It might seem like pitting readers against a main character could hurt an indie author’s book sales. Try telling that to Gail McHugh, who, after selling almost half a million copies of her debut self-published romance novel, Collide, has seen the recent follow-up, Pulse, top the list of Amazon bestsellers—all while driving readers crazy over the relationship choices made by the series’ heroine.

“Women out there, we love our book boyfriend, and we can’t stand it when the heroine is hurting him,” says McHugh of her novels’ central character, Emily Cooper, and her tall, dark love interest, Gavin Blake. “I was fully aware while writing that she wasn’t going to be liked.”

The reason Emily is not liked is that despite the characters’ immediate attraction and Gavin’s seductive lines—like, “Every part of you was made for me”—she can’t bring herself to leave her abusive, narcissistic boyfriend, Dillon. This love triangle, and McHugh’s effort to honestly depict the dynamics of an abusive relationship, has drawn readers to her work while vexing them at the same time.

By engaging with these frustrated readers over social media and other channels, sympathizing with them but standing by her vision of the characters, McHugh has earned hundreds of thousands of fans as well as a recent deal with Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint. Her success in balancing these competing drives has helped her stand out in a crowded self-publishing field, writing books that readers both love and hate but can’t put down.

Finding Readers
McHugh is upfront about what readers should expect of Emily.

“**Warning** If you do not like female leads who are severely flawed, human and find themselves weak during the most trying times of their will not like Collide,” she writes in the Amazon description of the book.

But while McHugh seems to almost dares people not to not like her characters, reader reactions have been key to her writing and publishing process. When McHugh began Collide, she did not know if it would actually be a book. A mother of three and married to her husband for 15 years, she conceived of the characters and began writing chapters at the end of June last year.

“While I was writing it, I wanted to get more feedback than my friends and the people around me,” says McHugh. So she posted a chapter on the social writing platform FictionPress, which allowed her to see what a more general audience thought of it. Pleased with what she heard, McHugh continued to write and post chapters, each time seeing her following on the site grow, as well as receiving helpful and encouraging responses from users. She even conducted her own informal market research, contacting commenters to find out their age, location, and other reading interests.

“At first I had no intention of publishing it as a book, but there was a certain point where I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I do have something here,’” she says.

She mapped out a full-length novel that would end in a cliffhanger sure to make readers eager for a sequel, and got to work.
Part of the inspiration for the character of Emily came from McHugh’s mother, who was married to an emotionally abusive man and rarely discussed her difficulties. As McHugh dug deeper into the character, she contacted someone calling herself “Emily,” who runs the abuse-recovery Facebook group "Right Now Its Your Tomorrow," asking her to read some chapters and offer input on the unhealthy bond between the characters.

“I wanted to make sure that I was getting Dillon just right, how a narcissist will act, will lie to a woman, and the different ways that a woman will fall for these lies,” says McHugh.

As she approached the finish line on her novel, McHugh shifted from posting serialized chapters on FictionPress to the mindset of an author promoting a book. She created an author Web site on which she posted an extended excerpt, promoting it through a Facebook page. It was picked up on by Heather Gunter, an author who runs the erotica and romance book blog Into the Night Reviews. McHugh’s Facebook page gained 150 people that day.

The online community of romance readers took it from there, enthusiastically sharing and discussing the excerpt and peppering McHugh with questions about when the full novel would be out. She also joined other authors in private chat boxes set up on Facebook, where readers could ask about their writing or general topics about their books.

By the time the book was ready to go, and McHugh had posted several more excerpts and some 30 bloggers had requested advance reading copies of Collide.

The bloggers responded with plenty of praise, and encomiums on Gavin’s attractiveness (“I tried to build a male character who was alpha when he had to be alpha, soft when he had to be soft, witty when he had to be witty,” McHugh explains), but with equally impassioned exasperation toward Emily.

One representative review from the Book Boyfriends Blog reads, “I can’'t tell you the last time that a book had me so irritated but dying to read the next page because I just had to know what happens next and how it will all play out.”

But whether expressing feelings of anger or attraction, these bloggers were anything but uninterested in Collide, and together they created an immense buzz and anticipation among romance readers.

By the time the book was about to come out in January 2013, McHugh had gained about 2,000 Facebook followers and figured this would be her buying base—if a quarter of these followers bought the book, she would at least break even on her editing costs.

The book sold a few orders better than that 500—about 500,000 at the time of this writing, according to McHugh. She had severely underestimated the enthusiasm of the romance-reading community and just a few months after first sitting down to begin writing about Emily, Gavin, and Dillon, McHugh had a New York Times bestseller.

“I’m blessed that it hit the way it hit, but it also scared me,” she says.

A Change of Pace
While the pieces of Collide came together almost by accident, the writing and publishing of Pulse was a much more deliberate affair. She announced early on a publishing date of August 10, 2013, but now wrote with an audience in mind that was far larger than the several hundred readers on FictionPress.

“The writing process was much more stressful, but I’m realizing that will be my writing process from here on out, because now I do have books out and readers with expectations,” says McHugh. “It just occurred to me that gone are the days where I will be able to free write without any stress behind that. It’s a welcome stress, but it’s totally different writing now.”

Knowing she “had to keep readers invested in my story,” McHugh continued to post extended excerpts. Instead of going through FictionPress, she went to Maryse’s Book Blog —which focuses on paranormal romance and enjoys a Facebook following of more than 27,000—with three exclusive excerpts.

All the while she kept in touch with her much-enlarged online fanbase and author community, an effort that has expanded so much as to be more than any one person could manage in a day.

“I’m trying to get back to readers who are posting on the author wall, get back to readers sending mail to my private message box, getting back to readers on Goodreads, on my private author account, on Gmail,” says McHugh. “People read your book and they’re talking about it, and now I’m in so many groups I can hardly keep up with who’s tagging me during the day.”

She has also begun to do a few more live events, taking part in three events in the past few months with several more scheduled this year.

All the efforts paid off. The morning after Pulse went live, a month earlier than originially slated, McHugh woke up to several texts from friends, telling her she was up to No. #2 on Amazon. By the end of the day she was at No. #1. Within its first month, it sold about 400,000 copies.

After Pulse’s success, McHugh heard from Atria Books, which offered not only to help widen her distribution and connect her with new audiences, but to help her with the day-to-day publicity and marketing that she had otherwise been doing on her own. In mid-August, she finalized the publishing agreement with them.

“She has clearly resonated with readers and I think part of the reason is because she portrays a protagonist who is really struggling and coming to terms with who she is as a person and what kind of relationship she wants out of life,” says Jhanteigh Kupihea, McHugh’s editor who had spotted her when Collide rose up to the Amazon Top 100. “She’s also got great appeal for adult readers because her books are grittier, sexier, and edgier.”

Kupihea, who came on board Atria earlier this year in order to oversee much of the publisher’s stable of indie authors, adds that McHugh’s book is “probably the darkest on our list.” E-book versions of Collide and Pulse, published by Atria, will be released in September, with print due to follow in 2014, and Atria also acquired an original book from McHugh that is not part of the Collide series.

The signing of McHugh is part of a larger program that the publisher has recently launched focused specifically on attracting and cultivating indie authors. A team of editors, marketing, and publicity staff meets every Tuesday to go over how they are helping to promote the authors, providing materials for the author signings and events, coordinating cover reveals, and building up social media.

This relates particularly to the speed with which indie authors tend to churn out their books, producing two to three titles a year, which requires a slightly different approach to managing and marketing. The eight authors who are part of Atria’s indie segment so far are slated to publish 18 books in 2013 and 17 books in 2014.

“We’re trying as a publisher to say, ‘This is a whole new area of publishing which requires a different set of skills by everybody involved,’” says Judith Curr, Atria’s president and publisher. “The biggest thing that you have to deal with in publishing, and indie authors particularly, is success—it can really consume you so that you have no time for anything else.”

For McHugh, the assistance is welcome.

“I put this out never expecting it was going to do anything. Having a publisher come after me for my books has just been huge,” says McHugh. “I’m looking forward to gaining any kind of experience that I can have with them and having them in my corner to back me.”