Sunday, 16 February 2014

Where are the keys to my Porsche?

There is so much money sloshing around in the writing world right now. If you laid all the people on creative writing courses in the country end-to-end, the line would stretch to – oh, round the world, probably. (Well, not quite: assuming an average height of 6 feet, there’d need to be 13,147,200 of them to get all the way round. But we’re heading there.) And then if you add up the fees they are paying, and add to that the salaries of their teachers, you’d get a little dizzy. You’d need a lie-down, to think about this.

Quite aside from the arguments about whether or not you can teach writing, it’s a good thing – no? – that so many people are seriously involved in writing, and are being introduced to writers they might never otherwise have come across, and are learning stuff, and are making friendships and connections. And if you’re reading this on Mars, you’re probably thinking that, given this expanding constituency, publishers are competing with ever higher advances to sign up the most talented writers coming out of the courses, and that both writers and publishers are driving around in Porsches.

So where are the keys to my Porsche? I seem to have mislaid them. Advances are low (a number of publishers don’t pay any). Mainstream publishers are risk-averse. There’s a range of small presses but most are tiny and can’t afford to pay staff, let alone themselves. Given the internet, books are a hard sell. Bookshops are closing. Where are the bright young writers coming out of the courses going to get their books published? Where, and how, are they going to live?

This post was prompted by recent attention to the housing crisis (the piece by James Meek in the LRB , a full-page review of a book on this in Saturday’s Guardian). I’m not suggesting any publishing ‘crisis’, if there is one, is in any way comparable to the housing mess, which is vastly more serious, but it would be good to have some reasonably authoritative analysis of the situation. At present I doubt we even have the basic information to make one. Neilsen records annual book sales, but the figures don’t include most books sold at public readings, nor books sold from small-press websites, nor (I think) the sales from Amazon marketplace or AbeBooks, etc. Sales from second-hand shops, of course not. Industry ‘experts’ make generalisations based on those figures. No one, as far as I know, except in a random way that includes only certain respondents, is recording income to writers. Most of the information that people have, and make decisions by, is anecdotal or hearsay.

Examples of questions I wouldn’t mind knowing the answers to (and which might be of interest to anyone contemplating a creative writing course). What’s a standard mainstream advance for a first novel (i.e., a figure not skewed by the occasional way-over-the-top one)? A poetry book? Standard mainstream sales for a first novel? Do reviews sell books? (Well, do they? If so, which reviews and where?) What does sell books? How on earth do agents make money from literary (as opposed to cookery) writers? How many people work in publishing for less than the minimum wage? (Interns, obviously – how many? – but not just those.) How much do commissioning editors get paid? (Why, why, don't mainstream publishers reply to emails?) If you don’t want to self-publicise, are you still allowed to publish? (Well yes, by me, but the overall anecdotal answer seems to be no.) Does a creative writing qualification (BA, MA, PhD) actually count for anything, make any difference at all? Point here being, X will tell you one thing and Y another, but very few people have any idea. We work blind.

All that money I mentioned that’s sloshing around – I know the fees for the courses are largely debt money, but it’s still money (Daily Telegraph headline, 4 January 2014: ‘Government to sell £12bn of student loans’). And of course for the fees of up to several thousand pounds for many of the private courses – Faber Academy, Guardian Masterclasses, etc – the government doesn’t lend, you have to pay your own way. Social selection. (Many of the courses, public and private, have on their websites a tab labelled ‘success stories’ or similar, in which they detail former students’ publishing achievements. Fair enough: this is advertising. Without any information about how much financial reward a first-time-published writer might expect, it tends towards the misleading.) Point here being, zero of this money is going to either writers or publishers.

Meanwhile the Arts Council stands on the sidelines, hamstrung by their own criteria for dishing out money. For the regular funding they contribute to a very small number of publishers which have proved themselves over time, all praise. Regarding the odd thousand pounds or so that they disburse to individual writers, publishers, festivals – what’s all that about? Tinkering. Bringing back the Net Book Agreement, or a version of that, would actually make a difference to the whole book culture, but neither they – nor any political party – is interested. Point here being, lip service is being paid, but absolutely no more than that.

Point overall being, vast amounts of money are being shifted around in the cause of good writing. Most of this money is going to the universities offering creative writing courses (which are cheaper to run than, say, art courses, which require, or used to, the provision of studio space). Neither writers nor publishers are benefiting from this (the writers who teach the courses, yes, and good for them, but the assumption that writers either can or should teach, which is what the current system is based on, is disrespect to writers). There is a disconnect between academia and actual publishing (getting an occasional agent or editor in to speak to the students is just token). There is no authoritative information available about the economics of either writing or publishing. Publishing continues to be, as it always has been, a slapdash, inefficient business, and that may be its saving grace.

PS. Suggestions. Back to the NBA. Repeat: back to the NBA. A levy of 10% on creative writing course fees to a fund for publishers (to be paid by the universities; the students are quite enough in debt already). Actually that smacks far too much of admin, so cancel. Muddle through. Child-minders are regulated, loan sharks not, publishers not.


Nicholas Murray said...

As ever a shrewd, sharp, informed view of the scene but I wouldn't look to the Guardian for any objective assessment (Q. do even they make any money from the high fees they charge for their burgeoning portfolio of courses?) What disconcerts me most about the current writing course explosion is that it is a kind of snake oil industry, taking advantage of people's ambitions to "be a writer" when most won't be (in the published sense). Supply is exceeding demand and ask any serious literary pubilisher how many aspiring writers are actually buying the books that other people write.

Rosemary Badcoe said...

I'm not convinced the NBA would really help - surely people would buy through the internet from companies that are based overseas? I don't know how you make poetry sell - well, I think it does sell, it's just that the market is hard to target. There's a great deal of grass-roots poetry being written and, to some extent, bought.

Rory Waterman said...

Nicholas, I don't know of a single university-based creative writing course that wilfully takes advantage of people's ambitions to 'be a writer' - any more than I know of any English literature degrees taking advantage of people's ambitions to pursue academic careers in English literature. And there are other reasons for people to study creative writing modules or courses.

charles said...

Rory, thank you, and for your comments on NJ’s Facebook thread. I admit that I’ve harboured some old-school assumptions about CW courses – that, for instance, students sign up for them not only in the expectation that they will develop their writing skills but in the hope that that their writing will one day be published. The courses, I’m beginning to understand, are about more than that. (Though in most cases that hope is surely still in there, in the mix?) It seems clear that some of us outside the CW courses are ignorant. Just as, I’d suggest, some people outside the nitty-gritty of publishing are ignorant of how in detail it works, or doesn’t. There’s a disjunct between the money going into CW and the money going into getting books published, distributed. (Maybe the two have nothing have to do with each other? But surely they do.) There’s a disjunct between academia and non-academia. Most discussions of the whole literary world are based on information that’s partial or anecdotal – and the lack of authoritative information is part of the problem.

Rory Waterman said...

Thanks, Charles.

There's a difference between BA and postgraduate students here. Most of my BA English with Creative Writing students do not think they are on the road to literary superstardom. Some harbour literary ambitions beyond the course, and I'm glad they do. For the vast majority, it is a valued aspect of their education.

MA Creative writing students tend to have more concentrated literary ambitions, in my experience. They are also far fewer in number: we only take in a handful each year. Many of them do go on to publish - and some make a lot of money, as it happens. They are not being misled, and they are not all of a type. Most of them just want to be better writers. They get a postgraduate degree whilst doing something they love in an environment that leaves them pregnant with ideas, and they learn a lot. such courses aren't to be maligned, any more than they are to be heralded as the only viable route to seeing your name in print.