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Business lessons

November 15, 2010

The other day, New York Magazine posted an exposé on James Frey’s “fiction factory” Full Fathom Five, which Frey developed in order to churn out a Harry Potter or Twilight-scale YA superphenomenon without actually having to write one. Long, nasty story short, he preys on desperate and debt-ridden MFA students (primarily from Columbia and other big-name programs) with the promise of putting their work in front of agents, editors, producers, etc. Frey considers concept pitches, makes his own adjustments to the idea for “greater marketability,” and then contracts the writers to produce the novel under the sort of terms that one generally devises while twirling a mustache or vivisecting a puppy. The writers are paid $250-$500 up front (less than or equal to the professional rate for a short story), made responsible for legal action pertaining to the property despite their not owning the copyright, and contractually barred from announcing their affiliation with the factory (and consequently their authorship of their own book) without permission, among other absurdities. This is all supposed to be acceptable because the author will get 30-40% of royalties, but because there’s no audit provision, the writer has to accept whatever Frey claims they’ve earned. So even if the writer knows that the movie rights have sold for X, they have no legal power to demand 30% of X.

It’s all a big pile of skeeze, and Maureen Johnson and John Scalzi both nail it to the wall, but as a current MFA student, what really interests me here is the exploitation of MFAs and the lessons that programs, students, and prospective students can learn from it. Scalzi suggests that programs should offer courses in the business of publishing, and on the whole I agree, though I think you can achieve the same result with a decent seminar and close guidance from your advisors, which seems to be a reasonably common (though clearly not common enough) way of going about it. Based on my experience shoveling through slush piles, it seems that too few MFA programs even touch on writerly etiquette—cover letters from MFA candidates and graduates are way too likely to embarrass the author with needless wheedling, two paragraphs of summary for a five hundred word story, painfully twee bios, or whatever else. Non-MFAs do all of this at pretty much the same rate, of course, but that’s the point—folks who have ostensibly been trained to function as professional writers really ought to know better. If the problem was limited to crappy cover letters, that would be one thing, but when outsiders look at you and say, Holy shit, there’s some ignorant talent I can exploit, and when it’s clear that you’ve created that vulnerability by putting students into debt and then failing to help them use their skills to get out of it, then you have an issue. I think this is all more particular to the specific environment of costly New York programs than some folks have made it out to be, but it’s still a good catalyst for self-reflection.

Programs: Do something to prepare students for the realities of commercial publishing. Show students reasonable and unreasonable contracts. Talk about effective and self-defeating cover letters. Explain what agents do, how to find a good one, and how to go about querying them. These are all things that any faculty member should already know. And again, though it’s a good idea, I don’t think you need to invent a class here—this doesn’t require massive institutional realignment. Spending just a couple of days of a workshop class on business basics will work wonders. Even undergraduate programs should cover the basics for their creative writing majors. I don’t know much about workshops like Clarion, Taos Toolbox, etc, but I suspect they do these things already (I’d love some insight from anyone who has attended), and within a very tight timeframe.

Prospectives: If you’re researching and applying to MFA programs, treat it like a job application. It is a job application, really—you’ll probably end up teaching undergrads, and anyhow, writing is the work you want to do. All grad school application processes seem designed to shatter your ego and make you grateful for any email acknowledging your existence, but fuck that: You’re a potential asset. Think about it practically. What percentage of students are funded in Program X? Will they pay you, or do they want your money? If you’re willing to go unfunded, why? What does this program have to offer for $45,000 that you couldn’t get while being paid a living wage at another school? It’s obvious that Frey is preying on the terminally indebted, and it’s no surprise that he’s going to a particular sort of program to find them. Folks come to MFAs from a wide range of circumstances and with many different motivations, but apart from the guidance and community, one of the most valuable things an MFA program can offer you is stability. Ask yourself if this program will make you more or less stable, and if the answer is less, ask yourself why that’s acceptable.

Students: Seek the advice of the professional writers around you. Take advantage of online resources. Carry Mace, on the off chance that you run into James Frey.

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