[With the final part of The Kanin Chronicles, Crystal Kingdom, out in the UK this Thursday 13th August, we thought we'd share a fascinating insight from Amanda Hocking on her publishing journey. The post originally appeared on Amanda's blog.]
This is going to be the first post in a three part series about writing/publishing. The reason is that I still get a lot of questions about publishing, writing, and how I did/do what I did/do. So I thought it would be easiest if I just wrote out some long posts explaining everything, and then I can direct people to these posts instead of writing out individual replies each time.
I’ve done similar things in the past, as seen in these posts: An Epic Tale of How it All Happened, There is No Magic Hand, and Some Things That Need to Be Said. Those posts are older, so I’m doing this as updated post.
Before I do, there is one thing I want to emphasis: There is no magic hand. Meaning there is no trick. I can tell you the things that I did – and I will tell you all the things I did – but that doesn’t mean that you or anyone else will have the same results. In fact, it doesn’t mean that I have the same results. The scariest most honest thing about the publishing industry, whether you self-publish or sign with a traditional publisher or both, is that some books sell and some books don’t, and most of the time, nobody really knows why or how to make it happen again.
This post will be focus on how I started publishing and things that I attribute to the successes I’ve had. In future posts, I’ll focus more directly on my writing process and marketing.
Without getting too much in detail about my whole life, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote constantly my whole life, from short stories, poems, and plenty of half-started novels. When I was 17, I finished my first novel. (A terrible pseudo thriller about a man with amnesia hunting a serial killer that I’ll never publish). At the time, I didn’t realize how horrible it was, so I sent it out to agents.
For the next six years, I wrote a few different novels (all bad, none have been published), and I queried agents. The agents I queried I found either through the Writer’s Market handbook (a massive book edition I picked up bi-yearly for updated references from Barnes & Noble), and eventually, I did online searches and gleaned information from AbsoluteWrite.com. I queried agents as opposed to publishers, because most publishers won’t look at unagented manuscripts. If you don’t know what a query is or you’d like to learn more about it, here’s a good post on it: here.
In 2009, I turned 25, and I decided that I need to writing like a job instead of a hobby. Up until then, I wrote when I felt like it, and finished novels when I felt like it. At the point, I gave myself deadlines and stopped trying to write terrible literary fiction and started writing in a more popular genre that I enjoyed reading and writing. I can’t remember exactly how many books I wrote in 2009, but I think it was somewhere around 4 or 5. I did this by writing 8-12 hours a day, not sleeping a lot, drinking too much Red Bull, and having no social life.
I queried agents all through 2009, and I got rejected by all of them. In February 2010, I was feeling very distraught about the whole publishing thing until I heard about Elisa Lorello self-publishing and hitting the #1 spot in the Kindle store. Then I read about Karen McQuestion and J. A. Konrath.
So I thought, why not try it?
Here is the post from March 2010, where I discuss my plans and reasoning for self-publishing: Vampires, eBooks, and Amazon.com! I did not have high hopes, but I was determined to try.
I published the first book in my vampire series My Blood Approves in March of 2010, and I published the second book less than a month later. (My post An Epic Tale of How it All Happened breaks things down in more detail, so I’m just going to summarize and get to the main points). I learned how to format the books for e-publication through the Smashwords Style Guide. I also created paperbacks. I initially went through Lulu.com, but I eventually switched to Createspace because the paperbacks are sold directly on Amazon, so I thought it would reach more readers. Createspace also has formatting guides for creating paperbacks. If you”re looking for more info on formatting books, I would suggest checking out both Smashwords and Createspace.
Between March 2010 and January 2011, I published four books and a novella in the My Blood Approves series, three books in the Trylle series, and Hollowland. (Note: I wrote those books over the course of 2008, 2009, and some in 2010 – I did not and can not write that many books in a year.) By January 2011, I had sold nearly a half a million books across 9 books and one novella. Read this post where I discuss it: Gratitude and a Fact.
So the question is, how did that happen? What special thing did I do?
As far as I can tell it was a perfect storm of having the right books in the right genre at the right price at the right time. I’ll break it down.
Pricing – When I first started self-publishing, there weren’t very many books priced between $.99-$2.99. In fact, most of the books were priced a lot more, so readers with their brand new Kindles and Nooks and iPads were excited to fill up their devices and gobbled up cheap books like they were candy. Doing promotional bursts of having a first book in a series free helped boost interest in the rest of the series. That’s what I did, so readers were willing to take a chance. I also believe that readers are more excited and review more positively when something is cheaper – i.e. they’re excited about a fun, easy book at $.99 but annoyed at the same book for not having more life-changing content at $9.99.
Cover – Especially when I started publishing, there were a lot of really terrible covers for self-published books. My self-published covers weren’t the best covers ever – especially before I enlisted the help of Claudia McKinney at phatpuppyart.com – but they were pretty good and they represented the genre I was publishing in. And don’t let the old adage fool you – everyone does judge books by the cover. I’ve gotten hundreds if not thousands of readers saying they picked up my books solely because of the covers. Covers are incredibly important. If you self-publish, the two things I would recommend spending the most money on are editors and cover artists.
Genre – When I started self-publishing, there wasn’t a genre hotter than YA paranormal romance, and fortunately for me, I loved it and I love writing in it. It’s important to write in popular genres, but don’t write something you don’t love. Right now, contemporary YA ala John Green and erotica like Fifty Shades are selling really well, and while I don’t have anything against either of those genres, I don’t particularly enjoy reading or writing them, so they aren’t something that I plan to write. If adult horror suddenly became the hottest genre ever, I would try my hand at it, though, because I love writing about monsters.
Book Bloggers – In this post from February 2011, I talk about book bloggers in depth: Book Bloggers Are People, Too. I credit them with a lot of my success. The first three things on this list – pricing, cover, and genre – helped book bloggers discover me on their own. I offered books for free on my blog in exchange for honest reviews, and I gave away my books all the time. The reason I think my books eventually took off the way they did is simply because people were talking about them, and they did that because I gave them books. When I was looking for people to review my books, I googled “young adult book blogs” or “paranormal romance blogs.” I read their reviews to see if it sounded like they enjoyed the kind of books I wrote, and if they seemed like they’d might enjoy my books, I read their review policy. If they were accepting review submissions, I would email and ask if they were interested in reviewing my books. Sometimes they said no, but sometimes they said yes, too. If they did say no, I politely thanked them for replying, and left it that. If they said yes, I would usually send them paperbacks I made through Createspace – one for themselves, one to giveaway on their blog. Getting paperbacks for that was costly, especially in the beginning, and my mom initially fronted the cost, because I think ended up costing over a thousand dollars just getting paperbacks to mail out to book bloggers.
Social Media – I was very present on social media, like Twitter and Facebook, which helped me engage with readers. I don’t think it every really worked in snagging me a new reader – the first four things on the list did that – but it helped turned a casual reader into a more dedicated fan by establishing a rapport with them. For a while, I did have to take a step back from social media, because especially after my story blew up in early 2011, I was incredibly overwhelmed, but that’s another story for another day. I also got tons of advice and help from everyone at the KBoards.com (formerly KindleBoards.com). It was an excellent resource for me, with invaluable information.
Timing – And finally, the most important part of all of this is the timing. All of the things I listed above worked so well because of when I self-published. The genre I wrote in was popular, book blogging was very popular, and self-publishing was a new frontier. Being priced at $.99 was enough to make you stand out. Now the market has changed dramatically, with over 400,000 books published last year alone. Many of the book bloggers I interacted with 5 years ago have stopped blogging – some because they moved on to do other things, and some because they had too many bad experiences with angry authors. (See my Book Bloggers Are People, Too post for context).
And that leads me to March 2011, when I announced that I’d signed with a traditional publishing house with this blog: The Blog.
In early 2011, I was getting incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of attention on myself and my books, and I was also struggling to find time to write because I was spending so much time marketing and formatting and editing. Not to mention I was an anxiety ball terrified of doing the wrong and destroying my career, and I felt incredibly frantic with a tremendous amount of pressure on me. And I was only 26 years old, with no real formal education, and I’d jumped from making barely above minimum wage to selling half a million books in less than a year’s time.
I decided that I wanted to go with a traditional publisher, in large part because of everything I said above. It was also because I was still getting complaints about errors in my books, despite hiring multiple editors. I also wanted to get my books in stores. At the time, ebooks are 40% of the market, and I wanted to reach the other 60% that pick up books at airports, Targets, and Barnes & Noble, etc.
Here’s the official announcement from the NY Times: Amanda Hocking Signs Deal.
Here’s how it went down: I’d gotten my agent Steve in mid-2010 when a Hungarian publisher emailed me asking about foreign rights. I initially wanted an agent to handle foreign and film rights, but when I started feeling like I didn’t want to do this whole publishing thing on my own anymore, I sent a pitch to Steve, and he shopped it around. There was a big auction, which isn’t typical for authors, but it happened because the story of my success on Kindle had exploded, and everyone wanted to capitalize on it.
St. Martin’s Press went on to buy the rights to the Trylle series and re-release them, in part because they were selling so well in the self-published format and in part because they had been optioned for a film. I only self-published two more books in 2011, because I had now published my entire backlog of books and I published things as soon as I finished writing them, and all the attention on me had really hampered my writing process.
Switched was published with SMP in January 2012, and it made the New York Times Bestseller list, as did the next books in the trilogy. The four books in the Watersong series were published over the course of 2012-2013. To read more about the re-release of the Trylle series, check out this blog: And Yet Another Announcement.
In 2014, I took some time off because I needed too. A lot of personal things in my life had effected my writing – all the focus on my career and my income, my grandma passing away, struggles with anxiety and depression, and a few other personal things I’d rather not mention right now.
In 2015, I’ll have the entire trilogy The Kanin Chronicles out with St. Martin’s Press. The first two books – Frostfire and Ice Kissed – are out now, and the final book – Crystal Kingdom – will be out in the UK on 13th August 2015.
I’ve also reupped with St. Martin’s Press, signing on for a three book deal that includes the standalone paranormal romance YA novel Freeks that should be out in 2016, and another YA duology inspired by the mythology surrounding Valkyries, who were Norse warrior women that decided when heroes lived and died. You can read more about that deal here: Book Deals.
So, obviously, since I keep signing up with St. Martin’s, I’m happy with them. They’ve helped alleviate a lot of the burdens and pressures I felt when I was doing it along, but a lot of marketing does still fall on me. They help with it, but I still need to be promoting things myself.
That doesn’t mean I’m crossing out the potential of self-publishing in the future, but it does meant that I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, and I’m content with where I am right now.
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Wattpad users can read Amanda's exclusive, free short story The King's Games, set in the world of The Kanin Chronicles, here.