What It Means to Be a Writer in Today’s World
For writers focused on creative work, talk about the “business” of writing can feel like a distraction at best and, at worst, like a betrayal of our artistic practice.
Even the business speak-y ring to “authorpreneurship,” which the Economist unpacked back in February, can send new writers running for their typewriters and burrowing into the recesses of unplugged, isolated rooms.
But running away from the business of writing—from the demands of “authorpreneurship”—would ultimately be a mistake for any new writer striving to find their audience in current times.
In today’s connected literary landscape, the writers who “make it”—who sustain long, rewarding careers built around their craft—are those who learn to position their work as a business endeavor and build successful brands for themselves and their writing.
Talk to agents and editors about signing with new writers, and here’s what they’ll say: While they consistently seek fresh work that excites them—the type of work we’re creating at American—they are more likely to take a risk signing a new writer who brings a pre-built network of potential readers. The best thing you can do while plugging away at your novel manuscript or polishing poems or stories for a collection is start building that network.
Some of your network will build itself organically, as you meet classmates at American, as you attend conferences and summer workshops and readings, and as you share work and links through the social networking platforms on which you already have a presence. Your Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and personal blog readers will likely buy your first book and invite friends to your readings before strangers will. In the meantime, participating in those communities and sharing the work of others will both support your peers and help you build goodwill for the day when you need support.
Some of your network will come through intentional steps to promote your writing early on. Publishing your finished pieces in print and online, even in respected publications that can’t afford to pay you, can ultimately pay off when it comes time to publish your book. Often, editors with whom you’ve built relationships will agree to publish a review or an interview once you start promoting your book. Similarly, when you read your work or help to organize even a low-profile reading series or event, the people you’ll meet will become your network when you arrange your first tour.
Once You Have Your Book
The introverted and private lives so often enjoyed by writers throughout history have become difficult, if not impossible, to sustain in today’s technology-driven world. Now, the publication of your first book is far from an invitation to retreat home and take a nap: instead, it’s an invitation into the world of self-promotion.
While some publishing houses still boast robust teams of publicists, much promotional work is now shouldered by writers themselves. Some hire private publicists. Some strive to the garner attention of celebrities and strategize to push for book release dates that will give their books the best chance of hitting best-seller lists.
Nearly all lean heavily on their personal and professional networks—anyone whose ear and respect they’ve gained—to ask for support and help in promotion.
The Reality of the Writing Business
Very, very few writers—even among the prize-winning and renowned—make their full income from their books of prose and poetry. Writers hold teaching positions at community colleges and universities. We work at summer conferences and weekend workshops. We seek out paying speaking engagements. We pitch magazine features, look for copywriting gigs, and pursue meaningful professional careers that help us pay the bills while leaving the mind space and time we need to devote ourselves to our next book.
While at American, our students take advantage of opportunities to network and build resumes across the varied organizations of Washington, DC—and many leave able to put writing at the center of their lives, and still make a living.
Would you like to join us? Learn more about the MFA creative writing program at American University.