Alumni Profile: Stephanie McAfee

Stephanie McAfee

When Stephanie McAfee (BA 00) began writing her first novel, she reached out to literary agents and was rejected. So, she self-published — and within months, agents were calling her.

That’s one of the many twists in the rise of McAfee, whose novel Diary of a Mad Fat Girl began as a 99-cent e-book on and sprinted to a 10-week run on The New York Times best seller list.

McAfee, who said she made only pennies in the first week of sales as a self-published author, has been signed by Penguin for a three-book deal.
And the author, who first marketed her book among her Facebook friends, is now getting publicity from big-time traditional media outlets

including USA Today, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A New York agent is shuffling her through a 15-city book tour, including a stop at Square Books in Oxford last week.

“I just can’t believe it,” McAfee, a former Prentiss County Spanish teacher, said of her new-found popularity. “It’s really unbelievable, but it’s really exciting, too.”

McAfee grew up in Booneville and graduated from Ole Miss with an English degree. After earning her master’s degree from the University of Alabama, she settled in Prentiss County as a teacher, but always had the idea for a novel in the back of her mind.
In 2010, she decided she’d concentrate on writing the book.

She started writing in earnest in March of that year, capturing the gossip, angst and drama most every woman encounters in small-town life.

Her novel tells the story of Gracelia “Ace” Jones, a (you guessed it) small-town schoolteacher. “Everybody says, ‘Write about what you know,’” she said. “So I go ‘OK, here you go, here’s my character.’”

But the similarities between herself and the madcap events in the novel begin and end with the main character’s description, she says. “Ace Jones is a chubby schoolteacher with a chiweenie (cross between a chihuahua and a dachshund), and I’m a chubby schoolteacher with a chiweenie,” she said. “The rest of it, I just made it all up.”

Even so, the novel resonates with her readers, she said. “I’ve had so many people comment, from all over the country, to say, ‘Are you writing about people in my town? I know these people.’” And that’s the way I wanted it. I wanted normal people to relate to my
character on a personal level.”

McAfee’s path to success was paved not only with rejection letters from traditional literary agents, but with her own savvy marketing insight, and the use of social media.

In her mail, among the rejection letters, were magazines — many of which, she noticed, had ads for the new Amazon Kindle e-reader on their back covers.

“I told my husband, ‘This is going to be the big gift this year.’ And so I started doing a little research and I discovered that to self-publish, it’s free. And it’s so easy. And so I thought, instead of wasting all this time writing all these query letters (to literary agents), which I’m clearly not any good at anyway, I’m just going to finish up the book and self-publish it.

“And that’s what really made it possible for me to do this, because there was never an actual hard copy,” she said. “There was just an e-book. It’s definitely changing the publishing landscape.”

Anticipating the popularity of the new e-readers, McAfee published her novel to Amazon on Christmas Day 2010.

She sold nine copies the first week.

“I made 45 cents the first week — and I was so happy,” she said. “It was such a great feeling just to have completed the book.”

As her book percolated in online storefronts, word spread among McAfee’s Facebook friends, and then to friends of friends. Within months, McAfee found out through a stranger on Facebook that she’d made The New York Times best seller list, which set her career into overdrive.

“I started getting emails from agents, and emails from publishers, and that’s when things really took off,” she said.
McAfee, who sowed her success in social media channels, is now reaping the whirlwind. She has signed on to not only write novels, but maintain a steady online presence. “It’s not just writing the book,” she said.

“‘You’ve got to be on Facebook more. You’ve got to be on Twitter more. You need to blog three times a week.’”

McAfee said that as soon as editing was completed for the print edition of her first novel, she set to work on the sequel. She said she is nearly finished with her second novel featuring Ace Jones, aptly titled Happily Ever Madder: More Adventures of the Mad Fat Girl. “The title kind of says it all,” she said. “It’s going to be more Ace Jones adventures.”

And, despite the deadlines and the stress, McAfee is living her own literary adventure. “It’s beyond a full time job,” she said. “But it’s the best full-time job ever. It’s been great.”