Laura Fraser ’82
I went to Wesleyan knowing I wanted to be a journalist, even though I was warned that Wesleyan didn’t teach classes in journalism, much less have a major—it was a liberal arts college, and basically taught you how to think. So while I set my sights on journalism, and was an editor at the Argus, I took courses that did indeed make me think about the world from a lot of different angles—politics, culture, psychology, mythology, literature, and art. Wesleyan made me a more flexible, multidimensional thinker.
That served me well as a journalist, when I realized that situations are not simply black and white—that every story has a lot of angles, not to mention shades of grey, and everyone is influenced by many different kinds of interests. My fascination with those shades of grey made me stretch beyond journalism to other kinds of writing—memoir, fiction—where the bigger human stories became more important than the factions fighting over the issues of the day.
I was a freelance journalist for thirty years, writing for various magazines, as well as a few books, having reasonable success, if never truly striking it big. But after all those years, the world of journalism began changing, and the space for juicy narrative stories was shrinking, and it became increasingly difficult to make a living writing nonfiction. For a while, I was reduced to griping about the bygone days when magazines paid to fly me to foreign countries to write 7500-word pieces and how everything since then has gone to hell.
That’s when the flexibility came in handy. With magazine space diminishing, and what space was left —in 2014!—still overwhelming dominated by male bylines (I actually counted the gender disparity in bylines in the New York Times as part of my senior essay in American Studies), I felt squeezed out. I did some teaching and ghostwriting and more complaining. At the same time, in San Francisco, a few people were developing new models to monetize narrative storytelling, selling long articles as short e-books. I attended a journalism conference with a long-time editor friend, Peggy Northrop, and we thought that while those were great ideas, it was strange that even these models were publishing mainly men—when the women’s market in magazines has always been so much bigger than men’s, and women buy the majority of books, including 70% of e-books. We decided on the spot to go into business, starting an publishing platform for short e-books by women called Shebooks.net.
My friends will tell you I’m the last person they’d ever think would go into business (though, as a freelancer, I’ve been an entrepreneur the whole time; I’ve never worked for anyone else). They are surprised when my conversations about stories and narrative arcs start morphing into discussions of business strategies, investment decks, P&Ls, and conversion rates (which has to do with being around my third partner, Rachel Greenfield, a Harvard MBA). It’s like I’ve suddenly started speaking Chinese--but if there’s one thing I learned at Wesleyan, it’s that it’s never too late to take up another language.
My start-up has had a lot of help and encouragement from Wesleyan friends. Some of them know about the business—Jonathan Weber, for one, is a serial digital media pioneer who has been generous with his advice. I’ve also had the support of wonderful Wesleyan writers who have offered their stories to help the venture succeed—including Jennifer Finney Boylan (also on our advisory board), Bonnie Friedman, and Virginia Pye. Whether or not Shebooks succeeds—and I’ve learned enough about business to know that there’s a good chance that it won’t—I’ve had an incredible education in business, start-ups, and sitting on the other side of the editor’s desk. My goal is that Shebooks will make it possible for women like myself to continue to make a living as independent writers, with the space to write thoughtful, engaging narratives. My biggest hope is that I can just go back to writing stories, but have a place to publish them. And then take those trips to foreign countries without having to write a thing.
[Read more about Fraser's Shebooks venture in The Wesleyan Connection.]