Culture

How a Shy Former Avon Lady Became the Queen of Self-Publishing

08_21_Mabry_WEB
08/21/15
In the Magazine
Donna Foley Mabry has stormed the best-seller lists with an unexpected, self-published e-book about her grandmother told in the style of a memoir. It now has nearly 9,000 reviews on Amazon.com with an average rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars, and will soon be translated into German, Russian and Italian. Killer Imaging Studio

A seamstress and former door-to-door salesperson nearing retirement age takes a job sewing costumes for a Vegas show, and the stories she hears backstage inspire her to trade in her Singer for a laptop. Twelve years and 15 books later, at the age of 72, Donna Mabry has the top nonfiction Kindle Direct Publishing book of all time.

Mabry was raised to believe that once high school was finished, “you were expected to earn your living.” She became an Avon lady, learning skills that served her well later in life.

In 2009, Mabry moved to Las Vegas, where her daughter, Melanie, had lived for years. She never foresaw a career as a writer, but the backstage gossip intrigued her. She heard about rowdy guests getting kicked out of hotels and casinos, and the shocking misdeeds of celebrities. Mabry figured other people could be as amused by Las Vegas’s oddball intrigue as she was, so she decided to write it all down. The result was The Last Two Aces in Las Vegas.

At her first book signing, the Barnes & Noble manager told her not to lose heart if she didn’t sell anything, since newbie authors rarely do. But Mabry wasn’t discouraged. I know how to sell stuff, she thought, and she used tricks she’d learned during her days as an Avon lady. Wearing an attention-grabbing red dress, she beckoned potential readers over to her table and whispered, “This is the best one! Ask me how I know.” Then she’d hold up one of her books, with the author photo right next to her face. It always got a laugh, but it also got results: By the end of the evening, her books had sold out.

Next came a series of historical romances, a few mysteries, a political thriller and a lighthearted comedy. Her latest book, Maude, was a total departure—it’s a raw and deeply personal biography of her grandmother. Released in October 2014, Maude within weeks was on The Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction e-books best-seller list, where it remained for over four months—at one point in the top 10, ahead of books backed by major motion pictures, like Unbroken and American Sniper.

It now has nearly 9,000 reviews on Amazon.com, with an average rating of 4.4/5 stars, and it will soon be translated into German, Russian and Italian, thanks to Mabry’s new agents at literary powerhouse Trident Media.

Mabry’s daughter encouraged her to write Maude, as she’d been hearing incredible stories about her great-grandmother her whole life. Maude Foley was orphaned at 8, married at 14 and a widowed mother by 16. She lived with her in-laws and daughter after her husband’s death and took up sewing to pay bills, a skill that she passed on to her granddaughter, and one that led, in a very roundabout way, to Mabry’s phenomenal success today.  

Mabry has received some beautiful responses from fans of Maude. One woman in Detroit, the city where Foley died, was so touched by the story that she sought out Foley’s grave, had the caretaker raise it up from where it had sunk into the ground and dedicated herself to its upkeep.

“If Maude had a vanity license plate’” says Mabry, “it would simply say, ‘Just keep going.’”