I feel like everything I read about publishing lately is about someone feeling cheated or fearing a scam. Readers feel ripped off by book prices and limited availability. Publishers are furious about (and terrified by) book piracy, and worried that outside companies like Amazon and Google are making serious efforts to set publishing policy. Agents exist because so many publishers have tried to rip off writers. Preditors & Editors exists for the same reason, as well as because so many agents have also tried to rip off writers. And now writers are saying they’re willing to sign exceedingly dodgy contracts because they need money to pay off the educational institutions that have bilked them for thousands, which is like selling an arm to one loan shark so you can buy back your leg from another. It reminds me of growing up in 1980s Manhattan, when we all had sore necks from constantly looking over our shoulders.
The latest story is New York Magazine‘s exposé of James Frey’s new business venture. Three authors with big online platforms have taken Frey to task for soliciting MFA students and offering them what appears to be a really terrible contract in exchange for a shot at fame. All three also have some excellent (and unsurprisingly overlapping) advice for new writers who might think such a contract offers them anything resembling a good deal.
John Scalzi: “Write your story, get an agent, and sell your work with your own name on it and all your rights to the work intact. It may take more time, but it will be worth it.”
Maureen Johnson: “Don’t sign things you don’t understand…. Seek good counsel and listen to that counsel. Things that look too good to be true usually are, and uncredited projects with shady paperwork… well, those things don’t generally end well.”
Sarah Rees Brennan: “Write what you want. Inform yourself as fully as you can. Listen to criticism. Follow the three steps, unless you have a good reason not to. (Write book! Get agent! Get editor.)”
(All three posts are definitely worth reading in full.)
Scalzi and Johnson have some particularly harsh words about MFA programs that don’t educate their students in the business of writing. Johnson, who has an MFA from the same Columbia program that Frey is trolling for writers, says flatly, “If you don’t offer your students a class or seminar in the business of writing, you should be ashamed.” Scalzi dedicates an entire separate post to his open letter, half of which is aimed at MFA program administrators (“Now, perhaps you are saying, ‘We focus on the art of writing, not the business.’ My answer to that is, please, pull your head out.”) and half at students (“You know what, your belief in your intelligence and your cleverness and your writing ability as a proxy for knowing everything you need to know about the world is exactly what’s going to get you screwed.”).
It seems unlikely that Frey will ever read these posts, or that Columbia’s MFA program administrators are frantically searching their alumni directory for Maureen Johnson’s number so they can call her and apologize for not having business classes. Aspiring writers might see them and become a little more business-savvy and skeptical; that’s certainly no bad thing. But I feel this opens up a larger question: How can the system of publishing–which does include educational programs for writers, something that’s often overlooked–be improved so it’s less of a haven for the unscrupulous?
As I said, I grew up in famously grimy and scary 1980s Manhattan. Now I live in 2010s Manhattan, which is about as clean and safe as it’s ever been. If New York could bring down crime rates, maybe publishing–my other home, in some very real ways–can too. This community should be a pleasant place where people want to settle down (or at least visit for weekends and summers), not a gritty, dangerous industry where we all earn little more than pennies and clutch them constantly for fear of pickpockets.
I’ve seen tremendous collaboration and caring in publishing; I know it’s possible to be kind and honest without being a target or a failure, and to spread the word about good, responsible businesspeople without falling into the trap of cronyism. So what concrete steps can we take to get there? In addition to reactive measures like listing crooks on Preditors & Editors and sending DMCA takedowns to piracy sites, what proactive measures will help to build a culture of trust and trustworthiness? And what’s already being done on the preventive and educational side–like writers’ organizations keeping lists of publishers in good standing, and providing writers with boilerplate contracts–that can be better publicized?
Stories are so important. If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many people trying to steal them. As creators and promoters and consumers of stories, it’s our responsibility to keep them safe and treat them with at least a modicum of respect. We owe at least that much to ourselves, too. Let’s get this place cleaned up.