At that point, most fan fiction sites were printing the works of amateur authors who expected no money for their efforts. After all, the stories were based on already copyrighted movies, television, and books. Fanfic sites became a place for fledgling authors to let their imaginations run wild and expand those stories in their own ways. Most fanfic is laughably bad. However, super-fans of a novel often want more once they’ve finished the original book. Fanfic provides that escape, although many of the e-books are short, or they’re dribbled out in installments over a matter of days or weeks. Over time, some fanfic authors established substantial followings.
The Writer’s Coffee Shop founders were fanfic devotees who originally established a website merely to share information about the scene. McGuire had the computer expertise and did most of the work setting up the website. Site traffic was high as readers scurried to catch the latest fanfic news.
The women saw an opportunity, established the publishing company, and recruited some of their favorite fanfic writers. Readers were able to order e-books from the site’s library section beginning in January 2010. The company divvied up the money with the authors. Most e-books generated less than $2,000 apiece, Pedroza said.
Early on, the Coffee Shop approached British writer Erika Leonard, who was infatuated with the Twilight series of gothic romance novels that first appeared in 2005. They wanted her to publish and sell her works via their site. She would later describe herself as a middle-aged woman having a midlife crisis when she penned her first installment. Leonard wrote under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon at first, then later switched to E L James. She produced a series of fanfic stories in installments, collectively called Master of the Universe. She would later modify the story, distancing it from its Twilight source material, and renaming it Fifty Shades of Grey.
In 2011 the first online installment of Fifty Shades was published. Sales were stronger than anticipated. Within a year fans had scooped up a quarter-million copies. People paid online and downloaded the book to their computers. Soon, orders for the printed books started flooding the publishing company as well.
“Some people just want to have a book on a shelf,” Pedroza said.
Hayward was busy recruiting new fanfic authors while McGuire oversaw the website. Pedroza was in charge of marketing the business and filling the book orders. The company hired Beebe to help out. Pedroza and Beebe recruited friends and relatives to help them print shipping labels and package thousands of books, one at a time, for mailing worldwide.
“We’d have shipping parties on the weekend,” Beebe said.
Waxahachie resident Alexandra Allred is a fiction writer who produces books for The Writer’s Coffee Shop. She characterized Pedroza and Beebe as fantastic marketers.
“They were amazing and so much fun,” she said. “I’ve worked with different marketing companies in the past through my different publishing houses, and Jenny and Christa are truly unique. One of the things that makes them different is they are absolutely having a blast.”
Publicists and marketers have a tough job trying to garner attention from newspapers, radio, and television, particularly when the product they’re pitching is an obscure book from a no-name writer.
“American readership is down, and the publishing houses are going through big changes now,” Allred said. “A lot of marketers seem to be stressed out. But when Jenny or Christa gets on the phone and talks to somebody about one of their authors, they are so happy and upbeat that it is infectious. If you’re with a newspaper or a radio station, you can’t help but go along with them.”
Demand for Fifty Shades grew faster than the loosely organized company’s ability to keep up. The company founders were still fans, and they wanted to see James hit the big time and land a deal with a major publisher. The Writer’s Coffee Shop put the publishing rights up for sale, and a bidding war broke out.
Despite its steamy erotica and scenes of bondage and sadomasochism (or perhaps because of them) Fifty Shades became the first fan fiction work to become a best-selling novel. Two sequels quickly followed, and within a year fans had lapped up about 70 million copies of the series, reportedly making it the fastest-selling paperback of all time.
In February 2012, the Writer’s Coffee Shop issued a press release to tout its discovery of James and its affiliation with Fifty Shades. The press release also reminded everyone that the company published other authors and was looking for new talent. Hayward, Pedroza, McGuire, and Dimov were credited with creating the company.
“Their love of literature united them, despite the fact that they were scattered across the globe,” the press release said. “After creating friendships in their online community, they had a desire to help talented writers become published authors.”
A month later, the company issued another release. It was parlaying the momentum from Fifty Shades into proving that the firm was “a force to be reckoned with in the publishing world.” However, the company history had changed drastically. Hayward was given sole credit for creating a “unique online community of aspiring authors and avid readers.”
None of the other founders were mentioned, even though Pedroza and Beebe wrote both press releases.
So what prompted the revision?
Pedroza said Hayward asked for the revision because she was registering the business as a sole proprietorship on advice of lawyers while the company was working on its deal with Random House.
“That’s the way we were told to write the release, because of the way things were going down with the lawyers and how we were restructuring the company with less focus on partnerships,” Pedroza said. “That’s when the problems started.”
The company’s restructuring created red flags in the minds of Pedroza and Beebe, who were both on salary at the time. (They wouldn’t reveal their salaries.) They considered Hayward a friend who was looking out for all of their best interests.
“I trusted blindly,” Pedroza said. “Everything was happening so quickly, and there was so much going on, and we were still trying to ship books.”
Later that year, business contracts arrived in the mail, and Pedroza and Beebe signed them without seeking advice from attorneys. Afterward, communications with Hayward grew less frequent.
“She began calling less and less,” Pedroza said. “I don’t know why she stopped talking to me. I reached out to her in many ways.”
By 2013 James’ name was listed among Forbes magazine’s highest-earning authors, with close to $100 million generated from book sales and film rights.
Hayward collected a million bucks from selling the book rights.
Pedroza and Beebe were notified that Writer’s Coffee Shop was downsizing and both would be laid off.
“I always felt like I would have a job for the life of the company because I was a founder,” Pedroza said.
Fort Worth Weekly tried to call the Fifty Shades author for comment on what happened at Writer’s Coffee Shop. An official at her current publishing company Random House said she is involved in turning her book into a movie and is not doing interviews at this time.
I asked Pedroza if she had James’ phone number.
“I wish — I’d call her up and sell her some soap,” she said.
Small publishing companies that suddenly find themselves with a hot property can struggle to meet the demand for books and marketing.
“It happens infrequently that they come out with a book that takes the world by storm, but once a decade or so you have that,” said David Miller, senior vice president and publisher at the Washington D.C.-based Island Press. “That kind of success is very difficult to plan for.”
A book publisher who asked for anonymity said small publishing houses that hit it big with a book can suddenly find themselves facing unexpected problems, such as their newly successful authors wanting to jump ship to a bigger publisher.
“If they don’t have a lot of contracts in place, it can turn kind of sour,” he said.
After the restructuring at the Writer’s Coffee Shop, Hayward sat atop the flow chart. McGuire continued to oversee web operations. The Aussie investor Dimov began handling more managerial duties. And Pedroza and Beebe were shoved out, along with many of the company’s two dozen employees, Pedroza said. The publishing industry was in shambles, the competition among fanfic sites had increased, and the Fifty Shades money machine had dried up. Paychecks ceased.
“I said [to Pedroza], ‘What do you think about making soap?’ ” Beebe said.
The two entrepreneurs donned goggles and gloves on a recent morning and hunkered over a big pot filled with orange goo. They were making a batch of one of their more popular soaps, called “Twisted Tangerine.”
They use no chemicals or preservatives, but they do use lye, thus the protective gear.
“We get suited up and we feel like Breaking Bad,” Pedroza said.
Beebe stirred while Pedroza used an infrared thermometer to test the temperature. The mixture was then poured into a mold and refrigerated. The next day they would use a handmade tool — a guitar string attached to two screwdrivers — to cut the big block into 50 or 60 bars. The Federal Drug Administration doesn’t regulate soap, and customers don’t come to the house to get products. The partners found it quick and easy to set up the home-based operation and start making inventory.
Early on, the Soap Barista customer base consisted mostly of family and friends. Once they got the knack of soap-making, Pedroza and Beebe began setting up shop at Canton for three days each month, and their sales increased.
Mansfield resident Missi Reynolds began using their soap a few months ago and became a fan. She too has a child with occasional bouts of eczema, and the soap gives him relief, she said. This past Christmas, she gave her brothers bars of soap that Pedroza and Beebe made with beer.
“I’ve used other natural soaps from health food stores, but they don’t last,” Reynolds said. “These last really long. The main thing that attracted me to their soap was it was all natural, and it smells good, and the way they present is really nice — simple and to the point.”
The Soap Barista is selling about 500 bars a month, and the women can produce much more if demand goes up. Their earnings haven’t yet topped the amount of money they made as teachers or fanfic publishers, but they see potential to make some cash. And, besides, “This is what we love,” Beebe said.
The friendly enthusiasm they relied on to pitch books will serve them well in the soap business, said Allred, the Writer’s Coffee Shop author.
“If every bar of soap that they tried to sell involved a face-to-face exchange, they would be freaking millionaires,” she said.
In a nod to their fanfic past, Pedroza and Beebe created a website (thesoapbarista.com) to build up a community of soap enthusiasts to help move their products. Otherwise, they’ve made a clean break from fanfic and put their full attention on their new careers.
“We’re hungry,” Pedroza said. “We’re going to put in the time that it takes to make this succeed.”
Oh, and this time they’re protected. They established a legal partnership agreement and registered with the state as a limited liability corporation. They don’t anticipate anything going sour between them like in the Fifty Shades debacle, but they’re playing it safe.
“We lived and learned the hard way,” Pedroza said.