AUSTIN, Minn. -- For more than five years, Amanda Hocking spent her days tending to disabled adults, making their meals and cleaning up after them. When she got home, she would crack open a can of Red Bull and start typing away at her novels.
Her effort to make it as a writer was at least as grinding as her day job, with countless rejections from book agents before Hocking stumbled across a promising new business model for aspiring authors: self-publishing and marketing through e-booksellers.
A little more than a year later, Hocking's novel "Switched" sits at No. 41 on USA Today's list of top 150 best-selling books – just a few notches below such major juggernauts as James Patterson and Maeve Binchy. Hocking's books also occupy slots 54, 57, 114 and 149 on the list, and on Thursday, the publishing world finally caught up when the 26-year-old college dropout signed a four-book deal with St. Martin's Press.
Hocking said the first book in a new "Watersong" series was slated for release in fall 2012. She declined to release details of the deal. St. Martin's Press confirmed the deal but would not comment further. But executives from two publishing houses who were interested in the books said bidding had reached seven figures. The executives asked not to be identified, citing confidentiality of negotiations.
During an interview, the author was coy about discussing publishing deals before finally coming clean about her relationship with St. Martin's. She's only written one of the four books in the 'Watersong' series, and won't say what it's about yet, although it's in the same paranormal romance vein as her other books.
Aimed at young adults, Hocking's books occupy the same territory as the enormously popular "Twilight" books by Stephenie Meyer. Hocking has written about vampires, zombies and trolls – a strategic decision that she says she made after scanning the shelves at Wal-Mart.
"I like vampires and they're popular," Hocking said. "So I thought, 'Why not write about them?'"
She has sold her books on such sites as Amazon's Kindle Store and Barnes & Noble's NOOKbooks at prices ranging from 99 cents to $2.99. Hocking keeps up to 70 percent of the sales.
She sold a few hundred books last May, and the numbers slowly grew to a few thousand before spiking to more than 100,000 in December. Monthly sales reports Hocking provided to The Associated Press showed more than 333,000 sold in January and another 300,000 in February, enough to back her claim to have sold between $1.4 million to $2 million in e-books.
E-book sales have taken off along with sales of electronic reading devices. The Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, estimates e-book sales will generate $2.3 billion in revenue in the U.S. by 2013, nearly nine times that of 2009. Their appeal has become even stronger as Borders shuts down more than 200 superstores and millions of e-readers were given last December as holiday gifts.
Publishers say the e-market has grown from less than 1 percent of overall sales in 2007 to more than 10 percent, with no signs of stopping. The changes inspired thriller writer Barry Eisler to walk away from a $500,000 contract with St. Martin's, saying he could do better publishing his work on his own.
The vast majority of self-published authors never catch on beyond family and friends, but Hocking isn't the only writer to thrive outside the mainstream. Crime novelist John Locke has four of the top 10 sellers, all of them priced at 99 cents, on the Kindle e-book list. The books were released through Telemachus Press, "a for hire author services company" that charges writers to package and publish their work. Steven H. Jackson, a partner at Telemachus, said Locke's work has sold more 500,000 copies this year, helped by the low cost and word of mouth.
"The important thing is to get your work out," Jackson said. "If you price your books at 99 cents, you get websites that say, `Hey, good reads for under a dollar.' And then word starts to get out."
Alok Gupta, a University of Minnesota marketing professor, said low pricing is critical to e-book success. Authors who do well tend to price their books around 99 cents and do high volume, he said. They also piggyback on popular topics.
Hocking was making $12,000 a year working at the group home, but she quit last August to focus on writing. She said she spends eight to 12 hours each day writing, most of it after dark.
"Switched," the first book in her Trylle Trilogy, is about a rebellious 17-year-old girl who meets Finn, a mysterious new boy at school. She later learns that she's a Trylle, a human-looking troll who was switched at birth, and Finn was to return her to the other trolls. There, she learns she's a princess.
Stacy Schmitz-Miller, 37, of Wadena, Minn., a fan of romance novels who had read the "Twilight" series, said "Switched" was one of the first books that came up when she searched Amazon's romance category. Since it was only 99 cents, she said, "What the heck," and gave it a try. She went on to read all of Hocking's books in two weeks, swept up in their romance and mystery.
"I think every woman can relate to sort of wanting to feel protected," she said.
Grace Onorato, a young blogger from Delmar, N.Y., called "Switched" predictable but a fun "cheese read."
"It's an addicting, easy to digest book that can be devoured in an afternoon," Onorato wrote in her blog. "It probably won't win any literary awards, but it is definitely still worth reading."
Earlier this year, Terri Tatchell, co-screenwriter of the 2009 science fiction film "District 9," agreed to adapt the books from Hocking's Trylle Trilogy as a screenplay.
Hocking said she hasn't adjusted to having money.
Her big-ticket spending has been limited to a car, a television and clearing some debts for herself and loved ones. She still shares the same house she rents with her best friend, Eric Goldman, for $250 a month although she has her eye on buying another place across town. Goldman now serves as her paid assistant, handling email, tracking her schedule and taking the occasional media inquiry.
"I make him turn stuff down," Hocking said. "I don't like to tell people no."
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.