A self-published fantasy writer has become an e-book phenomenon, earning $2 million. So what hope is there for the rest of us unknown writers?
Last month the Independent newspaper reported that Amanda Hocking, 27, has joined what they call "an elite literary club" by racking up her millionth Kindle sale. The club includes Stieg Larsson, James Patterson and Nora Roberts. But it's also a clique of writers who turn out a book in less than a month and have no editor to smooth out spelling or grammar mistakes. Hocking was rejected by 50 mainstream publishers. Eventually, by self-publishing she found an audience that took a different view of her stories of vampires, trolls and zombies. They wanted to follow her into a world of what the author calls 'paranormal romance'. Like J.K Rowling she has discovered a huge market: young people who are searching for endless stories about a world beyond their everyday life.
But how did Hocking get the ball rolling? With no marketing or newspaper reviews the books (priced at between 99 cents and $2.99) have sold purely on online recommendation. But where does an unknown writer begin to build a following? The answer is social networking: Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in. Yet joining these still doesn't ensure that every tweet and comment will go viral. Another route is to write for free, offering your work to sites that encourage the exchange of opinions.
There's no shortage of websites trying to attract authors to write for them. Red Room, Good Reads and E-zine all invite their members to blog, often with a promise that these unedited pieces will bring the writer fame and recognition. Quality, however, doesn't come into it. E-zine has competitions to reach the status of Diamond Author, but on closer inspection many of the pieces submitted are poorly written or thinly disguised promotions for a business or a product.
Self-publishing has always had a sting in the tail: it's easy enough to get a book out there but almost impossible to get a distribution network that will bring in many sales. When I published my first cookbook independently I bought a large number of copies to resell. I never went anywhere without a pile of books in the car. Every journey (quite unconnected with the book) included having one eye out for bookshops and never leaving home without a folder of invoices and delivery notes. Eventually the pile diminished but the book never hit the big time.
Now the same game can be played without the actual copies. The text can be uploaded to Amazon Kindle and the writer can then wait for orders to come in. Waiting is the operative word. Imagine you've written a novel about a place or subject that you find intriguing. Chances are that a million other people won't share your enthusiasm, so your hopes of being an e-millionnaire are slight. But that's not to say you shouldn't try. It's like the lottery: if you don't buy a ticket, you can't possibly win. If you don't enter your book in the self-publishing lottery, you won't be in with a chance of massive sales.
What have you got to lose? You could spend the next few weeks hastily concocting a book. Alternatively you could spend that time reading; enjoying the work of authors like Ernest Hemingway. He was asked by an interviewer for The Paris Review in 1956:
"How much rewriting do you do?"
Hemingway replied: "It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied."
The interviewer continued: "Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?"
Hemingway: "Getting the words right."