flesh. I can report that, from the outside, it’s surprisingly conventional. Hocking no longer lives in that pokey apartment, but then she’s no longer a struggling would-be author. She’s bought herself her own detached home, the building block of the American dream, replete with gables and extensions, its own plot of land, and a concrete ramp on which to park the car.

But step inside and convention gives way to a riot of colour. It is just before Christmas, and Hocking has decorated the house with several plastic trees bedecked in lights and two large Santa stockings pinned expectantly over the mantelpiece. The sofa is scattered with animals, some of the cuddly toy variety and others alive, notably Elroy the miniature schnauzer and Squeak the cat (apparently they get on very well).
She greets me at the door and, without preamble, we talk for the next two hours about her extraordinary rags-to-riches tale and what it means for the future of the book. At 27, and with only a few months in the limelight, she is patently new to the fame game. She seems nervous at first, answering my questions in short bursts and fiddling with her glasses; but gradually she relaxes as we discuss what for her has been the central passion of her life since an infant.
She was brought up in the Minnesota countryside on the outskirts of Blooming Prairie about 15 miles north of Austin. Her parents divorced when she was young, money was tight and there was no cable TV to wallow in. “So I read a lot. I would go to the library, or get books at rummage sales. I got through them so quickly I started reading adult books because they were longer. I remember my mom giving me a box set of five books to last me all summer; I devoured them all in two weeks.”

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