MFA vs. IRS
How Should Creative Writing Programs Talk about the Business of Publishing?
A few years ago, I went freelance fulltime—technically a combination of adjucting and freelancing—and realized I didn’t know much about finances. Okay I knew the basics of balancing a checkbook and such, but not much beyond that. Like many millennials, I’d spent my life working either “gigs” or benefit-free jobs in which phrases like “health saving account” and “401(k) plan” were never uttered. So I spent a few months googling everything I could about freelancer retirement accounts (SEP IRA and Solo 401k for those who don’t know), schedule C tax deductions, the benefits of S corps vs. LLCs, and the like. I got the information I needed. But I did wonder how I’d managed to go through high school, college, and graduate school without anyone telling me any of these things.
I’m hardly alone. Most people don’t receive much of a financial education in school and artists especially tend to eschew thinking about finances. Tax codes and stock markets are boring (and problematic and corrupt and etc.). It’s a lot more fun to focus on art. When a few of my friends won Whiting Awards, I was fascinated to learn that the prize didn’t just come with a $50,000 dollar purse. The Whitings also provide financial literacy courses to the winners. The Whiting Foundation had apparently realized so many writers just… didn’t know what to do with that kind of windfall.
All this has gotten me thinking about a question that comes up sometimes in MFA discourse: why don’t more MFA programs teach students the ins and outs of being a professional writer? Why don’t they give ‘em the business, so to speak?
I’ve been thinking about this question this week for two reasons. First is a really excellent essay by Carmen Maria Machado about the dangers of rushing to debut. It’s a thoughtful essay filled and I recommend it. [I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment: I can’t tell you how many books I pick up and think, “Man, I wish the author had been able to spend another year or two or five with this project.” (Far more frequently than I think, “This book is morally objectionable.”)] The fact is that many writers really rush to publish, often in ways that damage their careers. A bad debut can be hard to recover from. Publishing is a capricious and merciless business. And it’s easy to lose sight of the joys of writing and reading literature. Anyway, Machado’s essay tangles with a lot of thorny questions and is well worth reading.
The second thing was some twitter discussion of a new seemingly scammy program called Author Accelerator that is charging $22,000 (!) for literary agent access and some mentorship from “certified book coaches” who are, as far I as I could tell from the website, mostly self-published authors with no traditional publishing experience despite the program touting its access to literary agents and traditional publishers. (For the record, there are programs out there who provide qualified one-on-one mentors and agent meetings for about 1/3rd that price tag.) Sketchy programs like Author Accelerator and many outright scams exist all over publishing because publishing is hard and opaque and many writers don’t really understand how things work even if they have degrees in writing.
So should MFAs—and similar non-academic creative writing programs—teach the business side of publishing? And to what extent?
This question, as Machado’s essay shows, is not as straight forward as some think. An MFA is not a degree in being a general professional writer, which often involves a lot of things unrelated to creative writing. Even if you have a degree in poetry, say, you might find your writing-adjacent income is from copywriting, online articles, or adjuncting undergrad comp classes. All stuff removed from the craft of creative writing. And maybe you have a completely different career. The MFA is a fine arts degree. It’s goal is—and should remain—on the artistic side of the art/business divide.
Yes, it’s very true that the professional side of being an author can feel opaque and mysterious and can be a barrier for many. Yet it’s also true that anyone with a computer and internet access can find out all of the basics—of query letters, how to submit stories, what to watch out for in a publishing contract, etc.—from a few hours of Google searches. If you’re taking a class from me, for example, why do you need to hear me describe the submission process in person when you could read an article by me saying all the same things in your free time?
More so, there really is a benefit for creative writing programs being a space where the hellishness of capitalism and publishing are kept out as much as possible. A place for authors to focus on the thing that matters most in their writing: the actual writing. This isn’t a matter of MFA programs being evil pyramid schemes tricking writers. It’s providing a real benefit. Hell, I think you could go so far as to say the primary benefit of an MFA (or similar programs) is exactly in providing a time and space for writers to focus on nothing but writing. Especially if that time is funded.
Still, I think as with most things this is a question of balance. There is surely a way to provide both a space for art for arts sake—for discussions of just craft and aesthetics and literature—and also provide students with instruction on navigating the murky, foggy, shark-filled waters of publishing.
If you follow this newsletter, you know I’m in favor of demystification. That’s one of the three topics I set for this newsletter when I started. My most popular post so far has been nothing but a list of advice on being a professional writer:
I extend this philosophy to my pedagogy. When I teach creative writing classes, I always set aside at least one day for student publishing and submitting/querying questions. But I also want to recognize that this really is a question of temperament. I think most of my students love getting answers to these questions, but I also have students who say that hearing about, oh, the number of submissions literary magazines get or what percent of query letters result in an agent just produce a lot more anxiety. What some writers need from a creative writing program is exactly a space that’s just for art, free from the pressures of capitalism and careers that dominate everything else in our culture. The more they can ignore the business side the better.
I was the opposite. For me, learning that literary magazines get hundreds or thousands of submissions per slush pile slot made me feel better about submitting. It made rejections less personal and gave me a grind-it-out mindset to submit constantly and thus get published. (I like to think it helps that my short stories are good! But persistence is easily one of the most important qualities for a writer to have.) This is just a question of temperament though, not who is right or wrong.
So what should MFA programs do? I’m merely a sometime MFA adjunct and have never been in a position of authority to decide these things, but if I was to become an MFA director my instinct would be to offer students everything. But make it all optional. Let people learn the business side if they want, and ignore it if they don’t.
We could probably break this down into three categories:
1. Being a public writer (how to give readings, social media promotion, author websites, etc.)
2. Navigating publishing (querying agents, understanding contracts, etc.)
3. Financial literacy (handling advances, self-employed taxes, etc.)
And I might add a fourth here:
4. Navigating academia (teaching writing, C.V.s, cover letters, etc.)
Most creative programs do quite well with #2. MFAs typically have agents and editors visit. There are panels on queries, contracts, and so on. And many professors provide really useful real-world examples of navigating publishing. I had one professor who gave us all a copy of a proposal letter for a book they’d sold, to show us an example of how those are actually written. Other professors gave us query letters or examples of published short stories before and after editing to demonstrate how extensive editing can be. More is probably always better, but I think MFAs typically provide this education.
As for the other entries? Not as much. Programs do a bit from #1 indirectly. Certainly there are student readings where you can practice performing in public. Many schools have talks on living as a writer after an MFA that cover some of this stuff, although overall I think there’s little guidance on being a professional writer outside of direct agent/lit mag/publishing house stuff. #3 is basically not offered at all as far as I know. #4 is program dependent. Many MFA programs fund students by having them teach undergraduate classes, giving them direct teaching experience. My MFA program had a course called “Writer as Teacher” that was an excellent class on pedagogy. But a lot of programs don’t have much by the way of teacher training.
(I’m generalizing above of course. There are countless MFA programs out there and they all operate in their own way. Perhaps there are some who heavily focus on all these items. I’d love to hear in the comments.)
“Writer as Teacher” seems like a great model to me for what MFA programs could offer in the other columns. It was an optional course for writers wanted to become teachers, and only some students took it. Why not “Writer as Freelancer” courses that would explain how to navigate freelance writing and editing, which probably more MFA grads end up doing than teaching in universities? How do you pitch articles, navigate taxes, or decide rates for manuscript consultations? Many won’t want or need that information, but some will.
In terms of what I called “being a public writer,” could programs offer workshops on designing an author website? Provide author headshots to graduates? (The latter is an idea inspired by CRIT, a really excellent independent writing workshop run by Tony Tulathimutte.) And I also think all programs should offer some kind of “MFA vs. IRS” financial literacy class. This would not be a semester long course. But a two day masterclass? A one-day weekend workshop?
It also seems sensible to limit some of these hypothetical courses to students in their final year so the first year or two can be business free. The MFA is a precious 2-3 year time to focus on your writing. But when you leave, you want to be prepared for the world you are entering. I don’t think there’s any harm, and probably a lot to be gained, from preparing students as best you can.
For those who didn’t receive that kind of education, well, if you found this newsletter then you can find countless others. The information is out there. Here are some resources to check out on the business side of publishing to get you started:
Print Run podcast (with literary agents Laura Zats and Erik Hane)
And more in the replies to my crowdsourced question here. Please feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments.
As always, If you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”
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