March 30th, 2011 by Will Entrekin

The Hocking-Keene Zombie-pocalypse Death Match-stravaganza

Recently, a friend of mine, Nina Perez, who maintains Blog It Out B, decided to bite the bullet and publish her new novel without the backing of a major corporation or the “advocacy” of a literary agent. This coming Friday, her novel, The Twin Prophecies: Rebirth will launch, and I for one am looking forward to it. She’s been working with a guy named Steven Novak on design and illustration, as well as concentrating on formatting and lay-out.

Launching a novel, especially independently, is an anxiety-filled endeavor. Every author faces the stomach-churn that comes with the launch of a novel, but I’d stake a claim that anxiety is doubled for an independent author, who not only faces the daunting challenge of both reaching new readers and hoping those readers don’t respond negatively, but also faces the general negativity of the publishing industry–including literary agents and editors associated with corporate publishers–as a whole.

As Nina has been prepping her novel for publication, we–we being myself and several of her other friends–have been discussing writing and publishing. We’re a diverse group of writers still emerging, still building, still working, still aspiring. We don’t have contracts with big corporations. A couple of us don’t have books out. But we write, and that’s what counts.

And given that we write, and given that we’ve been discussing writing and publishing, lately, we’ve been discussing Amanda Hocking. How can an aspiring writer not, nevermind to what said writer aspires to. Regardless of whether a writer wants millions of dollars or millions of readers, Hocking seems exemplary of a case study of success.

Except.

(There’s always an “except,” isn’t there?)

Now, I’m going to break from discussion, because I’ll not put words in other writers’ mouths. But I’ve noticed Hocking, and her work, and her story, and I’ve gotten a couple samples of her work, and I’ve got to be honest: I don’t get it.

Then again, I didn’t get Twilight, either.

Still, a million teenage girls (and their moms) and the millions of dollars they spent can’t be wrong.

Or can they?

This is something we wondered. I’ve probably been the most vocal in terms of questioning Hocking’s success, sales, and writing ability, but really, any writers, no matter what they’re aspiring to, have to wonder.

As many breathless media stories as I’ve read concerning the deal Hocking just made with Saint Martin’s Press (for seven gazillion dollars and puppies and unicorns), none have really said anything about how well she writes. It’s interesting. It’s almost as though it doesn’t matter how well she writes. It’s almost like all that matters is how many books she sold and how much Saint Martin’s gave her.

Having heard her story, and that she was shopping a series, I got myself hence to Amazon and grabbed a couple of her samples. What I found, when I read them, were poorly formatted pages full of errors in both grammar and design.

Now, in her post announcing her deal and explaining why she took it when she was already making a million dollars every month, Hocking notes she didn’t have great editors. I think that’s a little annoying, if only because I don’t think one should throw one’s editor under a bus. In most of the novels I’ve read, writers have generally acknowledged their editors as halfway between angels and saviors, and noted that what’s great is better because of their editors, and what remains in error is probably authorial in nature. For my part, my every publication is stronger and better because of my editrix, and whatever errors persist do so due to author error.

So on behalf of editors everywhere, fuck Hocking there.

But on the other hand, maybe that’s Hocking’s way of acknowledging the myriad problems that exist in her books. Maybe she knows they’re not really that good.

Which is where friends come in.

In addition to Nina, I’m also friends with Tracey Lander-Garrett, who has taught in seven colleges in NY (and one in NJ) in the past eight years, including classes in composition (from beginning to advanced), literature, and creative writing. She’s also taught creative writing at a summer camp on Long Island, has a BA in creative writing and an MFA in poetry, and is working on novels.

When we started discussing Hocking, Tracey had an idea. She teaches at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), and she thought it would be both interesting and demonstrative if she discussed Hocking with her students.

Now, any experiment needs both a control and variable, so if you’re going to discuss Hocking, you can’t just throw the poor girl under a bus. You should introduce another work, and without much discussion of the merit of either, you should open forum for discussion. It’s not exactly science, but this is writing, anyway. We began to suggest writers with whom to compare a passage from Hocking’s work, and Brian Keene came up right away.

I’m not familiar with Keene’s work, but Dead Sea was mentioned.

Now, given its mention, I went and read the sample for Dead Sea; not bad, Mr. Keene. Not bad at all.

We started to come up with a frame:

I can do an experiment in my composition classroom on Monday; we’re doing a section on compare and contrast. A page from Hocking’s Hollowland versus a page from…

Also, we need to be careful in choosing the sections. Is it action scene versus action scene? First page versus first page?

And then the results. Which I’ll post as Tracey did:

*

The results are in: 22 English Composition students at Borough of Manhattan Community College were asked to rate the first four pages of Amanda Hocking’s Hollowland versus the first four pages of Chapter Four in Brian Keene’s Dead Sea. Chapter Four’s opening was chosen because– like Hollowland‘s opening– it similarly involved characters attempting to flee zombies.

For those of you unfamiliar, Hocking is the self-published author of 9 novels, of which she has sold nearly one million copies online, priced at $2.99 and 99 cents. Many people who have read her books have complained that Hocking’s writing is merely “okay” and that the texts are riddled with typos and grammar errors.

Keene is a multiple award-winning author of 16 novels published by Delirium Books, Leisure Books, and others. Wikipedia claims that “Keene has often been credited (by the New York Times, Fangoria, the History Channel, and others) with ushering in the new era of zombie popularity in pop culture (along with filmmaker Danny Boyle).” Even so, Brian Keene’s novels have sold nowhere near the number of copies that Amanda Hocking’s novels have. As far as I can tell, his books are priced at the going rate for any mass market paperback: somewhere between $4.95 and $7.99.

Interesting to note: I did not reveal the pricing for the books until after the students had rated the sample pages.

The question I posed to my students, after they read these two samples, was “Why would you purchase one of these books over the other?”

Students compared the books based on the following criteria (theirs, not mine), for which they gave either a plus or a minus to the texts. The comparison was free form, based on raised hands and statements made in the classroom, with student votes and comments written on the blackboard in chalk.

Attribute Hocking Keene
Action + -
Suspense + -
Pacing + -
Description/Detail + +
Emotion - +
Surprising Plot/Twist - +
Dialogue (“not too fake”) - +
Writing - +

Overall, though some students claimed they would buy neither, as they were not fans of the zombie or supernatural genres, the majority of those students who would purchase such a book, preferred Hocking. (Due to the informal nature of this discussion, I can’t say for sure how many: Perhaps five students would buy neither, three would buy Keene, and the rest would buy Hocking.)

One student, when asked about the quality of the writing, stated that when he is reading for entertainment, he doesn’t care as long as the writing is suspenseful and action-packed. All of the students agreed that Keene was the better writer, one whose writing would teach them to be better writers. But, the students pointed out, if they are reading to learn, they reach for text books, and mainly only when those are assigned. Pacing was cited as important. “It keeps me interested when it’s exciting like that,” one student claimed.

Students rated Hocking’s dialogue as “cliche” and “expected, like in most movies,” but were not bothered by it because “it was easy.” Though they preferred the realism of Keene’s dialogue, and appreciated the way his description allowed readers to “see what’s around them,” they felt it slowed down the pacing of the scene.

While they did not care specifically for Hocking’s description or dialogue, the students said it was “enough,” and that was all they cared about.

When I finally revealed the differences in pricing between the two novels, the rest of the students who had held out in preference of Keene defected. “That’s at least two or three of her books for one of his!” a student pointed out.

I indicated that Hocking’s books often contain typos and grammar mistakes. As a counterpoint, a student offered that Keene probably paid for editors and that Hocking did not. I explained that Hocking recently confessed to having hired “shitty editors” on her blog–and reminded the students that she was self-published, while Keene’s work had gone through literary agents and a publishing house that had professional editors working for it.

“Would it bother you to notice mistakes like that in a book you purchased?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t notice them,” one student stated.

Another yelled, “You get what you pay for!”

And there you have it. Action, suspense, and pacing are everything, especially when the price is right.

*

All of which I find fascinating (this is Will again. Not Tracey).

When Tracey posted these results, I asked after attributes and characteristics: age, gender, educational background, etc.

She noted:

The students range in age from 18 – 49, with the majority of the students between 18-22 years old, with three students who are between 25 and 49.

Their educational backgrounds are that they are in their first year or two of community college in NYC.

The students who did not like supernatural writing preferred anything from biography to romance to mystery.

Again, due to the informal nature of the discussion, I went with majority votes on the + / -. The students acknowledged there was (good) action in Keene’s work, but felt it suffered due to the other issues noted above.

*

From both a writing and marketing perspective, I found all this fascinating.

One thing with which I’ve concerned myself–indeed, something of a personal mission–is that the key to a successful book is a good story told well.

Perhaps that “told well” isn’t as important.

I’m not sure, but to be candid, neither am I certain I care.

I post this because, in light of Hocking and Eisler, in light of independent publishing and corporate publishing, I find it fascinating. I wonder what those same students would have thought of Eisler’s book versus . . . well, who knows, really? Sort of breaks the experiment, doesn’t it? One could pose it against a book from a thriller by an independent author, but that’s what Eisler is now. One could put Eisler against a corporation-supported author, but then again that’s sort of what the New York Times did with the Rain series, didn’t it.

It may be an exercise in futility, of course. Eisler and Hocking are very different authors, as are Keene and Hocking. So far as I can gather, Keene focuses on an adult market, while Hocking targets young-adult paranormal urban fantasy romance readers. Which is to say, Keene is to Hocking as Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight; they tell very different stories in very different ways for very different audiences. Perhaps the Young Adult designator stretches as far in either direction as the Adult designator does.

I’m not sure there are any conclusions to draw from this, but it’s interesting grist for the discussion, and prompts a lot of questions. Are agents and publishers right that readers don’t necessarily want great books, anyway, and what is a great book, at that? Something everyone likes to read? What’s “good” writing? Are there objective standards we can apply, ever, or will books always always always be subjective?

For my money, I think there is some objectivity one can apply, and I’m not sure this is demonstrative of much. We know how terrible fast food is for us, but yet such restaurants thrive. I’m not saying there’s an analogy between the publishing industry and fast food, but I’m not saying there isn’t one, either. I tried reading Hocking’s book, downloaded the sample of Hollowland, which I thought was both poorly written (subjective) but also poorly formatted (objective); the chapter break wasn’t even on a new page. As an independent author who knows from firing up Mobipocket Creator, a little detail like that pissed me off, especially when it’s all a matter of a single line of code. Maybe readers nowadays don’t care about new pages; there certainly aren’t new pages on the internet.

One other complaint, this one concerning Keene: I tried Dead Sea. I actually liked it, to start with. I wanted to read more.

I could not.

Why?

Because Keene’s book isn’t on Kindle (I think a few are, but I didn’t want those. I wanted that one, in particular). Which would mean I’d have to order it used from the Amazon Marketplace, and wait for it to get to my apartment, and then sit down with actual paper and have more clutter. Meanwhile, with a single digital file, I could have been mostly done it already, and either Leisure Books or Keene himself could have an extra dollar in his Kindle account right now.

That, I feel, is a major missed opportunity. Lost sale.

Edit to add:

Tracey asked me to make clear that this wasn’t just a fun exercise/experiment, but rather an educational demonstration. In her words:

“In practice this comparison demonstrated how the judgements we make are based on unconscious comparisons, and then the students created thesis statements based on their criteria. Overall it was an interesting lesson for me, and I think for them as well.”

Comments

9 Responses to “The Hocking-Keene Zombie-pocalypse Death Match-stravaganza”
  1. After 20 years, 4 million books sold, and all the bestseller lists, I’m making the transition to indie. It’s just the reality of a changing business model that not many are willing to accept. My last two advances from St Martins were more than what Eisler had on the table in front of him. But, like me, he’s done the math.

  2. Nice, Bob. Welcome to Team Indie. Thrilled to have you. And you’re right; it’s just the reality. I think what’s really happening is that, for years, the publishing business model was flawed but unavoidable because there really wasn’t a better way to do things, or really any other way to do things.

    And now there is, and that’s exciting.

  3. The most telling thing to me about Hocking was this: “James Patterson has a book out now that has incredibly low reviews, some of the lowest I’ve seen for any book, and that book is still selling like crazy, and I can find it Target and Walmart. Even the sequel to the book, which the reviews say is even twice as awful as the original, is selling like crazy. Why? Because James Patterson wrote it. (Or more accurately, because his name is on the cover).”

    It’s almost as if she knows she’s not that great a writer and wants to ensure that she’ll have stability regardless. Because, really, who’s career goal is: even if I suck, I’ll still make money. Well, actually, that might be the American Dream, but you know what I’m saying – it’s a weird goal for a writer. I’ve been meaning to write something about this for Self-Publishing Review, but I don’t really want to criticize her too much because it’s so great that she broke self-publishing open.

    However, this is really depressing: “The students pointed out, if they are reading to learn, they reach for text books.”

  4. I caught that, Henry, and agree. Both about Hocking and the textbooks.

    I’ve been thinking about Patterson a lot lately. And wondering if what he managed would have been possible with the changing of business-as-usual in publishing. I caught his latest commercial for his latest novel (Toys). Yaysh.

  5. Hi Will,

    Thanks for this post, which I’ve retweeted.

    I, too, find it rather interesting that quantity seems to matter more than quality. It can lead a person to seriously question: “Who cares about quality, as long as the thing $ell$?”

    It can also be very difficult to balance art and commercialism at the same time.

    I’ve written my perspectives on my website and blog:

    http://www.jessink.com/vampire_fad.htm
    http://www.jesscscott.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/i-hate-commercialism

    When I was younger (15-21), commercialism used to really irk me…till I realized there’s different audiences for different types of work :)

    Jess.

  6. I’m glad you found this post, Jess, as your comment brought my attention to your site. JessINK looks great (go Team Indie!), and I picked up a couple of your books–how could I go wrong for a few bucks? I’ve been looking for some good fiction to read, and a couple of your books caught my eye (I went with the first book of the Elven trilogy and the Dragon one. Looking forward).

    I definitely agree with you about the $elling point. The art and commercialism thing . . . I’m not sure, there. I read your post on hating it, and it brought up some interesting points. It was interesting that you brought a thought to tapping into a commercial market rather than to creating a commercial novel. For my part, I’ve always wondered if there are certain ideas or projects that lend themselves to a huge audience. For example, you mention artistic integrity in your post, and I wonder if sometimes artistic integrity involves “selling out” for the good of a project. Like, if you know an idea has potential to be a terrific, well-loved book, and you dedicate yourself to bringing it to a wide audience.

    Which is a bit different, in terms of motivation, from writing something to appeal to a wide audience. Coming at it from opposite ends, as it were.

    As a personal example, I always think of The Prodigal Hour as my big commercial novel, but not because it taps into a particular market. Rather, I think it’s got potential to have broad appeal (and it’s partly up to me to bring it to everyone’s attention).

    Thanks for your thoughts here. Looking forward to reading.

  7. [...] subject of “art versus commerce” used to really irk me in the past (when I was…15-21, maybe). It took me a while to [...]

  8. Hi Will,

    Thanks for checking out jessINK (Team Indie, indeed!), and for checking out my books as well. I enjoyed the opening of Meets Girl. Will add to my to-be-read list (I’ll see to the list later — I’m currently trying to get my second anthology done by June 2011).

    I’ve definitely thought about some of the things you mentioned. I think “artistic integrity” can be a subjective thing (one artist might might consider “bringing something to a wide audience” as “selling out,” while another might have a different view entirely, and decide to present the project in such a way that makes it, indeed, accessible to a huge audience).

    I know of some people (won’t name names) who maintain they’d rather “see something published the way they want, instead of dumbing it down just so that more people can read it.” Personally, I think that smacks of an inflated ego (more so than “artistic integrity” / depends on the way and tone at which it is expressed), but that’s just me. Perhaps that *is* what some individuals define as “artistic integrity,” so to each their own.

    As for myself, I usually aim to provide something that’s meaningful and entertaining. I don’t want to write to look/appear “smart”; neither do I want to totally put aside things I’d like to do with a project, and just go for the money. Creative work is very intense and personal that way, but that’s the way I like it :P

    Perhaps The Prodigal Hour is a blend of commercial/literary fiction? I like to think of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction as a very nice blend of art and commerce. Musically, I’ll think of bands like Nirvana and Linkin Park (first two albums especially), who have mainstream appeal and do not lack substance.

    I recently came across a Salon article on authors & publicity:

    http://www.salon.com/books/laura_miller/2011/03/29/writer_sell_thyself

    Interesting points!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: