The Big Idea: James Fell
Sometimes, things don’t turn out the way you want them to. But as James Fell tells us, that’s not always a bad thing. Follow along as he explains how failure can be for the best in his Big Idea for his newest book, On This Day in History Sh!t Went Down.
I thought my last book was going to go big. Judging by the advance my publisher provided, so did they. We were both wrong.
There were a couple of national TV spots, a lot of radio, flattering write-ups in major print outlets, and about fifty podcast appearances. I also have a sizeable social media presence, and I hustled that fucker, but it didn’t hit. If people could predict what goes and what doesn’t, no one would have sunk $175 million into Keanu’s 47 Ronin.
You ever feel devastated about a failure, but it turns out to be the best thing ever?
For several years I was a popular science-based health and fitness writer; none of that fad diet bullshit. My previous book was an expansion into the area of motivation: a scientific examination of the life-changing epiphany titled The Holy Sh!t Moment. I was proud of the book, but sales were less than stellar. And in an industry where “You’re only as good as your last book” is a maxim, it was going to be a struggle to sell another science-based self-help book in a genre that prefers fluff and pseudoscience.
My agent told me to send him a list of ten potential ideas, and I did. On April 17 of last year I was on a bike ride and realized I didn’t want to write any of those ideas. The thought of authoring another self-help book was a portmanteau of blech and barf. It was blarf.
I’d wanted to be a history professor.
I went so far as finishing a master’s degree, but realized that relocating for a PhD, then potentially hopping around from school to school in pursuit of a tenure track wasn’t a kind thing to put my new wife through, being that she was a family medicine resident planning to set up a practice. So after the master’s I got an MBA to make some money and we stayed put. Ten years later I quit the business world and became a moderately successful freelance writer.
And here I was, 51-years old, wondering what the fuck I was going to do with my life.
I wasn’t in a good space, psychologically. It was looking like Trump would get re-elected. The Covid lockdowns had begun and my physician wife told me, “This is going to be bad and it’s going to last a long time.” The writing career I’d sunk over a decade into was on life support, as was my burgeoning speaking career due to the plague spreading o’er the land.
So I rode my bike.
And on that April day when I said enough with the self-help bullshit, an idea popped into my head that I could write an “on this day in history” piece and post it to my Facebook page. Plenty such works exist, but I figured I could write it in a unique and profanity-filled way that my readers might enjoy. Knowing a thing or two about holy shit moments, I realized I’d just had one. I rode home, searched for a notable event that took place on April 18, and the next day posted my story about Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms telling the pope to inhale a big bag of dog farts. Paraphrased.
It was moderately popular. I wrote another for the following day about Mae West being sentenced to ten days in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth” with her debut Broadway play titled Sex. That one blew up. It also resulted in comments of “You should make these into a book.”
That settled that. After only two days of posts, I committed to a full year’s worth. It took a week to decide on a title for the daily column, eventually coming up with “On This Day in History, Shit Went Down.” After the first month the views totalled over a million, and I decided to do two years’ worth. By autumn, the column had almost five million views a month and some said, “You should be getting paid for this.”
And so, I launched a Patreon, appealing to people’s altruism to “keep it free for everyone” but also to “get access to subscriber-only content.” In under two months I was in the top 50 of all writers on the platform. Then a competitor of Patreon, called Substack, got in touch and said, “We think you’d be happier writing for us,” and I said I think you’re right and switched over. Suddenly, I was having my best financial year as a writer, and I hadn’t even sold a book. Another indication I was finally in the right genre is that it took nine years to get my Facebook page to 80,000 followers. Ten months after I started writing about history, it had climbed to over 140,000.
In 2020 I did more writing than the previous three years combined. It helped distract from the fucktacular shitnado of ass that year was.
I got it in my head that I wanted On This Day in History Sh!t Went Down published on the one-year anniversary of the epiphany that led to its creation, so I hurt myself and made it happen. Even if it doesn’t sell, the subscriptions are doing well. But the pre-orders have been encouraging, and I keep posting daily history stories as a vehicle to promote it. With thousands of years of historical fuckery to pull from, I doubt I’ll run out of ideas.
Speaking of fuckery, The Holy Sh!t Moment contained only two f-bombs. Sh!t Went Down is a meaty tome at almost 160,000 words, and 1,011 of those words include “fuck” in some fashion: dumbfuckery, fucktacular, fucknuckle, fuckpuddle, fuckwipe, fuckwit, fucknut, fuckstick, motherfucker etc. Oh, and most uses of “Nazis” have the word “fucking” preceding them. Because fuck fucking Nazis. And by “fuck Nazis” I mean no one should ever fuck Nazis. Such assholes.
Please buy my fucking book.