Interview with Amanda Hocking

Amanda Hocking has become quite a legend among budding writers - those who publish independently and traditionally. After uploading her Young Adult ebooks to Amazon and Smashwords, she ended up making up a million dollars in a few months. Unsurprisingly, big publishers took notice of her. (Ironically, these publishers rejected her novels over and over again years ago.) She ended up signing up with St Martin’s Press, for a US$2mil (RM6.4mil) four-book deal.

I had the opportunity to speak to Amanda. The result is my article, published in The Star: Amanda Hocking: A Success Story.

The following is the full transcript of our conversation:

What inspired you to become a writer? I spent the majority of my childhood sitting in my room writing stories, telling stories, or acting out stories in my backyard. I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

You've written about 17 novels by the time you were 26. When did you start writing? What is your writing process like? I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to write, but I wrote my first novel in high school. I would start writing around 8:00 or 9:00 at night, and then keep going as late as I could. That’s pretty much still how I do it today.

Did you have a day job when you were writing your novels? Yes, I was working at a group home for mentally disabled people.

How did you balance writing and your day job? My job was usually from about 3:00-10:00 PM, so when I got home I would just go to my office, and write until 8:00 or 9:00, go to bed, get up, work, and do it again.

What stories fascinate you? I think all stories fascinate me, for different reasons. I will read just about anything. I recently saw The Avengers, so right now I’m in kind of a superhero phase.

When did you start trying to get your books published? How was it like? I wrote my first novel when I was 17, and I started sending query letters to agents immediately after that. I would take a few breaks here and there, but I was pretty much always sending out letters. Now, I realize that the book I wrote when I was 17 was pretty horrible, and the agents were right for not accepting it.

How did you end up publishing your books on the digital platform? I heard about some people having success with selling their books for e-readers, so I thought I could give it a shot.

You've made millions from e-publishing. Did you ever anticipate such a success? No, not at all. E-publishing was very new to me, so I had no idea what to expect. I’m very thankful to everyone that decided to take a chance, and buy my books though.

How did you react to your success e-publishing? I was ecstatic. At first, I was taking screen shots of my Amazon sales page if I sold like 30 books in a day. I slowly started selling more and more books each day, and things got pretty crazy. It was fun.

How has success changed your life? I think the thing I’m most grateful for is having an audience. Like I said, I’ve always told stories, but it was mostly to myself, or my mom. To have people actually interested in my books, and to actually pay money to read them, is a huge honor.

What do you think is the secret to your success? I have no idea. I try to write books that I think people will enjoy, and be entertained by. I think that’s the best anyone can do.

Why did you decide to publish traditionally in the end? Doing everything on my own got to be a lot of work, I knew that going with a traditional publisher I would have a whole team of people to help me, and to be along with me for the ride. I also wanted to get my books out to people who don’t have e-readers.

How did people react to your decision to go down the traditionally-published route? I think most people were excited about it. I know there were a few self-published authors who thought I was making a mistake, and that I was a “sell-out” but I never said that I would only be a self-published author, and I think I made the best choice for me and my career.

How has your writing process changed now that you are traditionally published? My writing process hasn’t changed at all. The editing process is definitely much smoother now. Before I would have to try and find editors online to go over my work, and I didn’t always like their style, or agree with what they said. The editor I have now at my publisher is amazing, and working with her is a lot of fun.

What was it like seeing your books in print? I was on a book tour when Switched came out, so I got to see a lot of different covers, and a lot of different stores/displays, so that was a lot of fun.

What inspired you to write Switched? I had this idea to write a book about a changeling, and while I was doing research I came across some Scandinavian folklore about trolls that described them as beautiful, ill-tempered, intelligent creatures. I thought that sounded really interesting, and that’s how the whole series got started.

What are you currently working on? Right now I’m working on the last book in the Watersong series, which is a four book series. The first book, WAKE, is coming out this Summer.

What advice would you give budding novelists? I think the best advice I can give is to get a lot of advice. Before you start sending letters to agents, or throwing your book online, it’s good to know what you’re getting into, and what’s going to work the best for you.

This post was originally published on Oct 2, 2012

E-books: A selection of my articles

I've been waiting for e-book technology to hit the bookstores since I spied Star Trek characters reading off hand-held tablets in the 1980s. And when it finally arrived at the dawn of the 21st century, sci-fi style, I was psyched. But Malaysia did not embrace the technology immediately. I had to visit the United States to get my hands on my first e-book reader: A Sony Reader. It cost me about a thousand ringgit (ouch ouch ouch) but it was worth every penny.

Naturally, as a journalist, I wrote extensively about it.

I began with a major feature article about e-books, which I actually won an in-house award for:

Then came my column about e-books, Reading Revolution, which began life as an exclusive publication for the iPad, and then moved to its online home at The Star.

I had a lot of fun meeting international e-book authors such as Ryk Brown, waded into the murky depths of the ebook porngate, and how fanfiction is now made respectable, thanks to Amazon's Kindle Worlds. Ebooks has made the once-stagnant publishing world into an exciting and often volatile field, and readers, writers and publishers are all being tossed around in the constant change.

But for a journalist, it's catnip.

Malaysia's not fully in the game yet, but I see an explosion in the future. And the Malaysian publishing industry better be ready for it.

Things you may not know about eBooks

So, you're thinking about getting an eBook reader, or you've just gotten one and you're all ready to plug into the amazing world of eBooks. But there are some things that you may not know about digital books. Things that could frustrate you greatly if you're not prepared:

There be geographical restrictions If you don't live in the United States, be prepared for frustration because you probably won't be able to buy a whole lot of ebooks from eBookstores like Books on Board and Fictionwise.

This is due to some legal mumbo jumbo about publishing rights, so publishers actually barr people from other regions from buying their products.

The mind boggles: you have a bunch of very eager people trying to throw money at you for your products and you tell them: "Go away, I don't want your money!" Readers have found ways to get around this, but are protective of the techniques as they don't want the guard dogs of publishing law to wise up. Go to forums like Mobileread and ask around for tips. (Of course there's also the less (cough) official way of getting eBooks ...)

Dear publishers, don't you realise that you're pissing your customers off, and worse, indirectly encouraging piracy?

Calibre is better than most "official" eBook software Amazon's Kindle makes eBook buying easy. All users have to do is select the book, and download. Wala. But us folks not fortunate enough to own a Kindle have to contend with plugging our eBook readers to the computer and using the device's software to transfer books.

The Sony Reader's software for uploading and buying books just sucks. Fortunately, there's an excellent alternative: a freeware called Calibre. Not only can Calibre transfer eBooks to your device, it also converts your text files or ebooks into other formats such as LRF, and ePUB, and in your preferred font size too. You can also easily download news from sites such as New York Times and even your blog feeds in Google Reader into an eBook format - as a news junkie, I'm delirious with happiness over this function.

ePub is the standard eBook format So it's best to ensure that your eBook reader reads ePub as it's the "standard" format in the eBook industry now. You have more choices of eBooks in eBookstores too. Here's a guide to the formats used by popular eBook readers:

• Hanlin (which Malaysians can buy from Mph): MOBI, PDF, LIT, EPUB, HTML, TXT, PRC, FB2, JPG • Amazon Kindle: Kindle (AZW, TPZ), TXT, MOBI, PRC and PDF natively; HTML and DOC through conversion • Apple iPad: EPUB, PDF, HTML, DOC • Barnes & Noble Nook: EPUB, PDB, PDF • Sony Reader: EPUB, PDF, TXT, RTF; DOC through conversion

DRM eBooks are a pain in the ass So, I bought an eBook - Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow. Then I broke my beloved PRS505 Sony Reader and decided to start anew with a new laptop.

I had to a) re-install my Sony Library software in order to enable b) Adobe Digital Editions (which I also reinstalled) c) and reregister with Digital Editions to authorise my device. Then I had to redownload my library (most eBookstores allow you to keep your eBooks in an online library) only to find out that I can only download Scarecrow three times. After that, the friggin' license "expires". Welcome to the wonderful world of DRM, where publishers make it as difficult as it can to pirate their books, only to drive users to pirate sites out of sheer frustration.

eBooks can be cheaper So, there's a price war right now, what with Apple's iPad mixing things up with the publishers. However, for Malaysians, buying an eBook can be a cheaper alternative. Because there are no hefty shipping costs to pay, eBooks can often be RM10 or more cheaper than the ones in brick and mortar bookstores.

Watch out for discounts which eBookstores often give. Most have a rewards system which credits "money points" into your account for each book you buy. When you get enough of reward points, you can use it to slash the price of the next eBook you buy.

eBooks are awesome! Until the ebook reader breaks down

My Sony Pocket Reader nearly gave me a heart attack yesterday. I uploaded a couple of novels into my new, trusty Reader (alas, my old classic PRS505 broke when it fell to the hard, marble floor. sob) and then ... it went wonky.

The screen kept saying "Reading book...", and then it switched to the menu page, only to return to the "reading book" page. Over and over again. It refused to restart when I pressed a pin into the tiny reset hole, and it wouldn't switch off at all.

Fortunately, I found my answer in the MobileReads forum. Phew. My Reader is back to normal again. Looks like, despite it's 500MB space and ability to hold almost 500 books, the Reader just ends up slowing down and freezing up after I upload more than 80 books into the Reader. So much for technology!

The whole heart-stopping moment got me thinking about how reliable "dead tree" books are. It'll never malfunction, the data it holds will not suddenly crash one day without warning, and it's always, well, there. Books even survive a good soak in the rain (even if the pages are all crumpled up) and the data in the book will probably be there after a hundred years or more (if stored properly). I do hope they make the same eBook Reader batteries 100 years from now...

That's why I shudder at the thought of owning a purely eBook library. I mean, I do love eBooks and all, but I doubt it has the same kind of reliability as dead tree books. That's why my favourite books (which I reread again and again) are dead tree copies and those which I read and forget are in my Reader.