Publishers Offering Creative Writing Classes, in the UK and Beyond

In a world where “content and form can be easily separated, writers…are nothing short of desperate to understand the change that technology has forced upon traditional publishing,” writes Jason Allen Ashlock, President of Movable Type Management, in a recent Digital Book World post. In the interest of authors being better informed, some publishers are getting involved in providing instruction not only on what Ashlock calls “form”—publicity platforms, digital publishing options, etc.—but also in what has traditionally been the concern of authors: the craft of writing itself.

The leading example is Faber & Faber’s Faber Academy, which launched in 2008 and now offers a variety of classes around the world and online. Courses range from six months to one day and range in price from under £500 to nearly £4,000. Classes cover more traditional, “creative” topics like novel-writing and memoir, but also more technical skills, like editing and blog-building. All courses but “Writing a Novel” and “Writing a Novel: Online” require no application other than a deposit fee while there are still slots open, which makes the Academy’s results all the more impressive. Among others, Rachel Joyce, whose debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, was in the second-ever Faber Academy class, and SJ Watson’s mega-bestseller, Before I Go to Sleep, also boasts Faber Academy beginnings.

Both Harold Fry and Before I Go to Sleep were published by Random House UK imprints (Doubleday and Black Swan, respectively), and the Academy makes very clear that participation in one of its classes is not a ticket to publication by Faber. But pre-empting the next smash hit shouldn’t be the point of a publisher’s creative writing course, says Ian Ellard, Sales Manager for the Faber Academy. In a time when publishers are diversifying, education programs use Faber’s preexisting resources to do what it’s always done from a different angle: “We are bringing books out of new writers so that they can take them to readers,” he says.

Faber Academy, along with several other ventures, like Faber Digital (developer of the bestselling Waste Land app) is a product of Faber’s Digital and Enterprise Development Department. The department oversees these non-publishing subsidiary businesses in order to “push the books brand into adjacent spaces,” says Ellard. Faber’s access to high-profile authors has certainly helped: they started things off with a very literary bang by having Jeanette Winterson teach their launch course at Shakespeare & Company in Paris. But the publisher enjoys brand loyalty beyond particular author names, says Ellard, and their readers tend to be of a type: “literary, well-to-do and engaged. They care that [it’s] Faber.” As the Academy continues to grow, it has focused on brand visibility through partnerships with other major brands at different points in time: Moleskine, Coutts, and when they launched classes in Australia, Allen & Unwin.

A smaller publisher testing out the education model is Tindal Street Press, based in Birmingham, England. Tindal Street Publishing Director Alan Mahar says that they’ve seen their Masterclasses as “an alternative income stream, a diversification from sales of physical books in a time of recession.” They also seemed a natural response to the fact that Tindal Street staff “are always in demand for…creative writing courses.” As a “very small publisher without…much time to spare from publishing books,” the support of authors like Gaynor Arnold, Helen Cross, and Jim Crace as guest instructors has not only helped “enhance the professional credibility” of the courses, but keeps practical operations moving as well.

Whether Tindal Street’s creative writing programs are sustainable might depend less upon the approach and more upon geographical location. Birmingham is large (it’s England’s second-largest city), but Mahar points out that, for writerly types, “it can’t compete in literary cachet or resources” with London, “where so many writers and publishers are concentrated.” Despite these challenges, Tindal Street started the year off with “quite [a] successful” 10-week program and also saw great interest in their “taster courses” on summer weekends. While it’s hard to tell whether and how Masterclasses will fit into their long-term business strategy, Mahar feels that “as a short term development it has worked.”

Beyond the realm of book publishing, The Guardian & Observer newspaper is another content publisher that has utilized in-house talent to offer instruction through its Masterclasses program, launched October 2010. While course offerings branched out into subjects like journalism and design in summer 2012, Simone Baird, Head of Masterclasses, says that “creative writing courses continue to be a foundation of the program.”  Given the company’s “strength in covering literature and working with authors,” Baird says, “we had the right brand to offer something unique.” Classes are taught by Guardian and Observer employees and some guest instructors, and range from “How to Write Your Novel,” to “Ebooks for Beginners” and “Designing Tablet Magazines,” to a long-term partnership with the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing Department. Out of all the classes, though, Baird says the most popular class to date is “How to self publish,” which, though not a traditional creative writing course, has obvious appeal for those who have taken writing courses and want to move on to “the next step.”

Notably, these examples are all in the UK. Publishing Trends asked The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) whether they’ve seen an emergence of publisher- affiliated creative writing programs in their membership here in the United States.  “My quick answer is ‘not really’,” says Amber Withycombe, Director of Development at AWP.  “It’s a fantastic model,” she says, but she cites an American F+“institutional bias against ‘commercializing’ creative writing.” There’s also the fact that “US-based writing programs are generally less entrepreneurial than their counterparts in the UK, Australia, and Asia.”

When it comes to building brand visibility with new ventures in non-book markets, US publishers have exhibited a similar reticence about “entrepreneurism.”  The biggest exception is F+W Media, which now frames itself as a range of products and services focused on the needs of the same communities they served as a special interest and hobbies publisher. Education is certainly an element of this, and is delivered through online peer communities, consulting services, and conferences. On the literary front, Tin House has been hosting its Summer Writer’s Workshop since 2003. Editorial staff from both the magazine and book publishing wings gather with guest authors for a week of lectures and workshops with 12 students on Reed College’s campus in Portland, OR.

Creative writing programs abound across the United States, and new spins on the classic workshop that make use of big name authors attract no shortage of attention (the Center for Fiction’s new Crime Fiction Academy is hosting such greats this autumn as Lee Child, Joyce Carol Oates, and Val McDermid among others). Given that over 800 graduate and undergraduate, and 550 non-collegiate education programs are registered with the AWP, it could be that the US creative writing education market is far more saturated than the UK’s. But as Alan Mahar observes, “students seem to crave contact with publishers particularly,” making the point that just by being what they are, publishers have a unique advantage in the eyes of aspiring authors. If this is the case, offering classes on practical publishing skills alongside creative writing classes could hold powerful appeal for the country’s millions of writers.

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  1. [...] How to Be an Author (Pub Trends) As the transition to digital puts pressure on publisher revenue streams, some publishers are developing new ones, namely pay-for-play classes for authors on everything from novel-writing to blog-building. [...]

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