Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

The economics of writing: more and more it’s pay-to-play

dollar sign
Here’s an interesting piece in Literary Hub about how the literary world is pretty much closed to those who can’t afford the price of admission.

I’ve had this belief for a long time, considering, only in part, my own experience. As the writer Lorraine Berry points out in the piece, there’s been a general policy — usually unspoken — among agents and editors that it’s efficient to filter submissions through the MFA net. That is, if you don’t have one you aren’t going to be taken seriously.

Let’s face it, though. Getting an MFA isn’t cheap. Maybe there are grant and loan packages available, but you still have to put your life on hold for a couple of years and invest in the process. Which, incidentally, might not pay off like you think. It’s a risk. But it’s much less of a risk if you or your family have the cash to prop you up. Berry quotes a gatekeeper type who says the MFA indicates not a certain level of talent but a high level of dedication.

I call BS on that one.

Likewise, New York publishing is the be all and end all when it comes to careers in literature. Working in the business can also be a smooth entrée to getting a book published, so lots of young writers seek out internships in the business. I should say unpaid internships. That sure filters out the riffraff, eh? Who can work their asses off for no money but somehow manage to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn or even Jersey? The internships are — I’m wagering — mostly filled by well-connected candidates coming from good private schools. Their trust funds pay the rent.

I hope someone has some anecdotes that go against this grain.

Just last week I ran across a job ad for an associate editor position at an online literary magazine based in New York. (I won’t name any names, because I think there’s got to be a mistake here somewhere.) The job is part-time at 12 to 16 hours a week, and the “salary” is $500 a month. That’s per month, not per week (I checked). Breaks down to $7.81/hour at 16 hours a week, but minimum wage in New York is going up to $9.00/hour in 2016.

Say it with me: It’s a labor of love.

Read Berry’s article and see if you don’t agree. And ask yourself if maybe it’s always been this way, but in bootstraps America we’ve been led to believe that the only obstacles we have in front of us are the ones we put there ourselves.

I’ll call BS on that one too…


Town Father 3D copy


17 comments on “The economics of writing: more and more it’s pay-to-play

  1. islandeditions
    December 15, 2015

    The promise of publication is how the MFA schools have managed to attract the vast number of students they do. Then there’s always teaching in those same schools that’s an option, once you’ve graduated and haven’t been able to set up your own career quite yet as a published best-selling author. (Aside from selling gift items intended for writers, I still believe the only way to make money in this business is by “providing services to writers” and that includes the proliferation of MFA programs out there.)

    And I am living proof that a life spent working in publishing and being extremely well-connected in the business does not give you a leg up when it comes to your own writing. But we’ve discussed all this before, Kevin, so you know where I’m coming from.

    What it all boils down to with regards to the article is that the “promise” of a fast track to publication and fame and fortune is what the MFA programs are all about. Yes, some of those programs produce great authors who publish successful books, but if the agents and publishers are only considering MFA grads then they are missing a vast number of fine authors – authors like you, Kevin – who are writing incredibly well, but are not receiving the attention you deserve.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 15, 2015

      It’s become quite the cash cow over the years, hasn’t it? Back when I decided NOT to pursue an MFA, it wasn’t seen as such a necessity. In fact, my undergrad mentor told me that if I didn’t want to teach writing, the MFA might not be the best approach. Within about five years of that, I heard a New York editor say that any writer without an MFA would have a very difficult time getting through.

      Nobody ever said this is fair. But it seems to be the way it is…

      • islandeditions
        December 15, 2015

        The agents and publishers and editors are allowing the MFA programs do for them the heavy-lifting work of finding new talent.

      • Kevin Brennan
        December 15, 2015

        Absolutely! Editors are now more like marketing executives, with an eye on trends and waves. They expect perfect manuscripts and minimal pre-pub costs.

        Makes you yearn for the 1950s. At least in publishing. The rest of it, not so much… 😜

      • islandeditions
        December 15, 2015

        And Maxwell Perkins …

  2. kingmidget
    December 15, 2015

    I say BAH! to the whole MFA thing for a different reason — they are the assembly line of writing. And I generally am not a fan of the way they teach it. I subscribed to Glitter Train for several years and finally stopped my subscription because i was tired of reading stories that seemed to be voiced by the same kind of tired, enigmatic, skeptical narrators — and almost all of the writers are MFAs. And the stories frequently went nowhere at a glacial pace. It’s like they’re taught to write stories filled with a lot of nothing. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and there’s more than one way to write a story.

    I’m sure that connections help, but I’ve become convinced that it’s all a matter of luck. Having the right story hit the right agent and then the right publisher at just the right moment. Off by a couple of seconds and you’re toast for a long time.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 15, 2015

      I agree completely. Funny you mention Glimmer Train too, because I must have submitted 20 stories to them and never got as much as a “keep writing” note. It was clear that I wasn’t writing what they were looking for, which is just what you describe. Yuppie ennui.

      It does boil down to timing. Timing and connections. If I see one more novel by the child of a famous writer/musician/businessman I’m gonna puke!

      • pinklightsabre
        December 17, 2015

        Yuppie ennui! Hey, I think that’s my calling! I’m so depressed by my misplaced fortune it’s got me reading Chekhov, fantasizing I’m a peasant.

  3. curtisbausse
    December 15, 2015

    I dare say writing can be taught, up to a point. Or learnt the hard way. Requires commitment in both cases – without it, the MFA grad gets nowhere. It’s actually another of those U.S. trends, like Halloween and Black Friday, that the UK feels it has to adopt and France feels it has to resist. I wasn’t even sure what the letters stood for till I looked them up: Mold Flow Analysis. Or is it Measure of Functional Abstraction?

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 15, 2015

      Ha, I wish it stood for Mold Flow Analysis! In fact, I think it will from now on — at least in my head.

      I think you make a good point about the U.S.-ness of the MFA. Everything over here is about making money, so of course academia had to find a way to exploit the young creatives. I wish the UK hadn’t followed suit. I also wish there were no McDonalds in London!

      • curtisbausse
        December 16, 2015

        Ah, well even France has capitulated with McDonalds. So far, avoided the MFA burgers – with a recent Nobel Lit to show for it.

  4. John W. Howell
    December 15, 2015

    I love the Glimmer Train discussion. That outfit is a joke. Not only can’t you tell what the hell they are asking in terms of submissions but those that get chosen are unreadable by the general population. I never gave the MFA gate a thought until now. Damn no wonder my stuff gets rejected. I still think my MBA choice was a good one.

  5. 1WriteWay
    December 15, 2015

    “At the same time, the creation of literature demands a certain honesty about one’s experiences, that we might narrow the gaps between our fellow human beings.” Berry’s essay really resonated with me, given my own upbringing as rural working class. I think her essay goes deeper than the usual discussion about MFAs and NYC literary scene. I don’t think MFAs even existed when I was first going to college, but there still was that sense that I didn’t “belong” among the literary class because I didn’t come from an enlightened, highly educated people with money. People could seem interested in me until they saw where I came from. In some ways, I was lucky (point for King Midget) in that my earliest college experiences in a literary guild were positive and supportive. As it was, the mentor of the guild (the late Hazel Swartz) lived in my own small town and had even been taught to drive by my neighbor. But we lived in a closed world, and when I left to try and realize my dreams, the disadvantages of my class hit me smack in the face. As Berry points out, for many students, the $$ for additional degrees or internships or workshops just isn’t there. And if you don’t have $$, no one wants anything to do with you. So we continue to be beset with crap like O’Reilly “Killing” series (which I do hope at some point includes “Killing O’Reilly”) or not-Pultizer-Prize-worthy tomes like The Goldfinch.
    Sorry for my rant. I’ll go back to work now 😉

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 15, 2015

      No apology necessary, Marie! Your rants are always welcome here. They mirror my own, matter of fact.

      I always think back to one of the themes of “This Boy’s Life,” where Tobias was being groomed to go to a good prep school so he could get into an Ivy League college. His father knew the kid had no prayer without that — connections are everything. The sad fact is, most of us working class kids don’t get a shot at that track, in part because we’re not guided that way.

      I could go on and on…

  6. Pingback: Apropos of Nothing #MondayBlogs #MerryChristmas #HappyHolidays | 1WriteWay

Chime in

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on December 15, 2015 by in Publishing and tagged , , .
%d bloggers like this: