At 99 cents a book, Amanda Hocking had already made a million dollars.
Now the 26-year-old author in Austin, Minn., considered the biggest e-book seller in the world, has signed with an ink-and-paper publisher for a book contract reportedly worth more than $2 million.
"I always said if the deal was good I would take it, and if it isn't, I don't really lose anything," Hocking said in an interview earlier this week.
The four-book deal was confirmed Thursday by a spokesman for St. Martin's Press. That payday will represent the second and third millions Hocking has earned from her books since last April, when she bypassed traditional publishers and began uploading her paranormal romances to digital sites that support e-readers such as Kindles and Nooks. Word of her books spread on blogs, on websites and through word of mouth, and sales began to climb. Her 99-cent price didn't hurt, either.
Since then, she has sold more than 1 million copies of her nine books about trolls, vampires and zombies -- more than 400,000 in January alone.
She found herself a reluctant folk hero among writers irked by what they saw as the elitism of traditional publishing. But Hocking says she has no quarrel with publishers. And while some will note the St. Martin's deal as evidence that self-published authors, however successful, will always give in when the bigwigs come calling, Hocking says she just wants a break from doing everything herself.
"I want to be a writer," she wrote Tuesday on her blog, amandahocking.blogspot.com. "I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation."
Love her, love her heroines
In person and on her blog, Hocking comes across as genuinely kind -- even, despite the dramatic author photo on her books, as the "happy, fluffy person," she says she is.
She is known for her Trylle Trilogy ("Switched," "Torn" and "Ascend") and a four-book series about vampires that begins with "My Blood Approves." As a teenager, she submitted manuscripts to agents and publishers without getting a nibble. Then, as an avid user of iTunes, she saw the possibilities in making her books available for downloading.
She priced the first digital book in each series at 99 cents and subsequent books at $2.99. Paperbacks, published as needed through CreateSpace, are $8.99. Amazon's Kindle model lets her keep 70 percent of the price, while Barnes & Noble's Nook plan offers 40 percent for 99-cent books, and more as the price rises.
She was on to something. While U.S. book sales faltered in 2009, e-book sales rose almost 180 percent to $313 million, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Fans applaud her "against-the-odds" life story, but she also sounds a little like one of her heroines, with whom devotees of paranormal romances identify. Consider:
• Hocking isn't especially imposing. With a wry look, she told about stopping recently at her old high school to deliver a check to support an arts organization there -- and none of the teachers remembered her. Chalk it up to never fitting in.
• Her parents divorced when she was 11, although she saw them both every day while growing up. Her mom is a medical transcriptionist and her father a truck driver. Her stepmother works for Hormel, and her stepfather for Mower County. Chalk it up to working-class realities.
• She attended Riverland Community College in Austin, but never finished. She's worked as a dishwasher, at ShopKo and in group homes for people with disabilities. Chalk it up to doing whatever it takes.
• And then she made a million dollars and still takes time to blog and e-mail and be nice and make wisecracks. Chalk it up to how we would act -- no, really! -- under the same circumstances.
Hocking regularly contributes to blogs and discussion boards, touting favorite authors. She recently noted on her own blog how her distinctively embellished laptop has been in lots of photos and she thought that the company that makes such decals, Gelaskins.com, should get a shout-out.
Fellow bloggers are key to her success. "I am fortunate enough to write in a genre where they work very hard for you if they like you," she said. "Once they liked me, they really worked on talking about [her work] on their blogs, and having interviews and giveaways."
A folk hero seeks legitimacy
Among Amazon's top 100 paid books for Kindle, seven are by Hocking. Hewing to genre, however, doesn't mean that the books are easily written.
"I outline a lot," she said. "It takes me three or four weeks to sit down and write." Her books run to about 300 pages. When she's on a roll, she can write 10,000 words a day, maybe more, depending on her Red Bull consumption.
"I feel like I always have to be putting out more and doing more," she said, sitting cross-legged on the couch of her turquoise-and-pink living room amid Muppet figures -- she's a huge Jim Henson fan -- and Batman characters. "It scares me that if I stop doing this it will go away, especially now that I have some notoriety."
Hocking is an outlier in indie publishing, but not for long. Crime writer John Locke has sold more than 350,000 Kindle downloads of his book, "Saving Rachel," for 99 cents -- since January. He has said it all comes down to 99 cents being the magic number.
When Hocking began writing, "I wanted to write something that was really profound, like 'Slaughterhouse Five.' Meaningful. I was forcing myself to be something I'm not."
Yet she fights the sense that she's not a credible writer -- a sense partly fueled by the traditional media's resistance to reviewing self-published genre books.
"If I was writing some big novel about racism or oppression, maybe I would feel more legitimate," she said.
The St. Martin's Press deal is for a four-book series called "Watersong." The first, "Wake," is to be released in fall 2012. As of Thursday afternoon, 79 people on goodreads.com had marked it as "to read."
Freelance writer Stephanie Wilbur Ash contributed to this report. Kim Ode • 612-673-7185