Tuesday, March 20, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald Didn't Try Digital Publishing: a guest blog by Jeff Shelby

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Anyone who's been around the mystery world for a while knows Jeff Shelby. Funny. Wired. Co-founder of the late, much lamented First Offenders blog. His work has garnered rave reviews, award nominations, and several rounds of semi-automatic gunfire.

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.

Cue the chirping crickets.

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.

So over the holidays I published my novel THREAD OF HOPE over at Amazon through their Kindle Direct Publishing program.

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.

Which was actually fine because I had no expectations for the book. I was just testing the waters, learning about e-publishing and this brave new world.

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.

You can read Jeff's educational and entertaining blog at his website, follow him on Twitter, and fan him on Facebook (where he alerts readers when he's offering a free short story or novel!)


  1. What an amazing ride, Jeff! Congratulations. KDP Select hasn't worked quite as well for a few people I know and has gotten good results for a few, too, although not as good as yours. And it's obviously the quality of the book that got you there. Which I'm going to add to my TBR pile.

  2. Congrats, Jeff ... great to hear of your success.

  3. Wait. Jeff is SMART? (Ha! Oh, we kid because we love...) Seriously, congratulations on your success Jeff, but it couldn't be more deserved. Despite those embarrassing bladder issues, you are a remarkably talented writer!!

  4. Great to hear of your success, Jeff. Keep those fingers on the keyboard.


  5. YAy, Jeff!! xo

    You know seriously, I heard this happened to someone else..and I cannot figure it out. A book is free, terrific, and then it isn't. ANd then people buy it.

    Why would that be, do you think? The free-readers read it, and love it, and tell their friends-who then buy it? Or what are your thoughts about this?

    I mean--one might think people would say--oh, I missed the free day, forget about it then.f

  6. Thanks to all for the kind words:)

    Hank - I think alot of it has to do with the power of Amazon. Once you go way up on any of their lists, the system starts "suggesting" you to potential customers. And I think I completely underestimated the power of suggestion to potential book buyers.

    But I'm not really sure what the magic formula is...I wish I did so I could share:)

  7. Wow. What a fabulous story!! And since I laughed out loud several times during hte blog itself, I'm sure the books are a riot, too!

    THanks for the inspiration as well as the laughs!

  8. What a great story, Jeff! Like Jan, I laughed out loud during parts of it. And like Edith, I have friends who've used KDP with varied results. It seems that when it hits, it hits big. I do notice that the success stories seem to have in common past traditional published novels, which may well correlate to the ability or willingness to revise and copy edit until it's a high-quality manuscript.

    Did you do this at the same time your new book was coming out from your new trad publisher? How do they feel about it?

  9. Linda - I did do it at the same time as the release of Stay At Home Dead. Since that series is written under a pseudonym, there really wasn't any direct conflict and truthfully - I think that book has benefited from the attention Thread of Hope has received. I think a few more people bought SAHD that might not have been interested otherwise. So - win, win:)

  10. Congratulations, Jeff. What a crazy world we live in. I am trying to champion the independent bookstores but at the same time I'm making a great living with my e-book sales too. So I can't be anti-Amazon.

    I fascinated to see how this all will develop. But it comes down to one thing. You must have written a good book in the first place. There is a lot of rubbish out there!

  11. This is truly fascinating. I like reading this because I'm straddling the fence at the moment--hunting (because that's what it's beginning to feel like) for an agent while also revising another novel to experiment with, as you did, with epublishing...Congratulations! That's gotta feel great!

  12. Jeff, what an interesting story! It's obviously a really good book or I don't think "free" would have translated so successfully into "paid."

    We are sort of neighbors, by the way. I live in McKinney and lived for ten years in trophy club (sorry, caps lock key sticking). I'm thrilled to see a fellow "local" writer doing so well!

  13. Rhys - I think that's the biggest misconception out there that writers have to battle against. None of us are anti-bookstore - but with the changing landscape, we have to seek new avenues to find readers and - no one ever likes to say this out loud - make money.

  14. I think Jeff makes a good point--for the writer, spreading the love between traditional publishing, bookstores, digital publishing and ebooks should mean multiple income streams and building an audience across platforms. For the reader, it should mean getting to buy (or borrow) the kind of books she likes, in the form she likes, at the retail location or library she prefers.

    If the industry can come to a balancing point on all this, it will be a win/win/win situation for all booklovers.

  15. Julia - it really is a balancing act and the problem is that it feels like in some corners, authors are being asked to choose sides, which really isn't fair. I received a couple of snarky comments from a bookstore person about cozying up with Amazon and how I was turning my back on stores. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the reality is that as the business changes, we have to change to. We have to go to the places where we can find readers. This isn't me giving the finger to traditional publishing and bookstores. This is me expanding my readership base with a new opportunity.

  16. Congrats, Jeff! Great blog. I just typed "The End" at the bottom of my 12th contracted manuscript (in three years) and I'm taking time off to look at my options. This is very thought-provoking. Thanks.
    PS: I love the Noah Braddock books and am glad the third is finally coming out.

  17. Jeff, will it be available through Google ebooks ever, or are you locked in to Amazon? I ask since I know those of us who are members of Indiebound would like to be able to promote and sell it, but obviously if it's Kindle only, we can't.

  18. Congratulations Jeff--that's a lovely, uplifting story. I hope you keep us posted about what comes next and how this affects future offers and decisions.

    I'm always curious about how many people actually READ what they download! I'm guilty of jumping on free offers, but then ignoring my kindle to read physical books.

    And Laura, YAY for you! that's an incredible number of books to churn out and you deserve some thinking time!

  19. Whoo, Laura! Amazing!

    Jeff, Keep us posted..and congratulations..xoxoo

  20. I think the free book offers on Kindle, etc, are a good way to "try out" an author, just as libraries are. Speaking for myself, libraries have traditionally provided my introduction to an author whose books I later purchase. The Kindle is now doing that for me as well.

    Lucy,you wondered about people downloading books and then not reading them. I buy physical books that I do not plan to read immediately but that I know I WILL read when the time is right: vacation (generally,if it is fiction or memoir) or to have on hand for when I will need the info (if it is a reference book). I have quite a few books on Kindle that are really just too heavy for me to handle physically or because I own the physical version and want to reread it when I'm on vacation and it's easier to have my reading material on Kindle than to have to lug around a totebag of half a dozen or more books. I swear I can take eight books on vacation with me,read them all and then look for the closest bookstore so I can buy more books for the rest of my vacation! Last August was the first time I took the Kindle on vacation and I kept thinking I had forgotten a piece of luggage when I was on the train!

    I have lately been wondering if people objected to moving to those newfangled bound books from scrolls: "I will NEVER understand how anyone would want to hold a bunch of mechanically written pages bound between two pieces of board instead of picking up one piece of paper at a time and running their fingers lovingly down each individual handwritten scroll!"

  21. Fran - my plan is eventually to move it to all e-platforms just as soon as I best figure out how to do that. Again, my goal is to reach as many readers as possible and making it available on as many platforms as possible is the goal. I'll keep you posted.

    And thanks again to everyone for all the kind words and the hospitality - much appreciated!!!