Ford: Bieber-ing the book world

The Good of This Place
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Photo by Kat Oshman.

I regret knowing the following.

In 2008, music manager Scooter Braun discovered Justin Bieber (a name, thank God, my spell-check still attacks). Bieber didn’t go through the normal channels; he didn’t audition for an agent or start a band; his parents didn’t buy him a recording session. He just uploaded a few videos to YouTube, and Braun liked them so much he flew the kid to Atlanta to meet Usher. The rest is history — which I’ll now attempt to purge from my memory to make room for 200 art history slides. Thanks, Wikipedia.

These days, for every Bieber, there’s a Rebecca Black. YouTube is democratic — after all, that’s the appeal — but it’s not exactly meritocratic. And let’s be clear: I’m not wholly willing to concede Bieber’s “merit” just yet, but at least he knows which seat to take when his comparably underage friends want to drive to school. The point is, you don’t have to be good to make the “most viewed” tab. Before it was taken down, Black’s video had over 62 million views; just for comparison, songstress phenom Sara Bareilles boasts barely 1 million on her incredible single “Gravity.”

The successes of Bieber and Black, however different in character, illustrate a trend. The era of legitimate “self-publication” in the worlds of music and film has been barreling forward for some time. That’s not news — but it may provide a glimpse into the future of the more pretentious, exclusive cousin of the entertainment industry: book publishing. Self-publication has always been an ugly phrase in the American literary world. A really ugly phrase — one that evoked teenage slash fiction, “romance” novels written by lonely spinsters and escapist fantasies that make Stephanie Meyer look like Jonathan Franzen. And even in the rare event that a talented author decided to go solo, their work never made any money without the distribution power of a publishing house behind it. It just wasn’t done. If you were legit, you went the way of Random House.

That’s changing. Much has been made of e-books’ power to destroy the institution of bookstores, just as iTunes and YouTube quickly put the traditional record store to the sword. But there are other parallels — namely the immense exposure e-book services provide to aspiring authors attempting to self-publish.

So who will be the first Justin Bieber of the book world? Well, she’s already arrived. Meet Amanda Hocking, a 26-year-old writer who started uploading and selling her young adult novels through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! in early 2010. She embraced digital media, built a cult readership and sold nearly 500,000 copies to Kindles and iPads across the country. But the best part? By cutting out agents, print publishers and traditional booksellers, Hocking raked in around 70 percent of every penny she made — $2 million as of this January. Five years ago, Hocking would have been just another fantasy nerd (with a magenta emo haircut to fit) churning out stories in her spare time. Now she’s a bestselling novelist, enjoying a bidding war between St. Martin’s, Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins for the rights to sell her work in print.

As with Bieber, you can debate the quality of Hocking’s work — but there’s no doubt she’s successful, and propelled herself to legitimacy by self-publishing and self-promoting. “I want to be a household name,” she recently told The New Yorker. “As much money as I’ve made, James Patterson made $70 million in 2010.” Although she’ll now rely on traditional publishers to get there, Hocking utilized the booming e-book industry to break in — something very recently deemed impossible.

Is this a fluke or the future? I vote the latter. It’s easier to make a YouTube video than write an e-novel, but now that writers have Hocking’s precedent, you can expect the number of self-publishing authors to explode. So what if the literati don’t think your latest vampire book will sell? There are hundreds of thousands of salivating readers out there with Kindles who will be more than happy to pay you directly to read it. Some of these writers, like Hocking, will then make the jump to print legitimacy as Bieber did in the music world; others will be perfectly content to remain online entities selling millions per year. And how long before this phenomenon produces a Pulitzer Prize winner? A No. 1 bestseller? Hard to say, but sooner than anyone would have predicted two years ago — that’s for damn sure. So get writing.

Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.

Comments

  • RiverC

    This is a great piece. Thanks!

  • River Tam

    The difference is that Hocking didn’t give it away for free online.