An Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students)

Dear MFA writing programs (and their students):

Recently New York magazine published a story, in which Columbia University’s graduate writing program invited James Frey to come chat with its students on the subject of “Can Truth Be Told?” during which Frey mentioned a book packaging scheme that he had cooked up. The contractual terms of that book packaging scheme are now famously known to be egregious — it’s the sort of contract, in fact, that you would sign only if you were as ignorant as a chicken, and with about as much common sense — and yet it seems that Frey did not have any problem getting people to sign on, most, it appears, students of MFA programs. Frey is clearly selecting for his scheme writers who should know better, but don’t — and there’s apparently a high correlation between being ignorant that his contract is horrible and being an MFA writing student.

I don’t blame Columbia University’s graduate writing program for inviting James Frey over to talk to its students about “truth.” If there’s anyone who knows about the word truth contained between ironic quotation marks, it’d be James Frey, and it’s probably not a bad idea for the kids to see a prevaricating hustler up close to observe how one of his kind can rationalize bad actions and even poorer ethics as transgressive attempts at literature. It’s always a joy to see how a master of bullshit spins himself up; publishing and literature being what they are, the students should probably learn to recognize this species sooner than later, all the better to move their wallets to their front pockets when such a creature stands before them.

What does bother me, however, is that Frey apparently quite intentionally was working his way through MFA programs recruiting writers for his book packaging scheme. You could say there’s an obvious reason for this, which is that MFA writing students are likely more competent at writing than your average schmoe writer on the street (this is a highly arguable contention, but never mind that now), and they’re all in one place, which makes for easier recruiting. But I suspect there’s another reason as well, which is that in general it appears MFA writing programs don’t go out of their way educate their students on the publishing industry, or contracts, or much about the actual business of writing.

And so when someone like James Frey breezes in and starts blowing smoke about collaborations, the response is this —

We were desperate to be published, any way we could. We were spending $45,000 on tuition, some of us without financial aid, and many taking out loans that were lining us up to graduate six figures in debt. A deal like the one Frey was offering could potentially pay off our loans and provide an income for the next decade. Do a little commercial work under a pseudonym, sell the movie rights, and never have to suffer as a writer in New York. We wouldn’t even need day jobs.

— followed by a number of students receiving and then signing a contract that pays them next to nothing, and offers a deal so constrictive that by the terms of the contract Frey could publish works under their names and keep them from publishing again (via a gloriously vague “non-compete” clause). Frey was no doubt counting on the students being starry-eyed at the presence of a real-live bestselling author (even a disgraced one) who was waving a movie deal in their faces, but one reason he could count on it was because he was speaking to an audience whose formal educations did not include learning how to spot a crappy deal.

So, MFA writing programs, allow me to make a suggestion. Sometime before you hand over that sheepskin with the words “Master of Fine Arts” on it, for which your students may have just paid tens of thousands of dollars (or more), offer them a class on the business of the publishing industry, including an intensive look at contracts. Why? Because, Holy God, they will need it.

Now, perhaps you are saying, “We focus on the art of writing, not the business.” My answer to that is, please, pull your head out. Your students are not paying as much money as they do for your program strictly for the theoretical joys of writing. They are paying so they can publish, and it’s a pretty good bet, considering how many of those Columbia folks scrambled to pitch to Frey, that they actually want to be published commercially, not just in university presses, in which (sorry) low advances and small print runs don’t matter since it’s just another line on the CV. Yes, you are teaching an art, but whether you like it or not you’re also teaching a trade — or at the very least many of your students are coming to learn a trade, and put up with the art portion of it as part of the deal. Teaching them something about the trade will not hurt your program.

And then you might say, “there’s no point in teaching them about the business because if they go the commercial publishing route they’ll have agents.” To which I would say, wow, really? “Other people will handle the dirty money part” is a response that a) shows a certain amount of snobbery, b) sets up a writer to be dependent on others because she is ignorant of the particulars of her own business. You know how every year you hear about an actor or musician who has been screwed by his accountant or business manager? That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention — or more relevantly don’t have the knowledge to pay attention.

To be clear, I don’t want to paint literary agents, et al as suspicious and shady characters; I have two literary agents (one for fiction and one for non-fiction) and they are super-smart and do a great job for me, and I’m glad they do their job and leave me to do mine, which is writing. But you know what? Part of the reason I know they’re doing a good job is because I know my own business, which makes it easier for me to know what they are doing. It also means they know that they can discuss business with me on a realistic and sensible level. Beyond that, not everyone has an agent, or (alas) a good one if they have one.

Finally, you may say “We don’t have anyone on our faculty who can/wants to teach that course.” Well, presuming that your university doesn’t have a business or law school on campus, from whom you might borrow an appropriate professor every now and again, I can’t help but notice that adjunct professors are very popular in academia these days, and I’m guessing that maybe you could find someone. Try a working agent, maybe. Point is, if you wanted to offer this class, you could.

There is no reason not to offer a class on this stuff. And maybe students will choose not to take that class. But if that’s the case, at least then it’s all on them. Your students are all presumably adults and are responsible for their own actions, to be sure. But if you’re not giving them the tools to know when a huckster is hucking in their direction, if they get hulled, some of that’s on you.

Speaking of which, let me know turn my attention away from the MFA writing programs and to the writing grad students themselves:

Dudes. Learn about the industry, already, before you sign a contract. Otherwise you’re going to get shaved by the first jackass who waves a publishing deal in your face. Yes, I know, you’re smart and clever and you write really well. You know what, your belief in your intelligence and your cleverness and your writing ability as a proxy for knowing everything you need to know about the world is exactly what’s going to get you screwed. Because being smart and clever and writing well has nothing to do with the backend business of the publishing industry or reading a contract knowledgeably and dispassionately. Think about those MFA students who are now slaving away for Frey on the worst contract just about anyone in publishing has ever seen. I’m pretty sure they all think they are smart and clever and write well, too.

If your MFA program doesn’t have a class on contracts and the publishing industry, ask for one. Because, Jesus, you’re spending enough for your education. You might want to get some practical knowledge out of it as well. If it can’t or won’t offer that class to you, a) complain and b) seek out that information. The writers’ organization to which I belong, SFWA, sponsors Writer Beware, which offers some of the basics about avoiding scams and bad practices, and has an informational area which includes sample contracts. Other writers’ organizations also have information for you, and most bookstores will have sections on writing and the business of writing. Find that information, learn it, and use it before you have anything to do with anyone trying to make a deal with you.

But why you should have to pay extra for this essential bit of education, or search for it outside your writing program, mind you, positively baffles me.

Update, 11/17: Those of you coming here from The Chronicle of Higher Education, I offer a rebuttal to Ms. Blackwell’s article here.

97 Comments on “An Open Letter to MFA Writing Programs (and Their Students)”

  1. I belive that Columbia and other Universities with MFA programs are deliberatly perpetuating the cliche of a starving artist. Or perhaps they figure that the students have enough support to get a MFA they will probably have enough support that they won’t starve even if they know nothing about business.

    In either case they are leaving the students woefully unprepared for life outside acedemia.

  2. I just wrote about this for the Re: Print blog over at Pop Matters:

    As a recent MFA graduate myself, I know we weren’t prepared for anything like this. I loved my program and it made me a better writer for sure, but I also already had three small-press novels published and had a sense of the industry. The program I was in, The Ranier Writer’s Workshop, does focus on craft and teaching, with no attention ’til the very end about business affairs, and these sessions were pretty ad hoc. They’re up front about this going in, and I’ve no complaints, but I agree with everything you write here.

    And did you see this idiot praising Frey’s plan as “telling the truth about the publishing industry?”

  3. I’ve heard great things about some workshops doing a good job at this. For example: Joe Haldeman would teach you about writing, and Gay Haldeman would teach you about contracts, rights, the business side of things. (To not be a completely random, non-sourced anecdote, this was from Dario Ciriello.)

    Curious: if there was an elective class on this kind of thing, would MFA students be clamoring to get into it? Perhaps there’s an opportunity for an entrepreneur with the right contacts and knowledge to give online seminars on the subject.

  4. Nice letter. But, frankly, anyone who spends $45k on a degree and doesn’t have the wits to learn about the industry in which they’re trying to work gets very little sympathy from me. No one in this whole thing comes off well… Frey for obvious reasons, the MFA programs for letting Frey take advantage of their students when they themselves know better (I hope…) and the students for being, well, idiots.

  5. Since that’s the case, go all the way and not only offer the course you describe, but make it a requirement to graduate. One more course on a $45,000 education won’t kill them and might actually save them.

  6. High Schools need to teach a general business course that talks about contracts, risk/reward (aka why you’re not getting 20% returns with no risk), interviewing and resume building, legal rights of employees (aka what can/can’t your boss ask you to do) and misc related issues.

    I wouldn’t count on a university to do it, since most of them have their heads too far up.

  7. I applaud you.

    Sadly, I know from personal observation that some people are just so convinced that they’re the next Brown or Rowlings that they’ll ignored advice and go with a, let’s be polite, vanity publisher.

  8. Seton Hill’s MFA in Popular Fiction does cover the business of writing (It’s a required core course) and it brings in professional writers, editors, and agents as guests. But then, it *is* a program geared toward genre fiction, rather than literary fiction. All the instructors are published genre writers, so they’ve been in the thick of it, in various forms.

    (There were points where the business side was so focused upon that it was a bit disheartening, but at least I have an idea of the landscape and know to watch out for sharks.)

  9. I agree with #6. If you make a business contracts course an elective, instead of mandatory, the majority of students, even those professing a desire to become published authors, will decide it’s “too boring” and won’t take it. Granted, students may well sleep through a mandatory course, but as noted by other posters, and by Scalzi himself, that’s on them. But at least offering/insisting upon such coursework would indicate that academic writing programs actually want to teach their students about the real world, as opposed to using their programs as recruitment for the ivory-tower set.

  10. You would think that someone in the administration of these schools would at some point have the following brainstorm:

    Wealthy alumni = cash gifts to us, therefore MORE wealthy alumni = MORE cash gifts to us

    Probability that alum who writes well AND is contract-savvy becomes wealthy > Probability that alum who writes well becomes wealthy

    Being the first (or one of the few) elite program(s) to offer contract classes leads to a competitive advantage over programs which omit business, which should lead to a generally better applicant pool, in turn leading to a higher writing skill in the average student, increasing probability of wealthy alumni even more.

    Who are these administrators who can’t follow the money, and why do they still have jobs?

  11. I’d like to add that I don’t think a one-day seminar is enough. Maybe you don’t need three hours a week for fifteen weeks, but two hours on a Saturday morning isn’t enough.

  12. Why even make it an elective? Make it a mandatory class for students. And ostensibly, the faculty teaching these programs are supposed to be experienced, published writers themselves, even if they aren’t, say, “well known” authors, and should have personal experience with contracts and publishing. It’s a crime that they aren’t imparting some of this knowledge in some ad hoc way.

    Also, why wait to the graduate level to teach this? There are undergraduate writing programs and majors. This should be a class at the lower levels of writing programs. My instructors at least had the courtesy to reserve a week or two for their students to discuss the business of writing while I was an undergrad.

  13. The New Sucker/Minute Rate has clearly grown since Barnums day. Given that there were 525,948 suckers burn per year in Barnums day, the chances of such a high concentration at Columbia’s MFA program are slim. Granted, Columbia’s MFA program might posses a higher concentration of suckers, possibly born over multiple years. Still, I speculate that the Sucker/Minute Rate is more like a Sucker/Second Rate these days.

    And, of course, one can always be reborn as a sucker when one was previously not chumpworthy. All it takes is the right con.

  14. There is no reason not to offer a class on this stuff.

    Except, perhaps, that directly addressing the finances of writing might highlight that going into the industry $45k in the red might not be such a great plan?

  15. Good advice. I hope some take it. No doubt a few will raise their noses and sneer about how someone who writes “science fiction” (shudder) dares to lecture people who teach real literature. Their students will be the poorer for it.

  16. Good advice, John. There is no reason for these MFA programs to not educate their students in the realities of the business side of their chosen field.

    On the other hand…Jeez Louise. All I’ve got is a lowly BA in Intercultural Studies, but I know enough not to sign a contract that doesn’t allow me to own the copyright to my work but makes me financially responsible for any legal proceedings based on that work, and that goes on to stipulate that my name can be put on publications that I had no involvement at all in writing.

    There’s a word for this sort of contract: scam.

  17. Rick Dakan:

    “And did you see this idiot praising Frey’s plan as ‘telling the truth about the publishing industry?'”

    I don’t know that he’s generally an idiot, but he certainly doesn’t seem to know how bad this deal is.

  18. “My answer to that is, please, pull your head out.”

    Uh-huh. Ditto.

    Just a point or two in the “Amen, Brother!” end of things. 1. I have yet to meet a professional freelance writer or novelist or scriptwriter who, among their bag of standard writerly advice does not include: treat it like a business and/or, it’s a business, so learn about the business aspects of it.

    2. In the real world, writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, and just about any other so-called “artist” makes a living by, at least part of the time, being self-employed, often as a “sole contractor.” If you are any of the above and the term “sole contractor” is new to you, then you don’t know enough to be running your own business, which, boys and girls, is exactly what you are doing. And running your own business, whether as a writer or as a McDonald’s franchisee, requires that you learn some things about contracts, financing, marketing, and accounting. So… learn it!

  19. Dear MFA Students:

    If you want to write a pseudonymous YA novel for some money, work with a reputable packager and get a few thousand dollars cash on the barrelhead, not pie-in-the-sky promises of kajillions to come but only $250 upfront.

    In other news, if you’re going to buy a house, buy a house you can afford with a mortgage that you can pay, not some exotic balloon-payment loan that relies on you winning the lottery to pay it off.

    Be realistic in your life, because that’s the only way to free your mind for creativity in your work.

  20. Fair enough. He probably not an idiot in all or even most things, but he does effectively call anyone who thinks this a bad idea one:

    “You’re damn right it is. And until you’ve gone out and sold a book on your own, you don’t know how good a deal this could be.”

    Which seems counter to the general consensus of those who have sold their own books like yourself.

  21. Rick Dakan:

    What’s really interesting is that at the moment, if I try to access that page with my current IP address logged, I can’t see the page; I get a “Bad Request” note. However, if I access it from my Droid X, which has a different IP address, or through an anonymous IP router, I can access the page just fine.

  22. Thanks so much for this! I commented about my own MFA program experience on your earlier post, and you’re echoing exactly what a lot of us students were saying to our faculty. I hope that the big explosion of outrage over this changes the system of MFA programs just a little.

    Then again, the “snobbish” elitist profs who are teaching an “art” on tenure probably don’t go online very often.

  23. re: PJ the Barbarian@11:

    A bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush. How much is James Frey paying the MFA programs for access to their suckers students?

    Corporate America University management is so shortsighted as to be unable to see past the next quarterly profit statement. For people who so firmly have a grip on our country’s future, they sure are clueless about how to generate future wealthy alumni.

    Perhaps we should put Mr. Frey in contact with Judith Griggs so they can reminisce about the ‘good old days’ of asshattery.

  24. When I teach at workshops or writing conferences, I try to offer classes dealing with specific areas of technique and craft, but I also make it a point to offer pragmatic classes dealing with everyday issues — what your rights are, PR, realistic options and alternatives, etc. None of these things were available to me as a writing major in school, and it still both frustrates and depresses me how much of this is absolutely new material to students — many of whom are long-time writing workshop and school attendees.

    My experience is that there is hardly any real-world preparation, and the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if it’s because academic courses tend to be taught by, well — academics. These often are not people out there in the trenches wrestling with these issues. I’m by no means opposed to academe, but it can certainly be a hermetic and safe bubble. And it’s a lot easier for someone with tenure and books available from university presses to talk about Art the way anyone could at a Starbucks than it is to speak from long experience learning a professional writer’s trade when perhaps that experience is somewhat deficient.

  25. Good advice. How to Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis is a good place to start, with examples of poor, fair, and good contracts as appendices. I’ve found it useful, anyway.

  26. That is interesting, although it’s a big site so it seems weird they’d block you. I doubt the author has authority to do that.

    I’ve found that the site is loading very slowly now, so maybe you’re just overwhelming their servers or something? No, wait, it says they’ve only had 302 views, so that seems unlikely (assuming the counter’s accurate).

  27. I have an MFA but am now enjoying more readers and money and even teaching options as a fantasy writer than I did as a poet. The ‘lit fic’ world of most MFA programs and commercial fiction are pretty separate worlds. Sure, this leads to some snobbery on the part of lit-fic writers (I write REAL LITERATURE) — but it also leads to obnoxious bravado amongst some commercial writers (I’m a WORKING WRITER, NOT STUCK IN AN IVORY TOWER, MAAAAN).

    On the other hand, lots of people who are not idiots on either ‘side’ recognize that the two have, for some years now, been fairly distinct kinds of writing with largely distinct career trajectories. The nurtured dream of dreams of most MFA students is less the genre novelist’s ‘make a living from my novels’ dream and more ‘sell enough fiction to prestigious houses to get a gig as a professor.’ Columbia’s error, IMO, was inviting a commercially savvy shark to plow through the clueless waters of students who knew nothing about commercial publishing. Frey would have been laughed out of a Clarion workshop, I expect, but for MFA students he gave one of their only glimpses of what commercial success could look like. Most unforgiveable to me is that Columbia invited him even though he’s an abysmally shitty writer.

    Interestingly, these worlds are becoming less distinct. I taught a Fantasy Fiction undergrad course at Rutgers this semester, the first time such was offered — the enrollment was bananas and I had to turn away prospective students in droves. As bad as career prospects are for commercial fiction writers these days, they’re even worse for the folks still being trained in a near-obsolete ‘MFA, two novels, tenure’ model. I suspect programs like Seton Hill’s are the wave of the future in creative writing.

    So yes, MFAs should offer courses in contracts and market realities — and then they should dedicate a portion of their exorbitant tuition proceeds to developing genetically enhanced ninja assassins trained to track down and eviscerate Henry Miller-wannabe hipster scumbag leeches who can’t write. Then MFA students and commercial writers alike can join hands and play jumprope with Frey’s entrails.

  28. Well said, John.

    But for change, those managing the MFA programs will have to discover that there’s an unmet need which they’re not providing, and that would mean finding error in their own work … so sadly you may be preaching to the nonconvertible.

  29. Me, I don’t think Frey’s contract goes far enough, so I started my own company (out of the back of my car, for tax purposes) based on his principles: Filching Imprints. Read about it here: New to publishing? Don’t be a-Frey-ed

    “To some, our contracts may seem draconian, but remember, fantasy is huge right now. In turn, we guarantee that you’ll be able to see the fruits of your labor on bestseller lists and movie screens! Not, granted, with your name attached in any public way whatsoever, nor will you be allowed to tell anyone, give interviews or whisper it in your sleep, but still, you’ll know. Inside. Where it counts.”

    We want young and hungry writers who haven’t yet been jaded by “Hollywood” or “Big Publishing” or “agents” or “fair business practices.” Sign up today!

  30. Hell, this isn’t just a good idea for the MFA’s, it’s a good idea for all majors. In fact, I have to wonder how many majors already have something like this. During the (very brief) time during college that I suggested switching to education, I noticed that my school’s education department had a mandatory course that covered things like how teacher’s unions work.

    Lord knows I didn’t find out anything about publishing while I was earning my degree. Even the single sentence, “Get used to the term ‘editorial assistant,’ because that’s what you’re gonna be for the next two years” would have been quite helpful. Last year I went back to my alma mater to speak to the writing tutors about that and related topics, and I will happily do so again if asked.

  31. My MFA program (Antioch Los Angeles) did offer classes on publishing during its residency periods (including lectures by agents). I agree that all MFA programs should offer this information.

  32. It’s remarkable that a learning institution would allow a guest presenter to flog an unsavory product to its students within the context of its class.

    Ignorant as I may be, I would hope that any such presentation would be vetted by those who set up the presentation. Were I a student sitting in a university classroom and hearing this pitch, I would be assuming that the product being offered had the implicit endorsement of the institution.

    And I have to wonder: if they were going to have someone in to speak about truth (and maybe even honesty), could they not find anyone better qualified than a writer exposed on national television as a colossal fraud? I can’t imagine what Mr. Frey might bring to the discussion that would be of benefit to the students.

  33. John, our nation does a terrible job prepping its children for real life. Think about high school. We have to learn higher math (who the fuck actually uses algebra, much less trigonometry or calculus?), and yet we don’t teach kids how to balance their budgets or their checkbooks. We don’t teach kids about annual percentage rates and accrued interest and per diem interest. We don’t teach kids how to read lease agreements or sales contracts. We don’t teach them how to figure out if 0% interest is a better deal than $2000 cash back (it almost always is), or what having 20% down for your house can save you in interest. But hey, they know that y=mx+b. When was the last time YOU graphed a line? I can tell you for me it was in my last college math class, and I was a data analyst for 7 years. Although I used basic algebra in my job from time to time, I sure as hell never used trig or calc, both classes I was required to take in high school and again in college for my degree in History. Basically, I’m saying that I’m more math-oriented than the average person, and I had a job in which math played a very important role, but even I had no use for anything more complicated than basic algebra, and even that was only occasionally. The average American would have even LESS use for those subjects, but they are forced to “learn” them in high school and college. And yet every adult will buy at least one car and sign one sales contract that involves interest in their lifetimes (often starting with their student loans), and they aren’t taught the basics of how to deal with that.

    But hey, they can graph a line. Theoretically.

  34. Honestly, I think the problem with MFA programs not offering a class on contracts, work’s rights, or just the general money involved in the industry is exactly what Orena said in #15. How many people who are in such programs don’t really get that they’re paying $45k or more on a program to do stuff where most people in that industry have to have at least a second job doing something else to pay the bills? I mean, would you shell out a down-payment on a house just to have a really good second job or would you rather spend that money on a degree for your primary, money-making career (or, you know, a down-payment on a house)?

    I know what my answer would be and it’d have nothing to do with the arts.

  35. In addition to everything else under discussion here, I was impressed by this bit in the magazine article:

    He had released a novel, Bright Shiny Morning, for which he received a reported $1.5 million advance.

    So after all the mess around A Million Little Pieces, Frey gets a seven-figure advance for his *next* deal? Clearly I’m taking the wrong approach to my career…

  36. “It’s remarkable that a learning institution would allow a guest presenter to flog an unsavory product to its students within the context of its class. Ignorant as I may be, I would hope that any such presentation would be vetted by those who set up the presentation.”

    Well, that’s yet another unsavory part of the whole deal, in that Frey was invited to Columbia to speak about, if I may paraphrase, issues of truthiness in memoir writing, and once he’d exhausted his thoughts on that subject, he segued neatly into his little spiel.

  37. You don’t get it, John, 90% of MFA graduates never go into real publishing–they teach in other MFA programs. All they have to do career-wise is to publish stories, and they publish those in lit magazines nobody ever heard of, except those who live in the MFA universe. The commercial world is another universe, in into which few MFAs ever venture into. Those who do are usually failures as “serious” literary writers and nobody in the MFA universe really cares about them anyway.

  38. I’d like to see that course cover the basics of querying and looking for representation as well.Most of the very worst query letters an agent will receive are from MFA students who have never been instructed on just HOW to query or why it’s important to keep the emphasis of your query on the book and not on the school you attended or the teachers with whom you worked.

  39. I’d been thinking about doing a point-by-point of the Frey contract on my blog, but haven’t had a chance today (darned dayjob and all). Still, oddly enough, I find this whole situation a potentially good one — for myself, in any event. I’ve been looking for a college or university where I could once again teach my “Legal Issues in Publishing Course”. I used to teach it at City College (in NYC), but a union dispute ended that. I’d love to end up on the faculty (adjunct or not) of Columbia or any other MFA program that needs a course like this in their catalog. I do a half-semester on copyright, and a half-semester on actual publishing contracts and legal matters. Looks like I should touch up my syllabus.

  40. A follow-up to a couple of the points raised above about contracts couses as electives vs. being required. My course at CCNY was an elective. I filled up every semester, with people from the publishing program, and from various other departments (pre-law, international studies, music, etc.) The mix made for some really interesting discussions. But, bottom line was that the college made sure that students knew the course was available, and we wrote our catalog copy to appeal to a broad spectrum of the student body. In short, “if you (offer) it, they will come” — elective or not.

  41. My daughter’s preferred trade school requires 2 semesters of accounting and business practices. It seems the 2 year tech school does a better job of preparing students than most MFA programs. Go figure.

  42. Orena@15: Except, perhaps, that directly addressing the finances of writing might highlight that going into the industry $45k in the red might not be such a great plan?


    If these students are wanting to be commercial, bestselling writers with movie options and what-all, why are they in MFA programs?

    I’m sure there are intellectual benefits to the study undertaken in an MFA/Writing program. But anyone who wants to publish a commercial novel will be judged by the words on the page, not on their resume.

  43. I would like to think that most MFA programs are not so insanely stupid and DO offer a class. I know I took a master’s level creative writing class and we had the pleasure of being taught by an actual, published writer who has done well in the industry. We were taught all about the industry… from where to start to get your work published, contracts, agents…

    It blows my mind that some programs wouldn’t offer this info to their students. They’re going to school to earn a living after the fact.

  44. As a Columbia graduate (ironically from the Graduate School of Business), I keep asking myself how the university lost all sense of responsibility and accountability. The very idea of inviting someone like Frey is prima facie ridiculous.

    Frey is in the same category as Clifford Irving. How times have changed. For years no major publisher would even think of publishing anything by Irving. This, of course, was the time when publishers were truly independent and not part of huge media conglomerates. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences should be ashamed to even have their name associated with this criminal.

    Unfortunately, most MFA programs are run by “artists” most of whom would never sully themselves by direct exposure to – gasp! – sound business practices. At Columbia, this is particularly foolish. Right up the street from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is one of the top ranked graduate business schools in the world. And, I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of people on the business faculty who would be happy to run a program to keep artists from “starving”.

    Shame on Columbia.

  45. James Frey? Er, the guy who wrote a nonfiction personal memoir, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, which made him boatloads of money, that turned out to be entirely fabricated? And when he was exposed, then he made boatloads of money out of being exposed? And then MORE boatloads of money out of his next project? THAT Frey?

    Wow. Cheating other writers seems like such a natural segue for that guy, -and- doing it via writing schools… I can’t even work up a slight frisson of surprise.

    Though I -ma- surprised (me being ignorant of the standards of MFA programs) that anyone at a self-respecting writing program or workshop would let this guy in the door, let alone shill for his latest scam.

  46. Heh. All this makes me glad I didn’t bother to go the MFA route. These programs need to make themselves relevant. Otherwise, if they expect their MFA students to teach themselves the industry, what’s to keep those same self-initiative-type students from teaching themselves the whole curriculum?

  47. There is one excellent reason why most MFA programs do not provide a course that covers contracts and working with agents: Most of the people who pay these huge tuition fees and eventually graduate from writing programs will not publish books. If they do, more likely than not in the current market they will be self-published or print-on-demand books.

    This is the secret of all MFA writing programs. I know. I have an MFA. I’ve had short stories published for years, even before I got the degree. I have had many plays produced, and have just completed work on a novel. I have enough experience to know what to expect. I also know for a fact that most of the people who were in my program do not write any more. It was hard and they gave up.

    The teachers who lead MFA writing programs cannot make a living from their writing. So they teach and they know that their salaries depend on students who long to be famous, respected authors. It’s a cheap fantasy that keeps the machinery going.

    If there were a realistic chance that most of their students would have books published by traditional publishing houses and would be compensated and celebrated in some way, writing teachers would see the value in making their students attend a practical workshop on contracts and agents. In all likelihood it isn’t going to happen, so they don’t prepare students for it.

    Most academics live in their own dream world. They see the market changing and they rail against the forces of ignorance and illiteracy without knowing what is happening and without being connected to it. POD and ebook publishing, if they are noticed at all, are viewed with disdain. Academics don’t want to offer a class in contracts, and they think the print market is tougher than ever because people are not reading. Why would you want to learn writing from someone so out of touch with the world?

    Save your money. Study science and math and history. Reading stories and novels carefully will teach you as much about writing as you could learn by wasting your family’s savings on an MFA program.

  48. Great letter—posted it on my program’s blog.

    One niggle—a course on publishing contracts and business should be taught by someone with particular experience in the field. Getting any ol’ lawyer, or worse, a Hollywood professional, to teach such a course would be a disaster. The few publishing contracts I’ve seen that were written by non-publishing attorneys have been awful and its worth noting that Frey’s exploitative contract is actually not all that unusual in the film industry, except that the $500 fee is missing a few zeroes. So please, any MFA program heads reading this, don’t just tap some random person from the law or business school one building over, get someone familiar with publishing.

  49. Nick @54, that’s far from a niggle. As a lawyer I have to repeatedly explain to friends and family that I’d love to help them, but just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean I can provide meaningful help with your house-buying contract/suing your doctor for malpractice/making a wage and hour claim against your scumbag boss, unless by ‘meaningful help’ getting you the name and number of some other attorney, who does that type of law all the time as their job. Anyone who says well, I’m a lawyer, it’s a contract, sure I can help you, is going to cause you a world o’ problems.

  50. I’d even expand upon the idea of the class just a wee bit. Instead of just having a basic business course for writers, I’d includes talks by established authors on how they got into the business and the pitfalls they experienced. Of course, being a reasonably intelligent person I’d want to have writers from across the spectrum, from genre to “literary”.

    I wish I’d had something like that available when I was in university. Heck, I would have loved to have had a chance to take a creating writing course but the only undergrad course wasn’t offered the years I was in school and then became available after I graduated. Blah.

  51. I don’t think these authors were conned into anything. I think they understood that it was an unfavorable contract, but it was the best that was available to them.

    These authors were not vulnerable because they were credulous or ignorant of the norms of business. They were vulnerable because they paid full freight for an MFA at Columbia, which costs fifty grand a year, and they funded their degrees with debt.

    Also, while the cash up-front was nominal and the terms of the agreement were onerous, Frey did offer these authors access to his famous name and his powerful agent. Jobie Hughes made a lot of money off of “I Am Number Four.” I think most of the negative responses to Frey’s scheme are reactions to his cynical and unromantic approach to the production of commercial fiction, rather than concerns related to the way he treated his co-authors.

  52. Daniel @58: You appear not to have read the comment thread, as others have discussed cynical, unromantic approaches to the production of commercial fiction, and compared Frey unfavorably to ‘packagers’ such as James Patterson. (Heck, our host has written an entire book which in part exhorts writers not to be naive emobags about the business of publishing.) The idea that a contract of this nature is ‘the best available’ to one of these writers is silly; Frey doesn’t have to buy novels from people who can’t write their way out of a paper bag.

    I’m sure they understood it was unfavorable, but not that they understood how unfavorable it was.

  53. Daniel Friedman:

    ” I think they understood that it was an unfavorable contract, but it was the best that was available to them.”

    Yeah, no, it really wasn’t. A bog-standard advance on a YA science fiction/fantasy novel is worth a healthy two-digit multiple of what Frey was offering, plus the writer would keep the rights to sell the work in foreign markets, to movies, in audio and in graphic novel form, etc. If the idea was good enough to sell to Frey, who would act to package the deal to publishers, then it was probably good enough to eliminate the rapacious middle-man and go directly to publishers.

    “Also, while the cash up-front was nominal and the terms of the agreement were onerous, Frey did offer these authors access to his famous name and his powerful agent.”

    Alternately, what Frey is doing is helping himself to the hard work of people who he has taken advantage of for a nominal sum and who he’s contractually enjoined from reaping any substantial reputational benefit while he, for relatively little effort, potentially makes a large chunk of money.

    “I think most of the negative responses to Frey’s scheme are reactions to his cynical and unromantic approach to the production of commercial fiction, rather than concerns related to the way he treated his co-authors.”

    In this as apparently much else you’d be wrong.

  54. I work with a lot of first time authors (university press, non-fiction) and you know what, I go to a lot of trouble to make sure they understand what’s in their contracts (my authors generally do not have agents). Things like this really, really, piss me off.

  55. John,

    Sure, any commercial advance is worth a lot more than Frey was paying up front, But the authors also got a piece of the proceeds of the novel if it sold. The question is whether a chunk of an advance for a Frey-packaged book is larger than the whole advance for the same book submitted under the author’s name. Frey is certainly reaping benefits from other people’s labor, but they’re looking to benefit from Frey’s name and connections. Fame sells books; that’s why Lauren Conrad and Nicole Richie and Snooki and The Situation can call themselves authors. “I Am Number Four” didn’t get a huge advance and a giant film option because of the quality of the concept or the execution; it sold on Frey’s notoriety.

    For somebody graduating from Columbia a hundred thousand dollars in debt and with no agent or near-term publication prospects, Frey’s rotten contract probably looks like a life preserver. These people don’t want to sign away the rights to their work. They don’t want to be writing commercial YA about aliens with superpowers. But they’re in a hole that a “bog-standard” advance won’t get them out of, and they think Frey might be able to do for them what he did for Jobie Hughes. I haven’t read anything that indicates any of these authors are ignorant of the implications of Frey’s contract. These are desperate people with no leverage to negotiate.

    Columbia is to blame, not because its curriculum fails to educate students in the finer points of publishing contracts, but because it leaves its graduates saddled with enormous debts. If Frey went to a class at Texas or Iowa with the same offer, he probably wouldn’t find many takers. Students at those schools aren’t any more sophisticated about contracts than students at Columbia, but they get funding and don’t graduate in debt.

  56. The question is whether a chunk of an advance for a Frey-packaged book is larger than the whole advance for the same book submitted under the author’s name.

    No, that’s not the question.

    The question is, “Is it better to sign an industry-standard work-for-hire with a legit packager and get an advance of $2,500 to $10,000, or to sign Frey’s shitty, exploitative contract and get paid $250 or maybe $500?”

    Because all the pie-in-the-sky promises of “you’ll get part of the movie deal” are worthless without an audit provision. That contract says that beyond your $500 you’ll get 40% of whatever James Frey tells you you and he earned on your book.

    Think about it. Savor it. This is JAMES FREAKING FREY. A man who wrote an entire purportedly non-fiction book about the incredible friendship he made in prison–even though he was never actually in prison.

    Someone who signs a contract that doesn’t permit them to audit James Frey’s say-so should probably just retire to a cottonwool cocoon now, before they give themselves a terminal papercut or get eaten by squirrels.

  57. I have noticed this stigma in the academy to glorify art and vulgarize business, especially in the MFA arena. A student can get a degree in business in the BUSINESS department, but in the humanities, we don’t dirty our hands with commerce.

    Sure, this is stereotyping. There are exceptions. But overall, it’s a great pity that a university’s grad school is not pragmatic. Before I switched to tech writing for my MA, in creative writing all we did was practice writing. There was no discussion of how we might submit our work and what we might do to negotiate contracts.

    It’s difficult to get many institutions to step up and be practical with the arts. Young artists are vulnerable enough. Even in genre fiction, there are those who prey on naivete. It’s just really sad to see it in institutions of higher learning.

    And it is part of the reason I teach at a community college. We’re pretty pragmatic with our students. You know, we’re working on an English AA. Maybe there ought to be a seminar like this one. I’ll talk to the boss.


  58. Daniel Friedman:

    “But the authors also got a piece of the proceeds of the novel if it sold.”

    Well, what they get is whatever Frey decides to give them, since their chunk comes out of net, which Frey can define however he likes, and they can’t do anything to check his math since the contract doesn’t allow for auditing. What they have to rely on is Frey’s willingness to tell them the truth about how the book is doing, and, well. Frey is not exactly the gold standard on the truth front, now, is he.

    Beyond this, you’re rather overly fetishizing the importance of fame and connections as it relates to publishing. Fame certainly can sell books, but speaking as an author whose debut novel sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has been published in fifteen languages, all without the benefit of my being first pimped by and then yelled at by Oprah, it’s not the only way to do it. Particularly in YA: Off the top of my head I can name several authors whose books have sold hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies without the authors being anything close to conventionally famous: Scott Westerfeld is one, Cassie Clare is another, Holly Black is a third. They did it the old-fashioned way, which is that they wrote good, marketable books. It’s worth noting, incidentally, that each of these authors I just mentioned have recent books which have sold a multiple of what I Am Number Four has sold to date.

    So, no, the “fame” argument isn’t at all a good rationalization for screwing authors by giving them next to nothing up front, followed by some indeterminate amount on the back end, which may or may not bear a resemblance to the actual profitability of the work.

    “These are desperate people with no leverage to negotiate.”

    Oh, what complete nonsense. We’re not talking Laotian child laborers, here, we’re talking Ivy League graduate students. They’re not any more desperate than any graduate student with loans waiting for them when they get out of school, and in the case of the Columbia students, they’re in a rather better position than most. Speaking as a graduate of an elite university, they’ve got an economic leg up, short and long term, on the poor bastards whose degrees are from some middle tier public institution. I won’t argue that they may feel desperate, but that’s not the same thing as actually being desperate. Part of why they feel desperate is lack of knowledge about the publishing industry, which is easily correctable. Also, yes, they may have to get day jobs. The real world will do that to you sometimes.

    Your thesis that Columbia is to blame for being expensive is not especially persuasive; it’s expensive and school debt sucks, but it also confers a competitive advantage in the marketplace and offers a lifetime’s worth of elite school contacts and networking that can make it worth the short-term debt load. The argument that a typical debut book contract won’t get rid of their debt is likewise not a good one, unless you want to make the argument that student loans of any stripe are typically paid off in a single windfall. What the Columbia and other MFA students need is a practical understanding of the marketplace they intend to enter, so that when Frey or someone like him waves an obnoxiously egregious contract in their face, they don’t feel either desperate or that they can’t negotiate. Neither is correct.

  59. But the authors also got a piece of the proceeds of the novel if it sold

    No. What the authors get is whatever Frey’s company feels like giving them. Check it:

    Forty Percent (40%) of all money derived from the disposition or other exploitation of rights to the Book as a published book, film and/or television project (including merchandise revenues derived from film and/or television projects), that Company retains after deduction of all direct, out-of-pocket, third party costs incurred by Company in connection with the negotiation of agreements for the Transfer of rights to the Book (including without limitation, legal fees, agency commissions and management commissions)
    and any other actual costs and expenses of Company related to the Book. In the event Company
    enters into a Transfer of rights with respect to the Series, Writer shall only be entitled to that
    portion of the monies that can be reasonably allocated to the rights for the Book.

    Loosely translated, this means – assuming total honesty on Frey’s part (!) – that the author gets 40% of anything left over after Frey’s business feels it has finally spent enough of the profits. I trust I don’t have to explain how quickly costs “related to the Book” can run up when they’re an excuse to keep money.

  60. But bringing in a lawyer to teach a practical class in an MFA program would be like inviting a wicked fairy to your baby’s christening. I took a short story class recently, filled with new college grads polishing stories for their MFA applications. The debt wasn’t a concern because they already had mid-to-high five figures worth of debt from their undergrad years. Entering a grad program meant a break from repaying those loans. When I asked why they didn’t just move someplace cheap and write, student loans were the reason why.

    My guess is that there is a strong correlation between the rise of the MFA program and the decline of the market for general interest short fiction. How do you become a writer? Expecting writers to actually get published just seems too harsh. So getting an MFA has become the proxy. It’s about signaling that you are a Bride Of Art (either gender), willing to sacrifice all to prove how serious you are about your writing.

  61. ” Off the top of my head I can name several authors whose books have sold hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies without the authors being anything close to conventionally famous: ”

    Not to mention J.K. Rowling, who was entirely unknown when she sold the first Harry Potter book.

  62. While Masters of Fine Arts programs are intended for practical application of the arts, the emphasis is on creation of work, not selling the work, and it’s geared toward training grad students in teaching creative writing and literature for high school and college as an advanced degree. As I brought up in the previous entry on this, a lot of the top MFA programs did maintain relationships with publishers, had them in to speak about writing and writers, and introduced students to agents and publishers in an informal network. But educating students on the business side of the industry beyond academia is outside their official purview and it does expose the school to liability as well, since students can claim that they were given misinformation by the university about the business and contractual issues. That’s why you get profs telling MFA students that the agent will help with the business stuff. They see themselves as separate from the business and legal departments of the university, nor do they necessarily have the expertise to advise MFA students about business issues.

    However, contemporary fiction writers and genre writers are not two separate species and they are not working in separate industries. They are the same and so if you have profs who are published contemporary fiction writers, they are just as likely to know about the publishing industry as “genre” authors, and in many cases, probably know more. But these programs are not necessarily geared toward passing that sort of knowledge on. For them to do so essentially requires an additional program that has a bit more in common with an MBA degree. Which is why they should not have had Frey in to speak, because Frey was not talking about writing a memoir, Frey was making a business pitch. Either you have a creative writing program or you’re brokering for writers to get published and go into film. Frey is a scumbag but an interesting figure of controversy, and the professor or dean who brought him in can perhaps be forgiven for maybe not knowing that Frey was going to make a pitch in their classes, but once they know — that’s when they need to talk to the students about being careful. And maybe the professor at Columbia did this and the students ignored it. The writer/student is focused on Frey in her article and doesn’t even talk about her professor. But Frey is being allowed to make his pitch at these programs, and that’s a much more egregious thing than the university refusing to teach about option clauses. If the degree doesn’t promise to teach you the business, then that’s the MFA program. But that’s different from inviting predators in and letting them con your students with your permission. That article didn’t just cause some trouble for Frey; it embarrassed Columbia’s MFA program. And they need to start thinking about their involvement in these situations, because again, it opens them up for legal liability as well. These students could sue Columbia when things go bad.

  63. YES. Thank you, Scalzi. I love the publishing industry with all its speed bumps and bungee jumps, and I make an excellent living in this biz (for which I’m humbly grateful), but it can be brutal. Established writers need to step up and mentor our younglings. You did good here.

  64. Kat @71: On the other hand, law students aren’t having much luck suing their schools for being a little coy about the business end of things, and if they can’t get anywhere I imagine the MFA folks can breathe easy.

  65. Honestly, I’d love to see something offered even before the MFA. I majored (well, am technically majoring again since I’ve gone back for the last 3-4 courses I need to finish) in English in a department that really pushes poetry and fiction. My profs regularly encouraged students to send things out, but there’s no course even in the dedicated Creative Writing major that I’m aware of that covers these things. Perhaps the various deans and department heads believe we’ll get this knowledge via osmosis? (Or, more likely, the local guild’s annual workshop…)

  66. Going six figures into debt to become a writer…. shit, some of us found a way to do it for free. If there were any justice, every MFA writing program at every university would have a massive disclaimer attached to it: WARNING, THIS VERY EXPENSIVE PILE OF CLASSES IS NOT GUARANTEED TO GET YOU PUBLISHED NOR PREPARE YOU FOR A CAREER. SPEND MONEY ON THIS, IF YOU FEEL LIKE IT. But then, this is true of so many very-expensive degrees. An alarming number of which seem purpose-designed to churn out the next wave of professors, not the next wave of (insert working professional here.) But now I’m in danger of breaking out into a full-on rant at higher ed, so I shall stop.

  67. My first MFA class after enrolling was a novel class that began with a lecture titled “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves Writing is Hard.” The professor then went on to talk about what the writing life meant and that if we expected to have a novel or short stories published when we left then we were in the wrong program. He said work is the only way towards getting a book, the degree is a help but it isn’t a solution. Later in that same semester, we had one class dedicated to the business of writing. Our professors have also been quite honest with the length of time it took them to get published and the struggles they went through. Both noting that it was well after their MFA graduation before they were published.

  68. I am a current MFA grad student at Wilkes University where they pride themselves on their relationships with agents and publishers. The relationships with professors is such that I have no doubt that whatever questions I have that are not answered in the industry courses will most certainly be answered on a personal basis.

    I am grateful that you are putting this information out there for people to see. I wish, however, that you would have done a little research yourself and posted information about MFA programs that do offer industry courses, i.e. Wilkes University and the others that people have mentioned in previous comments.

    Having gone through the tiresome process of picking out an MFA program to apply to less than a year ago, information such as what you have provided (and a list of the MFAs with industry courses) would have been extremely helpful to me–and can be extremely helpful to anyone who is in that boat this year.

  69. Hi John,
    Great letter–and great points. The students in my program, the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts’ low-res program, are very lucky. The thing was founded by writers for writers, and we get a class on the business of writing. It is so, so important. bjtbt
    I’ve been a WFH monkey for over a decade, and this is not a contract I’d let within an inch of my keyboard. But many students in MFA-land don’t have this kind of experience. Why would not let your students have the best knowledge possible, or, at least, some knowledge of the world in which they want to work???

    Thanks again.

  70. #11: The problem with your “follow the money” idea is that far too many wealthy alums would rather pour their money into athletics, and not academics. When I was a student at my alma mater 15 years ago, a wealthy local couple offered my alma mater a gift of $50 million…but *only* if that money were to be used to build a brand new athletic facility. At the time (and even now, the frank truth be told), my university wasn’t much to shout about athletically. The couple making the donation had this pie in the sky dream that if they just poured money into the “problem”, things would magically improve.

    There were several protests on campus, highlighting the fact that the main library on campus, as well as the “specialty” libraries (pharmacy, optometry) needed a serious overhaul. The protesters (myself among them) begged the wealthy couple to reconsider their decision, and make it a “blanket” donation instead of one specifically for athletics. The couple and their supporters took the view that “it’s their money, they can do what they want with it”. So my alma mater ended up with a brand spanking new athletic facility, no money for the libraries, and my university still gets very little recognition in the national media, from a sports perspective.

    Your idea is one I fully support, but unless/until some actual “pros” in the field sign on to give “name recognition” to the idea, universities won’t even consider the idea. I’d love to see a university become known for its famous writers, as opposed to its famous athletes. But in today’s “real world”, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening on a broad scale anytime soon.

  71. I’ve taken the liberty of posting links to your last few articles about Frey and the business of writing on my LJ site. Today I received a reply about this article–“why do you care about this?”

    As a wannabe writer (I haven’t yet been brave enough to try to get anything “published”, other than what I write about on LJ/FB), I nearly dropped my keyboard. Why do I care about plagiarism? Why do I care about writers learning their business, and not simply their art?

    It’s truly a sad world we live in when people like Frey and Griggs are allowed to ply their dubious “trade” with nary a peep from the national media (Oprah notwithstanding), and when someone actually asks me in all seriousness “why I care” about such things. As I think everyone on this thread understands, plagiarism/hucksterism aren’t simply “ivory tower” problems. Unless we confront and condemn them head on (I love how “Griggs” has become a verb), nothing will change. You shouldn’t have to be a writer to understand that.

  72. this sounds like nothing so much as pyramid-scheme pushers who frequent college campuses trying to find the kids who don’t know much about the world, but have plenty of mommy and daddy’s money on hand.

  73. I gave this to my English department chair this afternoon. ;)

    A few weeks ago during a class break, I overheard one girl tell another, very proudly, that she had gotten her letter back from the copyright office and her (number) of poems were officially copyrighted, and that nobody could steal them when she submitted them, etc. First literal headdesk.

  74. Mythago@73: “On the other hand, law students aren’t having much luck suing their schools for being a little coy about the business end of things, and if they can’t get anywhere I imagine the MFA folks can breathe easy.”

    I didn’t say they’d be successful at doing it, just that it does involve legal liability issues that have to be considered when moving from a strictly writing program to one that takes on legal and business issues. To teach intellectual property contract law, you need someone who actually has that knowledge, not humanities professors. So while some MFA programs do it, it’s an additional thing that is not guaranteed in a MFA program, that has legal ramifications and reputation ramifications and requires extra staff, etc. Which again is why James Frey shouldn’t have been allowed within miles of any of these MFA classes. On the plus side, a lot of Frey’s contract is simply unenforceable, the non-compete clause particularly, because that’s a vague attempt at a Hollywood style arrangement that does not happen in book publishing.

    #75: Again an MFA program is not to prepare people for a publishing career. It is to help them as writers with their writing. What they then choose to do in writing — teacher, journalist, screenwriter, novelist, non-fiction writer, etc. — is not seen as the program’s job to determine. Even the programs that do offer some practical information about the publishing industry are also going to stress that there is no guarantee that any of their students will get published, because there’s no way for them to guarantee that. The programs are not an in to getting published, but are meant for developing your style, techniques, creativity, etc.

  75. Again an MFA program is not to prepare people for a publishing career. It is to help them as writers with their writing. What they then choose to do in writing — teacher, journalist, screenwriter, novelist, non-fiction writer, etc. — is not seen as the program’s job to determine.

    Right, but this Werner Von Braun approach is part of the problem; the program is, in theory, expecting that people who write will do something with that writing other than post it on their blogs or email it to their friends. i.e., that they will seek to publish their work in some form. The liability issue is pretty trivial to address. It really seems as though the programs are simply giving a well-bred shudder at the idea of teaching ‘trade school’ skills.

  76. #84: “Right, but this Werner Von Braun approach is part of the problem; the program is, in theory, expecting that people who write will do something with that writing other than post it on their blogs or email it to their friends. i.e., that they will seek to publish their work in some form.”

    Well no, that’s the issue — they really aren’t expecting their students to do anything with it and seek to get it published. Logically, if a person is in the novel writing part of the program and has to write a novel for his thesis to get his degree, you’d expect that person then to try and do something with it. But the program isn’t helping people sell novels; it’s helping people write them. You can then put it in a drawer if you like. It’s focused on developing and improving your art, not the commerce and what you’re paying for with a MFA is instruction in art, not a lucrative career.

    That doesn’t mean that they can’t supply that and as we’ve heard, some MFA programs do to one extent or another. And many MFA programs have kept up relationships with publishers and agents that may bear fruit for students. But all you are paying for officially in an MFA is writing instruction. If you want help with publishing, you can go to a writer’s conference that is industry focused and where you can pitch your work to agents or buy a guide book. If you’re writing a non-fiction book, you can take courses in writing a non-fiction book proposal, and so on. But that’s not what an MFA is. Which is again why Frey should not have been allowed to pitch his book packaging company at these programs.

    There are other kinds of MFA programs — sculptors and painters make art and they don’t get courses in how to deal with an agent or get a gallery showing. You can learn how to make artisan paper; doesn’t mean that they’ll teach you how to start a hand-crafted paper company. You can get a MFA in theater, learn how to design sets, costumes, act; doesn’t meant that they’ll teach you how to get a job in films. You may do all of those things, but that’s not what the masters degree is for. The primary role of masters and Ph.D. programs is to teach people how to teach and research, to become scholars. The MFA programs have more of an emphasis on hands on artistic creation in addition to scholarship, but it isn’t business school. But the reality is that there are a lot of predators out there, and some of them have legitimate connections like Frey, so in the future, a lot of these programs are going to have to move from pure scholarship to some basic business issues. But it’s a thorny issue. Whether a program does or does not teach business issues, though, Frey should never have been allowed to make his pitch on their turf. That was irresponsible.

  77. John, I happen to know of an MFA program that already does this, because I direct it: the Low Residency MFA program at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. We put a huge amount of importance on the business side of writing — both in prose and screenwriting — and have seminars and workshops on just this very thing. In fact, last residency we devoted an entire afternoon seminar and then one-on-one meeting time with the new loopholes related just to electronic rights and distribution. I think it’s incumbent on MFA programs to provide a backbone in the business of writing, so that’s just what we’ve done.

  78. There are other kinds of MFA programs — sculptors and painters make art and they don’t get courses in how to deal with an agent or get a gallery showing. You can learn how to make artisan paper; doesn’t mean that they’ll teach you how to start a hand-crafted paper company. You can get a MFA in theater, learn how to design sets, costumes, act; doesn’t meant that they’ll teach you how to get a job in films. You may do all of those things, but that’s not what the masters degree is for. The primary role of masters and Ph.D. programs is to teach people how to teach and research, to become scholars. The MFA programs have more of an emphasis on hands on artistic creation in addition to scholarship, but it isn’t business school. But the reality is that there are a lot of predators out there, and some of them have legitimate connections like Frey, so in the future, a lot of these programs are going to have to move from pure scholarship to some basic business issues. But it’s a thorny issue.

    Hm. I think it’s an issue that really shouldn’t have been an issue. For example, the PATP program at the University of Washington regularly had showcases for their actors in New York and Los Angeles, and regularly had lots of seminars and help with the business end of things; their whole mantra was that theirs was a program to create professional actors…and that includes agents and the business end of things.

    Similarly, while I think the main focus of an MFA should be on sharpening the craft, I think it’s a poor program that pays no attention to the trade part of the craft, whether it’s teaching or freelancing or whatever. If you’re going to be a Writer, by gum, you should be given the tools for it, whatever the venue.

  79. Well I think we’re pretty much all in agreement that it would be a good idea and as Tod Goldberg explained, some MFA programs are doing this. But it isn’t the traditional role of MFA programs, and so application of practical business science and contract terms is very uneven when it comes to creative writing graduate studies. If you don’t have that aspect to your program, then you shouldn’t have book packagers — even very famous, controversial book packagers who have an interesting view of truth in memoirs — coming in making business pitches to your classes. If you do, you shouldn’t have said book packager come in either because clearly it’s the exact opposite of what you would advise your students to do contractually. Students can search among the programs and find one that offers the most features to meet their needs. The problem comes from programs letting predators roam the halls and actively inviting those predators in just because they wrangled a movie deal with Steven Spielberg. It will be interesting to see in the wake of this New York Magazine article what Columbia does. If they apologize and say they’re making changes to their program and disassociate themselves from Frey and his prison contract, then that’s an improvement. If they simply say it’s not their problem, after they invited the guy in to con their students, then that sort of tells you that helping artists with their writing is not what their MFA program is about either.

  80. This is interesting, especially when talking about “top teir” universities, and the idea that these places are producing “good” writers. Doesnt part of being a good writer include understanding the business of writing? I am increasingly suprised at how often these programs are running off of reputation alone, without really providing anything practical for the writer. I am an MFA student at Chicago State University (which im not even sure makes the “top program” list), and we are required to take at least two courses in publishing in which we cover contracts, agents, etc, all with understanding that the MFA is basically a “hope i get published or get really lucky and find a teaching job” degree. I assumed it was standard practice. I agree that it definitely should be.

  81. As Tod Goldberg noted about our sister program in Palm Desert, the UCR MFA traditional program also has a class specifically devoted to this. There’s always some debate about what exactly should be covered and if it should be required, but we’re focused on making sure our writers leave with a realistic sense of the business as well as the art and craft.

  82. I agree 100% that every writer who aims for publication should educate themselves about the publishing industry. But everything you have said here apply equally well to all of those aspiring novelists who are not in MFA programs. In fact, not even aspiring novelists – I’ve recently heard of instances where experienced authors, who already have several published books, are still signing ridiculous contracts (especially now that ebook/digital rights are becoming so much more important).

    I am an MFA student (a so-called “mature” student) – and I’ve entered into the program with a lot of caution because it is so expensive. As far as I am concerned, it is an Arts program, and not a business program or life-preparedness program. Yes, all authors or aspiring authors should learn about the many aspects of the publishing business. However, I do not think it is the responsibility of the MFA program to teach that. (I also think all authors or aspiring authors should learn about building their platform, using social media, etc. – but I don’t think that that should be part of an Arts program either).

    I’ve learned about the publishing business first of all, by reading my early publishing contracts carefully: making sure I understood all the terms, and calling up other published authors for advice, to make sure the terms in my contract were standard industry terms and, if they weren’t, that I understood why. I did not just sign either of my previous book contracts; I negotiated them.

    And second of all, I have learned much more about the publishing business over this past year because of the amazing sources all over the internet: book publishers’ blogs, authors’ blogs, self-publishing blogs, marketing blogs. All of the info we need is out there.

    My MFA course is expensive enough. I do not want to have to pay more (or sacrifice some of my writing courses) to take a course about the publishing industry. Yes, any writer who plans to be published should learn this. (That’s part of the difference between an “aspiring” writer and a serious professional writer). But no one should force them into it. People who try to start a business because they have some idea, but cannot be bothered to learn about the business side of things, usually fail. Same with writing. There are plenty of opportunities out there to learn this stuff. Those who choose not to will pay the price, and then (hopefully) they will figure it out.

  83. Jacqueline Windh:

    “But everything you have said here apply equally well to all of those aspiring novelists who are not in MFA programs.”

    Which is irrelevant to this particular discussion, because we’re not talking about those folks, we’re talking about the ones in MFA programs (and the MFA programs). Moreover the fact that it applies to people outside MFA programs doesn’t mitigate the shortsightedness of MFA programs in not offering the instruction.

    “All of the info we need is out there.”

    This, however, is a very poor argument against offering a class on the subject. If you’re going to offer up that as a rationale for not having a class in the business/contracts, you’re implicitly arguing against an MFA degree for writers, since there’s nothing that an MFA offers that one could not, with a little digging, get elsewhere. Beyond that, of course, as many if not most MFA programs don’t offer a business class, you have no choice but to go elsewhere for the information. You’re making a virtue of a necessity.

    “My MFA course is expensive enough. I do not want to have to pay more (or sacrifice some of my writing courses) to take a course about the publishing industry.”

    I’m not aware of saying that such a course needs to be mandatory; I’m aware of saying that it should be offered. If people have the option but choose not to take it, fine. But just because you would not find a benefit in such a class does not argue such a class should not be offered, or that others would not find benefit in it.

  84. Please don’t think I am disagreeing with what I believe your main point is – I am surprised by how uneducated so many authors are about the business end of writing. I guess what I am wondering is why you feel talking about non-MFA authors is so irrelevant to the conversation

    For me, this difference between taking writing courses vs. business courses is that in writing you really do need the feedback of others. You can read all of the “how-to” stuff about writing, but you never really know whether you are achieving it without having intelligent critical readers. Whereas you can learn business-related facts online simply from reading; they do not require feedback or discussion.

    I’d be curious to see how many MFA students would take that business course if it was not mandatory. My suspicion is that, if they are not already seeking the free info out there, most are unlikely to choose to pay for it.

    Anyway, I am not trying to argue with you, only trying to enter into the discussion. I am honestly surprised at how many writers know pretty much nothing about the industry (yes, writing is an art – but if you intend to do it fulltime then you also have to treat it as a business!). I agree with most of that you said – other than that I would expand it to include writers who are not MFA students too.

  85. Part of the problem in terms of M.F.A.s and “the business of writing” is that most of the faculty at most M.F.A. programs publish what marketing folk call “literary” fiction and “creative non-fiction,” and poetry. These are generally not giant moneymakers for the faculty, though there are, as always, some notable exceptions, they are exceptions, and out of the ordinary.

    Mostly, academics in English programs and M.F.A programs in writing, do not write for money. They do not get advances; they do not sell through and get royalties. With few exceptions, they do not make lots of money from textbooks, or fiction, or poetry or “creative non fiction.” The support for writing mainstream genre fiction in M.F.A.s is still a but unusual, though much welcomed.

    When you server on hiring committees, as I have, and you look at c. v.s you see books listed, usually quite innocently, from Columbia University Press, or Chicago right along with PublishAmerica, or Strategic Book Publishing. Quite often M.F.A. faculty really don’t know about commercial vs academic/scholarly publishing. They may think it’s normal to pay for typesetting, for instance.

    Just about every grad student who files a theses or dissertation in the U.S. this spring will receive email from LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing AG & Co. KG offering to publish their dissertation for a fee. Many will jump at it, thinking that it’s a legitimate offer. Many of their chairs and committee members will tell them it’s an opportunity; in fact, it is just another vanity press ( Neither faculty or students are typically aware that this kind of thing–like Frey’s packaging scheme–earn money, or fame, or tenure for the student.

    So yes, M.F.A. programs absolutely should include a course on the business of writing, even if they have to have outside faculty teach it, because the local faculty don’t actually earn substantive income from book sales, and therefore haven’t a clue themselves.

    It’s also worth noting that M.F.A.s are not a way to get a tenure-track teaching gig; that too is a myth, one easily disproved by looking at the ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    They aren’t asking for M.F.A.s. Even M.F.A. programs aren’t asking for M.F.A.s. They’re looking for publications first, and degrees second, or third.

  86. I agree that business savvy is crucial to one’s survival as an adult, nevermind as a writer. However, we are talking about the cohort at Columbia, a school that financially savages any prospective writer without a trust fund or a rich spouse. I’m a recent MFA grad, and while my program did not go out of its way to teach financial realities to students, it did offer us free tuition and a fellowship sufficient to live on. And I ended up at a program like mine rather than a program like Columbia because I am an individual experienced with budgeting and the realities of making a living. No MFA degree is a good financial investment.

    It’s unfortunate that Frey was able to so glibly prey on the naive. While I take the point that business acumen can be taught, I’m not so sure about common sense. Good writers are critical thinkers, and critical thinkers should be capable of reading a contract. The goal of quick publication is so very short-sighted, and I remain grateful that I did not study in an environment that encouraged trivial publications as a path to the writing life. My program, rather, has advised those of us still finishing novels to get a rather mindless 9 to 5 job, and to avoid the strain and poverty of adjunct teaching. At least it’s sensible advice.

    Let’s not portray every MFA student as a fool. I’ve had agents offer to read my unfinished novel, and I’ve declined. I don’t believe it is to my benefit to enter into a relationship with an agent while I’m still an unpublished writer with an unfinished book. When my book has been thoroughly polished, I’ll have far more scope to select the agent that can do the most for me, and I’ll be free of premature meddling with the text.

  87. anonymous:

    “However, we are talking about the cohort at Columbia, a school that financially savages any prospective writer without a trust fund or a rich spouse.”

    And, what? Screw them, they deserve what they get? Or (which I suspect was rather more intentionally your point) that those in less pricy MFA programs are somehow inoculated against the lure and temptation of publication, because they happen not to be paying (or at least paying less) for their degree? To say that I am skeptical of such an assertion would be putting it mildly.

    “Good writers are critical thinkers, and critical thinkers should be capable of reading a contract.”

    Written like someone primed to step into a very large hole, contract-wise. Critical thinkers are perfectly capable of reading a contract; they’re not necessarily capable of understanding it, because unless they know about the state of the market, what contractual elements are standard and which are unusual, and have access to other contract-specific information, they’re not necessarily competent to evaluate whether or not the contract and terms they are presented are a good deal or not. This is true whether or not they are at Columbia or some other school entirely. And it’s not about “common sense,” since the intricacies of contractual point are neither common, nor necessarily make sense out of their specific context.

    “No MFA degree is a good financial investment.”

    This is likewise nonsense. An MFA can be a perfectly good financial investment if the person acquiring it has an interest in making it so, has a reasonable amount of acumen and is not ignorant of the financial world, both specifically relating to publishing and academia, and then also in the larger scope.

    It’s nice that you’re patting yourself on the back for not having gone to Columbia and avoiding what you see are the pitfalls of premature publication. What you’ve written here does not convince me that you’re going to be in any better position than a Columbia MFA grad, however, other than the state of your loans. Might I suggest a nice course on the financial and business aspects of the publishing industry.

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