One message from the halls of AWP 2012: Writers are now responsible for developing their unique following long before sending a first query. Publishers and editors told session attendees that good writing on its own is not enough to land that first contract. A writer must have a positive electronic presence including impressive numbers of followers on Facebook or Twitter, activity which is being used as a surrogate for customers ready to buy their book.
In the sales world the ratio of cold calls to meetings to qualified prospects to an actual sale is data analyzed then used to develop strategic marketing plans. Experts in social marketing know the sales net must be thrown significantly further to land a customer. More than one published writer has been disappointed to find that hundreds of Facebook friends didn’t really equate to hundreds of book sales. How to turn social media contacts into active customers may be a puzzle solved by the big internet marketers, but still is a mystery to most small publishers.
Today I began writing about ten key messages discovered during AWP. Beyond a significant number of sessions devoted specifically to social media, the topic crept into many presentations. But I sensed a bigger question: What in the traditional MFA curriculum prepares writers for this new expectation of developing a strong potential audience while mastering their craft? How many courses do MFA students take where they learn marketing skills—identifying potential markets and developing strategies? If publishers would rather accept a pretty good manuscript from an author with a thousand friends on Facebook, an attractive blog and hundreds of Twitter followers than a great manuscript from someone with more normal social media presence, shouldn’t MFA programs be paying attention?
Medical schools learned late in the game that their graduates would have to be astute business professionals in an environment controlled by big insurance or healthcare corporations. Amazon, Apple, and others have pushed the publishing world into a similar situation. The discussion has moved writers from artist to producers of possibly profitable content. Listen to debut writers talk about publishers’ expectations that the writers maintain market excitement for their books.
How to bring this reality into the MFA world could be as simple as offering solid course material on today’s publishing business, as creative as requiring that graduates display social media competency, or as innovative as collaborative ventures with other academic areas. At the least, MFA programs owe it to their students to provide space for individuals to discover their own definition of success as a writer along with faculty-led guidance for how to build a course of study to support those goals. Schools have proven they can help talented people produce amazing creative work. Getting that work to into readers’ hands needs different support.