Writing Business by Catherine Czerkawska

I’ve just spent half an hour browsing through university and further education college creative writing courses across the UK. They made interesting reading, mainly because – with all the benefit of 20/20 hindsight – I can see one glaring omission in the middle of all the exciting promises that students will explore and develop their literary intentions, examine their creative practice, experiment with form and - just occasionally - ‘become employable.’ You can spend up to £9000 a year in fees and that’s without all the other expenses involved for three or four years in order to ‘improve your critical awareness' of how you can get your work published or produced.

          I can dimly remember a time when – as a young arts graduate, struggling to make a career as a playwright, and then as a novelist – I might have welcomed the opportunity to study creative writing at postgraduate level. I can still see the attraction. No such courses were available back then and instead, I did a Masters in something called Folk Life Studies – hardly more useful in terms of employment opportunities, although it has certainly helped with background research for plays and fiction over the years. Not that I'm a believer in all university courses being focused on employment. Quite the opposite, really. I'm a great believer in the general first degree, whether it's arts or maths and science related. How can you know what you want to do until you know what the possibilities are?

          But these were being punted as vocational courses, probably because of the current political fashion for discounting learning for its own sake. And you know what was almost totally absent from them? In almost none of these writing courses could I find the acknowledgement (or even the awareness and perhaps that’s the heart of the problem) that somebody contemplating a career as a novelist, poet or playwright might need a good working knowledge of how to start up and run a small business.

          If you want to write wholly for love, then good for you. There is a part of me that writes mostly for the love of what I do. But here’s the problem. If – as an academic institution - you’re going to run creative writing  courses costing many thousands of pounds, then you should at least be prepared to tell your students that they have about as much chance of making the minimum wage, let alone a living wage by ‘being published’ as they would if they bought a couple of lottery tickets every week for the next three years. Even now with all the self publishing opportunities on offer, the odds are stacked against them until they have amassed a reasonable body of work. And that could take a while.

          So why not teach your students about writing as a business as well? Alongside the modules devoted to the craft of writing, give them the tools to decide which of their skills they might be able to monetise and which they might want to practise for love alone. Point out that if the balance of their creative work lies in the ‘love alone’ category, they are going to have to find another way to pay the bills. No shame in that. The real shame lies in pretending otherwise.
          Above all, teach them about being self employed, keeping receipts and filing tax returns. Tell them what they can claim as legitimate business expenses and what they can’t.
          Insist that they learn about cash flow and the need to cost out their time properly. About the harsh truth that turnover isn’t the same thing as profit. About the fact that if, as a self employed freelance, they do a freebie for somebody that involves being away from their desk for a day or two, they are actually losing money in a way that nobody on salary ever will be by dedicating a couple of days of their genuinely free time to some favourite project.

          They will need to know about National Insurance contributions, and pensions and if and when to employ an accountant. They need to know about setting up a small business bank account, making a business plan and bank loans for micro businesses. And sources of funding for various projects and how to apply for them.
          They need to know not just how to find an agent, but to decide whether they really need an agent who may be London based and pretty much uninterested in the kind of small publishing company which might be a good fit for a writer who wants to be published rather than to self-publish, or who wants to juggle the two as a ‘hybrid writer.’
          They need to discuss whether they might be better not using an agent at all (and certainly not wasting years of their lives looking for one) and what the alternatives are. They need to know a bit about copyright law in the UK and elsewhere, about plagiarism and piracy and balancing the need to be wary with the need to be totally realistic about both. They need to know about real options for self publishing and new forms of vanity publishing and the difference between the two. About commissioning an editor and a cover artist and where the sources of information for such things are. And identifying and building a brand, and managing their promotion and publicity. Especially about managing their promotion and publicity which they’ll be expected to do to a greater or lesser extent, even if they are published in the traditional way.

          If they really don’t want to go down the self publishing route, and even if they are among the lucky few who get an agent and a book deal right away, they still (and possibly even more vitally) need to realise that they are going to be self employed, and therefore running a small business and they need to have some knowledge of what that entails.

          I found courses offering just this aspect of managing a small creative business, but very few of them were creative writing courses. They were all to do with web development, video games, music, digital art and design. They were well aware of the need for a modicum of business sense in a changing creative environment and saw no shame in it, saw no shame in advising students that they might have to learn to manage their work and their time to suit themselves. I began to wonder if it was because the people running these courses had business experience, whereas the people teaching creative writing – many of them undoubtedly fine writers - had so often come through the traditional literary publishing route and saw it as somehow shameful to consider business and literature in the same breath.

          Even when you write for love, there comes a time when you have to take business decisions – many of them involving the need to manage your time and the remuneration for that time. You can try paying your central heating bills with fine literary intentions, but I’ve a feeling you might run into trouble.

          It may be that with a little business sense it would be a whole lot easier for writers to organise their working lives so that they have the best of both worlds. It isn’t even as simple as the ‘write for love, publish for money’ dictum. It’s more complicated than that. These days, it may involve some combination of writing for love and for money, publishing in various ways and collaborating where you choose to collaborate. Or not, where it’s better to go it alone.There are no hard and fast rules. But there is plenty of information, and its what our students need. I just wonder how many of them are getting it?

Catherine Czerkawska


Lee said…
I have no idea what these creative writing courses entail, but since most future writers will end up not making their living from fiction, perhaps they should also be introduced to all the other sorts of professional writing out there. Or is this also included in such courses?
Nick Green said…
Such good points that words fail me. One needs to be at least as good a business person as one is a writer, in order to make a living at it. Which is perhaps one of the reasons why I don't!

I don't think I'd have been rash enough to opt for a creative writing degree even in those long-lost days of free tuition AND student grants for living costs. Even in a comparative utopia, I was at heart a realist.
Susan Price said…
I second both Lee and Nick. I think this is such a good post, Catherine.

I learned the hard way - starting at 18 - about self-employed NI payments, 'Small Claims Exemption', Accounts, tax returns - and about how very, very little help you're entitled to as a self-employed small business proprietor, even if you've paid a lot in tax during the good years.

I'm not at all sure that 'creative writing' can be taught, but a solid grounding in running a small business certainly can, and would be incredibly useful.
Glad you agree so far, Nick and Sue. And Lee, that's a very good question. There must be some courses that do offer modules in this kind of thing, but maybe somebody out there will let us know. They're not obvious. Although I had a quick gallop through various online course prospectuses when I was writing this,(and found very little of a practical nature) the last time I looked at this kind of thing in any great detail was when my son was looking at courses but that was about ten years ago. What struck me then was how very much out of date even the journalism courses were, with their talk of newsrooms and jobs in an industry that was already changing beyond all recognition. I hope they've changed and improved over the past decade. I feel that basic self employment skills are at least transferable! Most writers I know spend some of their working lives being employed and self employed at the same time, or running a business on the side.
Lee said…
Susan, I'm not sure creative writing can be taught either. Here's the inimitable Joseph Epstein on the subject: 'After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned...'


Link: http://www.newcriterion.com/articleprint.cfm/Heavy-sentences-7053
Bill Kirton said…
Brilliant, Catherine. An excellent template for any university course designers who genuinely desire their courses to be vocational rather than pay lip service to the idea. I know your stress is on the essential practical skills needed but it also highlights the worrying gap that's so often evident between the hermetic world of academia and the lives lived by the rest of us.
Al Hartastair said…
As is popularly agreed, most people have at least one good novel in them. If this is true then surely the creative writing course should be embarked on as a means to self fulfilment.
Not every form of learning should be viewed as a means to financial gain.
Kathleen Jones said…
Catherine, I was cheering all the way through! Someone had to say it.
But the fact is that most of the people going through these creative writing MAs are only going on to teach creative writing themselves - it's a self-perpetuating cycle. I became disillusioned with the whole process during the years I taught it in universities. I'm with Bill on this one.
glitter noir said…
Wonderful post, Catherine. And it came along at just the right time, since I'd decided recently: in my own three-way tug of war between Accountant, Priest and Entertainer, the latter two alone were actively engaged. I'd come up with a plan for balance. And this post inspires me. Cheers.
Lydia Bennet said…
Top post Catherine. It has inspired me to do a.version of a post I had planned before amazon helped with us tax exemption. MA creative writing courses can be.v.helpful but many expect five figure advances and film deals as a right.
True. And I suppose just occasionally one or two DO get the advance and the film deal.To be fair, a number of my writer friends manage to combine a successful writing career with a full time teaching career but they are few and far between. It seems as though the considerable demands of the academic world these days make large creative writing projects quite difficult. I've absolutely nothing against people doing creative writing modules for self fulfilment although I would argue that there are much cheaper and far less prescriptive ways of doing it: some excellent week long Arvon courses, for instance, that give you a lot of information in a short but intensive time, several days of tutorials, one to one consultations and some helpful feedback.
julia jones said…
Gulp, I have just been asked by Essex University "employability" co-ordinator to go and talk with students about their publishing options. I cannot think of anything I'm less suited to do so am procrastinating by sending a link to this blog post instead!
Oh help! I'm going to talk to Creative Writing Students at Glasgow Uni next week, about the benefits of joining the Society of Authors (considerable, as far as I'm concerned!) Maybe I'll tell them about this post as well!
Stroppy Author said…
This is indeed information that creative writing students need if they plan to support themselves from writing, and it's information I do give my students. I have also given a lecture to Essex MA CW students on some of it, when I was RLF Fellow there. But - this kind of practical business advice is just as relevant to musicians and actors and is not part of those courses either. It's also the sort of info you can get for free (or cheaply) from local enterprise agencies and although it would be nice if universities could offer some support, I'm not sure it is the best use of the £9000 a year. Personally, I think telling them the basics and pointing them towards info elsewhere would be better. You can hardly examine CW students in principles of running a small business. You must examine them on creative writing, which is what they are there to learn. It is a course in writing, not a course on how to live as a writer - big difference.

I do absolutely agree that they should have a few sessions on the reality of the job and not have their dreams of big advances and film deals unrealistically sustained, though.
I think you can and should examine students on the principles of running a small business and marketing. And these days musicians and actors are taught this kind of thing on many courses as are actors. To be honest, I have grave doubts over whether you can (or even should) examine people on creative writing. When I was working as an RLF fellow, I had students coming to me occasionally with creative projects as part of my regular one-to-one advice sessions. I was always telling them to 'go away and play with' whatever piece of work they were presenting - and it disturbed me tremendously that they so often replied that they couldn't do that, because they had to 'get it right.' But it DID explain to me why I would often note, when attending readings, the 'sameness' of so much of the work that was presented, as though it was indeed conforming to some notion of pared down 'rightness'. It was the untaught, raw, frequently wordy and undoubtedly 'wrong' work that so often stood out for me.
Stroppy Author said…
I agree about the way creative writing is taught, and don't personally think there is much benefit in a CW degree at all. My students are Americans (mostly) who come for a single term in Cambridge and have a crash course in CW, and we do include info on being a writer and we most certainly don't try to push them in any particular creative direction. I agree that there is often a sameness to the work produced by CW students I saw as an RLF fellow. But I still think that £9000 a year is a lot to pay for advice on running a small business! How to do tax, NI, budgeting, tracking your time, negotiating, etc - it's not really academic degree work, is it? Which is not to say there should not be some provision, but I'd be wary of making too much of it as it IS easily available info, and they just need to know they need to know it, surely? If you do an engineering degree, I don't think you get much advice on checking your tax code, applying for jobs, and so on. I'd be wary of making a CW course (any academic degree, in fact) too vocationally biased at the expense of the sort of expertise the students can't get elsewhere afterwards.

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