Can You Make Millions Selling 99¢ Books? Amanda Hocking Did.

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Amanda Hocking’s story might strike some as a one-off or a product of luck, but it’s not. Her success was a product of great writing and smart decision making. And since she was a self-published author, she got to call all the shots.

In 2010, Amanda Hocking was stewing in her tiny, sparsely furnished apartment in Austin, Minnesota. She was penniless and frustrated, having spent years fruitlessly trying to interest traditional publishers in her work. Hocking was also, as it happens, a huge Muppets fan, and she had heard that an exhibition about Jim Henson was coming to Chicago later that year. She wanted to attend, but she couldn’t afford the trip.

Hocking had written a series of novels over a nine-year period, which had been rejected by countless agents and publishing houses. In an effort to pull the funds together for the trip, she decided she would put her eBooks up for sale on Amazon. She listed the first at 99¢.

Over the next six months, Hocking not only raised the $300 she needed to make it to Chicago, she earned over $20,000. By March 2011, she had sold 1.5 million books.

Was it good luck or good strategy?

While Hocking’s story might strike some as a one-off or a product of luck — the sort of thing that happens once in a generation — it’s really not. Her success was a product of great writing and smart decision making. And since she was a self-published author, she got to call all the shots.

In a process that resembles the “freemium” business model, Hocking listed the first book in her series for just 99¢. Then, she increased the cover price for later books in her series to $2.99. She encouraged readers to take an easy chance on that lower price point, then hooked them with the quality of the series.

It worked. Once hooked, readers were willing to pay that higher price for Hocking’s books.

Once she’d built an audience, the big publishers came calling. She eventually sold the rights to four of her books to St. Martin’s Press for $2 million.

Some fans and folks in the industry were surprised by Hocking’s decision to sign with a major publishing company, but the fact is, because of her intelligent approach, hard work, and unwavering persistence, she earned the right to make that choice herself.

“I’m a writer,” Hocking stated in an interview. “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, I am spending so much time on things that are not writing.”

As an independent author, you should seek to learn everything you can from Hocking’s story. Here are a few key takeaways.

1. Pricing your first book at 99¢ is a smart way to get new readers

Most people are willing to pay 99¢ to “try out” a new author. Personally, I routinely spend 99¢ on new eBooks from places like BookBub and Amazon. The risk? I lose a dollar. The upside? I find a new author whose books I love. Many readers are looking for new writers to enjoy, they just don’t want to spend $15 a pop to find them.

2. In the beginning, the number of books you sell is more important than the amount of money you make

For new authors, the name of the game is growing your readership. Every new reader is a potential advocate — someone who will not only purchase the books you publish down the road but will continuously help you acquire new fans.

Your goal should be to find as many people who will champion your work as possible. You want fans who will follow you for the entirety of your journey. Those are exactly the type of folks Hocking found, and they followed her everywhere she went.

3. Selling cheap books can help boost your sales rankings and get you more reviews

The number of books you sell is reflected by Amazon’s sales rankings, and slotting high in those ratings is key to finding new readers. In this regard, selling a lot of 99¢ books is better than selling a handful of $5 books, even if you make more money doing the latter.

Moreover, the moment your book becomes a top-10 bestseller on Amazon, it automatically populates on thousands of Amazon home pages, typically in the form of an automated suggestion. Readers will always be more likely to buy books they have reason to believe they’ll enjoy.

The more exposure you get, the more books you sell; the more books you sell, the more reviews you obtain. For an independent author, reviews are like jet fuel. Readers are much more likely to try out a new book from a new author if hundreds of other people testify to its greatness.

Of course, not everyone will be able to replicate Hocking’s remarkable success, but if you’re an independent author looking to get your book in front of as many readers as possible, there’s much you can learn from her story.

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Steven Spatz
Steven Spatz is a writer, marketer, and the President of BookBaby, the nation’s leading self publishing services company. Spatz’s professional writing career began at age 13, paid by the word to bang out little league baseball game stories on an ancient manual typewriter for southern Oregon weekly newspapers. His journalism career continued after graduation from the University of Oregon at several daily newspapers in Oregon. When his family took over a direct marketing food business, Spatz redirected his writing and design skills into producing catalogs. The Pinnacle Orchards catalog was named "Best Food Catalog," received dozens of other national awards, and the business grew into one of the nation’s largest gourmet fruit gift businesses. After the company was sold, Spatz continued his direct marketing career with Fortune 500 companies including Mattel and Hasbro. He joined AVL Digital in 2004 to lead the direct-to-consumer marketing teams for music industry-leading brands Disc Makers, Oasis, and CD Baby. After serving as Chief Marketing Officer, Spatz was tapped to lead the company’s new publishing division in late 2014. In 2019, the AVL Digital Management team purchased the New Jersey brands, including BookBaby. The company is headquartered in Pennsauken, NJ (just outside Philadelphia, PA) and meets the printed book and eBook needs of thousands of self-publishing authors around the globe. Spatz lives in Glenside, PA with his two children, a demented cat, and some well-used bicycles. Steven loves to hear from authors, editors, and publishers in the BookBaby community with tales of publishing trials and triumphs. To tell him your story, write to steven@bookbaby.com.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Oh Steven, you’re such a marketing guy ,

    So much over simplification. Amanda did all of that at the right time too. Now EVERYONE does the 99 cent book–when she did it, it was a newer idea. She was also fabulous at social media and networking (while not “luck” that is a separate skill set). The danger of using examples like Amanda are that she IS an outlier. It’s like telling the story of Bill Gates and Microsoft … sure there are lessons to be learned, but so many things have changed and being smart, ready, to take advantage of a situation is great, but those situations don’t exist forever.

    I would also note that Amanda focused on a genre. Paranormal Romance. There are certain advantages to some genres that do not translate to generalizations. I know, I sound like a naysayer. I’m not. Write for yourself and take advantage of the fact that people like Amanda paved the way for self-publishing to be accepted and companies like bookbaby made it easier and more robust!

    • What’s wrong with using stories of an outlier? Isn’t that the goal of most of us who write? I don’t see this as an over simplification at all; but encouragement that it can be done with the right ideas, goals, and, most-importantly, work.

  2. Steven thank you for all the advice you have given us over the years. Although I live in England UK, If I do not have a zip code for your forms, will I still be able to get your catalogue of help to format and market my eBooks, as a self-publisher.

    Howard

  3. This is a fabulous and inspiring article. It gives new authors a real insight into the potential of self-publishing.

    Thanks, Stanislav for your comments as well. Ironically it clarifies what the real expectations might be at this time, at least for me anyway. The focus of the genre will make a big difference using this strategy.

  4. I resonate with Stanislav ‘s opinion. Amanda was a pioneer. She blazed a few trails. I am glad she broke through. Indie becomes more complicated daily. The more free books out there, who’s going to help us recoup some of the funds we have made. Most will NEVER break even. Lucky will be the ones to make a profit. If one has the time and savvy as DERIK Murphy, CreativeIndie, I feel you will make it. If not, its a crap shoot. Yeah, we love to write, and create, and that is what keeps us soldiers going.

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