During the day, indie author Jerilee Kaye, who was born in the Philippines but now lives in Dubai, manages a portfolio of suppliers for one of the biggest port operators in the world. At night, she’s a writer, interacting with fans of her self-published novel Knight in Shining Suit—one of the top-selling romance on Smashwords and one of the site’s 25 bestselling titles of all time.
What’s unusual about Kaye’s success is that more than 10 million people had already read her novel—for free, on Wattpad—before she self-published it. In fact, Knight in Shining Suit topped Wattpad’s most-read chart multiple times in the chick lit and romance categories. Much of the book is still there for anyone that wants to read it. But that hasn’t stopped sales of the self-published edition, priced at $2.99 in digital, from taking off.
We talked to Kaye about her success on both platforms, her decision to monetize her content, and what it’s like to navigate the self-publishing industry from abroad.
Finding a Platform
“I was a closet writer for a long time,” Kaye says. “In fact, some of my closest friends didn’t know I could write until I started posting on Wattpad.” Until then, she’d only shared what she’d written with her friends and family, and while her sisters encouraged her, she admits that she assumed they were just being nice. Her journey from a closet writer to a public one came as she was doing research for a story. As the plot involved a romance between step-siblings, she was nervous about the content and how it might be perceived, and went online to find similar stories to see how other authors had dealt with the sensitive subject matter. “A link on a Wattpad story came up and that’s how I discovered how Wattpad provides an avenue for writers to share their work and actually get good and honest feedback from readers of different ages, genders, and nationalities,” she says. The platform’s social aspect—it allows readers to comment, follow, and vote on stories—also appealed to her. “I wanted honest comments from readers who didn’t know me and had probably read thousands of stories in the same genre as mine, and Wattpad was the perfect platform for that,” Kaye says. She decided to try the site for her next novel, Knight in Shining Suit —a story inspired by a friend’s recent breakup with her cheating boyfriend. The book soon became a hit.
“When I first started posting on Wattpad, I was ecstatic to get my first thousand reads. I was even happier when I reached a thousand followers,” Kaye says. “But then, people started getting into the story and started tweeting about it and sharing it with their friends and getting others to read it, too.” The book now has 10.6 million reads, 128,000 votes, and 11,000 comments from fans who want more.
Kaye says that the comments she received from readers were invaluable—especially when it came to pointing out inconsistencies with the book’s American setting. Since the author doesn’t live in the U.S., she found the feedback helpful in ensuring that the narrative was accurate. “Readers who came from the same country or city as your characters will give you immediate comments if something you wrote seems off,” she says, “like the minimum age for driving in a particular state, or the minimum age for drinking.” Her readers were also quick to point out other errors. For example, one reader saw the phrase, “He whispered in my ears,” and wrote to Kaye, noting, “You can’t whisper in both ears unless you say the same thing twice—in one ear after the other.”
Kaye’s book eventually topped Wattpad’s romance charts and attracted the attention of some traditional publishers. She says she was also courted by companies that wanted her to use their platforms to self-publish. “I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t know how to get in touch with one,” she says, so she was left to research the inquiries on her own. When a large publishing firm in Asia approached her about publishing her book, it asked for three-year exclusivity on her next works—something Kaye wasn’t interesting in granting. “I was okay with one book, but I wouldn’t know what I would do or where I would be in three years so I didn’t feel comfortable with that.” After a bit of research, she also discovered that the company doesn’t offer its books in a trade paperback format and that its distribution is online only, mainly through Amazon—all of which made her hesitate. And while the publisher did offer an advance as well as royalties in the 10%–20% range, she eventually declined the offer. Ultimately, she decided that self-publishing was her best bet.
On Feb. 24, 2014, Kaye published Knight in Shining Suit on Smashwords, and took down much of the book from Wattpad, leaving just 10 chapters out of 39 as a sample for readers, which also ensured that the comments on her story, and the impressive stats, remained on the site.
“I read around the Net to see how I could get my book the widest distribution and exposure,” Kaye says. “Smashwords is quite aggressive in marketing and promoting self-published authors,” she notes. She also felt that its wide distribution via sites like Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo was an important consideration. Simplicity was also important to her, she says. “Though I wanted a wide distribution, I also needed to be able to handle everything with minimum effort since I have a very demanding day job, and an even more demanding full-time family routine.” For her trade paperback edition she used CreateSpace. “A paperback edition is a must, not just for me, but for many of the book’s Wattpad followers,” she says. “I gave CreateSpace a try because that almost instantly lists your book in Amazon. I was very pleased with the professional quality of the paperback, and I found the prices to be quite reasonable.”
Another challenge Kaye encountered had to do with receiving payments from the U.S. while publishing abroad. “Amazon will only pay by check to authors residing outside of territories that have a direct bank transfer facility with them,” she says. Where I am, it takes 45 days for me to clear international checks,” which, she says, is less than ideal. Kaye says she found a solution with Smashwords, which can transfer funds in a matter of days using PayPal.
Crash Course in Publicity
Despite her success on Wattpad, Kaye says she was a novice when it came to promoting her work. “I was not aware of every trick and tip. As a result, I did a lot of publicity only after the release date.”
In retrospect, Kaye realized that networking with bloggers before the publication date and organizing a blog tour is crucial to building buzz—something she didn’t do before the release. She now uses a site called Book Blogs to network with other authors, reviewers, and bloggers and to share resources. “I just recently joined them and found that there are members there who could help you out, like authors who could provide a good review of your book, or bloggers who could feature your book on their sites,” she says. She also uses Goodreads, where she paid for an ad campaign to get the word out about her book. “It’s good to get your book cover to be shown randomly throughout the day on the site,” Kaye says. “I also did paperback giveaways through Goodreads, as well as limited-time discount coupons, which I gave to my Wattpad followers.”
Additionally, Kaye learned to interact with her readers, something she says she enjoys a lot. “You’ll find that many of your readers not only want to know about your book, they may also what to know about what you are like in person,” she says. She also learned that promoting her book didn’t necessarily mean posting about her book. “Tweeting about stuff other than your book helps. It gives your followers a glimpse of who you are, what inspires you, and what drives you.”
Kaye also found that posting new stories on Wattpad garnered new readers for her—readers who then discovered the sample chapters for Knight in Shining Suit. “Different stories appeal to different groups of readers and that’s how you widen your reach,” she says. “Sometimes, I post a new story on Wattpad or engage in another book that is completely different from the book I have on sale.”
“Ten years ago, I would probably not have sold a single book unless I got a publishing contract,” Kaye says, looking back on her self-publishing experience. “But things are evolving now. There are plenty of tools, plenty of ways, and platforms to do it independently.” Kaye’s latest title, Intertwined, was released via Smashwords on January 31—and so far it has nearly 10 million reads on Wattpad.