The Love Quadrangle

AscendHaving not known that the ultimate book in Amanda Hocking’s self-published, now-publisher-published best-selling trilogy wasn’t yet available, I awaited its release with postman-stalking obsession.

I wasn’t sure who was more relieved when it finally arrived—me or the postman I’d been shaking down for days—so I’m a little disappointed to say that although Ascend was good, it wasn’t as great as I’d salivatingly anticipated it would be.

The book opens with the queen near death and Wendy, the queen to be, effectively running the show. Hanging over everyone’s heads is the knowledge that as soon as the queen carks it, Wendy will be coronated.

Apart from providing her with a fancy crown, her coronation will mean that the peace treaty, which promises that the Vittra won’t attack the Trylle kingdom until Wendy is queen, will be rendered null and void. Oh, and in the opening chapters Wendy and Tove get married.

Still with me?

There’s not a lot I want to write about the book, which spends almost its entirety puzzling over how prevent the Trylle being slaughtered after the dissolution of the treaty. Sure, they needed to build up to the climax, but I had the same reaction I did to tediously long third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy: Are we there yet? Hurry up, already.

Perhaps the plot point that proved my stumbling point—and here I’m issuing an absolutely massive, couldn’t-be-any-bigger spoiler alert—is that I didn’t think Hocking quite get the love triangle right. Ergo, Wendy ends up with the wrong guy.

The Vampire DiariesThe thing that makes love triangles so appealing is their constant push–pull. In any given moment on any given day, the object of the love (in this case Wendy) is supposed to lean towards one and then the other guy. You can see that hugely in modern-day, pop-culture equivalents Twilight (Bella, Edward, and Jacob) and The Vampire Diaries (Elena, Stefan, and Damon).

The love triangle should go like this: The female lead falls in love with the first-named guy, but there’s always the Plan-B-could-almost-be-Plan-A guy waiting in the wings. The moment Plan A’s out of the picture—most likely on mis-directed, self-flagellating banishments to keep her out of danger—she starts to see Plan B in a new light and he morphs into Plan A. Then the original Plan A returns. Tension ensues over which lover she’ll choose. The original Plan A invariably wins, but it’s always a tenuous, temporary victory. Then the whole thing is reset and replays.

I’m all for reinventing the love triangle, and kudos to Hocking for trying. Her whole love quadrangle thing was an interesting twist, courtesy of having Wendy marry not just a guy she didn’t love but a guy who would never love her because he was gay.

The problem is that I don’t think it ever 100% rang true and, having set it up as the thing that absolutely had to happen in order to save the kingdom, Hocking suddenly discarded it. How could she have Wendy divorce Tove when the only reason she married him was to avert a power struggle and to marry their genetics in order to save the Trylle race? Why couldn’t they stay married and sneak around with the ones they truly loved?

Which brings me to the Finn and Loki issue. It’s not that I didn’t like Loki, because I did and I do. But Hocking spent the first two books setting Finn up as Plan A. Then she ditched him without warning, good reason, or dramatic tension when it got to book three. It’s ok that Wendy developed feelings for Loki, but she completely un-developed feelings for Finn, which isn’t.

Hocking lost me when she broke the love triangle. The book’s dramatic tension slackened and I, frankly, got my grump on. It’s unfair to make me, as the reader, care about a character for two books and then try to make me un-care and accept an interloping lover in book three.

It would be like Stephenie Meyer replacing Edward without warning and no more than a shrug. It would then be like her closing the door on him reclaiming his original crown of Plan A. We like Jacob, but we love and have come to better know Edward—no matter what happens, Bella without Edward in some capacity (even as a dodgy CGI ghost chasing her on a motorbike) doesn’t quite work.

Likewise, without reading too much into it (which I clearly did), I think Wendy ending up with Loki sent the wrong message. That is, despite saying for two books that class rules need to be broken and a royal can fall in love with and marry a commoner, Hocking inadvertently ended up saying that bluebloods and commoners don’t get a happily ever after together.

I say bring back the tried-and-true, love-conquers-all love triangle.

Switched (x 2)

SwitchedAmanda Hocking’s self-published book Switched has multi-millions of copies. I’ve personally contributed two of those sales, having purchased the book, accidentally left it on a plane, cut a forlorn figure at the lost-and-found counter, and then, as the book hadn’t been handed in, bought a second copy to read on the flight back home.

I’ll admit that my first purchase was merely to determine what all the fuss was about. My second, though, was because I was hooked. Seriously. Switched isn’t going to be lauded in centuries’ time as one of the great writing tomes of the world, but it is a great young-adult book.

So great, in fact, that I was prepared to own my shame and stand describing the book to a rather grumpy, disinterested airport official who told me he’d have to specially open the lost-and-found counter to go look for the book I was after. The not-so-subtle subtext of his statement was that he didn’t want to open it at all.

I made him open it anyway and then applied my best I’m-not-dying-inside face while describing what clearly wasn’t a capital-‘l’-literature book: ‘Um, it’s called Switched and it’s got a kind of blue and grey cover with a girl and butterflies on it.’

Either it hadn’t yet been handed in or someone had found it, become similarly hooked, and decided to snarfoo it for themselves (I’m giving the guy the benefit of the doubt and not assuming he didn’t actually look for it), but Switched is what I kind of expected and that I hinted at in my previous blog. That is that it’s a good story executed by someone who can write.

The tagline is the suitably vague, broad, and mysterious ‘What if your entire world was built on a lie?’ and the book opens with the protagonist’s attempted murder by her mum. Fast forward a decade or so and you find that the protagonist survived but has never quite found herself to fit in.

I won’t say any more for fear of ruining the plot, but Switched had me from page three and will, now that I’ve finished book one, likely have me for the entire trilogy. I can see why this self-published book has sold a motza.

That said, it is a little clunky. It reads like a second or third draft that hasn’t been massaged and smoothed out by an editor. I guess that’s the danger of the ability to press publish before a book’s ready and a reminder that editors are writers’ unsung heroes. Still, while the text leaps from A to C with not a heap of subtlety, the telegraphing of the plot points aren’t enough to put me off.

Sure, the goodie and baddie characters are a little too black-and-white stereotypical. Sure, it’s a little clunky how the book bluntly tells key information rather than deftly shows it. And sure, it’s a little clichéd that the aloof bodyguard character is in love with the protagonist and their push–pull relationship veers from 0 to 100 and back to 0 with no build-up or warning.

But it’s testament to Hocking’s storytelling skills that I was willing to re-buy the book and that I’m ordering books two and three now. If you need me, I’ll be hanging around my letterbox waiting for them to arrive.

Self-Publishing for Muppets

SwitchedThe article had me at ‘self-publishing’ for ‘Muppets’. It refers not to self-publishers being muppets as in the derogatory term, but rather a cash-strapped wannabe writer who self-published some books on Amazon in the hope of scraping together the cash to go see the Muppets. The rest, as they write, is JK Rowling-worthy history.

Amanda Hocking’s is the kind of story that simultaneously draws derision from those in the industry and raises the hopes of those who aren’t but want to be. I have to say that I think the truth is somewhere in between.

Reading this Guardian article I realised Hocking might have been unpublished, but she wasn’t unpracticed or unpolished (if those terms make any sense). She had written a bunch of novels over a nine-year period and, in the process, honed her skills.

She’d approached a stack of publishing houses and been rejected by them all. More importantly, she filed the rejection letters, quashed any discouragement, and kept writing and investigating ways to get her work out there.

With traditional publishers not opening their doors, Hocking went the non-traditional route. She posted her book online with the short-term goal of selling some copies to families and friends over a six-month period in order to raise the $300 she needed for the Muppets trip.

She achieved a bit more than that, selling 150,000 copies of her books and making around $20,000 in that time. She’s now surpassed 1.5 million book sales and $2.5 million in profits (and I consider them profits because she published with largely free online tools and is not having to share the spoils with any agents or publishers. Well, apart from the chunk Amazon carves off).

Those are the stats people are generally interested in. I’m actually more interested in the work she put in to get there. I see it as less rags-to-riches than hard-work-pays-off (with a little luck thrown in, admittedly, because in this industry there’s always a touch of right-place-right-time luck required).

OutliersFrom what the article shows, Hocking’s always been a huge reader and writer so has put in the hard yards to reach those magic 10,000 hours of practice. As in the magic number of hours that unlock the key to perfection we hear about from the likes of authors like Malcolm Gladwell. Speaking of Gladwell, he’s been quiet of late—surely he’s due another book soon?

Anyway, back to Hocking. My point is that despite the fairytale angel we’d like to hope for, she’s not an example of a publishing miracle the equivalent of winning the lottery on your first try. It’s something she’s also clearly keenly aware of: ‘People built me up as a two-dimensional icon for something I was not. Self-publishing is great, but I don’t want to be an icon for it, or anything else. I would rather people talk about the books than how I publish them,’ she told the Guardian. That is, she wants to be judged for the quality of the work, not how she got rich quick through what most deem amateur, low-brow means.

Hocking obviously has some writing and marketing talent. Bad books are quickly found out. Were she a poor writer, she might have sold a few. But she wouldn’t be into the millions of sales if the books weren’t gripping and well told (please refrain from sending me the emails saying ‘Um, but Twilight’s into the millions and it’s terribly written. True, but quibble about its writing quality however you will, it’s definitely gripping.)

Utilising new and social media channels to effectively promote her work—that is, blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and the like—have clearly been key (even if they’re something the article, perhaps subconsciously in line with the old-world newspaper publication it’s part of, skims over). In fact, that’s what I’ve taken away from this story: Hocking’s success is less about striking it lucky and more about hard work and creating her own opportunities. Of course, the Muppets as catalyst is a fantastic hook too…

Ships in the Night: Hocking and Eisler Switch Sides

News has surfaced this week of two surprising defections from rapidly entrenched sides in the Great Publishing Wars of 2011. In the red corner is the reluctant indie/self-publishing darling Amanda Hocking, author of several self-published ebooks and POD (print on demand) dead tree titles. Hocking recently announced she had sold over a hundred thousand copies of her books via Amazon’s Kindle store. In the blue corner is Barry Eisler (Barry who?), author of the John Rain series of thriller novels (published by Penguin) and surprisingly good-looking (in the publishing business we call them ‘promotable’).

So what’s happened, and why should we care? Basically in the past week these two have switched sides. Eisler has turned down a $500,000 advance by his publisher to follow J.A. Konrath down the self-published rabbit hole, and Amanda Hocking, it is rumoured (by Amanda herself), is on the verge of accepting a deal with a traditional publisher.

Quite a bit of blog space has already been filled up with speculation and analysis of this situation by smarter people than me. So for this post I would like to concentrate on how I think this situation might play out long term – or rather, how it might turn out to be representative of how books will get published in the future.

Most publishers wouldn’t argue that discovering amazing writers is one of the hardest parts about publishing. And when I say ‘amazing writers’, I don’t just mean people who can write well. There’s a sort of magic that takes place somewhere between the author, the page (or the screen) and the reader. The best publishers try to pick up on this magic and publish books that people want to read. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? That’s how fortunes are usually made in books – both by the publisher who discovers and develops the talent, and by the author who writes the actual books.

The difficulty with this kind of publishing is that the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. Lots of people write, and love writing. Very few writers, relatively speaking, are worth reading. When there are very few publishers (indie fanatics, read: gatekeepers), then the bandwidth is going to be terrible. Publishers have tried harnessing technology to solve this dilemma in the past (see: Authonomy et al.) But I’ve spoken about the problems surrounding community-based filtering before.

What the Eisler / Hocking switcheroo has shown us, though, is that self-publishing (at its low end) can provide a low-income microcosm of how traditional book publishing plays out. It’s far more market-driven than traditional publishing. And its cut-throat competitive nature ensures that only the authors who have the magic – and the persistence, hard work and nous – will make headway. In the years to come, the self-publishing arena will, I am sure, be a goldmine for traditional publishers.

And the price publishers will pay for this amazing organic filtering service? The risk of losing their existing authors to the clamoring, messy, dynamic horde of self-published writers. Publishers really will have to compete to hold on to their successful authors, particularly those that are self-starting, driven and ambitious. Some authors (like Eisler), will find that the odds are stacked in their favour. But many authors just want to write, and don’t want to spend their lives administering their own career (like Hocking). And there will be other authors still who are created in the self-publishing bubble and never leave – an option that could not have existed only a few years ago. All of this is great news for readers, authors and publishers. There will be better books, and more of them, they’ll be easier to find and (one hopes) the right books will find the right audience more of the time. In others words, it’s a great time to love books.

Are Publishers Losing the Hearts and Minds of Readers?

Here’s a fact that might not surprise you very much: the internet is full of idiots. The idiots come in many flavours, but the kinds of idiots who are annoying me this week are some of the people who write blogs about ebooks.

Let’s kick off this discussion with a few choice quotes from some blog posts I’ve read in the last week or so:

From Delimiter: Publishers in Australia refuse to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th century, let alone the 21st century … The Publishers in Australia are heavily addicted to the large margins that Australian books traditionally generate … Publishers are trying to protect their rivers of gold (book sales) by pricing eBooks in such way that makes them less attractive.

I kid you not – RIVERS OF GOLD, people. That’s what publishers are making from paper books: RIVERS. OF. GOLD.

From BookBee: In either case, Billbo posits that publishers are publishing poor-quality ebooks as a Cee Lo Green-style “f$&ck you” to the medium in general, because they’re frustrated … This is so out there that I hadn’t even considered it to be possible … But, really thinking about it, it may well be true. This is the kind of bloody-minded thing that a control freak manager who has had things go his own way for decades might actually do … Yes – sheer madness. Sadly, some publishers have form in the madness stakes.

That’s right, readers: publishers – particularly control freak publishers – are deliberately introducing errors into ebooks because they don’t like them.

I wonder if either of any of these bloggers has ever met or spoken to a real human being who works for a publishing company? Because I guarantee you that if they had they would learn two things a) the old stereotype of the boozy publisher with deep pockets full of cash died twenty years ago; and b) publishers are anal retentive freaks who hate the idea of errors slipping into the books they publish even more than their readers.

To think otherwise speaks of a genuine ignorance and a completely unfounded hate for traditional publishers. For the most part, people who work for publishing companies are in love with books. They love everything about them, and that’s why they work in an industry that pays them all so badly. Traditional publishers are not saints, but they are not the enemy of the reader.

To be fair, these bloggers aren’t the only voices out there. There are plenty of people on all sides of the new publishing paradigm that are speaking sense. Take the phenomenally successful self-published author Amanda Hocking (who I wrote about late last year), who wrote on her blog last week:

Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that … I just don’t understand writers animosity against publishers. So much of what I’ve been reading lately has made me out to be Dorothy taking down the Wicked Witch … Publishers have done really great things for a really long time. They aren’t some big bad evil entity trying to kill literature or writers. They are companies, trying to make money in a bad economy with a lot of top-heavy business practices … Traditional publishers are not evil any more than Amazon or Barnes & Noble are evil.

Which brings me back, finally, to the title of this blog post and the central question I want to ask of all of you out there. Do blog posts like the ones at the top of this post convince you that publishers are doing bad things for the future of reading? Because I worry that they do. Every time I read one of these posts it makes my blood boil. Not just because I work for a major publisher and know what goes on there doesn’t compare to the bad press they’re getting, but because Amazon and Apple – major companies with a lot more sway over the future of reading than publishers – seem to be getting a free pass. So, let me know what you think in the comments.

Self-publishing Success Stories

I’ve generally been quite sceptical of self-publishing success stories in the past, largely to do with the prevalence of traditionally published authors turned self-publishers among their ranks. However, as was pointed out on JA Konrath’s website the other day, there are a number of self-published authors finding success using new digital publishing techniques who cannot be claimed by traditional publishing in any way shape or form.

One of those success stories is Amanda Hocking. According to the figures linked to above, Hocking sold – hold on to your hats people – over 100,000 copies of her books (both digital and print-on-demand) in December of 2010 alone.

Hocking sells her frontlist digital books for $2.99 and backlist for only $0.99, and sells the paper copies (through Createspace and Lulu.com via Amazon) for only $8.99. Considering Amazon’s cut for digital royalties is 70%, this means that Hocking made a minimum of $US70,000 in December alone – and it’s far more likely to be significantly higher than that.

This incredible success story looks to have only started in the last year – according to Amazon, the first book came out in March 2010, and she has put out more than a book a month since then (I presume some of them, at least, were written before she started putting them up on Amazon for sale – perhaps after she failed to attract a traditional publisher – but perhaps not). They’re not short either – the first book in her vampire series (pictured above) is just a mite over 80,000 words – respectable for a YA author.

Now, I haven’t read any of these books yet (although I’ve bought one, and am looking forward to having a read), so I can’t attest to their quality. But I don’t think that this issue is especially important. Selling a hundred thousand books in one month – even if they’re cheaper than a magazine – is something almost any traditional publisher would be willing to put aside their delicate sensibilities for. But it’s hard to imagine why Hocking, or those like her, would ever be tempted into the world of traditional publishing when they’re making a 70% royalty rate by self-publishing and selling in such volume.

And it’s not just the royalty rate. Without a traditional publisher behind her, Hocking is free to sell her books to any international market (Australian Kindle readers will be happy to know her books are available here for the same price as the US), she can experiment with pricing, release schedules, giveaways and social media in ways traditional publishers can’t hope to compete with purely because of the hulking bureaucracy such large companies drag along behind them means they’re just too slow.

Obviously it’s not all roses. I don’t know the full story here. It might be that these sales figures aren’t quite accurate, or there’s another missing piece. And it’s also the case that stores like Amazon are packed to the rafters with millions of self-published authors who have never (and will never) achieve this kind of success. However, this is the first time I have seen how and why a self-published author might get this level of success and not be lured into a contract with a traditional publisher.

At any rate, I look forward to reading Amanda Hocking’s books and having a chat with the seemingly delightful young author at some point in the future.