I Googled Amanda Hocking’s name, and came up with more than a million results. a course in miracles to Wikipedia she is 26, has written 17 novels in her spare time, and in less than a year has become ‘an e-book millionaire’. She started publishing her novels as e-books in April 2010. By March 2011, she had sold about a million copies and earned in excess of two million dollars.
Most remarkably of all, all of these books were self-published. This is a fact that is well known to her Kindle reviewers; and presumably explains the clumsiness of much of the writing. Interestingly enough it doesn’t seem to put her readers off. In fact many of them may well like the fact that the book has been published more or less as she wrote it, without any editor or proof-reader (i.e. authority figure) interfering by boringly tidying things up. That’s the Internet for you: it’s nothing if not libertarian.
Instructively Amanda was turned down by a large number of publishers before she resorted to self-publishing. What particularly interested me about her story is that like many people I have a number of unpublished manuscripts gathering dust in drawers and cupboards. Some of these are books which failed to find a publisher, but among them is one that was published and is now out of print: a novel for children called ‘The Musclemen.’
‘The Musclemen’ was published by Oxford University Press in 1991. When writing it I had in mind a similar audience to that of the Roald Dahl books, which my own children had enjoyed immensely from quite a young age, and still continued to read into their teens. I meant it to be quite a challenging, even controversial story: an all-out attack on commercialism and particularly the commercialism of modern toys, which I had been observing with horrified fascination since my early days as a parent – my eldest son was born in 1973. In many ways the plot of ‘The Musclemen’ resembles that of the ‘Toy Story’ films, although it was actually written and published some four or five years earlier. (I’m not accusing Pixar of plagiarism; this is more a case of what Jung would have called ‘synchronicity’.) ‘The Musclemen’ has a fairly simple plot – hateful toy robots wreak havoc in conventional middle-class household, only to be defeated by an alliance of more conventional play-room characters led by a teddy bear called Hodge. The final nemesis of the villainous Musclemen, as the robots are called, is brought about by their own meanness and capacity for violence. The book relates to Toy Story thematically as well as in terms of plot, in that it pits toys dependent upon technology (Buzz Lightyear/the Musclemen) against toys that encourage the child to use his or her imagination (Woody/Hodge). I have always thought that it would make a great film – particularly if made by Pixar.
‘The Musclemen’ was initially well-received and was made an ‘Independent on Sunday’ Christmas Books for Children recommendation, but sales were disappointing, and it was soon remaindered. In hindsight this was predictable. I was at a point in my life where I was seized by an attack of shame and embarrassment whenever anything I had written found its way into the public arena – it felt rather like one of those dreams in which you find yourself at a dinner party without your trousers. As a result I did nothing to promote the book, and nor unfortunately did OUP. The jacket was nicely drawn but insipid, and the whole production looked cheap and dull, like an easy reader. I had wanted illustrations – Quentin Blake would have done very nicely – but my editor at Oxford warned against it: she thought that pictures of toys would associate the book in its readers’ minds with Noddy and his friends. I probably should have pointed out that that might depend on the illustrator, but I was a first-time author, and only too glad to be getting published at all.
Once the rights reverted to me I could have published an edition myself, but to do it properly would have cost more money than I wanted to risk, and its publishing history with Oxford did not encourage me to think that I would get much in the way of a return on my investment. In any case, self-publishing carried for me the stigma of the vanity press. If a publisher wasn’t going to put their money behind it, then perhaps it didn’t deserve to be revived.
Kindle changed all that.
Reading about Amanda Hocking’s success immediately brought ‘The Muscleman’ to mind. How easy would it be, I wondered, to give the book a new lease of life by publishing it myself on Kindle? The copyright had reverted to me, and I still had the text on file in a version of Word. I googled ‘self-publishing on Kindle’ and was immediately taken to a page on Amazon.com which showed me how to add a book to the Kindle list. The process is extremely simple and amazingly it is completely free. To begin with it all looks quite complicated – there are a number of websites that give you advice on formatting – but unless you insist on setting every page yourself it is really amazingly simple. First download Mobipocket Creator. Then compile your book into a continuous Word Document, save the string of chapters as a single HTML file (select Web Page Filtered), and build it into a Kindle document with Mobipocket Creator. After that all you have to do is open an account for Kindle at amazon.com (you can’t do it at amazon.co.uk for some reason) and follow the instructions for self-publishing. You set the price, your book can be downloaded by anyone with a Kindle, and you get to keep 70% of the proceeds (if there are any). Brilliant.