But I had no idea he was smart as well. Today, Jeff is going to share his experience in what is undoubtedly the biggest thing to hit publishing since Penguin invented the paperback: digital publishing.
"There are no second acts in American Lives." --F. Scott Fitzgerald
In 2003, I signed with an agent and I signed my first honest to goodness publishing contract. After a number of years of getting nowhere, it felt like I’d finally found the magic elixir to publishing success. It felt like I was on an upward trajectory that was only going to continue going up.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
My first two novels – KILLER SWELL and WICKED BREAK, featuring P.I. Noah Braddock – came out to incredibly nice reviews in 2005 and 2006, but promptly began gathering dust on bookshelves. I was very quickly made aware that I wouldn’t be offered another contract.
No problem, I thought. I’m a published author. There will be publishers clamoring at my door.
I struggled for a number of years. I wrote more books. I changed agents. I made voodoo dolls. I had conversations with the devil (happy to report we were never really on the same page). I tried just about everything I could think of.
Then in 2010, my luck started to change again.
My new, super-awesome agent was able to secure a deal for the third book in the Braddock series, as well as a brand new series about a stay at home dad in Texas called STAY AT HOME DEAD. (See what I did there? CLEVER.) These weren’t huge, earth-shattering deals, but they got me back in the game.
And as all of this was happening, I was keeping an eye on how digital publishing was starting to take hold and change the book world. Reading a little here and there, listening to stories from knowledgeable friends. But I hadn’t reached the jumping off point yet. I was holding onto the traditional world.
But I had a book that I thought was pretty darn good and that I wanted to test the waters with. It had made the rounds with the big houses and despite a couple of very, very close calls, it had ultimately been passed on.
I thought it would make a good experiment.
I figured that I had nothing to lose. I knew the book was polished. I knew that traditional publishing doesn’t always know what sells. I knew I had a small group of people who were familiar with my name because of the other books I’d published. I knew that I could handle it if not a single soul was interested in the book because, well, I’ve known that feeling during different times in my career as a writer.
So it went live on Amazon on December 31st, 2011.
And promptly didn’t do much of anything.
Sure, my family and friends grabbed a copy and a random copy or two would sell each day. But it did nothing to set the world on fire.
When I published the book, I signed up for the KDP Select program, which most have probably already heard too much about. Long story short – the book can be loaned if you’re an Amazon Prime member and, as the author, I could give the book away for free for a few days if I wanted.
Now, I’m not here to debate the merits of giving one’s work away for free. I know all of the arguments and I can make a case for either side. But for this book, because I didn’t have any expectations and because I simply wanted to get the word out, I decided I would give the book away for free on February 6th and 7th.
When I woke up Monday morning, it was already flying. I think the most I’d sold in any one day prior to that day was six.
When I woke up that day at about 5:30am, it had already been downloaded 287 times in the approximately three and a half hours it had been available for free.
I got up, went to work.
And I could hear it whistling at is flew up the free bestseller list.
I admit – “free bestseller” is an oxymoron. It’s not selling. It’s giving. But seeing it climb any list that has “bestseller” in the title is always going to be welcome.
At 9:47pm on that Monday night, I checked Amazon.
THREAD OF HOPE was the most downloaded book in all of Amazon land. Not in mysteries. Not in fiction. But in all books. Number Freaking One.
I don’t recall the exact number, but THREAD OF HOPE had been downloaded somewhere in the neighborhood of 28,000 times.
Whoa. I don’t wanna gross you out here, but I MAY have peed my pants a little.
It parked itself there for all of Tuesday. I did not track the numbers exactly but it was somewhere around 40,000 downloads when it went back to paid in the middle of the night between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Now came the interesting part.
The paid sales were immediate.
And it slowly started to climb the bestseller list.
And this time it was actually selling. Meaning, money was coming to me.
It moved steadily on Wednesday and Thursday, hitting different milestones along the way. Top 100 for all books. Top 10 in mystery.
To say I was freaking out would be a bit of an understatement. But you have to understand. My career had come to a screeching halt for several years before getting jumpstarted again in 2011. And even after the jumpstart, I knew my audience was still small. In a matter of several days, I was gaining more exposure – and financial success – than I’d ever had. Seeing my name up there with Janet Evanovich and Stieg Larsson was strange and odd and fantastic and a million other things.
On Friday morning, when I woke up, it was at #4 on the mystery list, right behind the three Larsson books which had been entrenched on the bestseller list for, like, three years. That isn’t an exaggeration. Three years.
I was giddy. I think it was #25 overall – something like that. I honestly can’t recall all of the details.
At 2:15pm that day, I checked the rankings.
THREAD OF HOPE was #1 on the mystery list.
I most definitely peed my pants this time.
In approximately 110 hours, it went from complete obscurity to the bestselling book in the mystery genre at Amazon.
I wasn’t just back in the game. I was sort of at the top of it.
I was shocked. My students came into my room – I’m a high school English teacher - and I was a stuttering mess because I couldn’t focus, couldn’t concentrate.
I think it was there for about twelve hours before Larsson retook his spot atop the mountaintop.
And in the month since that crazy week, it has continued to sell. In about a month and half’s time, I’ve reached a readership larger than the one I’d reached in the previous seven years combined.
Cue the pants peeing again.
So now what? What’s the fallout?
I’m the first to admit this has all caught me unprepared. I didn’t expect for people to be clamoring for the next book in the series. I didn’t expect for people within the publishing industry – digital and print – to show interest. I didn’t expect for so much to change in such a short amount of time.
I have a lot to think about.
But I am writing. The second Joe book. The fourth Noah book. And a couple other ideas that are now percolating in my head.
And I’m hoping for a little bit more luck.