Dathan Auerbach only wanted to scare a few people on Reddit.

It was September 2011, and the Pensacola, Florida, native was checking out some user-posted stories on "NoSleep," a subreddit. The message board thread allows registered visitors to upload original, personal tales of terror, and Auerbach had a whopper to share. Titled "Footsteps," the then-26-year-old college philosophy teacher's story was a foggy first-person perspective recollection of the time when, for no discernible reason, he woke up in the woods, not his comfortable bunk bed. NoSleep readers loved it and wanted more, so Auerbach—who'd never written any fiction prior to "Footsteps"—quickly put together a follow-up, "Balloons." The cycle repeated itself through the beginning of October.

Eleven months later, Auerbach self-published—via his own imprint, 1000 Vultures—his well-received Reddit stories as a fleshed-out, meticulously refined 240-page novel entitled Penpal. By December, without a publicist or an official marketing team behind it, Penpal landed on the leading horror website Bloody Disgusting's list of 2012's 10 best horror novels and was on its way to a movie deal.

In its completed form, Penpal (available for purchase here) is an engrossing, chilling blend of coming-of-age storytelling and realistic, non-supernatural horror that'll should keep readers far away from dreamland. So, mission accomplished, only it's on a much larger scale than Auerbach ever imagined.

His success story is indicative of the book publishing industry's recent shift in release dynamics. Gone are the days when aspiring fiction writers had to hunt down agents and cross fingers that corporate publishing houses would read their manuscripts, let alone want to produce hard copies for bookstores. As seen by accidental novelists like Auerbach and, on a bigger scale, Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James, the endless possibilities afforded by the Internet have changed the game.

Best of all, the paradigms of self-publishing aren't nearly as daunting as one might expect. In his own words, the Penpal author walked Complex through his unplanned yet highly effective path to becoming a published, buzz-worthy novelist.

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As told to Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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