Class Update: The Business of Writing From the Prisoner's Perspective

Introduction 

This week was week six of Writing and Publishing. Week six is the week when we focus upon the author platform, the different types of publishers, and where to go for outside help. It certainly was a jam-packed session.

Author Platform

Of these three focal points, the author platform caused the most frustration. Sadly, prisoners live in a stunted society where many modern conveniences - and expectations - are not allowed. A prime case-in-point is creating an author platform.

To most freelance authors, creating a blog is an essential element of a successful platform. But when internet access is restricted, blogging becomes a challenge. It requires one to mail out a blog post to a dedicated friend, who types it and posts it. In addition, it necessitates setting up the blogging profile and/or website. While this process can be streamlined via the aid of TRULINCS - the Federal Bureau of Prisons' monitored inmate email service - hoops must be jumped through and inventive solutions must be implemented.

For prisoners, other elements which can be troublesome in the creation of an author platform include lack of access to a camera, telephone, or video camera. Absence of a camera means that photos are hard to come by, with the result that a multimedia functionality can be all but impossible, and connecting with readers can be a challenge

Long story short, the prisoner-writer has a hard road ahead of them which is further hindered by the lack of access to media-enabled equipment (i.e. computers, the internet, digital camcorders) and a lack of technical innovation in prison in general.

Types of Publishers

The discussion on the two types of publishers (traditional and subsidy) was equally frustrating for my students. In today’s world, a traditional publisher requires that the author possess a decent platform in order to land a book deal. This all goes back to the difficulty in establishing an author platform with the technological hindrances found in prisons.

So, my students were interested in self-publishing (better known as subsidy or vanity publishing). To them - as to many outside of prison - the self-publishing/subsidy publishing route is the best one because for a few hundred dollars their book will be available for purchase. Though, while it is easy to hand over a few hundred dollars - if one has it that is - it is not easy to sell a self-published title without a very strong author platform.

Throughout this discussion on publishers - and that of the author platform - I tried to impress upon my students that even though they are limited in their surroundings, that their success or lack of success is of their own making. I try to use my platform and publishing deal as proof that anything is possible even from behind bars. After all, teaching inside a prison isn't a matter of lecture or chastisement, but hope and belief.

Outside Help

The final area we covered in class was that of where to go for outside help. We discussed what a freelance editor, book doctor, publicist, and so on does, what they charge, and how to find reputable ones. Not surprisingly, this too was a frustrating discussion because not many in the class possessed any level of wealth, much less financial stability.

While the focus of this discussion was on hiring outside help, I made a special point of emphasizing that these are professions which they might be interested in pursuing upon release. I explained that a good editor could earn a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per project, and that if they honed their skills they could potentially go into this field and make this kind of money.

I also attempted to show how writing articles and books could be a stepping stone to other careers. For example, while I write about correctional education, I've found that I like - and am good at - promoting books and causes. Hence, I might go into the field of promotions upon release. My goal with all of this was to keep their hope alive and inject an entrepreneurial slant into the discussion.

Do note that an important factor in this discussion was the component of ‘being your own boss’. We all know that it is difficult to obtain sustainable employment when one has a criminal record. Though, if one becomes a freelancer, they don't have to apply for jobs and explain away their blemished past. All they have to do is learn the skills, put in the hard work, and live a good life.

Conclusion

Sadly, prisons aren't conducive to literary success. They are made to hold offenders until the date of their release. While many would argue that prisoners can hone their marketable skills behind bars through classes such as Auto Sales or Writing and publishing, they can only do so in theory, not practice. (NOTE: Prisoners can publish articles and books, but the matter of compensation is a very gray area.)

We can't expect prisoners to magically be successful upon release if they haven't been practicing being successful while in prison. With this in mind, I'll leave you with a final thought.

What if we allowed prisoners to seek gainful employment from behind bars? What if we allowed them to sell articles and be virtual assistants or work as telemarketers? What if we allowed them to practice successful living? And what if we allowed them to be responsible for a portion of their incarceration costs through this employment? What if...