Should MFA Programs Teach the Business of Writing?

Photo by Vladislav Reshetnyak from Pexels

Anyone who knows me even a little can guess my answer to this question. I even wrote a book, The Business of Being a Writer, that’s meant to be used in university writing programs to help students understand the publishing industry and what it means to earn a living from writing. My perspective is informed by my work in the publishing industry, as well as being someone who has a degree in writing. A few background details:

  • I earned a BFA in creative writing and an MA in English. My undergrad education led to some school loans; my graduate degree was funded entirely through an assistantship.
  • I was employed at a mid-size publisher while I earned my master’s. I really had no choice—I needed the money. I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I couldn’t afford to take time off work or enroll in a low-residency program. Neither was I eager to step away from my publishing career, which was teaching me far more about writing than I ever learned in school.
  • I was an AWP member for many years and attended AWP’s annual conference first in 1998, then every year between 2004 and 2018. Often I was a panelist or speaker. (More on this later.)
  • I’m a regular speaker at MFA programs around the country, both in person and virtually, and moreover I hear the concerns of early-career writers daily via email and social media.
  • Several years ago, I was hired by Southern New Hampshire University to help develop the curriculum for their online MFA program, which includes a strong professional development and publishing education component. Their goal: to graduate writers who learn the fundamentals of craft while also understanding what it takes to publish professionally and successfully.

Despite the books I’ve written, the keynotes I’ve delivered, and the courses I’ve taught, I’ve never laid out, in a public forum like this, why I think it’s problematic when MFA programs or professors argue that the business of writing lies outside their purview. Why? Well, the type of person often attracted to the MFA likely believes the same and I don’t see my role as persuading the unconvinced or barging in where I’m unwanted. Rather, I am here if people see the need, as I do, for writers to understand the business they’re entering.

However, I think times are changing, for many reasons which I won’t delve into here, but part of it has to do with the gig economy and/or creator economy and the greater variety of writerly business models we now have than we did twenty years ago. More writers are ending up in undergraduate and graduate writing programs who need and want this information. I also believe writers should leave degree-granting programs prepared for the pragmatic and professional issues they will face as a writer. They’re often working alone, with limited or bad business guidance, confused about what’s “normal.” The anxiety and confusion is apparent at every AWP conference I attend. So is the bitterness and resentment for those who wake up to the reality of their situation, after they’ve invested thousands of dollars into a writing education.

And so MFA programs need to acknowledge what’s happening and evolve.

Still, there is resistance—and the more prestigious the program, the more resistant they are. Here are the most common arguments I see against introducing business into an MFA program.

Writers should focus on craft first, business later.

It can appear boorish or second rate to suggest that business could or would ever be as important as art, craft, or technique. Because art is everything, right? Without quality work, there is no business—right?

(Let’s put aside the fact “quality” is subjective and MFA programs tend to be concerned with the kind of quality that’s of less interest to publishers than you might think.)

This “craft first” argument has a big assumption behind it: that art and business are antithetical to each other or can’t be in conversation. This belief is so ingrained in the literary writing community that few even question it.

Just look at the stories we tell about great writers, which all generally sound the same: we focus on the development and discovery of their literary genius. Business conditions rarely enter into it, much less business acumen. George Eliot is celebrated as a great moral novelist, but she also left her loyal publisher for another house that offered her a bigger advance. The bestselling work of Mark Twain—a novel that funded his career—was sold door-to-door in a very low fashion instead of properly, in a bookstore. (Today’s equivalent might be selling your ebook through Amazon rather than the print edition through your local independent bookshop.)

Why don’t we share these business stories? Because it is typically taboo to produce for the market or to be too good at business, lest you get pilloried by your peers and accused of selling out. Amy Lowell met this fate: she was criticized by T.S. Eliot for being a “demon saleswoman” of poetry. Even one of the earliest successful authors, Erasmus, was pitied by his peers for taking money from his publisher. (No self-respecting author at the time took money for their work; you were supposed to be above that.)

What a bind: writers get shamed if they’re not successful but also get shamed if they are too successful or overly concerned with success. How to Reform Capitalism wisely notes, “There remain strict social taboos hemming in the idea of what a ‘real’ artist could be allowed to get up to. They can be as experimental and surprising as they like—unless they want to run a food shop or an airline or an energy corporation, at which point they cross a decisive boundary, fall from grace, lose their special status as artists and become the supposed polar opposites: mere business people.”

The prevalent belief, at least in the literary community, is that “real writers” don’t worry themselves with commercial success or with how the sausage gets made. That’s someone else’s job, that’s for the agent or publisher to worry about. In fact, if one is good at art, then good business will follow or take care of itself. (won’t it?). Quality will make it or cream will rise to the top (right?).

Of course anyone with an iota of life experience knows that’s not true. In her excellent book Make Art Make Money, Elizabeth Hyde Stevens says, “The romantic image of the artist we have been given coyly ignores the fact that all artists are affected by the market.” And sometimes artists are inspired by what’s happening the market. Or they can use market conditions to their benefit. The tension can be productive. Louisa May Alcott first wrote thrillers for money to support her family, and later was persuaded to write a story for girls, Little Women, because a publisher saw market potential in it.

Former NEA chairman Dana Gioia, who holds both an MFA in poetry and MBA degree, and was once an executive at Kraft Foods, said that once you get into middle and upper management, the decisions that you make are largely qualitative and creative. Likewise, writers are in the middle and (hopefully) upper management of their careers, and their business decisions are creative ones. Business and art are often portrayed as antithetical because we think of business in terms of cartoon caricatures. But business is just as complex and creative as any “pure” art form. Just ask a book publisher.

The other problem with the “craft first” argument: Where do you draw the line? Some writers enter traditional MFA programs well into their thirties or even forties, after decades of writing experience and maybe an undergrad degree in writing. Low-res MFA programs have writers of all age groups. Learning the craft does not come with an end date. You don’t graduate from an MFA program, then presto, you’re done—you are “ready” to attend to the business.

Anyone entering an MFA program, I believe, is raising their hand and saying, “I’m serious about this and I identify as a writer.” If that’s the case, aside from studying the craft, writers ought to understand the basic mechanics of how to get published and the industry that supports them (namely, book publishing and/or various forms of literary publishing). And one hopes there is transparency and frankness about how little most writers earn from book sales or advances.

And finally, have you ever noticed the “craft first” argument gets subverted all the time, not least by those who teach at MFA programs? It’s fashionable to say that writing can’t be taught or that MFA programs don’t teach writing as much as they support and nurture talent, or offer a community. Fair enough, but don’t use “craft first” as the fig leaf for abdicating responsibility for helping students understand the full picture of what they’re attempting. Art and business intersect, and it is artificial to separate them.

This brings us to the next argument often trotted out by MFA programs: that it’s a time and place to focus on one’s writing and not be distracted by the outside world/real world or commercial concerns.

Writers attend MFA programs to focus on craft.

This is true for some, but as I indicated above, I think that’s changing. Also, writers may say they’re only interested in craft, but do they really mean it? Why are the most popular panels at AWP the ones that discuss getting published? Or those that feature agents, editors, and business people? The steps that occur after completion of the manuscript are part of the fundamental work of any working writer who wishes to be published.

Also, while students may compete to get into MFA programs and pay for the privilege of devoting a couple years to developing their craft, that’s not their only motivation. They also attend MFA programs seeking the status and prestige that comes with the degree and with the reputation of the school in some cases. They want to study with certain known authors. They want to rub elbows with celebrities in the writing community. Connections are a big motivating factor, and that is very much a business concern: who will help facilitate that next step in your career?

Learning the business subverts the craft—or is otherwise a distraction.

It’s true that writers can potentially get distracted by submissions protocol and agent etiquette and all the secret handshake stuff they think exists, but that’s another reason the business needs to be taught. There is no secret handshake and a lot of what the business of writing is—well, frankly, it’s boring. The more quickly that writers can start seeing agents and editors not as mystical beings who anoint them and make their careers, but as average and flawed business people, the better.

Also, we’re not talking about MFA programs switching over to half-craft, half-business curriculum. (Or I’m certainly not.) The basics could be covered in a single required course. There might be a series of optional business-related courses for those who are interested.

I don’t think there is a downside to teaching business if we assume (and we must) that MFA students can be treated as mature adults. Safeguarding them from business talk is infantilizing them and making them vulnerable to bad actors and bad deals if they don’t know what standard business practices are.

And might I suggest that the only students who can afford to not consider the business side of the writing life are those who already have money or a safety net.

Students can learn about the business elsewhere.

Well, yes, it’s true. This site, in fact, is one of the places where people end up. I am delighted to offer a basic education that is, I hope, affordable and accessible to many. And I will continue providing it for as long as I can. But there’s a problem.

Many don’t find me, or they don’t know who to trust. A lot of people rely on gossip/whisper networks. Or what their author friend told them to do. I pity the writer who must sift through all the conflicting and even harmful advice. They might wrongly conclude it’s all a crapshoot or that no one knows anything at all. Worse, they might decide the system is rigged or that publishers and agents are vultures, or buy into any number of misconceptions and conspiracy theories that float around the internet.

I’m not the only reputable source of advice out there; there are many valuable books, courses, and resources available to writers. But it would make more sense if MFA programs could lay the groundwork for their students and introduce them to the landscape, who they can trust, and how to spot advice or guidance that is suspect.

People teaching in MFA programs don’t really know the business themselves.

This is perhaps the best argument of all, because I think it’s true. Professors may not know best business practices for the average working writer, and their earnings outside of their university salary may be minimal. Their experience with publishers and contracts may be outdated or out of touch. It’s also problematic when professors’ experiences are narrow and specialized yet are represented as either standard or desirable.

I don’t think the solution is that challenging. A program can have adjunct professors fill in these gaps as necessary, especially those based in a city like Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, or DC, where publishing professionals tend to live. A professor could invite guests to speak on business topics (I’m invited to speak every year to MFA classes). Perhaps MFA programs should even have a full-time professor whose job is to assist students with professional development, internships, business know-how, etc.

The real challenge is one of mindset, where the directors or professors in these programs promulgate the idea that business doesn’t belong in the curriculum, or that it’s not their responsibility to help students with anything but craft. It’s a shame this attitude persists when the publishing industry has become more multi-faceted and complex—as well as rich with opportunity. Some of it is fear of the unknown and some of it is a desire to hang onto an aura of prestige, to be a program that’s only for the “serious” artists who don’t concern themselves with the market.

Even if we buy into that thinking, though, I don’t see why it should be a problem to at least teach students how agents and publishers work; how book advances and royalties work; how to read a publishing contract; what rights and responsibilities a writer has to the agent and publisher and vice versa; and the varied models of publishing today. It helps writers avoid a lot of frustration and disappointment—and wasted time.

If MFA programs refuse to teach the business

I’d like to see them inform every enrolling writer of the latest Authors Guild survey that shows author incomes declining. While I think these surveys are problematic given the narrow range of authors surveyed, they’re close to the truth for any author with an MFA.

Did you attend (or are you currently attending) an MFA program? What has your experience been?

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments