Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers

First thing in the morning write down "The." Then follow with another word, then another.... Such advice and more goes out to the would-be author from the Stratford-on-Avon of correspondence schools. A successful author, self-taught, here tells about the fun and profit, or profit at least, in teaching writing for fun and profit.

The Famous Schools are housed in a row of boxlike buildings at the edge of Westport ("It's Westport's leading industry," a former resident told me), which look from the outside like a small modern factory. Inside,, everything reflects expansion and progress. The spacious reception rooms are decorated with the works of Famous Artists, the parent school, and Famous Photographers, organized in 1964.

The success story, and something of the modus operandi, can be read at a glance. in the annual shareholders' reports and the daily stockmarket quotations (the schools have gone public and are now listed on the New York Stock Exchange as FAS).

Tuition revenue for the schools zoomed from $7 million in 1960 to $48 million in 1969. During this period the price per share of common stock rose from $5 to $40 (it has fallen sharply, however, in recent months)

The Schools' interest in selling as compared with teaching is reflected more accurately in the corporate balance sheets than in the brochures sent to prospective students. In 1966 (the last time this revealing breakdown was given), when total tuition revenue was $28 million, $10.8 million was spent on "advertising and selling" compared with $4.8 million on "cost of grading and materials."

The Famous Schools have picked up many another property along the way: they now own the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, Welcome Wagon, International Accountants Society (also a correspondence school), Linguaphone Institute, Computer College Selection Service. Their empire extends to Japan, Australia, Sweden, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria. An invasion of Great Britain 1 is planned (the report warns) as soon as the English prove themselves worthy of it by stabilizing their currency situation. In the "market-testing stage" are plans for a Famous Musicians School, Business Courses for Women, a Writing for Young Readers Course.

Summarizing these accomplishments, the shareholders' report states: "We are in the vanguard of education throughout the world, the acknowledged leader in independent study and an innovator in all types of learning. We will continue to think boldly, to act with wisdom and daring, to be simultaneously visionary and effective." The schools mindful of "the deepening of the worldwide crisis in education" are casting predatory looks in the direction of "the total educational establishment, both academic and industrial." The shareholders' report observes sententiously, "As grave times produce great men to cope with them, so do they produce great ideas."

From Messrs. Lawrence and Carroll I learned these salient facts about Famous Writers School:

The cost of the course (never mentioned in the advertising, nor in the letters to successful applicants, and revealed only by the salesman at the point where the prospect is ready to sign the contract) $785, if the student makes a onetime payment. But only about 10 percent pay in a lump sum. The cost to the 90 percent who make time payments, including interest, is about $900, or roughly twenty times the cost of extension and correspondence courses offered by universities.

Current enrollment is 65,000, of which three quarters are enrolled in the fiction course, the balance in nonfiction, advertising, business writing. Teaching faculty: 55, or 1181% students per instructor. Almost 2000 veterans are taking the course at the taxpayer's expense through the GI Bill.

There are 800 salesmen deployed throughout the country (14% salesmen to every instructor), working on a straight commission basis. I asked about the salesmen's kits: might I have one? "You'd need a dray horse to carry it!" Mr. Carroll assured me. He added that they are currently experimenting with a movie of the school, prepared by Famous Writer Rod Serling, to show in prospects' homes.

I was surprised to learn that despite the school's accreditation by such public agencies as the Veterans Administration and the National Home Study Council, it preserves considerable secrecy about some sectors of its operation. Included in the "confidential" category, which school personnel told me could not be divulged, are:

•The amount of commission paid to salesmen.

•Breakdown of the "sales and advertising" item in the shareholders' report as between sales commissions and advertising budget.

•Breakdown of the income from tuition fees as between Writers, Artists, Photographers.

•Terms of the school's contract with Guiding Faculty members.

If Bennett Cerf and his colleagues haven't time to grade the aptitude tests, who has? Their stand­-ins are two full-timers and some forty pieceworkers, mostly housewives, who "help you find out whether you can be trained to become a successful writer" in the privacy of their homes. They grade the tests at the rate of one every ten minutes. There are no standards for admission to FWS, one of the full-timers explained. "It's not the same thing as a grade on a college theme. The test is designed to indicate your potential as a writer, not your present ability." Only about 10 percent of the applicants are advised they lack this "potential," and are rejected.

The instructors guide the students from cheerful little cubicles equipped with machines into which they dictate the "two-page letter of criticism and advice" promised in the advertising. They are, Gordon Carroll told me, former free-lance writers and people with editorial background: "We never hire professional teachers, they're too dull! Ph.D.'s are the worst of all!" (Conversely, a trained teacher accustomed to all that the classroom offers might find an unrelieved diet of FWS students' manuscripts somewhat monotonous.) The starting salary for instructors is $8500 a year, falling a bit short of the affluent and glamorous life dangled before their students in the school's advertising.

As 1 watched the instructors at work, I detected a generous inclination to accentuate the positive in the material submitted. Given an assignment to describe a period in time, a student had chosen 1933. Her first paragraph, about the election of FDR and the economic situation in the country, could have been copied out of any almanac. She had followed this with "There were breadlines everywhere." I watched the instructor underline the breadlines in red, and write in the margin: "Good work, Mrs. Smith! It's a pleasure working with you. You have recaptured the atmosphere of those days."

Although the key to the school's financial success is its huge dropout rate ("We couldn't make any money if all the students finished," Famous Writer Phyllis McGinley had told me in her candid fashion), the precise percentage of dropouts is hard to come by. "I don't know exactly what it is, or where to get the figures," said Mr. Lawrence. "The last time we analyzed it, it related to the national figure for high school and college dropouts; let's say about two thirds of the enrollments."

However, according to my arithmetic, based on figures furnished by the school, the dropout rate must be closer to 90 percent. Each student is supposed to send in twenty-four assignments over a three-year period, an average of eight a year. With 65,000 enrolled, this would amount to more than half a million lessons a year, and the fifty-five instructors would have to race along correcting these at a clip of one every few minutes. But in fact (the instructors assured me), they spend an hour or more on each lesson, and grade a total of only about 50,000 a year. What happens to the other 470,000 lessons? "That's baffling," said Mr. Carroll. "I guess you can take a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink."

These balky nags are, however, legally bound by the contract whether or not they ever crack a textbook or send in an assignment. What happens to the defaulter who refuses to pay? Are many taken to court? "None," said Mr. Lawrence. "It's against our policy to sue in court." Why, if the school considers the contract legally binding? "Well—there's a question of morality involved. You'd hardly take a person to court for failing to complete a correspondence course."

Mrs. Virginia Knauer, the President's special assistant for consumer affairs, with whom I discussed this later, suspects there is another question involved. "The Famous Writers would never win in court," she said indignantly. "A lawsuit would expose them—somebody should take them to court. Their advertising is reprehensible, it's very close to being misleading." Needless to say the debtors are not informed of the school's moral scruples against lawsuits. On the contrary, a Finnish immigrant, whose husband complained to Mrs. Knauer that although she speaks little English she had been coerced into signing for the course by an importunate salesman, was bombarded with dunning letters and telegrams full of implied threats to sue.

A fanciful idea occurred to me: since the school avers that it does not sue delinquents, I could make a fortune by advertising in the literary monthlies: "For $10 I will tell you how to take the Famous Writers course for nothing." To those who gent. in their $10, I would return a postcard saying merely, "Enroll in the course and make no payments." 1 tried this out on Mr. Carroll, and subsequently on Bennett çerf. Their reactions were identical. "You'd find yourself behind bars if you did that" Why? Whom would I have defrauded?" A question they were unable to answer, although Bennett Cerf, in mock horror, declared that the inventive mail-order industry would certainly find some legal means to frustrate my iniquitous plan.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In