John Locke found fame as the first self-published author to sell one million Kindle e-books. Initial coverage of Locke touted that number along with his approach: he initially priced his work at 99 cents and built a readership on customer reviews and word-of-mouth. Locke made headlines again when he signed a distribution deal with Simon & Schuster to get print copies of his titles in bricks-and-mortar outlets. After one book, S&S’s print outreach has shown that selling one million e-books at 99 cents per copy does not necessarily translate into traditional print success. As more publishers strike deals with authors who find success the Locke way, traditional houses may face more questions about just how profitable it is to translate e-success to the mainstream print market.
Although it’s too early to judge the partnership between Locke and S&S, the first book from the deal, Wish List, has sold just over 6,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, since it came out in late January. S&S would not say how many copies it printed, but did acknowledge that the sales numbers were not what it had hoped for, or expected. The second book from Locke’s Donovan Creed series, Saving Rachel, will be distributed by S&S at the end of April with a lower first printing than Wish List, according to Steve Black, v-p of client publisher services.
Black, who confirmed S&S worked with Locke on marketing and publicity—the author also hired an outside publicist for the job—said he was pleased with the support Wish List got from retailers. The problem, Black believes, is that the media was less interested in Locke’s work (his novels are thrillers featuring a former CIA assassin) than in his backstory. “There was plenty of coverage,” Black said, “but the mainstream media seemed to be focused solely on how he sold so many e-books, and then his subsequent deal with us. We tried to point out that his books sold because he is a great storyteller... however, that message never got through.”
St. Martin’s Press is reporting a different story with Amanda Hocking, the author of YA vampire fiction who also sold over one million copies of the nine titles she self-published. SMP inked Hocking to a much publicized $2 million four-book deal, acquiring a new series called Watersong (the first title of which will be published in the fall); SMP acquired print and digital rights to Hocking’s existing Trylle trilogy in a separate deal.
SMP has 200,000 copies in print on Switched, the first title in the Trylle trilogy, after going back to press four times. The second title in the trilogy, Torn, is in its second printing. (The third book in the series, Ascend, will come out at the end of the month.) Matthew Shear, publisher of St. Martin’s, said the house has been “very aggressive” in its rollout of Hocking. The Trylle series received more editorial work before the house republished its editions, with new covers, and there has been significant review coverage as well, unlike Locke. Hocking got strong nods from, among other outlets, Kirkus and Booklist; she was also reviewed, less favorably, in the New York Times Book Review.
If Amanda Hocking and John Locke have had different experiences, Random House insists that E.L. James, the current self-publishing phenomenon du jour, is in a league of her own. James’s erotica trilogy, Fifty Shades, was originally released by a tiny Australian outfit called Coffee House Press. The trilogy initially took off virally on the Web, through fan fiction sites and literary social networking hubs like Goodreads. The word-of-mouth spread quickly and led to a raft of mainstream media coverage, which was as focused on the fact that the series became a hit after such humble publishing beginnings, as it was on the oddity of soft core porn finding an eager audience among suburban mothers. After much of the initial press, Vintage acquired the series. (A film deal has also followed, with Universal nabbing dramatic rights for a sum rumored to be in the multimillions.)
Paul Bogaards, at the Knopf Doubleday Group, said that lumping James and the craze surrounding Fifty Shades into any comparable category is a mistake. It is, he thinks, something wholly unto itself. Vintage took all rights in its deal with James—print, digital, and audio—and released its e-book editions of the three books in the series (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed) on March 12. Media coverage has been extensive; James has been featured in most of the major print outlets, from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly (on the cover), and on all the major morning talk shows (Today, The Early Show, and Good Morning America).
Vintage’s print edition of the first title in the series—a scant number of hard copies from Coffee House Press penetrated the market before James signed with Vintage—will hit stores on April 3. Bogaards said Fifty Shades of Grey was initially set for a 250,000-copy first printing but was bumped to 500,000 copies to meet demand, with orders from retailers climbing to 450,000. Bogaards predicts, given the demand, there will be lines at bookstores with customers waiting for their print copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.