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August 7, 2014
By Jennifer McCartney
Indie author's Jane Austen-inspired series persuades readers.

Melody Grace (aka Abby McDonald) was a publishing veteran with nine traditionally published adult and YA titles -- from houses like Candlewick and Random House -- under her belt when she decided to self-publish a sexy new adult romance. Unbroken went on to sell over 200,000 copies worldwide, hit the USA Today bestseller list, top the Barnes and Noble e-book chart, and reach number two on the iBookstore chart -- all for an investment of less than $300.

Chick-Lit at Oxford

Grace’s publishing history reaches back to her college years at Oxford in the U.K. “I grew up toting around a bag of half-read books, and scribbling away in embarrassing teenage journals,” she recalls. So when she arrived at university as a philosophy major, she took up writing fiction as a way to relax. It was here that she wrote her first book: “a fun, chick-lit novel that I used as a tonic after hours spent in the library poring over dusty old philosophy books.” That novel landed her an agent -- and while it didn’t land her a book deal, she says it helped her realize she wanted to try a career as a writer.

Grace decided to dedicate the year following her graduation to fiction writing -- and moved back to her Sussex home in the English countryside to accomplish her goal. “I took part-time jobs answering phones and doing data entry, and worked on my writing,” she says. One of her projects, a YA romantic comedy, sold to a publisher (Sophomore Switch, Candlewick Press 2009) within the year. “Otherwise I would have had to join the civil service,” Grace says. Her traditionally published debut received a Kirkus starred review and has been translated into German, Dutch, and Polish. She’s been writing full time ever since.

Inspired by Jane Austen

"So much of my job is about connecting with readers, so I have to find a balance between social media and my writing."
Her breakout new adult self-published novel, Unbroken, was loosely inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The plot involves an 18-year old Juliet who returns to the North Carolina beach town where she used to spend her vacations -- and who finds herself torn between the future she’d planned for herself and the man she’d left behind.

After talking it through with her agent, Rebecca Friedman, she decided to take a risk and self-publish the book under a pen name -- mainly because of the content. “It was hard to write the passionate scenes imagining that my mom, or dad, or Auntie Sue in Saskatchewan would be reading every word,” she says.

“Writing as Melody meant starting from scratch again. It was very daunting to have zero twitter followers and friends, but the indie community is so welcoming, it was easy to find my feet and become a part of the discussion,” she recalls. She felt it was a nice change from her experience with traditional publishing. “It’s hard not to get disillusioned and a little jaded about things,” she says of her years publishing traditionally.

Budgeting for Success

Grace was eager to hit “publish” on her first self-published novel, but knew she had to lay the groundwork for success. Operating on what she refers to as a “shoestring budget” she was able to allocate less than $300 for the launch of the book -- this included rights to the stock image for the cover, the formatting for multiple e-book platforms, a blog tour organized by Good Choice Reading, as well as $25 Amazon gift cards for a Rafflecopter giveaway on the day of the launch. “I think we had 80 or so blogs participate,” she recalls.

“But what I lacked in resources, I made up for with elbow grease,” Grace says. She designed the cover herself in Photoshop ensuring the concept conveyed that it was a “sexy, heartfelt summer read.” She also researched other indie success stories, such as that of Emily Snow, Colleen Hoover, and Abbi Glines, studying their publicity tactics. “I emailed bloggers inviting them to read, and ran a big cover reveal that gained me more than 1,000 Goodreads adds in a single day,” she says.

“I tried to do anything and everything possible to launch the book, but it was still an amazing shock to hit ‘publish’ on Unbroken in March 2013 and see the sales figures sky-rocket.” She recalls spending the day hitting “refresh” on her browser and watching the sales figures climb.

Turning One Book into a Bestselling Series

Once Unbroken became a bestseller, Grace followed it up with a prequel novella, Untouched, which also made the USA Today bestseller list, along with several more titles in what became her Beachwood Bay series: Unafraid, Unwrapped, Unconditional, Unrequited, and Uninhibited. The stories can be read independently, she says, but they all occur in the same beach setting.

Grace now works with a personal assistant as well as a publicist (Rachel Marks at Mark My Words PR) to help her connect with readers and free up more time to write. “So much of my job is about connecting with readers, so I have to find a balance between social media and my writing,” she explains.

Together, Grace and Marks developed a strategy to help the series reach new readers. “We sent out a huge number of advance copies for review, put the book up on NetGalley, and had release day blitzes over three days.” Another publicity strategy has been to trade excerpts with other authors: The Dare author Rachel van Dyken included a chapter of Uninhibited in the back of her book and Grace returned the favor. “It’s a great way of reaching an audience you think will like your books,” she says. The series has now received over one million downloads across the world, Grace says, and has been particularly popular in Australia.

Her next book is the forthcoming Dangerous Boys -- a YA thriller published in the U.K. by Simon & Schuster, but which was turned down by American publishers. Grace is self-publishing the book in the U.S. to coincide with its U.K. release on August 14th.  “I often joke that I have to keep writing,” Grace says, “because I have no other skills to do anything else.”

Self-Publishing Advantages

With nine traditionally published titles, Grace says she is enthusiastic about the results she’s seen from her self-publishing experience. “I went from being an author to being the CEO of a company,” Grace says, citing her total control over her books as one of the main advantages. “I don’t have the apparatus of a big publishing house behind me, but I’m calling all the shots.” As an example, she notes that a traditional publishing contract would allow her to release one or two books a year, whereas she’s been able to release a total of eight books in her Beachwood Bay series since 2013. “I have the freedom to take risks and experiment with all aspects of the process, from writing for a new, rapidly-growing audience to choosing my own pricing and release schedule,” she says. 

“In traditional publishing, you can often know a year in advance how your book will be launched -- whether or not your publisher is spotlighting you at BEA [BookExpo America] and conferences, what kind of resources they’re putting into publicity and marketing, how store buyers have responded, etc.”  But this advance planning doesn’t always translate into sales, Grace notes.

“True word-of-mouth breakout successes are one in a million, but in self-publishing, they happen every day.”

Advice to Writers

“There’s a difference between self-publishing, and self-publishing well,” Grace advises. “You want your book to be as professional as possible, so think about hiring editors, publicists, or designers if your skills aren’t in that area.”  Grace works with copyeditor Emilie H. Jackson, (a former assistant at literary agency Sterling Lord Literistic) to help her catch spelling and grammar mistakes, noting that indie authors are competing with books from traditional houses. “You want your book to look just as good,” she says.

As an indie author, acting as CEO for her company of one, Grace notes the biggest challenge in self-publishing is that if an author doesn’t do something herself, it won’t get done.  Something she says is also one of her favorite things about the self-publishing scene:

“Self-publishing Unbroken was a challenge, but it also revitalized my whole attitude towards writing and my career,” Grace says. “I found the indie community is full of energy and enthusiasm: passionate and vocal readers, and supportive bloggers and authors. I was blown away by the love of books and reading, and it really inspired me in my work.”