Helping the MFA Cross the Digital Divide

The article was originally published in  the AWP Job List – July 2011

The Digital Divide

In 2008, I entered Mills College as a later-in-life MFA student. Years before—many years before—I had earned an MBA and then spent my youth doing marketing and strategy in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Finally, I had set aside enough money and mustered enough courage to commit to the word. It was a dream come true.

Just as I was embarking on my new path, so was first-time writer Kelly Corrigan, whose book, The Middle Place, told of her experience with cancer. When she wrote her memoir, she didn’t know she would have to be a multimedia and marketing expert. Her publisher did not send her on a ten-city book tour and there was no marketing campaign behind her. Kelly realized she was on her own. She thought creating a YouTube video could be one of many ways to get the word out about her work. She made a book trailer on iMovie, uploaded it to YouTube, and then added a few more videos of some of her book-group readings.

Fast forward two years: her video has had over 4.5 million pages views.1 Her book was on the New York Times best seller list for twenty-four weeks.2 It has sold over 350,000 copies to date, and this past fall she published her second memoir, Lift. While we can debate the relative merits of her narrative, her craft, and her cloying YouTube videos, we can’t argue with her success at self-promotion.

For my part, I spent the last two years learning about the craft of the word. I loved every minute of my MFA. But now that I am done, I see the world has changed for new authors. It’s not just about the word anymore. Now, it’s also about building a platform so your word can be heard. And if I, with my MBA and my twenty years of marketing experience, find this new Wild West daunting, how then can the writer who has none of that background navigate across the digital divide? The goal here is to share some of my experience and learning on this issue and to give other MFA students and MFA educators ideas on how to prepare for the new landscape.

Build Knowledge

In my previous life, I was hired by clients and employers to analyze business dynamics. I spent time researching industry trends and helping my clients determine how to best navigate their ideas through the mountains and valleys of opportunity. If I had taken five minutes to do a Google search before I embarked on my MFA program, I would have learned that the entire publishing industry and its content distribution channel are being upended by technological innovations. This may be old news for many of you, but it wasn’t for me.


If we think of the writer as the
content producer and the publisher as the
manufacturer, the final product still
needs to find its way into the hands
of the end consumer.


I know I am not alone. In my classes, I listened as my peers kvetched about the challenges to publishing; the shared anxiety was palpable. I realized most MFA students know very little about the industry that will drive their careers. They spend years and many dollars committing to the word with little idea of how to get their words out, hoping that their genius will be discovered above all others.

In my MFA program, and in the brief research I did on other programs across the country, information on the changing industry dynamics were rarely taught in class. We focused on the craft of writing. In many ways, this was a wonderful respite from the tawdry reality of book “marketing” and author “platforming.” While great theoretical debate continues to occur in academia about whether the business side of the creative life should even be part of an MFA, a little information could go a long way in defusing the anxiety most students feel. Why? Because, in contrast to what we hear, the news is not all bad.


The movement in publishing is away from the
Big Six and toward both indie publishers and
self-publishing, which… has lost its dirty name.


As we know, pre-2000 most books were published via the traditional model. You know the drill: brilliant writer finds agent, agent finds publisher, publisher sends writer on ten-city promotional tour to mostly independent book stores and—Ta Da!—brilliant manuscript spends many weeks on the New York Times best seller list.

Today, the Big Six publishers offer nominal support to a new author assuming he or she can get in the door. In fact, most refuse to even accept unsolicited manuscripts.3 The movement in publishing is away from the Big Six and toward both indie publishers and self-publishing, which, according to literary agent, Terra Chalberg, has lost its dirty name. Her clients include such well regarded and digitally savvy authors as Elise Blackwell and Dave Reidy. When searching for new clients, Chalberg says, “I don’t care if an author has self-published before. I just want the work to be good.”

Apparently, the Big Six agree. We hear story after story of writers who self-publish and then are later picked up by established publishers. Think Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, a novel about a woman with Alzheimer’s that the Big Six passed on because they said there was no market for stories about Alzheimer’s (I guess they didn’t look at the aging Baby Boomer trends).4 Or consider Shane Jones’s Light Boxes, which is soon to be a movie.5 And we can’t ignore successful self-publisher Amanda Hocking, who just landed a $2 million deal from St. Martin’s Press. Self-publishing is here to stay, and writers need to be prepared to support that modality.

If we think of the writer as the content producer and the publisher as the manufacturer, the final product still needs to find its way into the hands of the end consumer. In the past, this distribution system was through traditional bookstores (both chain and independent). Enter Amazon, and suddenly (or within a decade or so) a whole new world is opened. Today, Amazon is the leading distributor of books with over $6 billion in sales. Barnes & Noble is second with $4.5 billion, and the soon-to-be-bankrupted Borders garners $2.6 billion.6 These statistics don’t include the books sold through warehouses such as Walmart and Costco, nor do they include sales from independent bookstores. Sadly, as we all know, the later channel is in steep decline. In 2000 (the year Amazon first reached profitability), independent bookstores accounted for nearly 30% of book sales. Today they account for less than 10% and are falling fast.7

Thanks to new technology, even Amazon is fighting to maintain its preeminent position. The idea that we could read a book on a small electronic device simply wasn’t in our collective consciousness a decade ago. The introduction of the iPad and other multiform ereaders fundamentally challenges Amazon’s lock on the gateway to the word. The Kindle is considered by experts to be a way station towards full multimedia delivery. Today, ereaders (including the Kindle) make up only 1.6% of the distribution channel. By 2021, they are estimated to make up 90% of the market.8 What role will the manufacturers (i.e., the publishers) play then? They may well be unnecessary because the technology of publishing will trump their usefulness as curators of content.

Print on demand, self-publishing tools such as Smashwords, LuLu, and CreateSpace, and connectivity tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and the like, are changing the entire way we writers can distribute our work.

If, in fact, 90% of all “books” are destined to be distributed via an ereader in just one decade, how then will writers choose to tell their stories? The very nature of the narrative is shifting with the advent of the iPad, which offers writers a nearly three-dimensional construct (printed word, visual imagery, sound, links to deepen the content). MFA educators are just beginning to see the potential as writers themselves are offering new modalities for narrative. For example, book trailers are now becoming a genre in and of themselves. What we once considered a book may well become a documentary with new technology. As students, don’t we then need to understand how to operate a video camera?

The final thing MFA students need to know about their industry is that the rumors about the great demise of readership are patently false. Sure there are fewer readers willing to pay for hardbound books or even print books at all. But readers exist and, in fact, are a growing population.

  • The rise of Baby Boomers into senior citizenship means that more time will be had for reading. Research indicates that seniors read an average of two hours a day.9 That’s a lot of time to consume our content. What seniors need are narratives that are meaningful to them.
  • The rebounding economy means more disposable income to purchase books, whatever the delivery mechanism. Plus, the price advantage of ereaders will encourage migration from print to byte.
  • In 2007, more people graduated from college than ever in the history of our country.10 College graduates are readers. This, obviously, bodes well for the future of the word.
  • Men and young adults have been accused of not being partial to reading. However, they are attracted to new technology and are the primary buyers of ereaders. As books migrate into this new platform, and as the narrative takes advantage of the three dimensionality, reading by this demographic will likely increase.

Build Skills

The writer of the future (and in fact, the writer of today) must be skilled in social media and digital technology. As Mills alumna, Jessica Langlois has learned, we can’t wait for our professors to teach us. She says she wishes “the development of social networking and multimedia skills paralleled the development of my written craft.” Like me, she didn’t focus in this area until after graduation. Now, she is working as a teaching assistant with Mills Professor Sarah Pollock to help students build their arsenal of skills. Here are some of the tools considered essential:

  • Facebook: Every writer should have a Facebook page. This is not the personal Facebook page where you show your friends pictures from your son’s Bar Mitzvah. This page is your professional face. It should include your publications, your credentials, your contact information, and a selective use of visual media. Images from your latest reading are appropriate; you in your bikini are not. Facebook also offers you the opportunity to create event listings for your readings and create online groups for your writers collective.
  • Skype: Every writer should have a Skype account and know how to use it. I missed an important interview opportunity on a national television show because I did not know how to use Skype. I won’t make that same mistake again.
  • YouTube/iMovie (or some other visual media software): Every writer should know how to create and edit a video and how to upload it to YouTube. This is book trailer 101.
  • Tumblr/Wordpress/Google Sites: Every aspiring author needs a website. The easiest and cheapest way to create one is to use either Tumblr or WordPress. They offer preset websites that make establishing your online business card relatively easy. I hired a local high school student to create my website using WordPress. The result is a professional looking website that even a luddite like me can update and edit.

There are a myriad of other new and innovative digital/social media tools that a writer can spend enormous hours learning. Be wary, though, these are hours lost to the word. Terra Chalberg notes, “The problem I see is that some writers are so preoccupied with the social media world you wonder if it is a detriment to their writing. It can be an occupational hazard.” Don’t get lost in the technology.

Build an Audience

Knowledge and skills are the foundation; it is up to the writer to build an audience. Here comes that dreaded marketing again. We can debate ad nauseam about the deleterious effects of marketing on writing. Sadly, this debate is becoming irrelevant. As author and indie publisher Holly Payne says, “We’ve crossed into a new publishing frontier with so many different formats for our stories, but getting them out in the world demands a thorough knowledge of not only the craft itself but also the art of promoting and utilizing the technology available to market our own work.” The following are suggestions for how to begin building your audience:

  • Website: As indicated above, every aspiring writer should have a website. It is the required business card for publishers and editors. It also lets your readers know who you are and what you are about. Since graduating from my MFA program, I have landed two ongoing freelance writing jobs because of my website. Don’t let the technology stump you. On my way to speaking at the AWP Conference this year, I met an author who wanted to build a website but hadn’t because she felt she needed to learn Dreamweaver (a difficult and unnecessary web design software tool). When I told her she could easily make a website using WordPress, she was shocked and excited; no longer would she have to wait to begin her journey across the digital divide.

… book trailers are now becoming a genre in
and of themselves. What we once considered a
book may well become a documentary with new
technology. As students, don’t we then need to
understand how to operate a video camera?


  • Blog: Yeah, I know, blogging gets a bad name because it has been abused by those who simply want to rant. I use my blog as a place to practice my craft. By keeping a regular commitment to writing for my blog, I am continuing to write, which is something that many recent MFA graduates find a challenge. The effort has paid off. One of my posts was awarded an honorable mention in a creative nonfiction contest. Another post is a finalist for publication in an online journal.
  • “Net”-work: Sure we all want to be in Ploughshares, but the expanding plethora of online journals means there is a huge opportunity for a first-time writer to be published. Start submitting your work now. Also, take the time to connect with online literary communities such as Goodreads and Red Room. There are focused sites such as She Writes for women writers and Figment for teen fiction. These communities will be support systems for when you are ready to publish your work and will help you build your audience.
  • Make use of YouTube and podcasts: Remember Kelly Corrigan? These venues are now essential for building an audience of readers. Publishers will expect you to have the skills and the knowledge to make use of these tools for marketing your work. Start doing it now so they know you can do the heavy lifting when it comes to promoting your genius novel (because as we know, it’s unlikely they will be doing any of the lifting for you).

You may find, as I did, that some of your professors are not incorporating social and digital media into the classroom. Many MFA educators firmly believe that the classroom should focus on the word and so elect not to incorporate media education into their curriculum. Also, technology has changed the landscape so much so quickly, many educators, like their students, are just trying to catch up.

We MFA students can help bring our professors and our peers into this new territory by building our own knowledge, skills, and audience and by sharing what we have learned in the classroom and beyond. The exciting news is that no one really knows what is across the digital divide; we are all just trying to figure out how to get there.

AWP

Lisen Stromberg, a recovering MBA, has recently graduated with an MFA in prose from Mills College. She can be found digitally at http://www.prismwork.com, or on Facebook, or on Twitter, or at Goodreads, or…

NOTES

  1. Kelly Corrigan, “Transcending: Words on Women and Strength,” YouTube, accessed March 14, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/
    watch?v=u_4qwVLqt9Q
    .
  2. Connie Midey, “Book by book, fan by fan, women’s author achieves ‘NYT’ list,’’ The Arizona Republic, March 22, 2010, accessed March 14, 2011,http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/arizonaliving/
    articles/2010/03/22/20100322corrigan0322.html
    .
  3. Andrew Richard Albanese, “The Staggering Work Of Publishing Genius,’’Publishers Weekly 257.8, February 22, 2010.
  4. Lisa Genova, “Self-Publish or Perish!’’ Still Alice Blog, August 6, 2008, accessed March 14, 2011,  http://stillalice.blogspot.com/2008/08/
    self-publish-or-perish.html
    .
  5. Albanese, “Staggering Work.’’
  6. Agata Kaczanowska, “Book Publishing in the US,’’ IBISWorld Industry Report, September 2010.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Josh Quittner, “The Future of Reading,’’ Fortune 161.3 (March 1, 2010): 62.
  9. Kaczanowska, “Book Publishing.’’
  10. Ibid.

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