- Justin Hunter
I received my MFA in Creative Writing in 2017. I was fortunate to go through a program that left pretentiousness behind and was as inclusive and welcoming as an expensive graduate program can be. However, there is a distinct feeling that comes out of every MFA that the only way to make it is to be published. Professors are often judged by their publication record. And publication in a literary journal is not enough. You have to be published by, preferably, a large publishing house, and short of that, you have to be published by an independent publisher. When I graduated, I shopped my novel to multiple agents. Got a few bites, but nothing major. This was the way that things went. Take your shot, see what happens. Publish with an indie press if you can. Move on to your next book if you can't.
And that's not a bad path. The science community has a peer review system that, when working well, leverages peers to justify or reject theories. In creative writing, the peer review system is made up of literary journals, agents, and publishers.
But my product mind has been spinning lately about a world in which artists productize their offerings. Now, before you say that very concept is a bastardization of art and creativity, let's think about engineering. Computer engineering, in particular, is a creative field. The creativity of engineers does not happen in a vacuum, though. Most often, engineers are assisted by product managers and marketers that take the creative solutions presented by their code and turn it into something people will pay for.
In the fiction world, we have examples of this as well. Independent films are often written by, directed by, produced by, and distributed by a small, dedicated team. They effectively productize the story and market it. This is what film festivals are all about. This path is celebrated. It fails roughly as often as startups in the technology industry fail, but we don't think of the two as similar product development paths. One is an artistic pursuit where failure is an accepted outcome. The other is a monetary pursuit where failure is an accepted outcome.
Artistic. Monetary. Many times, we treat those two words as competitive. But I am not convinced they have to be.
With novels and short stories, the concept of self-publishing and independent pursuit of success hasn't caught on as well. There have been platforms to help authors reach their audience. Wattpad may be the largest. But generally, self-publishing has been relegated to the world of self-help and business guides.
Perhaps indie film is the only example of end-to-end creative control of fiction? Perhaps the process cannot be extended elsewhere? If that were true, we wouldn't have Pixar.
Pixar became one of the biggest brands in the world by productizing their creativity. Pixar wasn't an independent filmmaker. Pixar became an independent film company. While Hollywood was—and still is—known for buying scripts from writers and developing those scripts into products, Pixar took a different approach. As a creative team, they worked to develop stories in house. They produced those stories. They distributed those stories. They productized the creative process.
We see this in television as well. Yes, it's true that television studios might buy a pilot like Hollywood does for film scripts. However, once that pilot is optioned, a team is constructed within the studio. That team is responsible for continuing the story, for marketing the story, and for continuing the story's distribution.
We don't see this with novels and short stories.
We have independent publishers. My book was published by an indie press, and I am eternally grateful for that. But independent in this sense is very different than independent in the indie film sense. Authors still have to pitch their books to indie presses. They still have to hope they are accepted. And then they must rely on the services of the press as the book is taken to market.
This is much more akin to the agent/publisher model. Much less akin to the indie filmmaker model.
The work that goes into writing a screenplay or a television series is not any less than that of writing a novel. If such a process can be productized, brought under an independent studio style umbrella, then why can't it be done for books? There are probably a million reasons, but as my stream of consciousness thought process evaluates this in the moment, and as my product brain shifts into high-gear, I see opportunity.
Imagine a literary entertainment studio. This studio would be made up of writers who also must act as product marketers and distributors. They may have to be technologists because technology helps distribution. This studio would be responsible for writing their own books. The authors names would mean something the same way the writers of Pixar movies mean something. The studio would be responsible for marketing and distributing the books. This would mean running the studio like a business. What's the break-even sales number for any particular book? Work backwards from that to develop a go to market strategy. Apply the strategy, measure the results, iterate.
Product studios and creative studios are not so different in this regard.
A literary entertainment studio would have a couple of added benefits as well. Authors within the studio can make a name for themselves while helping other authors in the studio during the development process. This then makes a name for the studio. A successful studio attracts better authors and helps the studio grow. Additionally, the IP rights from the studio would be split amongst studio members. A film or video game adaptation benefits the entire studio equally.
These thoughts are half-baked, surely flawed, and have probably been tried many times before. But on a Sunday evening after the clocks have been set back one hours and my body is much more tired than the time on the microwave says it should be, these ideas feel inspiring and exciting to me.