MFA student to graduate with more than a degree

This spring, MSUM graduate student Ryan Christiansen will be graduating with his thesis in hand, a novel titled Boy Wanted, and with something else you might not expect: a literary press.

A Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program candidate who earned his bachelor’s in English from MSUM in 1993, Christiansen remembers how in early 2010 he learned that Apple Inc. would soon release a product called the iPad, and how the device would change everything, especially for the world of book publishing.

“I recognized that with Apple behind the e-book with the iPad and its iBookstore that e-books would finally become a first choice for consumers,” Christiansen said. “Amazon had been slowly gaining ground with its Kindle, but when Apple got into the game, that cinched it for the publishing world. The same would happen for books what happened for music.”

And so in response to sweeping changes in the publishing industry, Christiansen decided to start his own literary press dubbed Knuckledown Press. He credits the Certificate in Publishing program at MSUM, which can be earned as a subset of the MFA, for informing his decision.

“I learned a lot about what I think is simply wrong in the world of publishing,” he said. “After spending years writing a novel, most authors spend years trying to find a publisher, and when they do, the reward is minimal compared to the effort they put in. Most authors don’t earn out their advances, and it’s up to the author to do the grunt work of promoting his or her book.”

Self-publishing is an option, of course, and Christiansen recognized how digital printing and print-on-demand were changing the game when he wrote and self-published Publish and Sell Books: Using print on-demand self-publishing technology and the World Wide Web for book publishing success in 2003. However, self-publishing often means forgoing many of the advantages that commercial publishers have to offer, “not the least of which is editing,” Christiansen said. “I knew there had to be a middle ground. I recognized that with e-books, editors can be publishers, too. Books can be published at the push of a button, and so I asked myself, ‘Why not start a literary press that focuses on publishing e-books?’”

He did, but not right away. First, he had to complete his publishing certificate, which included completing the practicum experience with New Rivers Press, the non-profit literary press located on the MSUM campus and which lives within the same walls as the English Department. In the fall of 2010, Christiansen led a team of graduate and undergraduate student editors to complete a developmental edit of the novel Downriver People by Bea Exner Liu (New Rivers Press, 2011). The edit involved pulling the novel apart and putting it back together again. “Unfortunately, the author had passed away years ago,” Christiansen said, “and so while the press was still committed to publishing her book, the manuscript itself wasn’t ready for publication. We made sure the book saw the light of day.”

Christiansen said he learned a lot about the publishing world while pursuing his certificate. “Suzzanne Kelley, [the managing editor for New Rivers Press] and Alan Davis, [senior editor for the press], have taught me way more about publishing than I ever could have dreamed of—and right here in Moorhead,” he said. His certificate education, coupled with his MFA and his previous career experiences as a public affairs specialist for the North Dakota Air National Guard and as a technical writer for Microsoft Corporation in Fargo, convinced Christiansen that book editing and publishing should be in his future. After he completed his certificate, “that’s when I told Dr. Kelley that I was going to start my own literary press,” Christiansen said. “And I kept my word.”

Nearing its first anniversary as a sole proprietorship, Knuckledown Press has published four books by three authors (including one by the publisher himself), and the press has two additional authors with short story collections signed for publication, Christiansen said. What’s unique about Knuckledown Press, he said, is that it only publishes e-books and that the press only asks for non-exclusive rights to an author’s work. Under traditional models, Christiansen said, the publisher obtains exclusive rights to an author’s work.

“As a writer myself, I thought that was the absolute worst thing about traditional publishing models,” Christiansen said. “At Knuckledown Press, my authors are free to publish their books on their own if they want to do so. Typically, this might mean self-publishing them in print, but if they want to, they can compete with me head-to-head selling e-books. That would mean learning how to do what I already know how to do, and it would mean spending time keeping track of things for themselves. This way, it’s a partnership. In fact, it’s fifty-fifty.” Christiansen said he pays his authors a 50 percent royalty. “That’s a lot higher than traditional publishers, who pay at best 15 percent.”

Does Knuckledown Press pay the bills? “Not yet,” Christiansen said, smiling. “But I’m hoping that by the time I retire, my backlist will be supplementing my Social Security income, and that I’ll have more time to read and write another novel.”

What more could an MFA graduate ask for?

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