Future of media: The rise of the million-selling Kindle author

Amazon’s (s amzn) Kindle platform doesn’t just allow people to read millions of e-books, it also allows them to publish millions of them: the company announced on Monday that John Locke, who self-publishes his work through Kindle’s direct publishing program, has joined the elite group of authors who have sold a million or more books, a list that includes Stieg Larsson and James Patterson. Along with fellow author Amanda Hocking, Locke has become the poster boy for a growing movement of writers who are bypassing the traditional publishing industry.

What’s even more incredible than Locke’s million-selling status is that it has taken him less than six months to pull off this feat: the author said in an interview earlier this year with J.A. Konrath — another popular independent author and proponent of self-publishing — that he had sold 350,000 copies of his books in just three months and that was in March. In the interview, Locke said that he had no previous experience as an author (he ran an insurance business and a real estate business before turning to writing), and had never submitted a query letter or manuscript to a traditional publisher. But he saw the potential of the Kindle publishing model, he says:

I saw that a self-published book could be offered on Kindle for 99 cents, and still turn a 35 cent profit… I walked around in a daze for, well, days, trying to explain to people what that meant. No one seemed impressed. To me it was like receiving the keys to the kingdom, and I immediately set a goal to become the world’s greatest 99-cent author.

Locke — who mostly writes easy-to-read action and adventure stories about former CIA assassins and cowboys — isn’t the only one taking advantage of the low end of the Kindle publishing model by selling his books for just 99 cents (books that sell for less than $2.99 get a 35-percent royalty rate from Amazon, while those that sell for $2.99 or higher get a 70-percent rate). Locke’s fellow author Konrath, who has written a lot about self-publishing and why more authors should consider it, says that when he dropped the price of one of his books to 99 cents, he started to sell huge numbers of them:

[W]hen I lowered the price of The List from $2.99 to 99 cents, I started selling 20x as many copies — about 800 a day. My loss lead became my biggest earner.

In addition to Locke, young-adult author Amanda Hocking is the other main poster child for self-publishing: just 26 years old, she started publishing her own books through the Kindle platform last year after being repeatedly rejected by traditional publishers, and has since sold more than $2 million worth of her novels. Based on that success, she was courted by a number of publishing houses and just recently signed a $2-million contract to publish four books in a new series. Hocking has also sold many of her books for $2.99 or less.

Not everyone thinks that the ease with which authors like Hocking and Locke can publish is a good thing. Both have been criticized for what some say is the “pulp” or popular nature of their books, and there are those who feel that Amazon’s self-publishing platform is effectively diluting the supply of good books. But Locke argues that the explosion of self-publishing is beneficial because it disrupts the traditional hegemony of the industry:

It wasn’t so long ago that an aspiring author would complete his or her manuscript, only to don a pair of knee pads and assume a supplicating posture in order to beg agents to beg publishers to read their work. And from way on high, the publishers would bestow favor upon this one or that, and those who failed to get the nod were out of the game. No more.

In addition to criticisms of the quality of e-books being self published, meanwhile, there have also been complaints about an increase in e-book “spam” in the Amazon Kindle store, including books that are clearly just cobbled together from bits and pieces of public domain titles or even copyrighted works (Reuters reported recently that there are DVD instruction manuals that tell users how to write and publish dozens of e-books a day without having to write anything). Some have argued that Amazon should institute a charge for publishing on the Kindle to cut down on that kind of questionable content.

Those dangers aside, however, the rise of authors such as John Locke and Amanda Hocking is just another sign of the ongoing disruption of the traditional publishing industry, which we have written about a number of times at GigaOM. And that overall trend is likely to continue, whether publishers like it or not.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Marya