There are hundreds of college writing programs in the United States – the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) provides “support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 500 college and university creative writing programs, and 125 writers’ conferences and centers”. Creative writing courses tend to struggle to get respect (except for Iowa’s apparently), but also seem to be heavily subscribed to. “Only about one percent of graduates from writing programs go on to write for a living, whereas 90 percent of medical school graduates become self-supporting doctors” I read recently, but that’s not really a fair comparison. Being a writer isn’t a job like being a doctor is, and many writers are also doctors. Studying medicine, which takes 6 or 7 years, doesn’t suit you for a job in any field other than medical, whereas a 1 or 2 year MFA (Master of Fine Arts) course really doesn’t suit you for a job in any field at all! The number of writers who are able to live on the earnings from their writing is small – I would have been willing to believe 1% of the whole, not just 1% of those who had graduated from a writing program according to Harbach’s Slate piece (see below). Hugh Howey has started a site called Author Earnings which is busily analyzing the fragmentary data available on e-book sales (his main contention being that self-published e-books outsell conventionally published ones, by a lot. This is a long article — Howey writes copiously and intelligently — but it is well worth reading). Maybe Author Earnings will be able eventually to come up with an answer to the question of how many authors are able to live solely from their writing – he has asked the question.

Intuitively one is inclined to agree with Chad Harbach’s harsh judgement of writing programs in his 2010 Slate article (now worked up into a book), MFA vs. NYC: “. . . populated by ever younger, often immediately post-collegiate students, MFA programs today serve less as hotbeds of fierce stylistic inculcation, or finishing schools for almost-ready writers (in the way of, say, Iowa in the ’70s), and more as an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market.” His article, a lengthy one, is really engaged in speculating of the future of the New York literary scene, striving for the great American novel, as distinguished from the MFA world with its obsession with the short story. Here’s Hanif Kureishi rather shooting himself in the foot in The Guardian on 4 March as far as keeping his teaching job is concerned.

There’s no denying the popularity of writing programs. I just attended the AWP annual conference in Seattle. (Here’s a report from The New Yorker‘s blog “Page-Turner”. The picture at the top of it is of Elliott Bay Book Co.) Four years ago there were about 4,000 registrants – this year there were between 12,000 and 14,000 (the upper and lower limits of the numbers I was told). There are a few regular  publishers in attendance – a couple of Higher Ed houses publishing “textbooks/readers” for an MFA course, and a few smaller literary houses. Then there are lots of literary reviews and small presses — lot and lots – all looking for material to publish. Naturally there was table upon table of Writing programs, soliciting attendees, and scouting for potential employees which will be found among the many recent and soon-to-be graduates of such courses. Then there are the writers, probably largely synonymous with the recent graduates group but not entirely, looking to hook up with a publisher, or maybe land that job. The program listed 388 Author signing events! The first question you were asked was “Are you a writer?”, or occasionally “Do you write poetry or prose?”. Eventually I started saying that as I do a blog I guessed I was a writer. Made me feel rather good actually. I was even asked to submit an article to a not-altogether-unheard-of journal!

All of the aspiring writers I spoke to wanted to get a “real” publisher. Self publishing was not an attractive option to them, in spite of Hugh Howey’s assurance that “. . . some writers today are deciding to forgo six-figure advances in order to self-publish”. He of course is successful already, and sounds like a man who always had a strong self-belief, so calculations like the following may be what goes on in his head: “Anecdotal evidence and an ever more open community of self-published authors have caused some to suggest that owning one’s rights is more lucrative in the long run than doing a deal with a major publisher. What used to be an easy decision (please, anyone, take my book!) is now one that keeps many aspiring authors awake at night.” Of course my sample was small but I think most first-time authors are desperate for the validation of a bricks-and-mortar publisher, and also for a printed book. They of course were not I’m sure looking at a six-figure advance, or indeed any advance. Not the sort of people Howey is talking about. No doubt a much larger population, who are still being kept awake at night by  the thought “Please, anyone, take my book!”

What all this makes me think is that this constant agonizing about the future of publishing is just so much nonsense. I didn’t ask, but I wonder how many of the publishers I observed in Seattle were less than five years old. The barriers to entry to the publishing business are virtually non-existent now: the material they need is being produced in a copious flow. And don’t say “But how much of it is any good”. How much of what gets written (not to say published) was ever any good? Sure, we’ll see many bad books, but the proportion of masterpieces is likely to remain fairly constant — the allocation of genius by our gene pool remaining invariable. Maybe eventually authors will become less fixated on a printed book; maybe formats will change as we invent new ways to tell stories; maybe self publishing will become a larger slice of the pie chart — it all doesn’t really matter: books will continue to be published.