Over the course of 2014-15, author A.J. Brown gave away hundreds of short stories in booklet form he called The Brown Bag Stories. Thirteen editions, including a Christmas special. Then, in May 2015, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of The Brown Bag Stories, A.J. published eight versions of that month’s edition, letting his readers pick which one they received. Unfortunately, this meant they only got to read one of the eight stories.
So, in July 2015, A.J. decided to take the twenty stories he’d written over the course of the year and put them out in book form. As he put it, “No e-book. No online stories. Just me, selling them to those who want them.” He signed each one sold, including a personal note about the writing of one of the stories. Then he packed and mailed it himself. Mine arrived in a brown padded mailing envelope addressed by A.J. and with a personal note thanking me for buying the book.
Imagine in this day and age of massive publishing houses and authors who are part of the machine: an author first giving away his stories, and then selling directly to his readers. Pretty brilliant, don’t you think? After reading the collection myself, I had to seize the opportunity to talk to A.J. about his strategy and the collection that resulted from it.
- Tell me a little about how you came up with such a unique marketing plan.
Cate and I had talked about doing something different with my writing, but we weren’t sure what direction to go in. I was frustrated. Things just weren’t working with social media and blogging and trying to get other folks to help spread the word. Then one Saturday we attended the Zombie Walk here in Columbia and met a woman at a comic book booth. After a long discussion she told us to talk to her brother, who ran the comic store the booth was for. That afternoon we went to talk to him. The conversation was much shorter than with his sister, but he made the suggestion to give away some stories, to just pass them out around town. It took a couple of months and a lot of trial and error, but in June of 2014 we finally released the debut issue of The Brown Bag Stories.
I’ll say this: it was a terrifying prospect with passing them out around town and hoping places would let us put them in their establishments. A lot of folks around our hometown didn’t know I wrote stories, and that was just as daunting, telling folks I knew.
- Your stories have a wide range of themes, ranging everywhere from despair to isolation to courage and even hope. Was this intentional or do you think writing a different short story every month had an influence on it?
For the most part, each month dictated the story for that month. November has Veteran’s Day so the story for it was centered around a veteran. February has Valentine’s Day, so the story was centered around a romantic theme. Molly’s Story was influenced by the death of a friend of mine, so I wanted to dedicate that issue to her.
For the months that didn’t have a significant day or event in them, I just went with the story that felt right for that particular issue.
- You once called The Brown Bag Stories a “labor of love”. You put in a lot of time, effort and resources to these little booklets. Is it a love you’re ready to put to rest now?
No. Part of that labor of love is the creating of the stories. To go with that is I really wanted to give the readers something they would enjoy, some good entertainment. You know how you want to give someone something special, but you don’t want it to be the same old thing? You try and figure out what would make them happy, and then you realize you can actually make it yourself. Then when you’re done creating it you just know the person is going to be happy with it—it was a labor of love. Everything you put into it was done with love. It’s the same thing with The Brown Bag Stories.
The other part is that I want people to read my work, but if they don’t know who I am, then they won’t be able to read the work. So, the actual creating of the booklet is something I tried to take as seriously as I would a full length book. And, Michelle, being a writer, you know how it feels when you see the finished product. Each month I would hold these booklets in my hands and think, ‘they’re going to like this.’ That feeling is warm and awesome and easy to love. You know?
- Was there ever a month when you wondered if you’d actually make it to press in time to get the story out?
Yes—in truth, we originally wanted to put these out starting in May of 2014, but we clearly didn’t make that goal! The May, 2015 edition(s) was taxing and there were several times I wondered if I had gotten myself in a little above my head. But most of the other months I was done with about a week or so to spare.
- How did you get followers of the stories? I know you used Facebook, but did you use any other methods to get the word out?
Facebook and other social media played a huge hand in getting the word out. I posted in various places that I was going to give away free stories. Truthfully, not a lot of folks took me up on it at first. As a matter of fact, I had several writers contact me and tell me I was an idiot for giving away my hard work, that I was devaluing the work by giving it away. Still, I wanted to do this, so Facebook and social media, and my blog were all places I posted about it. Then we went around town and put some in local coffee shops (for the most part, people were okay with it as long as it didn’t cost them anything).
I was in a few groups on Facebook as well and when people started talking about how they don’t really take chances on unknown writers I started telling them, ‘Hey, I’ll give you these stories for free. Take a chance on me and if you like the work, then buy the books.’ I always tell people, just give me a chance and you won’t regret it. That’s how sure I am of my abilities as a story teller and writer. Cate also posted about them on her social media sites, including Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
All of a sudden, my mailing list began to grow from a handful of people wanting them to quite a few.
- Labor of love or not, you made no secret of the fact that The Brown Bag Stories is part of a marketing plan. Has it been effective? How?
Yeah, I think it has. First off, a lot of folks who received The Brown Bag Stories bought Cory’s Way when it came out. It helped in that respect. It also helped by way of the owner of a publishing company was one of the folks I asked to take a chance on my free work. She did. She also let her husband read the stories. They are on my mailing list now and I have a book coming out with them in 2016.
- Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
Molly’s Story is one of my favorites, just because of the reason behind why I made it one of The Brown Bag Stories. When my friend, Molly, died I was stunned and at a huge loss. Though we never met in person, we worked on several projects together and became really good friends. Her death hurt and that particular issue was the hardest one for me. Molly’s Story was originally titled Strings—it was her favorite piece that I wrote. I couldn’t think of a better tribute to her.
- My personal favorite story was “The Vampire Beneath Jodie’s Bed”. I loved the progression of the little girl heroine in this. Can you tell me a little about what made you write this?
This thought: There was a vampire under my bed. It was made of an old white ball and one of Daddy’s old shirts—one he can no longer wear since he got sick and lost all that weight.
It was bedtime and I had just brushed my teeth and was on the way to the bedroom when that popped into my head.
As the story took shape, I realized the vampire would only be significant in Jodie’s head and that actually seeing the vampire draining the blood of her father wasn’t important. What was important was that Jodie believed that whatever it was under her bed was the reason her father was dying, and what would happen after he was gone? What would the monster feed on then?
More importantly I wanted Jodie to be strong in the end. I wanted her to save her father and her family. I wanted her to be able to overcome her fears. The same thing was in play in Bee’s Screams.
- The stories are addictive! Has anyone complained that you’re not doing this on a monthly basis anymore?
Yes! Several folks have mentioned they miss the monthly stories. However, that is being remedied. October marked the beginning of the second year of The Brown Bag Stories. Cate and I discussed this at length one night recently and came to the conclusion that The Brown Bag Stories needed to go on. Besides, I really missed doing them.
- Can interested readers still get a copy of the collection? Yes. I do have the compilation of the 20 stories still available, for print only. They can contact me on Facebook or through my blog (Type AJ Negative) or even my e-mail address (email@example.com). How about past editions of The Brown Bag Stories? Past editions will only be available for as long as I have more than one of them. Once I get down to one, then that will be all for the First Edition. I plan on keeping a copy for myself. Currently, the Christmas Special is the only one no longer available to people, other than in the compilation book. How can they be sure they get the next one? Get on my mailing list. That’s the easiest way. To do that, just drop me a line (Facebook and my e-mail is the easiest way to get in touch with me). I’ll say this: it is hard to get all of them. There are the 20 from year one and the first one for year two. But there is also one that comes with the print edition of Cory’s Way, and I’m putting together one for the birthdays of the folks on my mailing list. I also plan on doing one for Dredging Up Memories, my zombie novel (hopefully coming out next year).