A Self-Published Author's $2 Million Cinderella Story

Jan 8, 2012
Originally published on January 9, 2012 11:35 am

Best-selling e-author Amanda Hocking grew up in the small town of Austin, Minn., which, she says, is known for Spam — as in the food, not the email kind.

"We invented Spam," the 27-year-old novelist tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

Hocking's dad was a truck driver. Her mom was a waitress. Even as a very young child, she was kind of a natural storyteller — especially when it came to fantasy stories — stories about dragons, unicorns, pirates and more.

"My mom has a tape from when I was, like, 2 years old, talking with my grandma, telling her a story that's really elaborate about werewolves and wolves," she says.

Hocking has no formal training as a writer, which makes her story even more incredible.

She went to a local community college for two semesters. In her early 20s, she started to write novels at night. In the daytime, she worked at a group home for disabled people.

"I loved my job, but I really wasn't making very much money doing it," she says. "I'd always written, I always wanted to be published, but I think at that point, I was like, 'I need to focus in and do this. I want to make this happen.' "

So she quit to pursue her dream. That was in 2008, and Hocking had almost a dozen novels on her computer. She sent manuscripts to more than 50 literary agents. She got a lot of form-letter rejections back, one after another. Sorry, they'd say, it's not the right kind of thing for us.

She started to wonder whether the problem was the kind of fiction she was writing. Maybe, she thought, it was too dark, too intense.

"I kind of re-evaluated myself and what was popular and what I really felt were my strengths," Hocking says. "I went to Walmart and I was looking at all the best-selling titles they had."

She knew she couldn't write thrillers like James Patterson's, but there was another genre she thought she could handle — paranormal romance.

Those are fantasy stories — witches, vampires and the like — combined with a love story. "This genre really stuck out to me. And I'd read the books, and I enjoyed them and thought it was something I should try," she says.

Hocking went home and wrote her first paranormal romance — in 15 days.

She wrote and rewrote, edited and re-edited, but still no one was interested in publishing her work. On a whim, she decided to self-publish a few of her books online for anyone to download. She waited.

Some of her books began selling. She'd sell one or two books a day, and that went on for a while. Then, in June, it exploded. Bloggers began asking for interviews. Reviews began to appear on Amazon.com.

"I think I sold, like, 6,000 books that month or something," she says. "It was a pretty dramatic jump."

By August, she was making about $9,000 a month. The year before, she'd made less than $18,000 for the entire year.

"It's still totally unreal when I think about it," she says. "It feels so weird to be able to just kind of buy things when I want them or need them." Like a life-size replica of Han Solo encased in carbonite. It cost $7,000 and sits in her "movie room" — otherwise known as the basement.

Finally, last fall, Hocking joined an elite literary club that includes only 11 other authors, including James Patterson, Stieg Larsson and Nora Roberts: She sold her 1 millionth book for the Amazon Kindle.

And she has made $2 million doing it. Movie rights for her work have been optioned, and the publishing companies that once rejected her came back around. She signed a multimillion-dollar deal with St. Martin's Press, and her first print book, Switched, is out now.

Before we leave her story, however, Hocking has some advice to share. She says she got it from a video by Mark Hoppus of the band Blink-182.

"He said that it's not enough to have a passion — you have to have a work ethic," she says. "That's been the most life-changing advice that I got, because I had a passion for writing — and I know a lot of other people do, too — but it's not enough to just want something. You have to be able to work for it, too, and put in the hours and the time."

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Books and music normally round out the program and today, the story is of an author - to be precise, a 27-year-old novelist named Amanda Hocking. She grew up in the small town of Austin, Minnesota.

AMANDA HOCKING: Which is known for Spam.

RAZ: Spam as in the food, not in the email spam.

HOCKING: No, no. We invented Spam.

RAZ: The original Spam.

HOCKING: Yeah, the meat.

RAZ: Her dad was a truck driver; her mom, a waitress. Now, even as a very young child, Amanda Hocking had always been the kind of natural storyteller, especially when it came to fantasy stories - stories about dragons and unicorns and pirates and...

HOCKING: There's like a - my mom has a tape from when I was like, 2 years old, talking with my grandma, telling her a story that's really elaborate - about like, werewolves or wolves and - I don't know, something.

RAZ: Now, Hocking has no formal training as a writer, which is what makes her story, as you'll hear, even more incredible. She's done two semesters at the local community college and in her early 20s, she started to write novels at night. And in the daytime, she worked at a group home for disabled people.

HOCKING: I loved my job, but I really wasn't making very much money doing it. I'd always written; I always wanted to be published but I think at that point, I was like, I need to really focus in it and do this; I want to make this happen.

RAZ: So she quit to pursue her dream. Now, this was back in 2008, and Hocking had almost a dozen novels on her computer. So she sent manuscripts to more than 50 literary agents.

HOCKING: I was getting a lot of just - kind of form rejections, like sorry...

RAZ: One after another.

HOCKING: Sorry, it's-not-right-for-us kind of thing.

RAZ: She started to wonder whether the problem was the kind of fiction she was writing. Maybe, she thought, it was too dark, too intense.

HOCKING: I kind of re-evaluated myself. And I re-evaluated what was popular, and kind of looked at what I really felt were my strengths. I went to Wal-Mart, and I was looking at all the best-selling titles they had, and I knew I'm not kind of a James Patterson-type writer. I knew I couldn't write thrillers and...

RAZ: But there was another genre she thought she could handle: paranormal romance.

HOCKING: Paranormal romance is any kind of fantasy element - like witches, vampires - just combined with a love story. This genre really stuck out to me. And I read the books, and I really enjoyed them, and I thought it was something that I should try.

RAZ: Amanda went home and began to write her first paranormal romance. In 15 days, she wrote and rewrote, edited and re-edited. But still, no one was interested in publishing the book. So on a whim, she decided to self-publish a few of her books online for anyone to download, and she waited.

HOCKING: They actually started selling, I think, relatively well - like two or three books a day. And it went that way for a while. Then it was about June that it really kind of exploded. I had started talking to bloggers and book reviewers, and I had started getting some reviews on Amazon. And I think I sold like 6,000 books that month or something. It was like, a pretty dramatic jump.

RAZ: By August, you were making $9,000 a month. I read that in the previous year, you had made about $18,000 in the whole year.

HOCKING: Yeah. I think I had actually made like, a little less than that. So it was a big leap from what I was used to.

RAZ: Last fall, Amanda Hocking joined an elite literary club alongside 11 other authors - including James Patterson, Steig Larsson and Nora Roberts - when she sold her 1 millionth book for the Amazon Kindle.

She's made $2 million this way. Movie rights for her works have been optioned and eventually, those publishing companies came around, tail between their legs. She signed a multimillion-dollar deal with St. Martin's Press and her first printed book, called "Switched," is out now.

HOCKING: It's still totally unreal when I think about it. It feels so weird to be able to just kind of buy things when I want them or need them.

RAZ: What's the most outrageous thing you bought?

HOCKING: I bought a replica of Han Solo in carbonite - from "Star Wars."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: How much was it?

HOCKING: It was almost $7,000.

RAZ: So wait; where is that? That's in your house?

HOCKING: Yeah. I've got a room in my basement that I call a movie room, but it's just a living room in the basement. He just kind of stands there. And I admire him, so.

RAZ: Yeah. Fair enough; you deserve it. You worked hard for it, right?

HOCKING: Yeah.

RAZ: Let's talk about "Switched." This is your first published book. Tell me what the story is about.

HOCKING: It's young adult, paranormal romance, and it's about a teenage girl who, when she was 6, her mother tried to kill her because she was convinced that she was a monster. And when she grows up, she comes to discover that she was traded out, switched out for a human baby. And she's actually a troll.

RAZ: And she's a good troll or a bad one?

HOCKING: Well, I think she's a good troll. The term that I used in the book is trill, which is based on Scandinavian folklore. They have folklore there saying that trolls are really beautiful but they're cunning and manipulative. I'm also from southern Minnesota, where there's a lot of Scandinavian heritage there, too, so it all kind of ties in together.

RAZ: I read that it takes you, on average, about two to four weeks to actually write a novel - which sounds remarkably fast.

HOCKING: Yeah. Before I sit down to write, I've thought about it for a long time, and I've outlined it. So then when I sit down to write, it's like eight to 12 hours a day I spend writing. And then I finish the book.

RAZ: Here's a question - I mean, you turned this industry upside down by going the e-books route. You made a lot of money. Why even bother putting it into a paper form?

HOCKING: There are a couple of reasons. E-books are taking up more of the market, but it's still somewhere between, like, 10 and 30 percent of the market. But also, I was kind of overwhelmed with the amount of work that I had to do that wasn't writing a book. I was writing more when I worked a day job than when I was writing full time because of how much time I devote to the whole publishing part.

RAZ: You are in New York now...

HOCKING: Yes.

RAZ: ...for a rash of interviews and appearances, a lot of publicity.

HOCKING: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: Has it been difficult? Is it getting easier?

HOCKING: I think it gets easier the more you kind of do it. You just kind of - it gets easier to do. I try not to think about it too much, really. If they say, like, you're going to do an interview with somebody, or you're going to do this, I just go, OK, that's what I do now - and just kind of accept it and not think about how bizarre it is that I'm in New York, doing a bunch of interviews.

RAZ: What's the best advice you've received from people?

HOCKING: I don't know. The best advice I got was - before I started publishing, I saw a video of Mark Hoppus, from Blink-182, talking. And he said that it's not enough to have a passion. You have to have a work ethic. Because I had a passion for writing, and I know a lot of other people do, too, but it's not enough to just want something. You have to be able to work for it, too, and put in the hours and the time. And I think that's really changed the way that I view my life and the way I treat the things that I want.

RAZ: That's Amanda Hocking. Her first printed book is called "Switched." It's in bookstores and online right now. Amanda Hocking, thank you. And congratulations on your success. What an amazing story.

HOCKING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.