Friday 24 February 2017

Book number 20 made me a fortune

Twenty-seven-year-old Am-anda Hocking has one of those stories people love to tell. At the age of 26, she had written 19 novels. She had failed to get a single one published. Hailing from the small American town of Austin, Minnesota, she was working two full-time jobs and earning very little money.

When she discovered The Muppets' creator Jim Henson was visiting Chicago, she self-published her books on Amazon to raise enough money for the petrol to make the round trip. She had aimed to raise a few hundred dollars. She ended up raising $2.5m.

In person, Hocking is cute and unassuming; bespectacled and dressed conservatively, she has pretty tattoos creeping out from under her shirtsleeves. She describes the conditions that led to her success as "a perfect storm at the perfect time".

"It was a combination of things. In 2009, I sat down and really focused and wrote a tonne and nothing happened. In 2010, I heard about self-publishing and I also heard abut the Jim Henson exhibition coming to Chicago. I had no money and self-publishing was out there so I was like, I'll try it and it all just kind of . . ."

It's not surprising she can't find the word she's looking for. Her book Switched, a contemporary fairytale for young adults based on Scandinavian folklore, sold 1.5 million copies online and is now just being published in traditional format.

"In the beginning I was selling a couple of books a day, and by June I was selling a couple of thousand, and by the end of the year I had sold over a million. I thought there was something wrong with the figures."

It's understandable, considering her sales jumped from 20,000 copies one month to 100,000 the next. "It was so bizarrely phenomenal and so unexpected," she says.

What's interesting about Switched is it is just a well-told, simple fantasy story. Why does she think so many people wanted to read it?

"I honestly don't know. I feel like because so many people hear about the story behind the book they think there has to be some profound, amazing thing in the book and then they read it and they're disappointed because it's just a book . . . it's really very simple.

"People tend to put that down as a negative quality but it's escapist. You can have fun and get lost in a world for a couple of hours."

Hocking might be on to something. Despite the fact that her protagonist Wendy is a teenager, her main readership is housewives and mothers.

"I read an article in the NYT saying how adults are not growing up, how we are an adolescent society. People are into that because there's less responsibility, more adventure, more fun.

"Of the people who read my books, the most common are wives and mothers and they spend all day with their kids so remembering being 16, when you were young and had no responsibilities, seems very appealing."

She says she did try to write more "high-brow literary fiction" but it wasn't her. "I didn't want to admit to being a geek and that I liked fantasy but that really was who I was."

Switched looks set to become even more popular as it is being adapted for the screen by the screenwriter of the cult sci-fi film District 9 and she has a new four-part series planned for publication. She has finally done a deal with a traditional publisher, too.

Hocking is now on her 22nd novel and writes at incredible speed. "I think I wrote Switched in two or three weeks. Writing is like when you first start dating somebody new and you stay up till four in the morning and still get up for work because you're just happy in love. You're running on euphoria."

Switched is published by Pan MacMillan; www.worldofamandahocking.com

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