Adventures in e-publishing Part Three – interview with Ian Hocking

Dr Ian Hocking is the author of two techno-thrillers, Déjà Vu and Flashback, as well as a rites of passage comedy, Proper Job, and a short story collection, A Moment in Berlin. All of them self-published though amazon. In fact, his self-publishing exploits – and more particularly his sales success – have brought him to the attention of Nicholas Clee writing in The New Statesman.

Just to get this out of the way, any relation to Amanda Hocking?

Yes, we’ve been happily married for years. No – wait! We’re completely unconnected.

So congratulations on those sales, Ian. The last time I looked, Déjà Vu was number 6 in the amazon.co.uk technothriller ranking – for all book formats, not just kindle. That’s quite an achievement. To what do you owe your success?

Like most authors, I only have clues but no definitive answer. Déjà Vu itself was first published in 2005 by the UKA Press. There, it was edited by the talented Aliya Whitely. The UKA Press angle didn’t work for a variety of reasons. Meantime, I kept working on the book. I genuinely thought it was good – or, at least, that it was the kind of book I wanted to read. The next step was a near-miss from a larger publisher. I picked up literary representation on the back of this. Along the way, I recorded Déjà Vu as a podcast, and kept reworking the material. Eventually, when my agent couldn’t place the book, I gave up writing. There’s a post on my blog about it. I redrafted Déjà Vu again in line with a short report from Scott Pack, hired Clare Christian to give it a proper edit, and put it out for the Kindle. What I’m saying, in a roundabout way, is that I never tired of returning to the story of Déjà Vu and polishing it. Those years in the wilderness paid off in terms of the quality of the book. I don’t know how it compares to other publications out there, but it has certainly received more attention than most, both from the writer and its editors.

Déjà Vu was originally published as a paperback by Bluechrome publishing, to considerable acclaim, including a rave review in the Guardian. Why did you decide to bring out your own e-edition? How does self-publishing compare to being published by a small press?

It depends on the small press. My experience with UKA Press (which was bankrolled by Bluechrome at the time) was not, on the whole, a good one. I welcomed the opportunity to be fully in control of the process. Frankly, when an author is published by a small press (and maybe by a big press), the marketing work falls to him or her anyway, so there is little difference on that score. But the main thrust of the thinking behind self publication was to get the thing off my hard drive and ‘park’ it somewhere for posterity. I honestly, truly, thought nobody beyond my immediate friends and family would buy it. Publication via the Kindle is a dream come true. Putting aside for a moment the implications of Amazon for the publishing industry, a Kindle author has: monthly royalty payments; instant access to sales; a global distribution mechanism that costs nothing at the point of signing up; and the ability to make any and all corrections they see fit to the manuscript, continuously. Amazon has transformed publishing, but, more than that, it has provided a framework for books to find success based on their quality – and this is something new.

I believe Déjà Vu has also recently was a winner in the 2011 Red Adept Reviews Indie Award for Science Fiction. Congratulations again. Not only that, it has 67 reviews on amazon.co.uk. 67! So how do you go about getting reviews and how do you make sure they’re positive? (Apart from writing a brilliant book, of course!)

Imagine me flapping a hand at the computer and making an ‘Aw, shucks,’ face.

 

The review system is one of my favourite parts of Amazon. It provides a representative sample of responses from customers. That statement sounds banal until you consider that, for much of the history of traditional publishing, responses to books have been non-representative (i.e. professional critics, whose reading responses are often artificial), rarely from customers, and few in number.

 

I’ve set up a saved search for my name on Twitter. If I see that a person has tweeted about reading my book, I’ll send them a polite reply asking them to put a review on the Kindle store. More than a quarter of the reviews on the Kindle store are from people I’ve contacted. Otherwise, I always reply to emails that readers send me. It freaks them out; but I take their emails seriously. I don’t reply with canned responses, or ultra-short sentences that imply I’ve got better things to do than respond to fan mail. If I were to look at this coldly – which I don’t – I could say that I’m building personal relationships with customers and improving the odds that they’ll remember me and buy my books in future. But it’s just cool to get feedback. I’m interested in what people have to say.

Nicholas Clee, in that New Statesman article, suggested that, impressive as your sales are, you could have made more if you’d published by the conventional route. How do you answer that?

Yes, there’s a lengthy reply to Nicholas on my blog. He’s probably right. But the point is that I am one of the new guard: I make little money, but consistently, at one end of the tail. The Kindle publishing model suits people like me. I have a full time job as a researcher and lecturer, which I love, and I can write part time and earn money to invest in editing and covers.

If you’re doing so well pursuing the self-publishing route, why do you need a big-shot American agent? I hear you’ve recently been taken on by one.

At heart, it comes down to thinking one or two moves ahead. I will be forever grateful to Amazon for giving me the opportunity to reach people with my fiction. Nobody else wanted to do that. But I’m not sentimentally attached to the idea of ebooks. I’m into extended prose, whatever form it comes in, because I want people to read my work.

 

A few weeks ago I spoke to a very nice man who is the commissioning editor for a large UK publisher. He told me he thought Déjà Vu was great, but given that I’d already sold 11,000 units of Déjà Vu and Flashback combined, there was no market for them. I scratched my head for a minute or two. Then I went to the website of my email-buddy Gerard Jones, Everyone Who’s Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing, Newspapers, Magazines, Broadcasting and Tinseltown, Too, and looked up the contact details of some American agents.

 

I approached them with my reviews and sales data. Did they think the UK market could serve as a test case for how well the book might do in the US? More of them agreed, and more enthusiastically, than I had anticipated. Several phone calls later, I’m proud to say that I’m represented by Katherine Flynn at Kneerim & Williams. She’s brilliant and I’m genuinely looking forward to working with her.

What’s their view on your self-publishing endeavours? There was a time when this might have counted against an author. Has that changed?

Self-publishing once involved a considerable investment. Now, because it is trivially easy to publish via the Kindle, the number of people uploading their books makes for a larger group. It’s no longer a niche and more difficult for those within conventional publishing to stigmatise. There’s a recognition, I think, that it is a legitimate route for a writer who has not been able to secure a traditional deal.

 

And it was ever true that nothing succeeds like success. A few years back, G. P. Taylor was viewed as a self-publishing hero because he sold so many copies of his fantasy series. If he hadn’t, maybe people would see him as a sad bastard. Self-publishing success shows that people want to buy your work. That addresses the anxiety of most publishers.


You famously announced on your blog that you’ve given up writing fiction. Still the case?

 

No, I’m writing again. However, I’ve never made a decision that made me more relaxed, normal and relieved in the short term. I could spend more time reading, playing my guitar and piano, and getting more involved in life. Then my books became successful. I’m back to daydreaming and filing away the horrors of the everyday into drawers marked ‘Useful’. I’m sweating over metaphors. And happy.

You’re a man who’s looked into the future. Is conventional publishing dead? And if so, should we be sorry?

Conventional publishing is going to shrink further than it has already. Physical books will become rare because their technology is not as conducive to fiction as electronic readers. However, there is still a role for middlemen to play. I want to write; I don’t want to be hand-coding the paragraphs, booking adverts, or hiring proofreaders.

Any advice for anyone foolish enough to dip a toe into the self-publishing waters (me, for instance)? What are the pitfalls?

Advice: Do it. Remember that there is a correlation, for all books, between quality and sales, but your own book might be an outlier. Load the dice in your favour by making the text as good as possible. Usually, that means hiring people to take care of all the stages of editing. The cover needs to be great. You, Roger, already have a goddamn great cover. The price needs to be low. If you picture your own book against an established author in the same genre, ask yourself why a person is going to spend money on you. Price is a huge factor in that. I have a lot of feedback from readers who say that my book was so cheap they figured what the hell. Then they wrote a nice review; told their friends; and bought the next in the series at a higher price. I wouldn’t benefit from that if I hadn’t hooked them with something from the beginning.

 

I’m struggling to think of pitfalls. It is possible that you’ll spend money on editing, on the cover, and make no money back. But this can only be a few hundred quid. That’s not loose change, by any means, but remember that Amazon (or whoever) has sunk many of the distribution costs already. This won’t be like self-publishing was ten years ago. And isn’t your book worth the money? It probably is. It can be an ebook for a very long time indeed.

 

Index to Adventures in e-Publishing.

Ian Hocking blogs here.



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