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On the Business of Writing: Alternatives

I’ve talked before about Deborah Chester, the core professor of my Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Oklahoma. She’s a phenomenal teacher, and she consistently displays a deep understanding of the process of writing commercial fiction.

That’s a skill worth having, believe me.

She also teaches several classes on the undergrad level, and when I first started the program last fall it was in the slash-listed course Category Fiction (which I’ve also discussed around here). When I say “slash-listed,” I mean the course was open both to Masters students and to high-level undergrads, and we had a good mix of both.

As a result, the majority of the class already seemed to know Professor Chester pretty well at the beginning of the semester. She’d start talking about some writer’s bad habit of indulging in exposition, then wag a finger at one of the students and say, “Just like you!” And everyone would laugh.

I felt pretty left out of all that. I’ve mentioned my issues with social anxiety, and feeling out-of-the-loop is an easy way to trip into that downward spiral, so as soon as I recognized what was going on I decided to fix it. I sent Professor Chester an email asking to schedule an appointment during office hours just to come in and get to know her. And she graciously obliged.

I was more than a little nervous going into that meeting, but she was friendly and open. She’s made it her life’s work to help writers find their way in an incredibly complicated and punishing career field. And (like so many of us) she’s an introvert herself, so she was pretty forgiving of my nervousness.

And so, eventually, we talked. I learned that she had done her undergraduate work in this very program, and through her professor’s connections she’d sold her senior writing project (a fantasy novel) to a traditional publisher the summer after graduation. Then she came back for the Masters program, and after that hired on to replace her professor primarily on the strength of her sales record.

I told her some of my stories, too. The one where I got embarrassed about my fantasy novel, and the one where I tried half-heartedly to shop my unsolicited manuscript to top-tier publishers, and the one where I gave up on writing for five years at a time. And, to end it on a high note, the one where I got back into writing in 2007 and finished three novels in one year.

And by then we were running out of time, but I had a question strong on my mind. This was last October–about a week before my first novel was scheduled to go up for sale on Amazon–and I wanted to know where she stood on the issue of self-publishing and e-books in general. So I asked.

It was an emotionally loaded question given my circumstances, and I didn’t give her any indication of my circumstances (which isn’t really fair), so she answered honestly. In her opinion, e-books were a flash-in-the-pan, an insignificant portion of sales, and self-publishing was pretty unprofessional and, honestly, a waste of time. Because what can you really hope to get with it? 500 readers? She shook her head and dismissed the concept out of hand.

I disagreed. (If you’ve been reading my blog for the last weeks, you know I obviously still do.) But my opinion is one based on the evidence and arguments of others. Hers was one based on extensive first-hand experience. She’s got 38 novels published. It’s hard to argue with that.

So I kept my mouth shut, kept my head down, and paid attention. I didn’t change my plans at all, but I didn’t speak them too loudly around campus, either. The last thing I needed was for her to get wind of it and consider me an unprofessional hack, when I would eventually need her on the chair of my graduate committee!

But the Professional Writing program is an incredibly small community, and even though I’ve only talked about my self-publishing exploits with a couple of my classmates, word has gotten around. There’s another class going on right now, “The Business of Professional Writing,” and when they started talking about the opportunities in self-publishing one of my classmates chimed in with all kinds of informed opinion.

I’m told the professor asked, “How do you know all this stuff?”

And my classmate tilted his head, frowned, and said, “Don’t you read Aaron Pogue’s blog?”

And of course the professors talk. I suspect word has finally gotten around, because Professor Chester came into class to talk about the submission process and “getting a book deal” for yesterday’s class.

And she opened it by saying, “There are different processes. There’s the very old one where you mail in actual paper submissions. There’s the newer one where what they really want is email. And then of course there’s self-publishing on things like Kindle. Some people really like the idea. I don’t know much about that, I’ve never done it, so I can’t comment on it. But I’ll tell you all about the other method.”

That wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned self-publishing in class, but it was certainly the most generous she’d been toward the concept. She mentioned it a couple more times over the course of that class, and always in the same way: “I don’t trust it, but some people really like the idea.”

She didn’t look at me. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But I suspect she knows. I think we’ve gotten to the point where everybody knows where everybody else stands, and we’re all very politely not talking about it.

And I’m okay with that. Konrath has five rules for self-publishing, and the last one is, “Wait at least a year.” That’s what I’m doing now. I’m investing that time in perfecting the other four rules, and trying not to pay too much attention to my sales figures in the meantime. If and when I pass that 500 readers mark–if and when I start making serious money off Gods Tomorrow, then I’ll go and talk with her from my first-hand experience. In the meantime, I’m willing to wait and see.

But there are things she said in our “business” lectures that I need to talk about here. Especially after the series I’ve run for the last three weeks. So stick around for more on the business of writing, and what you could expect from a legacy publishing deal.

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