By Yi Shun Lai
The other day my husband fixed our bathroom sink with a video on YouTube, and I read a tutorial on how to build a wall planter.
So I was kind of surprised when I saw someone in an online writer’s community I’m in ask whether or not we thought her MFA program should be teaching her about the business of publishing. I mean, if I can learn rudimentary Spanish from an app, surely this person, who’s paying thousands of dollars to learn how to have a career in the written arts, should expect to learn how to…well, have a career.
I guess a little background is due: I’m a writing coach and editor. I’m also a novelist, and I edit nonfiction at a literary magazine. I cut my teeth in the consumer magazine world, and write marketing copy and teach workshops. In short, I make my living with words. I have an MFA myself, from an institution I chose specifically because its faculty comprised working writers, and a certificate in publishing from what is now the Columbia Publishing Course (when I graduated, it was still the Radcliffe Publishing Course). I got much of my writing-business acumen on the job, and when the time came to write and query my novel, I learned almost everything from friends who were literary agents, and, eventually, more timely information from my MFA program.
I’ve noticed a few things that crop up again and again when folks talk about writing and what place business has in it, and where and how you should learn these things. I’ll address them from my point of view below. And I invite you to partake in conversation about them in the comments. Here we go:
1. Talking about money feels icky.
No argument there. I grew up in a family and a culture where, if you had to talk about it, it meant you didn’t have enough of it. So there’s a deep personal shame to be contended with. But then, I wonder, how does one make a career of this thing we all love so much? If we don’t talk about the money, and the making of it, then how do we know what to expect, and what defines success?
I’m not saying we should all be willy-nilly exposing our finances to anyone who asks. Money is a very personal thing to some folks, myself included (I used to get hives whenever someone mentioned the word “budget”), but people who are just starting out in the creative industries deserve to know how much they can expect to make. No better, more neutral place to talk about potentially personal things than in an academic setting.
This kind of shared information is critical. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a really good spreadsheet of how much freelance editors can expect to charge and make; I don’t see that as being very different from writers knowing how much they can expect to make, and how. (Most literary magazines and consumer magazines that do pay will publish their rates, so do your homework. Ask around.)
2. During the pursuit of your MFA, you should be learning about craft, not business.
This one is a real stickler for me. Folks who go to get their MFAs presumably want to make a career out of this whole writing thing. In order to make a career out of something, you have to know what comprises this career; what better place to know that then at the institution that’s purportedly meant to provide you with the tools for a career in writing?
The whole thing’s kind of circular, isn’t it? I mean, where else will you learn to write a query letter, do your research on agents, learn about standard publishing contracts and other avenues for promoting your work?
I guess the thing is, we all want our work to be seen. No one pumps thousands of dollars into an advanced degree just because they want to write for themselves. Writing is a business like any other: Writing gets seen because it gets promoted, and although the avenues might be different in each genre and field, the end result is the same.
2a: (A sidebar.) I checked with some friends who have their masters degrees in journalism, and while none of them said they had classes directly addressing pitching and publishing, they did relay to me that they learned such things in their internships, which are a required part of the curricula. Plus, you were expected to pitch to your professors and understand the ins and outs of the process of publishing before you went anywhere. I don’t have an MA in Journalism, and I can’t remember exactly where I learned to pitch, but I do know that by the time I was out of my BA for less than a year, I was successfully pitching freelance articles. (I’m pretty sure I asked a lot of people. The Internet was not as, uh, reliable in 1996-1997.) Not having this knowledge when you start on your freelance career makes your life so much more difficult–and it’s inexcusable, both from an instructor’s POV and a working writer’s POV. If you don’t already know, please ask someone who’s been in the business. Heck, ask me.
3. Writing is a talent-driven meritocracy; your work should speak for itself.
Readers of this blog will have already heard from Wendy J. Fox, who wrote about the difficulty she had in selling books. And so you will know that, even if you’ve been shortlisted for prizes and have a publisher with a publicity department behind you, you are up against a lot of pre-existing noise, conditions that conspire to make your book fall away into the big black hole of remainders.
You need to know about this thing called book marketing, at least enough to ask the right questions of your publicist, or, if you’re like me and doing much of your own publicity, you need to know–well, how to do that.
And writers have to be willing to talk about their own work.
A bookseller I met at a writing conference last year put it the best I’ve ever heard it: “It’s not about the author as marketeer; it’s about doing honor to your work.” I love this so, so much. You worked your ass off to get where you are. Doesn’t your work deserve the best chance you can give it, and aren’t you the best salesperson of your work? I think so.
4. Writing is a talent-driven meritocracy, Part 2.
This is not a level playing field. There’s already been a lot of discussion around the lack of diversity in publishing. But historically (and presently!), that lack of diversity isn’t just about ethnicity and race; it’s also about economics.
Some students in underserved areas may never get to hear about publishing as a career field. If they’re lucky enough to hear about it in college and go to a fully funded MFA program. and then graduate with no real clue about what the business of publishing looks like, then that’s just as bad as never having had the opportunity at all.
MFA programs and instructors that don’t spend some time talking about the business of publishing do play a part in keeping publishing the purview of the privileged.
There are still, from what I gather, quite a few MFA programs that don’t make it a point to teach the business of writing and publishing. I can’t possibly know all the pressures MFA programs are under, but I think it’s important to give MFA students this leg up in making a life of writing.
Of course it’s important to have space and time to practice your craft. I’d venture a guess and say most people pursue an MFA because they want to improve their art. But you should also be asking some questions, and getting some answers, about the pointy end of the stick, so you can, you know. Eat. Pay rent. That kind of thing.
In the meantime, those of us who already have the experience should be passing on what we know about the business of publishing.* We all want a rich literary ecosystem. The steady spreading of this information is a good way to ensure that.
Yi Shun Lai’s debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, is published by Shade Mountain Press and in its fourth printing since its release in May. She is the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and a writing coach and editor. You can find her at thegooddirt.org.
Author Photo: Michael Negrete
Great article, and a much-needed topic of conversation. I was in an MFA program briefly, and one of our professors asked the room, “Who is sending their stuff out?” Only I raised my hand (because I taught myself how to do it). “Why aren’t the rest of you?” “Because we don’t know how to.” I also think there’s a direct connection between unfunded MFA programs being as such because their graduates have not learned the necessary professional skills, and therefore aren’t making the income in order to give back as alumni. It’s a vicious circle.
Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation, Jessica. It does seem unrealistic (and a little effete) for MFA programs not to have a class on “The Business of Writing” or “How to Make a Living as a Writer.” It’s difficult enough without getting some professional guidance.
[…] One common complaint about MFA programs is that writers aren’t trained in the business of writing or on writing for a market (as explained by writer Yi Shun Lai in “We Need to Talk About Money: Practicality’s Place in a Writing Education“.) […]