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Darcie Chan: From U.S. Senate Lawyer to Bestselling Self-Published Phenomenon

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Darcie Chan is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Mill River Recluse. Her rise to success is phenomenal to say the least. It’s the kind of stuff legends are made of. In May of 2011 Darcie self-published her novel The Mill River Recluse to Amazon’s Kindle platform. After a few months advertising her book on eBook blogs, it spread like wildfire eventually selling over 700,000 copies, and the rest as they say is history.

This is her story:

Q: As I understand it, you seem to have fallen into a writing career accidently. Prior to the success of your first book, you had a promising career working for The U.S. Senate. What inspired you to write your first book given your other career ambitions?

A: I have always loved to read and write, and I knew from an early age -- around eleven, I think -- that I wanted to write books someday. I decided to go to law school because I became very interested in environmental law, and I wanted to ensure that I'd have the education and training to always be able to take care of myself financially. I figured that I'd have some measure of security with a law degree (as opposed to trying to make a living as a writer, which is difficult, to say the least), as well as a career that I found challenging and enjoyable. Then, at some point, I'd attempt to write a novel in my free time. The Mill River Recluse was that first novel, which I wrote in the evenings after work about four or five years after I'd started my job as an attorney.

Q: Quitting your job to pursue your dream must have been difficult. How did you deal with the fear and uncertainty of not knowing if you'd be able to replicate the success of The Mill River Recluse?

A: Quitting my legal job was definitely one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching decisions I've ever had to make. I loved it and the colleagues with whom I'd worked for more than a decade. And, it is very true that having one successful book does not necessarily mean the author will go on to maintain a successful writing career. My decision hinged on two things.

The first was the support and encouragement of my husband, who agreed that I should "go for it," even though we had no guarantees about how any of my future books might be received. He knows how much writing means to me and also how rare it is that a writer today has the opportunity to pursue a dream like that full-time.

The second factor was an offer from Ballantine Books to publish my next two novels. The advance gave me much more security than going the self-publishing route again would have, and I was very impressed by the enthusiasm and expertise that my editor and imprint brought to the table. It was appealing to me to have a team of people ready to help make my next book better than my first and to expand my readership into print as well as electronic formats.

Q: So many people are afraid to take the plunge and pursue their passion over a fear of failure. What advice would you give to those who are afraid to pursue their passion?

A: I'd advise someone who is afraid to take the plunge solely because of a fear of failure to imagine how it would feel to live the rest of his or her life and wonder "What if?" Personally, I'd rather try my best at something and fail than to never try at all and spend the rest of my life wondering what I might have accomplished.

Q: The most difficult task for any writer is to find readers willing to buy and read their book. You approached your book like a business, by putting ad dollars behind it to promote it. Could you elaborate?

A: Well, I actually went about self-publishing in a backwards sort of way. I wasn't looking to launch a new career for myself, which is why many people today self-publish. I only hoped to find some readers willing to give me feedback on my work so that my second novel would be better than my first.

Instead of preparing ads, setting up social media accounts, and seeking out places where I might get publicity or reviews before releasing the manuscript, I simply hit the "upload" button without doing anything else. Only then did I realize how many self-published manuscripts were out there, and that readers wouldn't know about mine unless I did something to bring it to their attention.
At that point, I began researching and contacting e-book blogs and websites that sold advertising. I figured that, since publishing companies put together ad campaigns for the books that they publish, I should try to do the same. Keep in mind, though, that I didn't have anything remotely close to the ad budget of a publishing company. I was only one person trying to create a blip on the e-book radar -- so I tried to be selective in what I did. Mainly, I set up a website and social media accounts. Then, I looked for inexpensive online publicity and marketing opportunities that maximized the number of readers I could reach for what money I could afford to spend.

Q: Based on the success of your books and other books you enjoy, what attributes or characteristics do you think make a good book?

A: I love to read books that draw me in and transport me to a different place or time. There is nothing like escaping from the real world once in a while! I also enjoy characters to whom I can relate in some way and stories that affect me emotionally. I try to incorporate all these things in my own work, although I'm too close to my own material to be able to gauge whether and how well I've done it. I think infusing a story with emotion is especially important, because personally, the way a book makes me feel emotionally is the one thing about it that stays with me the longest and compels (or doesn't compel) me to recommend it to someone else.

Q: After being turned down by over 100 literary agents and over a dozen publishers, how did you maintain the drive to continue pursuing The Mill River Recluse?

A: When I uploaded The Mill River Recluse as an e-book, it was with the understanding that I had nothing to lose by doing so because it hadn't found a home with a publishing company. As I explained in an earlier question, I was looking for feedback from readers. Never in a million years did I expect it to take off like it did.

Even after Recluse didn't sell to a publisher, though, I knew I'd continue to write in the future and was working on developing the plot for a second novel. I was aware that most first novels don't sell, so I didn't let the fact that mine hadn't deter me from wanting to try again. My family and friends offered steadfast support and encouragement. And, in all honesty, I took a lot of comfort from the fact that my literary agent, Laurie Liss, loved the story and believed in it enough to try to place it for me. I thought that if someone as knowledgeable and established as she felt that my writing was worth fighting for, then maybe, eventually, I'd be able to break through and get something published.

Q: If the opportunity to self-publish online hadn't been available, how do you think this would have impacted your ability to pursue your passion for writing and bring your book to the masses?

A: I know for a fact that I'd still be working as an attorney right now instead of writing books and doing this interview! I couldn't have found a readership for my work as quickly as I did without the ability to release it directly to readers as an e-book. The wonderful thing about self-publishing today is that it allows writers a way to get their work directly in front of readers, who are the real arbiters of writing success regardless of how a book is published.

Even without the ability to self-publish, I would have continued writing, but my path might have been different and would certainly have taken longer. At some point, I would have completed a second novel and hopefully, would have had it shopped to publishers again. I knew going in that getting a book published was a long and difficult process. I expected lots of rejections. I received lots of rejections. (In fact, I'd argue that nearly all published writers receive rejections before they find success.) But, I would have kept trying...and trying....

Q: As a successful self-published author, many would argue that you did not need a traditional book publisher. What benefits have you found working with a traditional book publisher versus self-publishing?

A: The decision of whether to self-publish or traditionally publish a book is very personal, and the right decision for each author will vary based on the kind of book an author has written, the author's goals, and the extent to which the author wants (or doesn't want) to be involved in the production process once the book is written.

For me, the option to have my next two books traditionally published was very appealing. I found doing the cover design, editing, formatting, and marketing for my first novel very difficult, particularly because I have limited time for writing, and I wanted to be able to do just that during that time instead of struggling unsuccessfully with Photoshop! And, frankly, I have found the level of expertise of everyone who has been involved in the production of my second novel to be absolutely phenomenal. Kara Cesare, my editor is brilliant. She helped me take my writing to a new level, and I doubt I would have been able to find a freelance editor of her caliber on my own. It has also been a relief and joy to turn over the cover design, typesetting, marketing, and other book-production aspects to people who are experts in those areas while continuing to have my opinions fully factored in every step of the way. In a nutshell, all of these things combined result in a second novel, The Mill River Redemption, of which I'm very proud, and which I hope readers will enjoy more than my first.

The other clear benefit to my going the traditional route is the potential of a vastly expanded readership. While authors of self-published books can arrange to have print versions of those books produced today, it is very difficult to get them widely distributed to and accepted for sale in the retail outlets where readers of print books typically buy them. A traditional publisher's distribution network is still vital to achieve that.

Being able to get a quality print version out there is one of the reasons I was thrilled to try the traditional route and to accept Ballantine's offer to reissue my first novel in electronic and trade paperback formats. For years, I've been receiving emails and Facebook messages from readers wanting a print version of The Mill River Recluse, but none has been available in the U.S. or Canada. And, when I read that print book sales still comprise anywhere from 50 to 80 of the sales for a fiction book, based on the number of e-book sales I had, I felt as if I would be leaving a lot of potential readers on the table if a print version of the book was never made available.

Q: What is the biggest misconception you think writers have about the self-publishing process?

A: I actually think there are two huge misconceptions. The first is that a manuscript is ready to be sent out in the world the moment the author writes "The End." Nothing could be further from the truth. At a minimum, a manuscript should be developmentally edited, revised, sent out for objective feedback, copy-edited, and revised again. Releasing anything less than a polished, professional manuscript will turn off readers and tarnish their opinion of anything you write in the future. It's the same with self-publishing as with everything else― you get only one chance to make a first impression.

The second misconception about self-publishing is that it's easy― that by simply hitting the "upload" button, your book will become a bestseller. In reality, you're sending your book into an ocean of self-published manuscripts. Many of them are poorly written, but a growing percentage of them are well-written and professionally edited. Since I released my first novel as an e-book, many, many more people have done so, often releasing multiple titles in pursuit of a writing career. The competition for readers and publicity opportunities is fierce. The online review environments for self-published work are akin to the Wild West. And, I believe that luck is still a huge factor in a self-published writer's success.

Trying to find and maintain success as a writer, regardless of how one chooses to publish, is difficult, but it isn't impossible. It requires a lot of determination, perseverance, and belief in yourself. And again, I think the final key to it rests with readers. If you can get your book in front of readers at a bookstore or on e-book readers' radar screens through an online feature, and if the story in your book moves those readers to start recommending it to their families and friends, magical things can happen.


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