The College Chronicles: Freshman Milestones' author Kelly Owen knows her subject. As a College of Charleston adjunct professor and holder of two (and a half) degrees, she's been around students for the past 20 years. Which is probably why her new novel, the first in a four-part series all about a student at Charlestowne College, rings so true. And with the sale of 250 copies in the first week of its release — the amount most self-published authors sell at all — the possibilities of the series have Kelly and her publicist husband Matt considering an entirely new career.
But first the story. Kelly, an English professor, got her inspiration in 2009 from, who else, a student. "I'd given my class an assignment, and a girl came up and had the words 'skip lines' written on her hand," recalls Kelly. "I always tell my students to skip lines so I can write notes in between."
The image immediately made her head whirl with visions of a character named Cadence starting school at a fictional (albeit highly familiar) Lowcountry university. "A professor of mine always said, you'll know your story when you have it," adds Kelly. By the end of the day she'd outlined her first novel, with "Skip Lines" ultimately becoming the opening of Chapter One.
But the professor was already in the midst of working on a Ph.D. There just wasn't enough time to craft a novel while writing a dissertation comparing J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter to the poetry of Edmund Spenser, one of Shakespeare's contemporaries. When her College Chronicles manuscript received a dreaded rejection letter from an agent, Kelly reluctantly packed up her story and focused on teaching.
That was until the self-publishing biz began to take off. With outfits like Charleston's own CreateSpace making the news, the couple decided it was worth revisiting Kelly's story. "Sixty million people have college degrees," says Matt. "This is a story that so many people can relate to, not just students, but parents of future students." Kelly says it helped that Matt, a former Post & Courier feature writer and now a social media strategist, thought the story was good. That little bit of encouragement was all she needed.
That's when the couple dug in. Kelly set to work writing while Matt began strategizing. But it wasn't until a PubSmart conference that the couple decided to not only self-publish, but to start their own publishing company, Boxer Publishing, LLC. "This gives us complete ownership of the series," says Kelly. And ownership is critical, they say, in today's book world.
"If we had gone the traditional route, the book would be nothing like it is today," says Kelly. Or at least not the 553-page tome that it is. "It would have been edited way down," she adds. "Most publishers want novels to be around 60,000 words. This is 157,175."
Add to that the fact that The College Chronicles fits a new genre called "new adult." "It's not YA and it's not adult fiction. It's in between," Kelly adds. And "in between" in big-house publishing speak means untested, making agents wary. The College Chronicles also doesn't fit the typical YA outline. "This isn't a romance book," explains Kelly. "Yes, there is romance in it, but when I talked to my students about what they wanted to read, they wanted something more intellectual."
Intellect is something Kelly has in spades, and she showcases it through subtle literary nods and additions throughout the novel. In the first chapter alone, the author has a loincloth-clad rugby player spouting poetry at a massive keg party. It's scenes like this, she says, that her students can relate to. And her students have helped guide the story from the start. "I had quite a few students read it as I was writing the chapters," Kelly says. Some even contributed. The band Long Miles wrote a song for Chapter 20 while another student, who was very involved in the Cinderella Project — a nonprofit that gives low income girls prom dresses — shows up in Chapter 13.
"Keon Masters of the band Brave Baby was a student," she adds. "When I started planning my launch party, I knew I wanted to incorporate other elements, so I asked him to write a song." The result is "Skip Lines" based off the book's opening chapter.
"We're going to release it as a single on our website," Matt adds.
Innovative approaches like this are not only part of Matt's marketing strategy, it's part of the couple's mission to promote creativity in general. And isn't that what college is all about — stretching, growing, figuring it all out?