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Thread: Workshops as Promotional Vehicle
December 21st, 2009, 02:37 PM #1
- Join Date
- Nov 2009
- Texas, USA
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 Those who teach at convention workshops--or go on panels aimed at unpublished writers--are also available in other venues--usually they're also on non-writing-track panels, and they're interacting with fans (some of whom may have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.]