"This book is dark and edgy with sexual situations, drinking, swearing, murder, and more messed-up parents," reads the description of Jaded, one of the earliest books by prolific self-published author Tijan. Though presented as a warning for the easily offended, the line actually has served much more effectively as bait for romance fans who like a few thorns on their roses.
By spiking her stories of love with a fair amount of crime and ignoble motives, Tijan has built up a devoted following of readers curious to see what happens to her characters. Already in the midst of several briskly selling series, she recently published the standalone Carter Reed, not only one of her darkest books to date, but also her most successful.
The leading man is a mob enforcer and the book’s inciting incident is a brutal rape of the protagonist’s roommate. People get injured, and killed. Last spring, after finishing the first five chapters, Tijan posted them on her Facebook page to promote the new book, but also to alert fans that this might not be for the easily offended.
“I wanted to let readers know what they were getting into,” she says. “I didn’t want them to buy the book and not know how dark it would get.”
If any readers were turned off by the harsh subject matter, they were far outnumbered by those who wanted to read more. When it was published at the end of September, Carter Reed quickly rose to the top of bestseller lists including Amazon (Top 100 Paid in Kindle), The New York Times (E-book Fiction and Combined Print & E-book Fiction), Wall Street Journal (Fiction E-books), and USA Today (Top 150 Books).
Tijan attributes this success not just to the page-turning storyline, but also to the fantasy fulfillment aspect of the book.
“It gets into the female fairytale of guys protecting us and being there for us, but at the same time has very strong females who can take care of themselves,” says Tijan. “I don’t write whiney, helpless female characters.”
But she believes the biggest reason for the success of Carter Reed was the work that she had done cultivating an audience over the past few years as she has published 10 novels and moved from being an amateur using her free time to write, to a full-time professional.
Tijan had been a fan of the romance genre since at least fourth grade, when her older sister bought her a teen romance book that she devoured. Though she had characters and storylines in her mind for years, at college, Tijan rarely considered writing much down. In college, her early attempts at storytelling earned dispiriting feedback from professors, which just dampened her interest.
“It’s probably my fault because I don’t think I paid attention in those classes,” Tijan admits.
When she started writing on her own with more regularity, shortly after graduating college, it was simply a way to pass the time -- at her family’s cabin, during long weekends -- jotting down stories she enjoyed without much thought to marketing or prospective audiences. About eight years ago, Tijan began filling out the character sketches and shaping longer stories from her individual scenes, while expanding her reading and digging into self-publishing sites like FictionPress and later Wattpad.
It didn’t take long for her to begin posting her own pieces.
She found a welcoming community of online readers and self-publishers that offered the positive support that had been lacking in college. “It gave me the feeling that ‘I can do this, and I can keep doing this,’” says Tijan.
After getting a strong response on FictionPress to one of her stories about three best friends with rough pasts but fierce loyalty to one another, she published the full-length book in 2009 on Lulu, titling it Jaded. It received enough of a positive response that she published a second book soon after.
With steady but modest sales on Lulu, for her third book, Tijan moved to Amazon, and immediately saw a higher pace of sales. She says she misses that Lulu posts books across multiple platforms, so her novels would appear in iTunes and elsewhere, which does not happen for Kindle-focused Amazon, but the larger platform and audience of Amazon outweighs these considerations.
Her breakout came with Fallen Crest High, published at the end of October 2012. Following a pair of wealthy high school brothers who end up at public school and have their soon-to-be stepsister move in with them, the book had first been free to read on Wattpad before Tijan opted to formally publish it and charge. With minimal promotion beyond a few posts on her Facebook page and an alluring price of 99 cents, the book caught on quick.
“I would come home and have 50 friend requests on Facebook, day after day,” she says.
Tijan says she has always had an interest in people and the dynamics between them. She studied psychology as an undergraduate and counseling at graduate school. Once finished with school, she worked as a nursing assistant -- a career she had begun before starting college and had continued throughout her years in college. Her work focused on the elderly population suffering from dementia.
With the sudden success of Fallen Crest Public, and the prolific pace she had begun to keep, publishing a book every couple months, it became tough to continue a full-time job on top of it all.
“I make more writing than I did at my other job, so it just became clear that I was losing a lot of opportunities by not writing full time,” says Tijan. “But it was really hard for me to quit.”
Tijan finally put in her notice, but she maintains this background has enhanced the depth of her writing tremendously.
“With character development, and identifying their wants and needs and different levels of consciousness, that’s a huge asset for me -- I don’t have to try and figure it out, I just know it,” says Tijan.
This past summer, as her audience grew and the romance community embraced her, she was contacted by an agent. Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, who works with a number of self-published authors in the romance and erotica genres, had learned of Tijan through one of her other authors.
“It was the fact that she had books that were selling increasingly well, and that she intended to go on with more,” that interested her, says Dystel.
Dystel now handles a handful of responsibilities for Tijan, particularly rights issues -- foreign, translation, audio, and film. Depending on their domestic sales, she may then consider selling to a traditional publisher, but Dystel describes her work as mainly making it easier for Tijan to keep her attention on writing more books.
“[Tijan’s] primary focus should be developing as a writer, and it’s pretty hard to be a writer, and a rights director, and a publisher,” says Dystel.
She credits Carter Reed’s exceptional success in part to the book being a bit edgier than what is typical of the genre.
“The darkness is certainly part of it -- obviously that’s something that attracts this group of readers,” says Dystel. “You can see it in the numbers.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tijan’s success is the small amount of marketing she has had to do. Tijan has found an audience without much formal promotion beyond an active Facebook fan page. A case in point how Carter Reed’s cover became one of its biggest selling points. The front features an illustration of the titular character, shirtless and in profile with his bandaged hand moodily grabbing the back of his head. The stormy color scheme makes it clear that this is no lighthearted romp.
Though Tijan organized no formal cover reveal for the book, choosing to just post it on her Facebook page, it generated a huge response from her fans and romance readers in general. Several major book blogs shared it and interest spread throughout the romance community, all with only minimal guidance from Tijan herself.
“Promoting it is good, but you have to have a good story for people to actually want to read it and enjoy it and tell their friends,” says Tijan. “Word-of-mouth networking is the biggest part of my marketing.”
Besides its darker subject matter, Carter Reed is also unusual in that it is a standalone book. Part of Tijan’s success has come thanks to a writing schedule in which she juggles multiple series. She has a conclusion to the Jaded series in the works (scheduled to publish in 2014).
Her series Broken and Screwed is slated for a third book, told from the male protagonist’s perspective (rather than the female who narrated the first two, published in July and September of this year). But with each book telling its own standalone story within the larger B&S world, Tijan expects to continue that series indefinitely.
“I can see maybe 13 books in the series -- I don’t have plans for ending that series anytime soon,” she says.
Currently she is immersed in Fallen Crest Public, the next installment in what she expects to be a five-book series. “Sometimes I need a break from that book, and I’ll write a different book -- I’ll have two to three different storylines in my head at any time,” says Tijan.
“I think her doing a one-off is unusual -- it’s not a bad idea to contain one story then go on to do work on the series,” says Dystel. “The beauty of self-publishing is you can experiment, to try so many different things to see what works and what doesn’t. That’s great, especially when you’re successful at doing it.”
Nonetheless, fans have already started asking about what’s next for her Carter Reed characters. One reader messaged Tijan asking for an epilogue that took up where the characters were five years from the end of the story. Though this would have been a fun exercise, Tijan declined, leaving the door open a crack to keep the Carter Reed story going.
“Readers like to know that the characters are okay, but if I did something about ‘five years later,’ I couldn’t do a sequel,” she says. “If I do choose to do one.”
Alex Palmer is a freelance journalist and the author of Weird-o-Pedia.