I first stumbled across the work of Drac Von Stoller while browsing the new releases on Audible.com last year. Suddenly, the list had filled up with audiobooks bearing lurid titles like "Cannibal Lake," "The Night It Rained Hell" and "Nazi Zombies," all by the same guy and each emblazoned with a garish, inexpertly Photoshopped cover image featuring leering, demonic or half-eaten faces. None of these recordings was more than 10 minutes long or cost more than Audible's rock-bottom price of $2.76; cheap, but with such short books, still a pretty small bang for the reader's buck.
A search on Von Stoller's name revealed dozens and dozens of these titles, all with professional narrators and many tagged with one- and two-star reader reviews. Over at Amazon, where the Stoller e-books on offer currently number 155, most clock in at no more that a handful of pages in length and quite a few are free. (In the iBooks bookstore, nearly all of Von Stoller's works will cost you nothing.) Most of the reviews there are just as harsh. "This is probably the worst written short story that I have ever had the displeasure of reading," one reader wrote of "Rise of the Zombies." "I read this in under five minutes," wrote another. "A child could have done it. In fact I think a child did do it."
Here was a conundrum. Von Stoller's 150-plus e-books can be obtained from at least 12 online retailers, each with its own particular and often demanding formatting and distribution arrangement, and the audiobook adaptations (most of which feature sound effects embellishing the narrator's performance) must have been time-consuming and expensive to produce. Even a crude cover design -- let alone 155 cover designs -- takes some effort to create. The establishment of the self-publishing empire of Drac Von Stoller gives every appearance of having been a gargantuan effort. Yet the author himself couldn't be making any money from it, not with so many of his titles priced at zip. As for public renown and recognition, the laurels have not been exactly forthcoming; although he has some fans, the vast majority of Von Stoller's books bear an average Amazon rating of one and a half stars.
Google von Stoller’s name, and you’ll be taken to photos of a baby-faced middle-aged man standing in a murky graveyard and wearing a high-collared movie-vampire cape, the images bathed in colored digital filters. Drac Von Stoller is on Twitter and Tumblr and Goodreads and Pinterest and Reddit and BuzzFeed Community, none of which offer much personal information amid their bewildering collections of highly specialized stats: “Drac Von Stoller has now been viewed and downloaded in ’92′ Countries around the world”; “Drac von Stoller was the only author that had 5 Audio Books featured in ‘Audible.com 2012 Halloween Promotion; and ranked 4th in sales out of 30 Authors featured in the ’2012 Halloween Promotion.’”
And so on. He's not one of the handful of exceptional authors whose stories of selling millions of self-published e-books have so captivated the media, but he's also not one of those woebegone literary novelists who sat back after booting a homeless manuscript into the Kindle store, then bemoaned sales in the low two figures. He was clearly determined to work the system for all it's worth. We seldom hear about writers like Drac Von Stoller, the countless ones who fall somewhere in the middle, cranking out quickie books that sell for at most a few dollars a pop. He's a new kind of author, one that could not have existed before the dream-bedazzled revolution of digital self-publishing and the gold-rush atmosphere it has engendered. I wanted to know who this guy was, so I tracked him down.
His given name is not, of course, Drac. When he first decided to write horror fiction, he told me in a telephone conversation, he resolved that his real name, Kevin Stoller, would not do. "Nobody would buy that book. So then I went around three or four different names and came up with Drac Von Stoller, which is a vampire, a character." Despite an official author bio portraying him as a lifelong horror buff since the days when he was "a little boy watching his favorite actors such as Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi on his little black and white television alone in his dark room," Stoller's ambition to become a horror writer was late in coming. It's the most recent in a string of big plans and hopeful dreams. And Stoller is more typical than you might think. What motivates him is less a burning desire to write than a burning desire to be a writer -- and, eventually, so much more.
Kevin Stoller lives in Gallatin, Tennessee, and has the accent to prove it. He works as a pharmacy technician. He's been married for 32 years and has three daughters. "I wasn't happy with my jobs," Stoller explained when I asked him what prompted him to try self-publishing. (He currently works two jobs, 80 to 100 hours per week.) First, years ago, he attempted the music business, writing songs. "I wrote like 10 songs and got some cuts off of it, but the guy, when he edited it? He took just about everything I wrote out of there." Then he tried to capitalize on his idea for a board game, but pursuing that would have required a $10,000 upfront investment, a non-starter, so "I got depressed about that."
Then he patented an oral liquid adapter (a device for use in healthcare), but this plan, too, "didn't go nowhere. I've always got stuff going through my mind. The wheels don't stop turning. ... So then it was, 'OK, I'll just try writing, see what happens with that.' Then I had to pick a genre." This was 2010, three years after the launch of Amazon's Kindle and around the time that self-published authors like Amanda Hocking and John Locke were starting to make headlines by selling hundreds of thousands of e-books. Stoller looked at his home video collection and realized that most of the titles he owned were horror films, so horror fiction it would be.
I asked Stoller the question that had perplexed me from the first time I'd noticed his diminutive offerings on Audible's website: Why are his stories so short? "Because my attention span isn't long enough," he laughed. "I've got a Harry Potter book in the attic that I'll never read. I'm so damn busy. I don't have time to sit down and read a novel at all. And the majority of people out there do not either. There's a lot of people out there who do read novels. I understand that, and I see people at work that'll read on their Kindles, or they'll have a paperback book and read a chapter or two. It'll take them I don't know how long to read that book. But most of us people are too dang busy nowadays. We don't have time to just be sitting at home like Mom and Pop on 'Leave It to Beaver' and reading a book. My point was to give someone a quick read, and that's it." So does he read short stories himself? "No, not really."
This surely goes a long way in explaining one of the persistent objections raised to Stoller's e-books: Their abundance of spelling and grammatical errors. One Amazon reader offered an extensive critique of "Its Dead Leave It Alone," whose defiantly unpunctuated title gives a pretty good sense of what lies in store over the next four pages. "It is said that if something is dead it might just be a good idea to leave it alone especially if it is evil," reads the first sentence. Stoller then goes on to relate the misadventures of a hubristic fellow named Luther who foolishly accepts a friend's dare "to dance and desiccate the grave of a man that legend has it was a real werewolf." Like virtually all of Drac Von Stoller's characters, Luther ends up torn to bloody bits.
"The thing that people miss," Stoller said when I asked him about the complaints, "is, like Rod Serling said, they look at the grammar too much. You need to read the story. Quit worrying about did I put a dot there, I should have put an apostrophe there. I see this all the time on the Web. I'll read articles and I'll see punctuation errors. I don't call them up or make a comment to say, 'Oh, you forgot to put a dash there.' That doesn't make sense."
I asked Stoller if he'd ever consider hiring a professional editor, and he said he'd thought about it, but he remembered that guy who once edited his songs and how much he'd changed them. He also tried collaborating once with an audiobook narrator. "That ain't never going to happen again. They either like me or they don't. It's my writing. I wrote it. If you don't like it, you don't have to download it." And, as he pointed out to me, "thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of downloads are coming in. I'm up to something like 18,000 downloads per month from all the retailers."
It's the download count that really matters to Stoller, not the income from book sales. He said he'd be "starving" if he counted on his books to generate cash. Bumping up the download count is why most of his books are free. When he first started, he'd priced them from $1 to $5, until a co-worker suggested giving them away. He thought she was crazy, but it worked. Right now, he's been fighting with Amazon for over two years because the retailer refuses to let him give more than 17 stories away. That's been tough. "They wouldn't even answer my email when I sent them a screenshot from the UK [demonstrating how many more copies he'd moved of a book once it was free]. They cost me about 100,000 downloads in a month! It's like your first love. They're the first ones that gave you the opportunity to be on there and they're the hardest of them all. And it's all about money."
I was particularly curious about Stoller's hundreds of audiobooks on Audible, an Amazon-owned company. Surely the professional narrators he uses don't come cheap? "Oh, up to $200 an hour," Stoller said. "There's no way I could have done that." Instead, his audiobooks were created through Audiobook Creative Exchange (ACX), a platform that connects authors and narrators in a revenue-sharing arrangement. "ACX gets 50 percent of my money," he said, "the narrator gets the other 25 percent and I get 25 percent. You can lose a lot of money doing that."
But if Stoller is willing to work so hard -- handling every aspect of the writing, editing, design, publishing and marketing himself, a process he characterizes as "going through the back door through razor blades trying to get where I need to go," and he's not doing it for the money, what is he doing it for? The exposure, of course. "They're going to know my name. It's going to be out there, and once my films get released, it's gonna probably be all over by then."
Yes, films: A B-movie actor/director/producer named David Heavener (also "a martial artist" and "a composer and performer of Christian music," according to IMDB) has been making short films of Stoller's stories, beginning with "Bloody Mary" and "The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs." (If these titles sound familiar, many of Stoller's stories are based on familiar horror-movie tropes and urban legends he looked up on the Web. Personally, my favorite Von Stoller title is "Thump! Thump! Drag!") Stoller talks about this project, which he says will ultimately be released as an anthology DVD next Halloween, in a way that makes his own role unclear. Has he been involved in the production? "Little bit here and there. I OK the script and stuff, read it over really well and make sure it's all right. And I've seen the films. So far I've got two done and am working on the third right now."
Although there are no plans for Stoller to appear in any of the films in his Drac Von Stoller persona, he believes the anthology could culminate in his ultimate ambition to be "the host of a TV series. Anybody can write stories with words blah blah blah. I want to step further. You've got Stephen King, who wrote the books. He had 'Creep Show' [a feature-length horror anthology film]. And then there's Rod Serling, 'The Twilight Zone.' I'm kind of like both of them mixed together." He added: "There's marketing that's unbelievable with my character. It's a vampire. There could be trading cards, comic books. You could have a theme park attraction at Disneyworld."
So Drac Von Stoller's own story isn't a horror story. Instead, it's the oldest American story, the one where a single brainstorm and a ton of hard work can rocket an average guy into a whole new life as a famous and prosperous vampire impresario. "I've just got a drive inside of me," Stoller explained. "That's just me. I've got the will to survive. I can envision. A couple of years ago, if you'd asked me about Drac Von Stoller, vampires, a TV series and all that stuff I would have probably laughed at you. But the more the years go by, it's just not stopping. It's getting better." Whether anyone will end up torn to bloody pieces at the end remains to be seen.