Who Wants to Be a Self-Published Millionaire?

I have a not-so-secret secret. I like to write fiction and hope to someday write the great American novel, leave behind my glamorous life as a technology journalist, and retreat to the woods of New Hampshire to become a Salinger-esque recluse. Of course, that little confession could have been made by just about anyone who makes his or her living as a writer of any sort. Also, like my fellow writers, I’ve got more ideas than I do time to get them down on paper—or hard drive, as the case may be. When you add in the time it takes to find an agent and an editor, the task becomes almost too daunting to even consider.

But wait … I am, as aforementioned, a technology journalist! I spend my days writing about ebooks and criticizing the old publishing model. Shouldn’t I be leaving the fuddy-duddy world of publishing behind and hawking my works of literary genius on the web?

Well, let’s be honest, there’s still some cache—vindication, even—in knowing an “expert” decided that your book was better than all of the other ones that ended up in his or her slush pile. Then, of course, there is the support that your novel, should it become one of the chosen few, receives from the publishing house in the marketing and PR arenas. Still, I thought self-publishing something short—such as a novella—could be a fun project. It could be a sort of experiment: one I might even be able to write about for EContent. So I started nosing around the internet, looking for success stories and trying to figure out what I would have to do to be successful and to learn enough to give value to readers. I ended up with one persistent, annoying question: Is it just me, or are all the successful, self-published, fiction authors fantasy writers?

No, really, I’ve been mulling this over ever since I read about Amanda Hocking, a self-published author and, as of late, millionaire. Hocking writes books such as Hollowland—the first in the “young adult dystopian series The Hollows” according to her website. Before Hocking, there was also The Shack. Back in June of 2003, I read a Slate article about this book which had already been on The New York Times’ best-seller list for 105 weeks. What’s it about? Well, as Slate put it, The Shack is “the story of a sad-sack Oregonian who meets God.” It may not quite be a fantasy novel, but it sure isn’t chick lit either—and it was only published when the author and some friends got together and created their own publishing company.

Fantasy—especially young adult fantasy—is a huge market, no matter what kind of publishing you’re talking about: ebooks, print on demand, or good old-fashioned hardcover. Between the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, I sometimes wonder if there is room for other genres on the shelves (digital or otherwise).

So, like a good reporter, I did a little more investigating. One of the first articles I came across was an io9 (http://io9.com) post that made me question everything I’d believed … at least everything I’d believed about this particular subject for the past 15 minutes or so. “There Are No Successful Self-Published
SF Authors, According To Robert J. Sawyer” initially had me thinking I’d been terribly misled by Amanda Hocking’s huge success. My train of thought was salvaged when a response to Sawyer’s remarks confirmed at least some of my suspicions.

Then I stumbled upon J. A. Konrath, a mystery/thriller writer who seems to be making a living with his self-published genre novels. Of course, he’s also blogging about it (http://jakonrath .blogspot.com), and it’s quite a fascinating look at the world of self-publishing—and perhaps a terrifying glimpse into the future for traditional book publishers. This guy is sharp, and people considering epublishing their books would do well to mine his blog for advice about pricing, packaging of content, and much more.

Sadly, we can’t all be millionaires. Few self-published—or even traditionally published—authors are likely to have the astronomical success of Hocking. Writers can, however, take control of their own destinies—ignoring that latest rejection letter and letting the readers decide what’s worth buying and what’s not. Part of me wonders why more publishing houses aren’t scooping up authors such as Hocking and Konrath, who come with instant readers. But then, a bigger part of me wonders why the authors would ever want to sign with a publisher (which Hocking eventually did). They have built success on their own, reaping 100% of the rewards that their creative energies have earned. Then I realized that very thought may be exactly what brings book publishers to their knees, once and for all, if they don’t find a way to appeal to new authors—other than vanity.