The Business Rusch: Careers, Critics, and Professors
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I just spent forty-five minutes clicking through various websites on careers in the arts to doublecheck one of my assumptions from my past. When I graduated from high school, everyone I knew casually would have thought that I would have become a politician or a musician. My interests seemed to be in public speaking and performing music. Many of my friends knew I wrote, but those friends would have guessed that any writing career I chose would have been in journalism—and it was, for a while.
When I went to college, I would walk past the music school and see the notices on the door about auditioning. Auditioning scared the piss out of me. Music performance scares me to death. It still does. I’m a half-assed musician. I can sight-read extremely well—can actually hear the music in my head when I read the music—and I get to the point where I can play what I’m seeing on the page (or can’t play it in the case of some piano pieces because my hands aren’t large enough), and I move onto another piece of music. I don’t want to master that piece of music; I just want to understand it. I suspect, had I gone through the doors of those two different music schools at my two different schools (a college and a university), I would have become a composer. Yep, the creative bent always remains toward creating my own stuff, not doing someone else’s.
(And jazz, which is often about improvisation, requires a mastery before you get to improvisation on stage, which meant I would have had to conquer my stage fright to get there. Oddly, I don’t have stage fright when speaking publically, especially extemporaneously. I do whenever I play music, sing, or work off a script before an audience. Yeah, weird. I know.)
Anyway, after last week’s post, I found myself thinking about education and attitudes and training, which is what led me to the music schools. I wanted to see if my undergraduate assumptions were correct.
What were those assumptions? I assumed that as a musician-in-training, I would have to perform. I also assumed that the music school would train me for a musical career in any one of a dozen disciplines, including performance and making a living as a professional musician, not just as a professional teacher.
But I wasn’t sure that my assumptions were correct. So, today I researched. I not only found that the music schools I didn’t attend put a career in performance, conducting, composing, and arranging front and center, well before any teaching or research, but also that there’s a National Association of Schools of Music, which provides accreditation for music schools around the country, setting standards for those schools. Both music schools I avoided were accredited.
Before those of you who are familiar with all of this jump all over me, I know, I know. Everything is filled with politics, particularly universities. I’m the daughter of a professor, the sister of two professors, the sister-in-law of yet another professor, and I spent decades in and around higher education.
I also know that music schools, particularly those at universities, tend to focus on classical music (although some also have prestigious programs in other musical disciplines, like the University of Idaho does in jazz).
I understand all is not as it seems from a quick website search.
However, I did a similar website search for my home university’s graduate program in creative writing. This program is (according to its website) ranked third in the country for a Creative Writing MFA.
I poked around the site and didn’t see much mention of a career in publishing at all. In fact, the only mention came through the list of visiting authors, who would spend time discussing “the academic job market or the ins and outs of publishing.”
I dug deeper into the website, and it became clear the benefits of the MFA program in Creative Writing are an opportunity to edit the school’s literary journal, and the opportunity to teach courses in Creative Writing and English Composition.
Training in how to publish works doesn’t exist, nor is there any real mention of how to have a non-teaching career in publishing. The only hint of that comes from this: there will be visiting editors and agents who are “on the lookout for the next generation of American literature.”
I saw the name of one visiting “professional” who is currently scamming literary authors with a horrendous contract and promise of major publication. This particular author/editor is actually buying ownership of the unsuspecting writer’s property in the contract he offers, and paying that writer a pittance.
Am I bashing my former university’s creative writing program here? No. In fact, nothing I’ve told you is new to me.
I learned about that program back when I was a hot-headed journalist, newly returned from the Clarion Writers Workshop. For an article I was writing for the local indie paper, I saw the then-head of the Creative Writing division of the English Department and asked him why his writing program didn’t feature published writers or emphasize careers in writing.
First of all, he didn’t believe that genre writing was writing (just like, at the time, there were music professors who didn’t believe that popular music was music), but that aside, he was quite frank with me. He stated that the program as designed was to help the MFA candidates become PhD candidates in Creative Writing so that they could get prestigious jobs teaching creative writing at major universities.
He also pointed out, correctly, that I should have researched the creative writing program before taking classes there, to see if it fit my goals as a student. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that at the time I was in his program, I only took the writing classes to fit in my fiction writing along with my homework for my history degree.)
He also told me that (at the time) there were no programs at reputable universities that offered the kind of writing education which I wanted. Clarion itself which was then sponsored by Michigan State University, was a graduate course taken for a handful of credits, not an entire degree program.
So, if I’m not bashing, why am I talking about this now? Because a number of things happened in the past few weeks that got me thinking about the deeply ingrained attitudes that writers have about writing, their work, and their futures.
First, the response to my blog post last week was a revelation to me. I did expect a lot of comments. Certainly not as many as I got, however.
I fully expected to have more questions about what I teach. I also expected to have a lot of negative comments. Now I might have circumvented those by telling people that if they were rude, they couldn’t comment, but I figure people who disagree with me should be mature enough to do so politely. I’m told there’s a lot of disagreement on writer boards and other listserves, but I haven’t followed any of the links I got sent because I’ve said my piece and flame wars don’t interest me.
What surprised me was that the bulk of the 210 comments (so far) are from writers who feel relief, who are happy to be released from this idea of perfection, who are pleased that they can just write what they want without fear of having to continually revisit past work without doing anything new. See for yourself. It’s startling. (At least I think so.)
So I’ve been mulling over the comments, both the content of them and the sheer number of them. The post went viral, which I expected, but not because of the folks who disagreed with me, but because the folks who agree with me are passing it along. (Usually it’s the angry folks who share.) So that’s a surprise as well.
Then last week, I received yet another Google alert about a post of mine someone disagrees with. This time, it was something I said about promotions. The person who disagreed with me hasn’t read my promotions post, but was convinced I didn’t know what I was talking about when it came to the necessity of promoting work, particularly for a new writer. The writer actually said that I had never had a point in my career where I was unknown, which made me laugh. Um, we were all beginning writers once upon a time.
The writer challenged me to self-publish things under a super secret pen name, and was convinced I would understand then why new writers need to promote. I actually responded to this one—I usually don’t—because of the challenge, and because I’d met it years ago.
I have four things up under four super-secret pen names, things which I put up with no promotion. One outsells everything I do under my name and my known pen names. One isn’t doing very well at all, and two are doing okay. All outsell some titles I have under the Rusch name. So I have met the challenge, plus some.
Because I had to explain to this new writer that back in the Dark Ages of Publishing when I started, there was no such thing as Twitter, blogging, Facebook, and the like. If a writer wanted to promote her work, she had to spend more than her advance to do so. Because even back then, publishers didn’t promote 95% of the books they published. Those books would sink or swim based on sales in bookstores that might or might not carry the books. Some of my early work wasn’t even listed with description and a cover photo in the publisher’s catalog. Just a one line listing under “Also Available” which was arranged by genre.
So how did a writer sell a lot of copies of her book? She wrote another. Back in the Dark Ages of Publishing, before the conglomerate bean counters got involved, most writers (even new writers) got a multibook contract. Because publishers knew it was the number of titles on the shelf that sold books, not the quality of an as-yet-unread single title, that got a reader to pick up a book.
So I not only met the challenge in this new world of publishing, I met that challenge every time I had traditionally published a book with a brand new name on the spine.
As I wrote my response, I realized that this writer/blogger didn’t have a clue about a writing career. It was all about the book. The book had to be promoted because it might sink. And that, according to the writer/blogger, would be a catastrophe.
This writer/blogger is not alone. Most of what I do in my nonfiction and in my teaching is about training writers to think about a career, not about a book or a single story.
I spent a week in June teaching professional writers just that very concept: write and release. Write and release. Get your work out there. Build an oeuvre. We didn’t talk about business much—at least overtly—but we were talking about it all the time as I taught them to get rid of the roadblocks that they, and their training, had put in the way of the writing.
The thing, though, that rattled through my head was a realization about my friend Bill Trojan. Bill, as those of you who’ve followed this blog for years know, was a bookseller and a dear friend who died last August, leaving his entire estate to my husband Dean Wesley Smith. Bill was a collector and a hoarder, so we now have 4500 square feet of boxes, many of which are filled with amazing treasures and many of which are not.
Dean’s been sorting through those collections, keeping some of the books and setting everything else aside to deal with later. By some of the books, I mean rooms filled with shelves of books. For most of May and June, Dean used my desk at the office as a place to sort. (I’m not there much, obviously.)
Every time I went through, I saw books—famous books, blockbuster books—that I had forgotten about. Some were published in the 1970s. Some in the 1980s. Some before I was born, with many going all the way back to the dawn of the mass market paperback era.
Those books that I remembered often made a huge splash, made someone’s name—at least for a little while. And then the book(s) and the author disappeared.
I finally understood a comment that Bill had made to me shortly after I met him: He believed all published writers were “neo-pros” (a derogatory sf term for new professional) until they’d published at least ten novels.
I thought ten was an arbitrary number, just something Bill had pulled out of his hat. But, as Dean sorted and organized, I realized that ten wasn’t arbitrary at all.
First, ten mass market paperback books filed alphabetically by author fill a quarter to a half of an average shelf. When publishers increased all book sizes and started demanding authors write longer books, that ten-book gathering started filling half a shelf. Which made the books—and the author—noticeable to the average book browser (back in the day when books were actually on bookstore shelves).
It was more than that, though. It was amazing to see the number of writers who had that blockbuster or critically acclaimed novel who only published one or two or three books afterwards. And sometimes not even that many. Yes, the book came out to great reviews. Yes, it sold tens of thousands of copies. And then what? The next book wasn’t as good (usually sophomore efforts aren’t) or the third got critically savaged (critics often respond poorly to success), and the writer either changed names, or couldn’t sell another book because it wasn’t as good as that first book.
Or the writer realized just how hard this business is, and how much effort it takes to actually make a living at it, and went on to other things.
What surprised me the most were the working writers. They had twenty, fifty, one-hundred books under one name, and even more books under other names. Those books, when shelved alphabetically by author, didn’t take a quarter or a half of a shelf. They took two, three or four shelves all by themselves. And that didn’t count the pen-name books.
Some of those books are truly forgettable. I found a book the other day by a rude, snotty writer (now dead) who had been unbelievably nasty to me in person about the “literary” quality of my work. That book made me laugh. Because it was a tie-in novel, published in the late 1960s, for a cult TV show (not Star Trek). This writer had written dozens of tie-ins in the 1960s and 1970s, then berated me for doing the same in the 1990s.
Maybe I had heard him wrong way back when. Maybe he hadn’t been criticizing my literary abilities, but concerned about the time the tie-in work took away from my other writing, and expressing it badly. After all, like most writers, his social skills were…um…lacking to say the least.
Or maybe he was just a mean old jerk. That was possible too. But, by Bill’s definition, this guy had a career. A long, varied, and with some titles, storied career. One of his books is a mainstream classic. A couple are science fiction classics. Out of the hundred-plus books that he wrote, of course.
That number isn’t unusual. Dickens wrote a lot of novels, short stories, plays and nonfiction. I was going to include the actual number here, but I just Googled him and discover that the Interweb disagrees with itself about the exact number. I’m seeing everything from 22 to 34 novels, and “dozens” to “hundreds” of other works.
My point, however, is that only a few of Dickens’ works are considered classics, although I disagree with one website that said the most famous of his works is Oliver Twist. The most famous is A Christmas Carol, because it has so permeated the culture. Of course, that wasn’t a novel, but a short work, which we would call a novella.
If you look at all classic works by a famous long-dead author, you’ll find dozens of other works that the author wrote that aren’t nearly as famous or nearly as well thought of. If you look at those famous authors, you won’t find one work behind their name, but an entire career.
So why, in that instance, do we spend all our time trying to write the perfect short story, the perfect novel? Why are our writing workshops and our universities training writers to “improve” only one or two works?
Take a look at the beginning of my essay again. If you go to music school, you go knowing that you’ll have to perform, knowing that you’ll spend time learning all of the disciplines in the profession—from performing to conducting to composing to teaching to research—before deciding which discipline is for you.
If you go to a creative writing program, you’ll learn about teaching and research and oh, yeah, you might be lucky enough to be discovered.
And the universities aren’t the only ones with that attitude. The peer-level workshops also focus on one story, one novel, one sale. Not on careers. Not on business. Not on anything long-term that will teach a writer how to survive the ups and downs of the business.
We as a culture don’t give wannabe writers the tools they need to survive in the real world.
We give those tools to budding musicians. We even give those tools to budding artists (they can get a graphic arts degree or a fine arts degree, but the choice is made in graduate school, not undergrad). Theater majors learn how to put on plays, act in them, direct them, stage manage them. Journalism majors learn how to write for publication and often publish in professional venues. Broadcast majors learn how to work (and sometimes intern) in radio and television with the hope of getting a job in those mediums. I could go on.
Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.
And that’s just bullshit.
(Which I have debunked dozens of times. See the contents for both the Business Rusch and the Freelancer’s Survival Guide if you want more. Or look at Dean’s post on this topic in his Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing.)
So, if we’re not training writers to be professionals who make a living at their chosen career, what are we training them to be?
We’re training critics and editors (kinda, but there are actual degree programs in editing/publishing) and professors. Think about this professor part, as well, because according to at least three websites I looked at, these professors-in-training are teaching creative writing courses as early as their first year of graduate school.
In other words, nonprofessional writers are teaching creative writing at the university level, often as assistants, in preparation for teaching creative writing at the university level. People with no experience with the profession at all.
And here’s something even screwier. I (and writers like me) can’t get a teaching position at any university in the creative writing department because I don’t have a master’s degree or a Ph.D. Even if I had an advanced degree, I’d need one in Creative Writing or at least in English to get said job, learning from people who know nothing about my profession and who, later in life, often come to me to learn how to be professional writers.
For more than seventy years, the teaching of creative writing has worked like this. The professional workshops affiliated with universities often had English professors overseeing the entire thing, and all of those workshops dealt with critique only, not with the business of a writing career itself even if the guest lecturers were professional writers.
Is it any wonder that writers who go to peer-level workshops get savaged week after week? Is it any wonder that writers who manage to publish one thing believe that they have to promote, promote, promote that one thing? Is it any wonder that writers have no idea that long-time writers actually had to work to get where we are?
After all, we successful writers were anointed by some editor/agent who came to our writing workshop and discovered our talent, right? Right? The myth is that we didn’t work at getting published; we worked at improving our story. And once our writing was perfect, we were accepted in the club of published writers.
Which is why, someone who seems pretty reasonable in correspondence (that writer/blogger) could make the boneheaded statement that writers like me were never unknown and unappreciated. If we were “discovered” in our creative writing classes or our peer-level workshop, if our one brilliant short story got the attention of a big-name agent when said story was published in a pay-by-copies “prestigious” literary journal, then of course we have never suffered the slings and arrows of anonymity.
We were “lucky.”
Those of us who get that “lucky” word leveled at us all the time find that term insulting as hell. Of course we weren’t lucky. We just worked harder than everyone else. We learned our craft, and we learned the business of a profession that does not teach anyone business, and we managed to survive all kinds of mistakes we wouldn’t have made if we’d actually had the opportunity to be mentored or we studied such things as accounting as part of our training.
Training. That’s the other thing. The more I talked with successful, long-term career writers, the more I realized that very few of them had been English majors in college. Or if they had been, they got their graduate degree in something else.
One of the writers at the June workshop thought it amusing that the bios in the year’s best science fiction I had the students read were full of engineers and scientists by training, not English majors. These engineers and scientists who became full-time writers have had long careers, whereas the English majors seemed to cluster with their English professor counterparts in The Best American Short Stories, and almost none of them have had writing careers.
Romance writers almost always come at the profession from a variety of non-writing related jobs, often as small-business owners. The bios of mystery writers have a preponderance of police officers, forensic examiners, and lawyers.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think these folks weren’t trained to be critics. These writers also weren’t repeatedly told that they couldn’t succeed in their chosen profession. I think most of them believed they couldn’t be successful writers, so they went on to another profession, wrote a book to please themselves, and then had some success with it, so wrote another and another and another, thinking their success made them outliers when, in fact, if you look at the statistics, you’ll discover that the majority of people who write and publish on a regular basis actually make a living at it.
It is a profession, after all.
This is why professional writers stop going to writing workshops relatively early, although they’ll occasionally “teach” one—if you call critiquing teaching, which I don’t. Professional writers don’t have the time to go to workshops, considering all the demands of the career.
That career is what no aspiring writer understands. How can they? No one talks about it. No one tells them how it’s done or how it works.
Unfortunately, the people that the aspiring writer asks to help with those questions have a vested interest in the wrong answers.
The universities aren’t interested in writing the career when their entire system is set up to teach writing instruction. The book editors have their own jobs and really don’t understand how professional writers make a living. (In fact, most editors will tell writers that they can’t make a living, especially after seeing the small advances that writers get, not realizing that writers make their living from more than one source.)
The agents make their money off writers who believe an agent knows how to build a career, when agents don’t have any idea how to build a writer’s career. Agents know how to build an agent’s career, because—guess what!—agents have a mentoring system. They get hired as an assistant in an agency and learn the business before ever striking out on their own.
Is that agent’s business how to make one writer’s career? No. It’s how to make a living on 15% of a lot of writers, some of whom are successful and most of whom are not. The long-term agents in the business—the ethical ones, the ones who are still around (but you have to search for them)—make their living off writers like me, career midlist writers who have more than ten books, because we’re constant earners. We make tens of thousands for the agents who represent us, year in and year out.
Now, with the new world of publishing, all of that is changing. Agents, the middlemen in all of this, are feeling squeezed, and many are moving toward a new (and unethical) business model which will help the agent and harm writers.
Some book editors are already discovering that their business is changing too. Writers who’ve indie-published are asking uncomfortable questions. Formerly pliable midlist authors are demanding new contract terms—and walking away if they don’t get those terms. The writers who remain are either older and already established, or brand-new and not likely to remain the business long enough to be called anything but a neo-pro.
And the universities? They continue to churn out critics and professors instead of savvy writers. There’s an opportunity here to change that Creative Writing MFA program into something businesslike and useful, but it won’t happen because no one in charge of these programs understands a creative writer’s career.
So, where does a writer go to learn how to be a professional writer? Unfortunately, writers will have to continue to do what they’ve always done—cobble together their own curriculum and learn by doing. There’s some good information on the web, but there’s even more bad information. Dean and I teach established professionals, but we’re not a degree program and we don’t take beginners.
The best thing a writer can do is remember this: If you want to have works that are considered art by succeeding generations, if you want to write classics, then you need to have a writing career.
A career spans a lifetime. A career has ups and downs. A career requires building, and lots and lots of hard work.
A career changes over decades, and requires constant learning. Would you go to a fifty-year-old doctor who is still repeating all wisdom he learned in medical school, but hasn’t done a bit of study since then? Of course you wouldn’t. Nor should you listen to someone who has no experience in the career you want. You should never treat that someone as an expert.
This writing business has been upside down for almost a century now. Those of us who have careers have been quiet about our hard work for too long. We didn’t make it because we’re the best critics or the best teachers. We’ve made it because we know how to learn, improve, and persevere. And—ironically—we don’t think we’ve made it. We have yet to achieve our goals. We keep working, and probably will until we die.
But we’re working on our careers, which are a major part of our lives. We’re not working on our novel. We’re working on a novel.
And that’s the biggest difference of all.
Since I wrote longer than expected this week, I’m only going to add a short reminder here. I make my living writing fiction, not nonfiction. If you want me to continue the weekly nonfiction blog, then please support it with a donation. Think of it as a tip on the way out. Thanks. And thanks for the comments and e-mails and insights. I appreciate all of it.
“The Business Rusch: “Careers, Critics, and Professors,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.