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    Workshops as Promotional Vehicle

    Fung Koo, in a private message, asked me to expand on the perceived value of workshops online and off as a vehicle for self-promotion.

    Here's what I've seen, in both my own experience and in that of other writers I know. In general, teaching writing is not a good tool for promoting one's own fiction writing (obviously, if you're using a textbook you wrote on writing, that nonfiction book will pick up sales.) That's because people who take workshops are there to learn to write their own publishable books, not to find a new writer to read.

    This is really clear in workshops that aren't part of conventions, like Odyssey, Clarion, Sycamore Hill, Viable Paradise, etc. Someone who comes to those has one overriding goal--learning to write well enough to get published. They may come to a particular workshop because they already admire one of the instructor-writers (and hope the success will rub off or that writer will have some tips or some connections) or because of the workshop's reputation for having its students get published. I know people who have taught at some of these, and I taught at Viable Paradise its first year--and if their students care about the instructor's work, they've already read it. If they don't, they're so focused on their own desire to get published that unless the instructor pushes his/her own work as part of the instruction, there's no discerniable interest in sales.

    At SF conventions, the results and the analysis are more mixed. Those who teach at convention workshops--or go on panels aimed at unpublished writers--are also available in other venues--usually they're also on non-writing-track panels, and they're interacting with fans (some of whom may have attended the workshop or writing panel.) If a good number of that writer's work sells in the dealer's room during the convention, it's possible (but not certain) that the workshop and writing panels brought in a few sales. However, what I've seen of that venue suggests that the bulk of the writing sales (when not mostly people who came to that convention to buy signed copies of that writer's work) come from being interesting/witty on non-writing panels and from interacting directly with people elsewhere in the convention. Those who come to the convention for the writing workshop and the writing panels are, once again, focused on finding a way to get their work published. They are as apt to be annoyed to angry with one of the instructors for telling them what they don't want to know ("That story is not ready for submission--fix this, this, and that") as eager to read the instructor's fiction.

    Sadly, many people who go to workshops and attend writing-track panels are not willing to hear what they don't want to hear. They have very fixed ideas about what it takes to get published, what the "hidden truth" is, etc. I sat beside Anne McCaffrey at a long panel on getting started in writing one time, and she gave a ton of valuable advice. At the end, one of the attendees buttonholed her on her way out and said "I know you have to say all that to everyone else, your publisher probably makes you, but what's the real secret to getting published??? I won't tell anyone else..." This sort of attitude--that there are all sorts of conspiracies and secret handshakes and so on--means that a lot of people come away disappointed and upset--and not in the mood to buy the instructors' books, if they weren't already doing so.

    Where workshops do have a promotional effect is in getting gigs for more workshops. That's especially true for those with advanced college degrees, especially doctorates in Fine Arts or English, but also for those with an MFA. If someone has taught at a prestigious workshop, both more workshop gigs and even academic appointments may follow. As a sideline or even main source of income, teaching workshops (for pay, of course) and teaching creative writing at colleges can supplement income from fiction. However, odd as it seems, this doesn't necessarily lead to more fiction sales. I know people whose fiction-writing career has slid downward (rather than climbing) although their workshop-teaching and academic-appearances have increased. One reason (other than student annoyance with instructors) might be that being the instructor for a residential workshop, as the prestigious ones are, is a heckuva lot of work. You have to read all the manuscripts; you have to prepare detailed critiques; you engage with the students every day, hours a day. You have to bend your mind to someone else's vision (every other student's vision) so that your comments make sense to that person in light of what they were trying to do. For some of us, it takes time afterward to wash your brain clean of those other influences, and get back to your own work with your own focus. Do that too often, or too long, and it's a real impediment to your own work.

    Online workshops and posts on writing, as I said before, have a completely untested effect on book sales. I suspect (but can't prove) that they're no more effective than non-internet workshops in producing sales of the instructors' work. After all, that's not their purpose--their purpose is to help the students get published. That's how their success is measured.

    There's a further complication: some really good writers are lousy teachers (and if they attempt it, they alienate more than the usual percentage of their students) and some really good writing teachers are not that good at writing fiction (so any student who is tempted to buy the instructor's novel reads a few pages and wonders if the instructor ever followed his/her own advice...) But I think the big gap that results in few sales comingfrom teaching writing is that the students aren't there to buy the instructor's books--they want his/her expertise. (Or they don't, and complain about it after they get it.)

    An exception that isn't really is the writer's appearance at a university when the university has chosen a book as the "community reading"--and has thus forced faculty and students to read it. But those sales were made before the writer appears...they are not contingent on people deciding, after a writing workshop, to buy the writer's fiction. And the appearance isn't usually a writing course of any kind, but specific to a given book. Some books are included in the syllabus for genre fiction courses (lucky the writer to whom this happens!!!)--but again, that's not self-promotion by the writer.

    So: To promote your fiction, you do personal appearances, you go to bookstores and sign shelf stock, you build a website and have a blog. If you can do it without getting in flamewars, you go to other sites and hang out and try to sound interesting enough that someone might--possibly--check out one of your books, without talking so much about your books that it annoys everyone. Some people have e-newsletters; some people carry around freebies (other than business cards) such as pens or bookmarks. When people ask what you do, you say you're a writer (and then endure all the humiliating questions they ask...sigh. "Could I read everything you've written in five minutes?")

    To promote yourself as a writing teacher, you teach workshops--at first unpaid, later paid if you're successful--and appear on conventions panels in the writing track. You answer endless questions, and offer your experience, both for pay and gratis. If you want to move into more of a teaching role, if your fiction isn't that successful or you just love teaching, you do more of this, and you also get the necessary advanced degrees to apply to teach creative writing in a college or university. (Universities simply will not accept publishing credits as sufficient qualification for being on the faculty. If they have a cheapie night-school component, you might get to teach there, but it won't pay nearly as well. A friend of mine teaches creative writing in the evenings at a major university, but she's never been asked to even speak to the "real" English department creative writing classes.) I don't have an MFA or a PhD, and I wasn't even an English major, which totally freaks out English professors. (I had one ask me, at a university gig, "What made you think you could write, if you weren't an English major?" It is to scream silently.)

    [aside: there's a squirrel on my windowsill, flirting her tail....so cute. Bushy-tailed rat, but still...so cute. I moved the curtain to see better and now she's on a sapling...nope, just jumped to the ground and bounded off somewhere.]

  2. #2
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    what the "hidden truth" is
    The magic secret key! The magic secret key! Are you ever tempted to make one up for them?

    I know you have to say all that to everyone else, your publisher probably makes you,
    This is my favorite part.

    We had a squirrel once that perched on a window sill, right up against the glass, eating a nut, while our dog was lying nearby and then our cat spotted it and got right up next to it. But it kept eating the nut because it knew that glass was a barrier. Everybody was highly entertained and then when it finished, it flounced off.

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    I was very green at that particular convention, and was simply flabbergasted. How could anyone think that after all that (90 minutes as I recall), there really was a sekrit handshake and even if there was, that such an approach would get it??

    As for making up secret keys and magic buttons...no, I'm not tempted. Too lazy, I guess, to do the kind of job it would have to be to fool anyone.

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    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Thanks, Ms. Moon.

    Not to ask you to put words in other people's mouths, but given that not every author does try to teach (and that some are simply lousy teachers), do you think that those who do teach (and teach at least reasonably well) enjoy more sales than those who do not?

    As you said elsewhere, at the very least you gain some name recognition from teaching. Popular media would have us believe that popularity itself begets popularity, and that exposure and name recognition are hugely important for sales. Whether that flows from word of mouth or the media, it seems to me that increasing your name recognition must have at least some effect on sales (after all, name recognition is really the goal of the entire election process, award process, the basis of celebrity, etc). Hence the question -- do you find that those who teach enjoy greater sales of their own work than those who do not?

    It seems to me that being an involved, active voice in the literary community must increase the sense of one's credibility and skill as an author. I certainly don't imagine that respectability is altogether essential to be a successful author, but credibility strikes me as incredibly important -- especially in light of the notion of "literary" works of fiction.

    So as a secondary follow-on question -- in your experience, does being an involved, active voice in the literary community seem to have any effect on one's status as a "literary" author? And, have you noticed if there's any appreciable difference in this regard between "mainstream" and genre authors?

  5. #5
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    I'll let Ms. Moon answer for herself, but I will add my two cents if no one minds.

    Short answer to Fung's first question: no.

    It's a matter of scope. Appearing on a panel, teaching a class, doing a public appearance -- these types of events have a small effect on a modern writer's sales figures. That's why publishers, even the big ones, have shied away from the fabled book tours of the old days; they just didn't make much of a difference on the whole.

    I mentioned on another post that I have been considering a second career as a teacher. This isn't to increase my sales (especially because I'm not enough of a jerk to require the students to buy my novel), but because I feel I have things of value to share with developing writers. IMO, this is the only reason to consider an instructional position.

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    You do keep trying to get me to say what you want to hear, Fung Koo. But sorry, it's the same answer I gave you before.

    No, writers who teach do not get more sales *unless* they are selling their books on writing.

    Name recognition does not equal sales. Do you buy the books of every name you recognize? I sure don't. Some names I recognize and think "Eeeuw! Not buying that person's book!" I know what popular media says...but popular media is selling itself. Popular media wants everyone to think that a) what is in it is Important and b) what is in it is True, so that people will buy it--buy the magazines, the newspapers, watch the TV shows, etc. What works is writing books people want to read...and then getting enough people to read that first book so they tell their friends about this new writer they found...and those people tell others, etc. Word of mouth.

    People who come to workshops are far more interested in themselves than in their instructors (there are always exceptions...but not many), and are there to learn how to get published, the name recognition you get from teaching a class or speaking on a writing panel at a convention is minimal. You get far more from being a bestselling writer in whatever you write....but your numbers have to be really high, or you have to have a lot of books out that are slightly less bestselling than that.

    Consider. Everybody knows who J.K. Rowling is. Not because she taught workshops (which as far as I know she didn't) or went to a lot of conventions (which as far as I know she didn't) but because her books took off and sold bazillions of copies. And as is usually the case, many more people recognize "Harry Potter" than "J.K. Rowling" (though if you tell them "She wrote Harry Potter" they will then start bouncing.) If you write a book that takes off like Harry Potter, then you've done all the self-promotion you need to do for the rest of your life. Incidentally, Harry Potter fans are unlikely to buy another book by J.K. Rowling unless it says "By the bestselling author of Harry Potter" on it, because an astonishing number of people don't pay any attention to the writer's name.

    Literary fiction is a whole other ballgame from genre fiction, especially this genre (and romance and westerns are in the same boat with us.) The "gatekeepers" for both name recognition and respect are completely different. You can get clout by writing reviews for the right publications, by teaching at the right schools, etc. If you're recognized as an Important Person in the literary world (you have the degrees, you taught at the right place, you wrote suitable essays in the write magazines, and now you have written a novel that touches all the points by which literary novels are judged) you will be respected as a novelist. That gets you nowhere in commercial fiction. Trying to straddle the line can get you kicked hard from both sides: the proponents of literary fiction are often scornful of good sales numbers (if it's popular, it must be bad) and the proponents of commercial fiction are scornful of literary pretensions.

  7. #7
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jon Sprunk View Post
    I'll let Ms. Moon answer for herself, but I will add my two cents if no one minds.
    Don't mind at all! Glad for multiple perspectives.

    That's why publishers, even the big ones, have shied away from the fabled book tours of the old days; they just didn't make much of a difference on the whole.
    That's really interesting -- I wasn't aware that this had really dropped off. I assumed it was still just standard practice.

    Why do you think this is? Any pet theories?

    I mentioned on another post that I have been considering a second career as a teacher. This isn't to increase my sales (especially because I'm not enough of a jerk to require the students to buy my novel), but because I feel I have things of value to share with developing writers. IMO, this is the only reason to consider an instructional position.
    Oh certainly -- as a (currently non-practicing) teacher, those who get into teaching because it helps them feel cool or important almost universally burn-out in no time.

    If your primary goal in teaching isn't to teach, students pick up on it very, very quickly. Correspondingly, they lose respect for you. As it's said, to be truly cool is not to care if you're cool.

    But, if writing is your primary profession and teaching secondary, some (like me, for example, who's asking these questions) wonder if that doesn't play into the drive to teach, how one teaches, how one is received by their students, etc.

    Apparently, it's not nearly as significant as I had thought.

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