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April 11, 2014
By Jennifer McCartney
McLaughlin's first self-published romance novel, "Out of Line," went on to sell over 150,000 copies. It’s the kind of success that indie authors dream about -- but it didn’t happen without a lot of hard work.

Jen McLaughlin knew something special was happening with her book the first week after its publication.

“I’m very slow to get excited about things. Once I hit [The New York Times bestseller] list I had to sit down for a minute,” says the indie author. McLaughlin’s first self-published romance novel, Out of Line, went on to sell over 150,000 copies and hit number nine on The Times e-book bestseller list, number 16 on The Times combined e-book and print bestseller list, number 28 on the USA Today bestseller list, and number one in Amazon’s Contemporary Romance category. It’s the kind of success that indie authors dream about -- but it didn’t happen without a lot of hard work.

While McLaughlin has had previous success publishing with e-publisher Entangled under the name Diane Alberts, she wanted to try her hand at writing a new adult military romance and “just had a feeling that self-publishing was the way to go.” Publishing both with a traditional digital publisher and as an indie author, she considers herself a hybrid. “I think it’s good to have your name in different places,” she says.

Once she’d decided to go the indie route, she took the publishing process seriously and hired an editor, a cover designer, and a publicist. “It paid off,” McLaughlin says. “I wasn't going to put out a book that was mediocre.”

Finding an Audience

McLaughlin’s Out of Line series (which now includes Out of Line, Out of Time, and Out of Mind) began with her belief that there was a gap between the kinds of romance books that were being published and the kind she herself would want to read -- a gap she felt she could help to fill. The married mother of four had been writing contemporary romance for two years as Diane Alberts and had published 18 books since the release of her first, Kill Me Tomorrow, in October of 2011.

But in 2013, the Pennsylvania-based author wanted to try something new and she decided to try writing under her own name for a new adult audience -- a quickly growing category that straddles the line between young adult and adult fiction and usually features characters in their late teens or early 20s.  

"I wasn't going to put out a book that was mediocre."
She decided to focus on the burgeoning category of military romance. Over 2 million American soldiers have served the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan, so McLaughlin felt there was a large audience of younger women -- first and foremost the wives and girlfriends of veterans -- who would want to read about what it was like to date, fall in love, or be married to someone who had served overseas.

As a result of the younger age group she was trying to reach, she says “I was nervous of how steamy to make it. But you don't have to dumb it down. [The readers] like steamy.” She wrote the book with the same level of sex that she includes in her adult titles -- although she does post a warning to potential readers that the series contains adult content and advises readers that they should be over 17 to read her books.

The first book in the Out of Line series and the book that catapulted McLaughlin onto the bestseller lists features Carrie, a senator's daughter, who is off to college in California and just wants to be a normal girl living her life without a bodyguard. Unbeknownst to Carrie, her father enlists US Marine (and avid surfer) Finn Coram to watch out for her -- and they fall in love. When she finds out who he really is “all hell breaks loose,” says McLaughlin.  

It was a “new and novel idea” and she had a feeling it might do well. But first, McLaughlin needed to make sure she went about self-publishing the book in a professional manner. Once the manuscript for Out of Line was completed she plotted her next steps.

Preparing to Launch

While there’s no guaranteed formula for creating a bestseller, McLaughlin says her indie-publishing success required the following components: “Good writing, good editing, followed by a pretty cover, followed by publicity.”

Step One: Hire an Editor

To help edit the book she enlisted the services of a content editor at Coat of Polish Edits who helped her to shape the narrative and fine tune the plot. Next, she hired a copy editor. Readers who review on Amazon, Goodreads, or their own blogs, expect to have a clean reading experience when they purchase an e-book and finding one too many typos or grammatical errors can earn an author a bad review -- whether the reader enjoyed the plot and characters or not.

“If you’re going to [be an indie author] make sure that you hire editors,” McLaughlin says.

Step Two: Hire a Designer

Once the editorial process was complete, she concentrated on the design of the interior and cover. E.M. Tippets Book Design typeset the manuscript, and cover artist Sarah Hansen at Okay Creations designed a cover in keeping with the romance genre. The final design features a bold title treatment in crimson along with a photograph of a reclining long-haired woman and a young, clean-cut man locked in an embrace.

Step Three: Hire a Publicist

The last step in McLaughlin’s plan was to hire the literary publicity firm InkSlinger. To help McLaughlin attract media attention for Out of Line, InkSlinger offered publicity services such as press releases, blog tours, and book signings. Working with publicist Jessica Estep (a former publicist with Entangled Publishing) they began by setting up a Goodreads contest a few weeks before the September 2013 publication date. Over 1,000 readers added the book to their “to-read” shelf in the lead up to publication, and seven months after publication Out of Line has close to 4,000 ratings on Goodreads. McLaughlin and Estep also set up a “publicity blitz,” rallying readers to sign up on the author’s website and win a bonus scene from the book by participating in a social media campaign. Estep also planned a blog tour that would commence as soon as the book published. McLaughlin secured a blurb from New York Times bestselling author Monica Murphy for the cover. “We had a huge cover reveal,” recalls McLaughlin. “There was a lot of interest in it immediately.” 

All told, McLaughlin estimates she invested about $1,200 of her own money to publish and publicize her book. She admits it was a team effort. “I don’t really consider myself self-published,” McLaughlin says. “I have so many people helping me.”

After conferring with her agent, Louise Fury of the Bent Agency, McLaughlin decided to release the book across all e-book platforms at once. They also decided to price the book at 99 cents for the first week before raising it to the current price of $2.99. McLaughlin figured the downside to a low price point was minimal. “What do I have to lose, so why not? It came out very strong,” she says.  She spent the first few days watching the Amazon ranking climb towards number one in its category. “I would text my agent the numbers. She said I was going to hit the [New York Times bestseller] list.” It was her first book as a new adult author and after its immediate success she quickly published the second book in the series to keep the momentum going.

Capitalizing on the Success of an Indie E-Book

Unlike traditional publishing where an author must often wait over a year to see her book published, McLaughlin was able to keep control of the publishing schedule and release the next book in the series just months after Out of Line was published. Out of Time was released in December 2013 and Out of Mind, the third title, publishes in April of 2014. McLaughlin is following the same editing, design, and publicity plan as she did for her first two titles. The third book explores the challenges that many couples face in attempting to have a normal, healthy relationship when one partner is a veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “My goal all along was to show how Marines change over time,” McLaughlin explains. “They go over there and they come home and have to deal with what they’ve seen and blend in when they get home.” With an estimated one in five veterans returning from war suffering from some form of PTSD, it’s a message McLaughlin hopes will resonate with her existing readers and also one that might attract a new audience.  

At the end of March, McLaughlin’s agent concluded a deal with Italian publisher Newton Compton for print and digital rights to all three books in the Out Of Line series. She acknowledges that foreign rights deals for indie authors are rare and is thrilled with the development. “We've kept our options open for print,” McLaughlin says.  “If it was the right offer [from a traditional publisher] then absolutely.”

Jennifer McCartney is an author and editor. Follow her at @jennemem.