Dear College Writing Professors,
It’s been almost a decade since I sat in your classrooms, bright-eyed and full of hope and naivete. A decade. Wow. Hard to believe how time flies.
I wanted to let you all know that I’m still here doing that thing y’all taught me how to do–write. I’m doing something else these days, too. Publishing.
My first book debuted last year. It’s young adult. And genre fiction. And self-published. I might have broken some rules in the last decade. But there are no teen girls crying in bathtubs! So there’s that.
First, I want to thank you. Joking aside, so many of your lessons can be found between the pages of my debut novel. You were right when you said I wasn’t ready to publish at twenty. I had so much growing up to do, still do, really. My second book (which will be released in July) is better than my first, and I hope they continue to improve until the last.
Much of who I am today is thanks to you. You taught me how to pay attention and the fundamentals of craft. I recently read through the notes y’all left on some of my short stories, and I’m amazed how you managed to see through the clumsy mess of the young writer I was to the writer I could be. Seeing the potential of someone is hard, and I sometimes wonder if anyone ever recognizes that quiet but important skill. So, thank you. So much.
There are a few things I wish I’d known before this trial by fire that is the publishing world, though. Self-publishing wasn’t a thing a decade ago (I distinctly remember laughing with peers over the absurdity of “vanity publishing”), so I’m not here to talk about the method of publication, but the industry as the giant, problematic beast it is and has, apparently, always been.
See, the thing is, we never talked about publishing. We all thought about it, constantly. Sometimes we even discussed it in hushed whispers, but it wasn’t really a part of our college writing lives. It seemed a little like repressed sexuality–that thing a lot of us think about but don’t feel comfortable discussing for whatever read-between-the-lines reason. But the thing is, like repressed sexuality, not talking about it makes us think about it more, then when we’re confronted with it we don’t really know what to do.
Manuscript. Query letter. Agent. Publishing house. Check. I did gather that. I didn’t do that and that’s on me for better or worse, but we all know there is a lot more that goes into this business than those things. A lot I wish I’d had a better handle on before I jumped in with both feet.
For example, genre fiction is a thing that happens. And of course craft is craft across genres, but there are conventions at play in genre fiction that aren’t at play in literary fiction. It seems basic, but knowing that would have helped.
On a larger scale, though, some rules of decorum when approaching the industry would have really come in handy, because I’m honestly still a little lost. How are we supposed to act? What are we supposed to say to agents, to editors, to other authors, to readers? A simple list of dos and don’ts for approaching this book-making machine to tape above my computer would have been nice.
Granted, I think some of my confusion has been caused by how rapidly technology and social media has advanced in the last ten years, and I imagine not all of my concerns could’ve been addressed in your classes. Still, professionalism basics would have been good to know. [As an aside to liberal arts professors in general, please teach or at least encourage your students to learn how to use a copier. Seriously, I’m really proud of the fact that I can quote Yeats, but that didn’t make me feel any smarter when I couldn’t figure out how to un-jam a copier.]
Also, publishing is confusing. I know that now, but because we didn’t talk about it much, I sort of thought it might be simpler than it is. It certainly seemed linear. Manuscript. Query letter. Agent. Publishing House. Barnes & Noble (Borders back then, too!). Got it. But that’s not really how it works. There are conferences and workshops and expos and networking and connections to be made. There are market trends and charts and fads and movements. There are now Twitter pitches (again, I know you probably didn’t see that one coming, I don’t think a lot of us did). There are small presses and large presses, vanity presses and self-publishing. None of which we ever seemed to talk about. There’s a whole vocabulary I never knew existed.
I don’t know if we didn’t talk about it because we weren’t ready and you knew that or if we didn’t talk about it because you wanted to create an environment in which we weren’t tainted by the business side of things. I understand both reasons, but honestly, the secrecy wasn’t very helpful.
Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way. I went to school to become a writer, not an author, and I did learn that. But I mean… we all wanted to be authors, right? At least for those of us who advanced through the program, you knew our endgame was author, correct? Would it have hurt us so much to hear a little bit about the business we were likely headed for?
Because at the end of the day, this is a business. Much more goes into it than art. It’s branding and marketing and readings and seminars. It’s continued education on craft but also on being a savvy businessperson. Honestly, I might not have taken advice to consider a business or marketing class. Knowing me, I probably wouldn’t have, but there are plenty of writing students out there smarter and savvier than I am who would benefit from that tidbit.
At the end of the day, I want you to know I’m proud to have been your student. I’m proud to have learned as much as I did, and I’m extremely grateful for the knowledge you gifted me. But I’ve also made some pretty big mistakes when it comes to this whole writer to author thing, and I was hoping that maybe in the future, you could address the elephant in the room, too. Although now you might just direct your students to Twitter.