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May 18, 2015
By Jennifer McCartney
How a 19-year-old indie author scored a bestseller with a Scottish romance.

Highlander novels are hot. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, set in the Scottish Highlands, hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The Starz television series adapted from the book is also a hit. There are 5,800 books with highlander in the title listed on Amazon—including Tracy Brogan’s bestselling Highland Surrender series. Riding this wave of popularity is The Highlander’s Touch, a historical Scottish romance self-published by 19-year-old D.K. Combs.

Early in 2014, The Highlander’s Touch had amassed 7.4 million reads and nearly 300,000 votes on Wattpad. Combs began to think about self-publishing in order to help pay the bills—she’d recently moved out on her own after graduating high school. She had close to 35,000 followers on the site, and she notes that many of them were supportive and encouraged her to make the jump to self-publishing. Her mother also had some input. “She wants me to publish, so that’s what she’s making me do,” Combs jokes.

Combs published the book in the spring 2014, leaving seven chapters on Wattpad for free to entice new readers. She made the book available for purchase exclusively through Smashwords (it’s not even available on Amazon)—a move considered unusual in an environment where authors crave exposure—and she’s done no traditional publicity for it, although Combs says she has plans to do some in the future, when her life is a bit more settled.

In spite of this, The Highlander’s Touch, priced at $4.99, became a popular title on Smashwords, appearing on the company’s bestseller charts earlier this year. “All sales I make are from word of mouth,” she says. Though she won’t disclose the exact amount, she confirmed that her earnings are nearing five figures. “Mind you, this is without promoting [it] avidly like I should be,” she says. “So I do have a ways to go before I make any real progress, but I’m prepared to work for that.”

"I have some of the best fans an author can earn."
The novel that won her so many fans on Wattpad is a gender-bending tale about two sisters travelling to meet Kane “the Lion” Shaw at his highland castle. The twist is that the younger sister, Saeran, must pose as a boy—and soon finds employ as Shaw’s squire. When Shaw accidentally sees Saeran dressed as a woman he quickly falls in love with her. And soon, her double life becomes increasingly complicated. The novel is awash with Scottish phrases and terminology, such as dirks and lasses although the author lives in Kentucky—far from the highlands she writes about. Her fans have called her the Cliffhanger Queen, she says. “I love building suspense, and apparently they love that I do.”

Combs interacts with her readers through Wattpad, Facebook, and Ask.fm, although she left the latter site for a period after encountering problems with online harassment. “Anonymity gives people a sense of power, and sometimes they use it for reasons that aren’t very... nice,” she notes. She found Wattpad to be a better regulated and safer experience for interacting with fans. “Very rarely will anyone actually say anything [inappropriate] on Wattpad to me now,” she says. “The second someone gets out of hand and [my fans] find out about it, [they take] down the threat before I even know about it.”

Inspired by her favorite authors J.R. Ward and Sherrilyn Kenyon, Combs says she began writing in middle school. She found she “never clicked well” with the other kids, so she turned to reading for company and eventually to writing. Her process is straightforward, she says. When she isn’t at work or playing Grand Theft Auto V, she writes by composing large chunks, which she then goes back over and edits—a process she repeats until the book is complete. Editing is done with the help of two close friends. “They help me with plot holes, planning, proofreading, and editing,” she notes. Combs and her friends design the covers themselves using Photoshop.

As for the reaction of her friends and family to The Highlander’s Touch, she says the response has been varied. “Most are like, ‘Woah, that’s so cool!’ while others are like, ‘What, you write porn now or something?’ ” Her advice to other writers is to have an emotional support system in place, and to use it when needed. “Most times I use my dog just to get my mind off of things, and when I come back from the cuddles, my mind is more clear,” she says, adding that this helps with the stress of wondering, “Am I really good enough to be doing this?” Luckily, she notes, she also gets emotional support from her readers: “Thank God I have some of the best fans an author can earn.”

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