In Part I of WU’s interview with MacAllister Stone, owner and CEO of Absolute Write, we spoke of minions, the challenges involved in herding 25,000 writers towards publication, and threats such as lawsuits. In an abrupt and unforeseen twist, this concluding post will cover more optimistic territory.
Jan for Writer Unboxed: Is there a special meaning to the avatar you use on AW and Twitter? (top left corner of this post)
MacAllister Stone: I grew up on a little place in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest neighbor, on the plains of eastern Montana. Coyotes were a regular feature of the landscape. One of the earliest stories I ever spun was explaining to my mother that I’d been kidnapped by a pack of coyotes who wanted me to be their leader, and that was why I was so late getting home for dinner. The Coyote-trickster tales were some of my favorites, too. So I’ve always felt an affinity.
The avatar is made from a photo of a coyote pictograph from the Columbia Gorge, very near where I lived for a while.
You’ve said you spend more time agonizing over the principles in settling minor board squabbles than lawsuits. In conflicts large and small, besides the moderators, is there anyone in particular who’s got your back?
You know, AW has just a huge number of members who I very much feel always have my back, and always have the best interests of the community in mind. AW is absolutely blessed with a membership who cherishes and nurtures this community just as passionately and with just as much dedication as any of the moderator staff, or myself. I really do think of the AWers as extended family.
A board dedicated to Celine Dion; days when all the threads are given silly or ironic titles; a calendar entitled “The Great AW Calendar of Neener and Triumph.” Please explain why you have left these things intact, or in some cases, even encouraged them.
All work and no play makes Jill a very dull writer? All that stuff comes down to a central question that I ask myself every single day: Is this something that’s good for the AW community? And while we all think and post about writing, every day, our lives as human beings are made up of all kinds of different elements, interests, and dynamics.
A healthy community needs to have enough room for those other interests. Moreover, play is something that’s really positive. People bond over play — whether that means more formal and structured sorts of games like the limerick thread that’s been running for years, or just having enough space to act really goofy sometimes. It’s how we get to know each other, find shared interests and common cause, and all of that works together to help us empathize with one another. That empathy is how we form bonds, and those bonds are what define our communities.
Money. You do not charge a membership fee. Absolute Write receives no compensation for the courses you advertise bearing the “Absolute” name. How do you make ends meet? Are there any plans to monetize the boards with membership fees? Why have you chosen to go this route?
Nope. We’ll never go to a membership fee. There’s so much information and education out there, and so very many people–editors, publishers, agents, and writers — freely offer the benefit of their knowledge and experience to the community. It would feel grossly inappropriate and sort of icky to attempt to profit on the openness and generosity of the AW community.
We have a “voluntary subscription” option for members to support the site, (and get a bigger mailbox and avatar, at the same time) and we have ad revenue, as well. We used to charge for classes and pay the instructors a percentage, and we formerly offered a premium newsletter. A couple of years ago, we discontinued the paid services in part because the economy was in the toilet, but also in part because it seemed like there were too many areas that presented a potential conflict of interest.
So, we’ve covered a lot of the challenges AW brings to your life. Let’s talk about the rewards. Why AW, Mac? From what I’ve seen, you could probably manage a Fortune 500 company with enough leftover time to hike and ride. What fuels you on the difficult days?
AW is an amazing community. I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed possible. We get to watch the sheer joy of someone who got paid for his words for the very first time, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a token payment from a semi-pro webzine — that excitement never gets old. I’ve seen people publish their first novels, their first articles, poems, and short stories, after months or years of hard work. I’ve watched friends land multi-book contracts, and break into national magazines.
But beyond that, beyond the absolute shared delight of seeing so many people working towards and achieving their dreams, AW is a community in a much wider sense, as well. We’ve watched our fellow members meet, fall in love, and get married. We’ve seen children born, and we’ve grieved members who pass away. We squabble, and cheer for each other, and coach each other, and help one another find jobs in the meatspace world.
Why AW? We need relationships and people with whom we argue politics and religion and life and love. We need communities, it’s part of being human. But in a greater sense, my involvement with AW is even more specifically driven by my belief that this world desperately needs writers and dreamers and storytellers. This world desperately needs philosophers and essayists and poets. AW offers a training ground for those thinkers and writers, freely accessible from almost anywhere in the world. I’m relying on y’all to get out there and cumulatively make our world better.
In a more concrete sense, have you any idea how many of your members have gone on to be published? How many dedications involve the people or community of Absolute Write? How many times are you thanked in a day?
I don’t have any idea, honestly. I do remember a few years ago, when I could count the members with commercially published books on one hand. This year, I’ve taken to surfing around the boards looking for books I can spotlight with a linked cover at the top of the forums. I change the book every week. Sometimes I put two or three up, together. In the last six months, I haven’t ever run the same cover twice, and every week I see even more books that I’ve not spotlighted yet. So it’s a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction.
And with the explosion of the ebook market and the accompanying proliferation of small digital publishers, it’s a really exciting time in publishing. The AW membership tends to be extremely well-informed about publishing trends, and highly enthusiastic about reaching new niches.
I’ve seen AW (or individual AW members) thanked in quite a few dedications. It always makes me grin big, because it means that people get it. Our members get what a remarkable place this community really is, and how very fortunate we are to have one another.
From your experiences as a writer, administrator, and business owner, what overarching principle or advice would you give a struggling writer?
Oh that’s dead simple. Read and write every day. Read widely, voraciously, carefully, and critically. No matter what you’re writing, write fiercely and honestly and unflinchingly.
Look, I know it’s what people always say. I know a lot of writers just don’t want to hear it again. I know a lot of struggling writers just don’t feel like they have the time to write anything, and read, too. But you have to read and read widely to develop an ear for prose, and an appreciation for a well-crafted piece of writing. And you have to write and write and write to develop the actual skills.
Mac, thank you so much for being here. I know you’re a private person, and to answer questions for someone who may or may not have been called a “morbid snoop” in the past… Let’s just say I’m grateful you agreed to be my debut interviewee on WU territory.