Sometimes success finds you when you stop trying to find success. Take D.J. Molles: he stopped writing altogether after a number of rejections, staying busy with his day job as a police officer. Then he started writing again but wrote for himself, with no thought of getting published. The result was The Remaining, the first book of what is now a series published by Orbit, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group. Book 5 in the series, The Remaining: Allegiance, will be published on Feb. 24, with Book 6, The Remaining: Extinction, already in the chute.
The series had a modest birth. Molles (pronounced “moh-lay”) wrote something he might want to read himself and started posting chapters to an online forum. “I thought, ‘I’m going to write something I want to write. And when I got done with it, I figured, ‘Hey, why not see if people like it?’ ”
People did like it, enough for Molles to self-publish through Kindle Direct. But Molles was still only cautiously optimistic it would find a wider audience. “When I put it on Kindle, I knew some folks on the Internet enjoyed it, but folks on the Internet enjoy a lot of different things,” he says, laughing. He wasn’t sure if it was worth the effort to start writing query letters. “I was like, ‘Well, you know, let’s see if people like it on Kindle, when they pay actual money for it,’ ” he recalls.
If Molles wrote the first Remaining book for himself, it nonetheless is perfectly tailored to draw in fans of post-apocalyptic action novels. It is somewhat slow for the first couple of chapters, as the main character, Lee Harden, waits in an underground bunker. He has been commissioned by the military as an asset to be used after the last lines of defense have failed. Harden is one of the 50 people (one for each state in the U.S.) who have been given access to supplies and charged with rebuilding society if things go terribly wrong. After a fast-spreading virus turns people into mindless, aggressive killers, Harden is thrust back into the world outside the safety of his bunker and spends most of Book 1 just trying to survive.
Post-apocalyptic fiction turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Molles’ creativity. He had tried writing science fiction and fantasy as a kid and was drawn to the desperation of horror, but he wasn’t a big fan of some of its more paranormal trappings. In a post-apocalyptic setting, he could write realistically about a modern world and still make it scary. “You can still maintain the same credible level of horror because one of the biggest things in horror is taking that security blanket away from people,” he says. “I think that provides pretty much an ideal space for me to write in.”
Molles self-published the first four books in the series, starting in 2012, and found a rabid fan base. He would release them months apart and found an immediate demand for the next installment. “I would release a book on, let’s say, a Monday, and…by Tuesday I would have 3 million messages on Facebook going, ‘So when’s Book 4?’ ” he says. He thought, “I just gave you 3, you read it in 24 hours, and you’re impatient for the next one. You’ve got to give me a chance to write this stuff.”
That attracted the attention of Orbit, which has already published the first four Remaining books and two related e-book–only novellas. The decision to sign with a traditional publishing house did upset some of Molles’ early fans who had bought the self-published Kindle versions of the work, but the possibility of opening up The Remaining to a wider audience was intriguing. “People were sending me Facebook messages telling me, ‘Hey, my friends are reading this but I don’t own a Kindle, do you have any plans to do paperback?’ ” he says. “If I went traditional publishing, there are all these other people who could get into the story.”
It was surprising to Molles to see his books on shelves in the rural area of North Carolina where he lives. He says most people there are “9-to-5 farmers” and working people. “There’s limited time to read around here,” he says. “But then I’ll come in the next week, and all the books will be gone.”
There have been advantages and disadvantages to working with a traditional publisher. Molles and his wife used to log in to the Kindle Direct website and get daily updates on sales. Now they have to wait for reports to be processed. Paperback versions of the book also meant new covers, an area where Molles, who had designed his own covers before, had to compromise. He felt that the models his publisher chose for the cover imagery “look nothing like Lee,” he says. “I don’t like the gun he’s carrying. It looked a little spacey to me, sci-fi–ish, and I really resisted that.”
Despite his rapid climb, Molles has maintained a certain amount of pessimism about success. “It still definitely surprised me,” he says. “I didn’t believe it for a very long time. I just expected it to bottom out.” He is optimistic enough, though, that on Jan. 9, he quit his job to write full-time.
Molles’ contract with Orbit is only for the Remaining series, which ends with Book 6 in July. He says it was a relief to be done with this particular story, and he has a lot of other ideas he wants to pursue, but he doesn’t rule out returning to it at some point. “Book 6 is very much the endpoint for this particular story,” he says. “The world is there, the concept is there, but as far as Lee Harden and this particular story, it’s reached an endpoint. I’m not saying I’ll never return to him as a character or that world, but I liked the way I concluded it. It made the point that I wanted to make.”
Nick A. Zaino III is a freelance writer based in Boston covering the arts for Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, BDCWire.com, TheSpitTake.com and other publications.