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Who Teaches the Business of Creative Writing?

This is the first post for a regular column about the business of writing and publishing. Most of them won’t be this long, we promise. If you have questions or topics to suggest, please write Andrew Scott at andrew [at] enginebooks [dot] org.

If you like this post, please share the link on social media. And, of course, please consider buying a title from the Engine Books or Lacewing Books catalogues.

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I. Entering the Creative Writing-Industrial Complex

In “Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing,” Nick Ripatrazone begins by lambasting an embarrassing and greedy entry fee for a student writing contest organized by McSweeney’s. But then Ripatrazone digs deeper:

My questions extend beyond this single contest. Should a writer submit to a literary magazine that only “pays” in contributor copies? What does it mean that we, in the literary community, have accepted lack of monetary payment as commonplace? Does literary citizenship benefit a certain class of writers and academics, particularly those on the tenure track, for whom continual publication is a professional necessity?

These are exactly the type of conversations that I have in my writing classrooms—and I teach high school students. Granted, I wait until my advanced course, but from September through June, my students read widely and write often, and they also learn about the business of creative writing.

Creative writing should be taught as an art, and as a business. A creative writing program that only includes the former can unwittingly reinforce romantic stereotypes of writing. A young student might major in creative writing. She could become a wonderful poet, and a well-read critic. But she needs to know that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. This is the inside joke of creative writing programs in America. We know creative writing doesn’t make money, and yet we continue to graduate talented writers with no business acumen. At best, it is misguided. At worst, it is fraudulent.

As someone with more than a few opinions about the creative writing-industrial complex, I agree with Ripatrazone in principle. But poetry students know there’s no money in verse once their haggard and poorly-dressed instructors hobble into the classroom. Even mid- and late-career poets who win $100,000 prizes fail to exude the faintest whiff of “business acumen.” Two such poets were my teachers. I don’t think either could run a lemonade stand.

Ripatrazone also worries about class issues related to this topic, and rightly so. But a high school that offers creative writing classes, like the one where he teaches, is already at the top. That’s a middle class, if not high class, problem. I enrolled in two creative writing classes at a “blue ribbon” high school in Lafayette, Indiana, that offered many unique courses: genetics, human anatomy and physiology, microbiology, zoology, and so on. We even had a planetarium. Creative writing was the least interesting of these unique courses and, to be honest, it did nothing to help me become a better writer because we didn’t read much—certainly nothing of significance. In that regard, the combined American literature/history course, for which I read The Great Gatsby and other novels, was far more useful.

I attended the only public high school in my town. I recognize now that I was incredibly lucky, even privileged, to attend such a school, though I would not have thought so back then. As someone who took creative writing classes in high school, majored in creative writing as an undergraduate twenty years ago, and now teaches creative writing to undergraduate and graduate students, it is my strong belief that most creative writing students—at any level—aren’t ready to be taught the business of creative writing. Teach them to write first. Better yet, teach them to read.

 

II. Creative Writing and the Search for Respect

After high school, I attended Purdue, the land grant university across the river. I only applied to one college, though I vaguely remember that my unimpressive SAT scores were sent to places like Yale and Harvard because there were spots on the form I didn’t think I could leave blank. Several months later, Purdue wrote to let me know that they couldn’t accept me into my first program of choice—something to do with genetics, because my parents thought science was a smarter move—but the university could happily allow me to become a creative writing major, my second choice. On paper, anyway. In my heart, all I wanted to do was write and draw comic books, and since I couldn’t major in that, I wanted to major in creative writing.

I lived at home, and my parents, bless them, could absorb my tuition costs into a budget plan that roughly equaled a monthly car payment for a modest sedan. I lucked out by enrolling in university writing courses taught by some of the best fiction writers and poets in America. Who knew there were amazing writers in West Lafayette, of all places? I’d lived seven miles away for my entire life, and I had no idea. Eventually, I helped produce an undergraduate literary magazine and became the first editorial intern for Sycamore Review, a literary journal housed in the English department. In these ways, I began to learn about the business of creative writing, even though none of my courses directly addressed the topic. Instead, I signed up for fiction workshops and classes like “Craft and Theory of Poetry.” Courses in my second major—professional writing—explored ways I might earn a living after graduation, but even courses like “Business Writing” didn’t exactly deal with the business of writing.

In our effort to make a creative writing education respectable and to legitimize the major’s swelling popularity, if only to ourselves, we now have a rash of courses related to the business of creative writing. Let’s step back and consider if it’s appropriate to teach this aspect of the writing life to undergraduates. Perhaps juniors and seniors, once they’ve taken several creative writing courses that focus on writing (and reading), can be introduced to the business of creative writing in a meaningful way. But focusing on the business of creative writing earlier just helps develop a cadre of young poets and novelists who can craft a sharp query letter without knowing anything about chaptering strategies or how to manage a central metaphor.

Allow the foals to finish growing before you put them to work in the field.

 

III. “I Don’t Have Fans, Just People Who Want My Job”

When I began graduate school, I worked for another national literary journal, Puerto del Sol—first as a volunteer, and then as a co-managing editor. I learned much about the business of creative writing this way, and also on my own by reading articles online and in publishing-related magazines. I even attended AWP, but the conference was so small then that you could hang out with Pulitzer Prize-winning poets as they cooked hot dogs on a grill in the breezeway between the two (small) buildings where conference events were held.

I’ve often argued that the business of creative writing needs to become a more prominent element in MFA programs—more prominent, but still a minor element—but who should be allowed to teach the business of creative writing?

I am a writer, editor, and professor. Because of this, I regularly interact with a wide range of authors. When I claim that the majority of them aren’t equipped to teach the business of writing, I’m basing this judgment upon hundreds of conversations with people who’ve sought my counsel in classrooms, via email and Facebook, and at conferences and festivals.

Writers who teach are generally unprepared to teach the business of creative writing, partly because there are no models for them. Only one of my graduate workshops formally discussed business elements, but that professor regularly taught Spanish, not creative writing, so he didn’t know that in our program, the business of creative writing was generally not a topic of discussion. The trio of all-stars who did regularly teach fiction writing in my graduate program almost never brought it up.

Graduate students hunger for such knowledge, and there’s no reason to hoard what we know. If asked directly, at the bar or in office hours, my mentors would share their insight, but it was clear that teaching the business of writing was beneath them. Sometimes impatient students—every program has at least one or two—argue that writing professors keep the secrets of publishing close because students will eventually become the competition. This reminds me of a saying common among comic book professionals: “I don’t have fans, just people who want my job.” I wonder now if writers who teach creative writing can rightly say the same about their students, except that far too many creative writing students don’t even bother to read their teachers’ books, before or after joining a program. Maybe it’s more like: I don’t have readers, just people who want a letter of recommendation.

My own mentors were generous with their kindness and help. I would never claim that they withheld crucial information, but there was a Jedi-like ethos underlying every interaction, one that placed high value on serious reading and revision and was disinterested in publishing. To prove worthy of such guidance, you couldn’t let on how desperate you were to learn how to get published. The irony, of course, is that most writers—even my mentors, I’m sure—are obsessed with publishing matters: rumored contracts, bad reviews for books recently authored by their friends (you know, the competition), and “off the field” incidents that turn ugly, such as Richard Ford purportedly spitting on Colson Whitehead at a New York literary party after Whitehead trashed Ford’s book. Many writers who mock churchgoers nevertheless read the New York Times Book Review every Sunday morning.

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IV. Perspective & Context

I should not be surprised when an accomplished writer conveys to me an incomplete understanding of the business of creative writing, but it happens all the time—sometimes weekly. Earlier this year, a writer whose recent book became a bestseller revealed that her “awesome” advance for that now-successful book was $5,000. A writer normally compensated with contributor’s copies for literary journal publications—one of Ripatrazone’s points—might be happy with a $5,000 advance, it’s true. An advance of any size is sometimes unfathomable to writers who might spend years working in solitude and obscurity. On Twitter—a vehicle for much “lit biz” chatter—this author continued to dole out unsolicited advice about advances. I tried to engage her with a somewhat contrarian view (hey, I did say it was on Twitter), mentioning the high advances—by today’s standards, at least—of several recent books written by our peers. Such details can be gleaned from the book deals reported in Publishers Marketplace. A subscription to that service gives access to some telling numbers, as long as you know how to decode the language:

Nice deal: $1,000 to $49,000

Very nice deal: $50,000 to $99,000


Good deal: $100,000 to $250,000

Significant deal: $250,000 to $499,000


Major deal: $500,000 or more

This newly bestselling author and I know another writer who often complains about not having any money—which is true, it seems, as she doesn’t have a regular job, teaching or otherwise—but it’s easy to learn from Publishers Marketplace that her debut novel secured a “good deal,” meaning her book’s advance was at least $100,000. Yes, that’s before the agent’s take and taxes, and the advance was paid in three or four installments, so it’s not like our always-broke contemporary got a suitcase full of money to forever fund her writing life. But her advance was 20 times larger than the advance given to the now-bestselling writer. When I suggested that $5,000 was not an “awesome” advance, that it was actually low for someone with the bestselling author’s reach and talent, she dismissed me.

Fair enough. It’s not my business, after all. Except this: With all that I do, the business of creative writing kind of is my business.

Besides writing my own fiction and nonfiction—and comics and screenplays, too, but let’s save that for another post—I also work as an editor for Engine Books. On any given day, I am likely involved in conversations about cover design and marketability, distributor’s policies, booksellers big (Amazon, B&N) and small (everybody else, by comparison), the value of a backlist, a  particular author’s previous publishing experiences and “success” (however we might define it), and so on. So, yes. The business of creative writing is my business.

Now that the bestselling writer’s book is doing well, the details of her advance don’t matter. She’ll get some fat royalty checks soon, and her book will earn far more for her than what our peer was able to secure with a big advance that didn’t “earn out.” Perhaps there are advantages, in some situations, to agreeing to a smaller advance. More money might be devoted to promotion, for example, or to other necessities that might help the book to have a longer shelf life. I’m thinking of Richard Russo here, and how, much to his initial disappointment, his first novel, Mohawk, was published as a paperback original. Now, though, he recognizes that the paperback original approach (and the smaller demands placed on such a book’s success) made it easier for him to build an audience. As a debut author, it was impossible for him to have that perspective.

(An additional thought about paperback originals: There’s no longer a stigma associated with them, so publishers of all sizes should consider going that route when introducing new authors, especially if we’re talking about story collections. The excellently received FSG Originals line should be all the convincing the other Big 5 imprints need to board that train.)

 

V. How Do We Measure Success?

Nick Ripatrazone rightly smacks down the spiritual-ish, neo-hippie language used by many creative writing programs. Teaching the business of creative writing seems like a way to professionalize and legitimize the work we do in creative writing classes, especially to university administrations and state legislatures that may not appreciate the humanities, to put it mildly. But if we do teach the business of creative writing, will we be expected to demonstrate quantifiable progress related to our students? How many students go on to publish books? How many books? How much money are these graduates paid for the books they wrote (or learned how to write) while in the creative writing program? How soon after graduation did they publish these books, anyway?

In other words, how do we measure success when we talk about the business of creative writing?

In my lone M.F.A. class that did occasionally broach the topic, one of my classmates—a college basketball coach—took a hard look at the program and noted that no recent graduate had published a book. Why should he consider joining the program full-time? In the room that night was another student who’d already won an O. Henry Award and published a story collection, but she didn’t count; she’d won Sarabande’s contest before starting our program and had already earned an M.F.A. somewhere else.

Let me tell you—the first year of graduate school is hard enough without some hardheaded realist pointing out the numerous ways the odds are stacked against you. Also, if you need motivation to realize you’re not hot shit, make sure you have a classmate who’s already won an O. Henry award.

Writers have to know something about almost everything, and those of us who teach think we can handle any subject vaguely related to our expertise. I sometimes joke that with enough notice, I can teach any course in my department except linguistics. My department, though, would be right to deny me that opportunity. Suggesting that I should be allowed to teach a course just because I think I can—or because I want to—when I’m not even a practitioner in that area of study would be the height of hubris. Hubris, of course, is something writers have in abundance. We need it to face the blank page. But for writers who teach, unchecked hubris creates problems.

Of course, many instructors do not ask to teach courses outside of their specialization. Some are assigned courses whether they want them or not. Increasingly, it seems, departments want writers to teach an ever-widening range of courses. For further proof that departments and programs are going this route, take note of this year’s job ads for open/mixed creative writing positions. Being an expert in one area is apparently no longer enough. Universities want to hire writers who can teach courses in fiction and nonfiction, or poetry and screenwriting, or playwriting and graphic narratives, while others seek someone who can teach poetry/screenwriting/medieval literature and still oversee the student newspaper.

These hires will, over time, devalue the work of everyone in these departments.

 

VI. Simply Being a Writer Is Not Enough

When asked to teach creative writing courses with no demonstrated expertise in a particular area, many of us think it’s no big deal to fake it ’til we make it. This attitude emerges in graduate school, when programs allow students with no teaching experience and almost no training to teach one or two sections of first-year composition. A semester or two later, the better grad students are then assigned to teach introductory creative writing courses that almost always focus on multiple genres, virtually guaranteeing that one-third or more of the course will focus on a kind of writing to which the teaching assistant might not be well suited.

We’re lucky, as a profession, that this approach ever works. A pattern of being rewarded with new opportunities simply for being present and available can continue throughout a teaching career, which is why a writer who hasn’t yet published a novel might think he’s qualified to teach a course on writing novels. He’s working on a novel, isn’t he? Isn’t that enough? Maybe he’s tired of teaching short fiction workshops. Maybe he’s tired of scribbling comments on three short stories (8-12 pages each) from every student, over and over and over again. Maybe a course that requires students to write their own novels during the term could allow him more time to write his own. Maybe he can write alongside his students in a kind of “flipped classroom,” a promising pedagogical concept that is often misapplied. Maybe he can call the endeavor “immersive learning” and apply for curriculum development grants. Department chairs know even less about how a course on writing novels should be taught, so who are they to question or object to a new idea, especially if the teaching writer is smart enough to cage his approach in language the university already touts? And this example—a course on writing novels—is not as abstract as a course focused on literary citizenship.

Right now, creative writing courses and majors are so popular that professors can teach just about whatever they want, as long as the money keeps rolling in. Along with first-year writing programs tied to core curricula, creative writing courses help keep many English departments afloat. English as a major has declined rapidly; creative writing as a major, however, has—sorry, James Wright—broken into blossom.

Simply being a writer is not enough to qualify a professor to teach the business of creative writing. Writers with editing experience are more qualified, but there’s a huge difference between the business of literary journals and the business of literary book publishing, and most writers who have editorial experience really mean the one, two, or three years in which they read fewer than 100 submissions for their M.F.A. program’s literary journal, not the many years in which they read several hundred or several thousand submissions of various lengths, negotiated contracts with literary agents, sold foreign rights, dealt with Hollywood’s interest in a particular title, secured national or international distribution, successfully promoted and marketed a book, et al.—and this is precisely why a writer might think her $5,000 advance is “awesome.”

Reading poetry or fiction submissions for a literary journal is instructive, but it doesn’t prepare an individual to teach the business of creative writing. And yet, the teaching writers who are allowed or asked to teach courses on editing and publishing often have no more experience than that. What they know about the business of creative writing is limited, so what they pass on to students is even more limited.

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VII. A Small Group of Qualified Professionals

Victoria Barrett, the writer and editor who started Engine Books, knows enough about the business of creative writing to teach a class, design a major, and establish a program focused on the business of creative writing. I do, too, but I admit that I would first ask for Victoria’s input, because it would be stupid not to take advantage of her knowledge. I can think of a small group of qualified professionals who could likewise succeed at such an endeavor, but many of them do not currently teach or have the appropriate terminal degree, and those who do are often, like me and Victoria, contingent faculty hired to teach university courses on a yearly contract. Most writers who teach simply don’t know enough about the many facets of the business of creative writing, no matter how many people read their blog.

People like Victoria are perfectly positioned to lead the way if the business of creative writing is to become a staple of B.A., B.F.A., M.A., M.F.A., and Ph.D. creative writing programs. But the majority of programs and departments will continue to ask unqualified writers to teach these courses instead. Some writers recognize how hard it can be to teach the business of creative writing. Why should they have to teach editing, publishing, or community outreach classes, to name just a few of the possibilities? Teaching writing is hard enough, isn’t it?

Worse yet, some of the newly hired tenure-track professors asked to teach editing and publishing courses turn to that small group of qualified professionals and ask us to show them—quickly, of course, and for free—how to do their jobs. Which we could do, I suppose. We’re busier, of course, and are paid less for teaching more courses each year, in addition to the editing and publishing work most of us do for little or no compensation. But sure, we could do them a favor, right? And wouldn’t we be good literary citizens if we helped unqualified or under-qualified faculty succeed at their jobs? Even if some of us also applied for those positions and were ignored?

Dear Committee Members: Would it not be easier for everyone if you just hired the right person for the job? Or, failing that, revised your job ads to reflect that you don’t really care about an applicant’s knowledge about the business of writing? Just say: “Ideal candidates should be able to find a publishing professional through Facebook that they kinda-sorta know to ask for help in the design and implementation of editing and publishing courses.”

I could ask writers applying for teaching jobs to be more realistic about their qualifications, but let’s get real: Writers apply for every job that they might have even the remotest chance of getting. Writers are desperate, especially writers who’ve been teaching off the tenure track for years. This is made more complicated because the qualifications of the person eventually hired don’t always match up with the qualifications supposedly desired by the department.

One of my friends and I were both interviewed for the same position some years ago. The department said they wanted a screenwriter who could teach screenwriting. I had written a feature-length screenplay and published a five-page screenplay (really! a published screenplay!), and I had taught screenwriting courses. My friend had no screenwriting publications or experience teaching screenwriting. I don’t think she had even written a screenplay. Yet we were both in the running for this teaching job that neither of us managed to get.

The person who was hired had not—and has not—sold a screenplay, either. Like me, though, that person has since published a book of short stories. Unlike me, that person now has tenure.

Once when I was invited to give a campus reading, my host couldn’t wait to share some juicy gossip: The new fiction hire in his department was actually the committee’s third choice. See, the creative writers really wanted Candidate #1, but the department chair—who hates writers—was stubborn and insisted on Candidate #2. After weeks of bickering, the Dean stepped in and made them hire Candidate #3.

Wouldn’t you feel like an imposter if you applied for a job without the proper credentials, received tenure despite not publishing in the position’s specified field, or learned you weren’t the hiring committee’s first choice (or second choice) and got the job because you were the candidate neither warring party gave a shit about?

Man, I would.

 

VIII. Imposter Syndrome

Nick Ripatrazone also wonders if our approach to teaching creative writing is misguided, or even fraudulent. I’ll say misguided, given these options. Last week, someone told me about impostor syndrome, and I remembered what the basketball coach said that night in my graduate writing class. He implied we were all wasting our time; the facts suggested that no one in our program would ever publish a book. By doing so, he raised several valid points—and maybe addressed the elephant in the room. I reminded him of that night a few years ago, just as his third book was published. Since earning our degrees, many of our classmates have published. Some of us surely wish we’d learned more about the business of creative writing before encountering our first contracts, but I certainly don’t think my graduate program failed to help me become a better writer. And let’s please remember, always, that writing a good book is the first step to finding publication.

Perhaps writers feel like imposters no matter what we do, how we’re taught, or what we accomplish. Imposter syndrome can also carry over to a writer’s teaching career. I’ve stepped in to teach courses outside of my comfort zone (or knowledge zone) when no one else was willing or interested. Students almost never ask if their professors are qualified to teach a particular subject. My composition director in graduate school, a man who trained many good teachers before dying far too young, used to say: ”Just remember—you know more than they do.” Teaching careers can begin with that mantra and a pinch of common sense, but is that a useful strategy for experienced, mid-career teachers, or a recipe for frustration and dissatisfaction?

Almost a decade before I began directing Lacewing Books, the young adult imprint of Engine Books, I taught an undergraduate course called Writing for Younger Readers. The tenure-track faculty backed away from the course as if it might forever sully their literary credentials. Nobody wanted to teach the damn thing, so it fell to the new guy who needed to build up his CV. I had only a passing interest in young adult books, screenwriting, and even creative nonfiction before I taught those courses. Now I have an in-progress project in each. Write what you know? Maybe. For me, at least in this era of my life as a writer, it’s become a matter of writing what I teach. If I had a tenure-track position, perhaps I would teach courses that reflect my whims and interests; if flash fiction were my passion, for example, maybe I would teach workshops requiring students to only write flash fiction. But it’s been the other way for me: I accepted a number of tasks and challenges because I was asked or told to, and those decisions shaped the writer I have become, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. In that way, writers who teach the business of creative writing could find that it helps their own careers in surprising ways. But that doesn’t help students, does it?

Fostering an approach that treats the business of creative writing as an endeavor equal to the making of good literature in problematic, and with the “adjunct crisis,” as it’s called—almost every university in the country takes advantage of a glut they created by recruiting and credentialing tens of thousands of graduate students over the last two decades—it seems dishonest not to teach the business of creative writing, if only so students can have some glimmer of hope to hold on to once they know they’re unlikely to secure a job on the tenure track. Telling a student nervous about her post-graduation life that she is destined to publish her thesis as a book that will secure a great teaching job is no longer good advice, if it ever was. Many of my program’s graduates have published books, but certainly not all of them. Not even one-fourth of them. What do the others do? The majority teach university writing courses off the tenure track. A few work as technical writers. Some write for websites. Some have jobs that are in no way writing-related. How many former creative writing students would still be writing creatively now if they knew more about the business of creative writing? There’s no secret canoe to success, of course, but as teachers, it’s our job to at least point students toward the source of a river down which they might float or paddle their way toward it. Hiring already-qualified individuals to teach the business of writing leads students to even more opportunities.

 

IX. Writing in the Age of Charlatans

Because creative writing faculty are so often unable or unwilling to properly address the business of creative writing—and because there’s a swelling interest in writing from people who aren’t associated with university courses and programs—a profitable industry has emerged that takes advantage of uninformed writers, no matter their age, education, or experience.

I always tell my students that before they follow advice from a particular craft book, they might want to read that author’s creative work. Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World, and Debra Spark’s Curious Attractions—to name just three books on the craft of fiction that I respect—may prove useful to would-be writers who don’t read the novels and stories written by those authors. And, sure, it is possible for a mediocre writer to be a good teacher/mentor. But for me, those books are especially instructive because I admire the authors’ fiction and have learned something from their books; I read their craft essays because I want to know more about how they think (and how they articulate those thoughts) about our craft.

Of course, these three authors aren’t charlatans. Baxter, Boswell, and Spark have each been affiliated with respectable institutions of higher learning for decades. But some current and former editors/agents cater to writers so desperate to cross the chasm between where they are (unpublished/unloved) and where they want to be (published/rich/famous) that they fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars for a workshop (real or virtual), newsletter subscription, or book that promises to bring them into the know. You’ve seen the advertisements in writing-related magazines.

A few weeks ago, someone I follow on Twitter revealed that she spent $1,500 applying to eight M.F.A. programs. When I asked how that was possible, she explained that she had to pay for transcripts to be sent from two universities, and that some of the schools had high application fees. But she also said she enrolled in a workshop specifically geared to help writers applying to graduate school in creative writing, and that also cost several hundred dollars. I feel bad—the young woman could have learned almost everything she needed from articles online and in print, even from blog posts on the topic—but there can be comfort in approaching experts directly about a predicament, I guess, especially when we lack confidence. And what is the proper price of comfort, after all? And because some would-be writers (retired professionals who choose writing as a hobby late in life) usually have more money than skill or access, why shouldn’t they pay for something they otherwise can’t have?

Last year, I was invited to serve as an expert panelist during a Saturday writing workshop in my city. The organizer, an editor whose titles are usually about writing, schedules similar workshops all over the country. The other panelists that day were agents who, before and after the panel, met one-on-one with authors who had paid an additional fee for the opportunity. I was assigned to meet with three authors after the panel, as well, but only one showed up.

The organizer reserved a big room at a public library. For meeting with authors (author, singular, it turned out) and talking during the hour-long panel, my payment was $30 plus lunch at Applebee’s.

Why did I agree to do this? I’m still not exactly sure.

I guess I wanted to see the workshop in action and interact with the men and women who’d paid to hear this team of professionals wax funky about writing and publishing. One of the agents, when the organizer tried to pay us in cash, refused the money. It was an honor, she said, to participate. Me? Well, I’m a writer whose written for “exposure” or self-promotion often enough to know that it’s best to just shut up and take the money. I also ordered a steak and a cocktail. Thirty dollars is nothing; for my expertise, just the hour on the panel was worth at least twice that, if not more. I also spoke with the only writer who showed up to his appointment for nearly an hour, not the ten minutes he was promised. Plus, because I am an editor in the city where the workshop was hosted, the organizer was at least partially borrowing on my reputation, and the reputation of the press I work for, in promoting the event—and that has value, too.

Thirty dollars would cover my travel, he said. And it was Applebee’s, not Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The meal wasn’t expensive.

If each of the attendees paid $125 for the one-day workshop and at least 50 people showed up, the workshop generated more than $6,000. But I’m certain there were more than 50 people in attendance.

If the organizer paid each of the three guest experts $30, plus lunch, plus the cost of renting the public library’s space, he still brought in more than $5,000 for one day. Of course, he advertised the event, which cost something, too. But really, just to be safe, let’s say the organizer pocketed $4,000 for this one-day workshop.

That’s about what I make each month—before taxes—as an experienced, “meritorious” college professor. Of course, I don’t get a paycheck for two months each summer, too. Because there are more than twelve Saturdays in a year, it’s clear the organizer makes more money from this side gig than I do as a college professor.

The advice business is good business.

 

X. Moving Forward

I can’t imagine putting on a series of workshops like that, going from city to city, fielding one goofy question about query letters after another for the rest of my life. It’s nice to know I could, though, if necessary. Maybe I will have to one day resort to such shenanigans.

But not today.

While writing-related business matters should become a larger feature of respectable graduate programs in creative writing, high schools and undergraduate programs should downplay its role in their curricula. Undergraduates, though, do need some kind of guidance so that they might avoid the kind of charlatans I mention above.

M.F.A. programs should hire faculty who have the proper expertise—beyond merely reading submissions for a literary journal or publishing their own creative work—to teach the business of writing, which means the pool of qualified candidates is smaller than most hiring committees currently imagine. If you serve on a hiring committee and consider applicants for a position that wants someone with publishing-related experience, honor the language of your job ad, please. And have higher standards.

With knowledge about the business aspects of the field, a writer can more confidently navigate through a career. And, yes, “career” can be a word we use without rolling our eyes. But an obsession with business matters surely dampens a writer’s fire, too. You don’t have to read every article about Amazon, ebooks, literary agents, Hollywood deals, or Big Five publishing that appears in your social media feed.

You don’t even have to read 6,000-word blog posts about the business of writing. (But I thank you for your time.)