During my final semester at USC, I took a course called “The Business of the Business” with Paula Brancato. Paula is, I think, mainly a writer/producer/entrepreneur. She had an MBA from Harvard Business School, and she’s a small, attractive woman with a quick bob and big, dark eyes. She’s both insightful and incisive.
When I took that course, it was small; by the end of the semester, I think there were only a few students still in it. Part of it was, I think, that the course had been structurally changed; rather than meeting once per week, on a weeknight, like most other courses in the MPW program, we had to truncate the schedule so that we met one Friday evening and all of one Saturday one weekend per month. Paula traveled back and forth to attend.
To back up just a bit, one of the main reasons I chose USC among scores of MFA programs I considered was that it wasn’t an MFA. While it offered fiction workshops for beginning and advanced writers alike, it also offered courses that concerned themselves with publishing as a business endeavor. Each workshop I took, at least to start, not only got us to produce two solid short stories during a brief summer semester but also required us to research markets and write query letters and submit letter and story to editors for publication. I’m sure a lot of my colleagues got their first sales that way.
I didn’t. My first sale was directly to readers.
During that first semester, when I took the introductory Survey of Professional Writing course, I studied non-fiction with Madelyn Cain-Inglese and fiction with Rachel Resnick, both of whom were formative for me in entirely different ways. When I queried publications that semester, I got discouraged, not because of the rejection but because of who was doing the rejection. When I got online to do my research, you see, to find appropriate publications to query that might run something I’d written, what I found were a whole lot of extraordinarily tiny so-called “literary” magazines who paid either in “exposure” or complimentary copies of the issues in which one was published. A few managed to offer $25 per page or even, at the outside, a couple hundred bucks, but the majority of them couldn’t. For reasons of overhead and maintenance; the majority of them were labors of love contributed to and distributed by people who weren’t so interested in payment.
Payment came from the biggies. Esquire and GQ, Playboy and The New Yorker. I’ll be honest, though; I’ve never actually read a Playboy (I’m not one of those people who claims to read it for the articles. Maybe I should), and I hesitate to admit The New Yorker is generally too highbrow for my tastes. I’ve submitted to them, of course; rejections from The New Yorker are probably among the first we get, because we have such high hopes for ourselves when just starting out and so rarely realize the reality of the landscape. As for Esquire and GQ, both seem to have changed their formats over the years, and lately they’ve felt less like magazines than like print versions of . . . well, I’m not sure, to be honest. But I feel like they’ve lost the cohesion they once had. Issues seem more fragmented than they used to. Maybe it’s a design thing.
That still stands. Those are still the biggies. Those are still the hardest to break into.
Don’t get me wrong; I still try. “For Cynthia” got an ink rejection from Mike Curtis at The Atlantic Monthly once upon a time. Said he liked it but, he was sorry to say, it wasn’t for them.
I was just glad he liked it. That was cool.
When I was querying for those classes, I ran up against that wall. It was frustrating. Not just to meet rejection but also not to be able to find a market, a venue.
Back then, I had a blog on MySpace that managed a decent readership. So, when I got done writing stories I was really proud of, after I realized the market was so dauntingly small and, well, weird (not to mention: subjective), I decided to take them to that readership. That was when I published my collection.
Doing so was liberating, but also daunting. Not just because of the stigma that was then associated with publishing independently, without corporate sponsorship.
There was so much to do. Writing and editing and proofreading. Layout and design. I’d been an editor for three years, so I knew something about all those things and had experience with them, but it’s so different editing something you’re getting paid to as opposed to putting together something you’re going to put your name on.
It took a while, but it was worth it. I remain happy with the result.
The result was not just the book; it was also my entrance into publishing.
I really think that, to really understand publishing (and the problems with it), you have to do it, and be in it. It wasn’t until I put my name on it and created Exciting Books that I understood the problems concerning market and limitations mentioned above were only just the start of it. They were mainly the barriers to entry, not the actual barriers of actually doing it. The actual barriers of actually doing it were very different, I started to realize.
Some, I think, came from publishing independently.
Others, I think, came from publishing at all.
They were things like marketing and promotions, reviews and revenue, cost and conception. Exposure and attention. Talking is great, but all the talking into the void in the world is still just talking into the void.
Which was why I took those classes, first The Literary Marketplace and then The Business of the Business. And after I graduated USC, why I looked around and thought, man, what I really needed was an MBA. I’d gotten a lot better at writing at USC, to the degree that I had to revise much of The Prodigal Hour after graduation solely because the second half, which I wrote while taking a fiction workshop with Janet Fitch, was substantially better than the first half.
It wasn’t difficult, though, to see that the business I had just gotten into, the industry I had just gotten a foot in the door of, had already changed substantially, and might be about to become utterly unrecognizable to those who had been doing it before. Even as I took the Literary Marketplace, even as I took the Business of the Business, I knew everything I was learning was going to soon become outmoded.
A lot of the Literary Marketplace, for example, focused on format. Mass-market and trade paperbacks, hardcovers . . . I’m not sure we even touched digital formats. The differences between ePub and Amazon’s proprietary formats and PDFs, all of which are ideas with which I think authors need now be familiar. Especially as Kindle and iPad and nook will probably ultimately supplant at least mass-market paperbacks, and perhaps even trade. Which is not to say books will ever cease to exist, but the analog versus digital/book versus screen debate always neglects people may want both. I, for one, would prefer to buy only books I’ve loved and wish to save, wish to keep on my bookshelf. I don’t need a room full of books I’ve been disappointed by; for those I’ll have an e-reader, and from it I will delete them entirely with no regret whatsoever.
Like changing the channels on a television or clicking away from a website. No remorse.
The most major problem with taking those courses and then doing an MBA, however, is that it changed everything. Because once I started to understand business, I started to realize how little sense publishing, as a business model and as an industry, seems to make.
But I think that’s the next post.
- Twenty under Forty
- All the Sense Publishing Doesn’t Make