Early Saturday afternoon, the final day of AWP 2015, PW sponsored a panel called "The Other Track: M.F.A.s in the Book Business" which focused on publishing, the most-often-cited career alternative to academia for M.F.A. students. Moderated by Craig Teicher, PW's Director of Digital Operations, the panel included Caroline Casey, managing director of Coffee House Press; Jynne Dilling Martin associate publisher of Riverhead; Leslie Shipman, assistant director of the National Book Foundation; and Jeff Shotts, execute editor of Graywolf Press. The panelists described their experiences in the publishing industry, relating that to what they learned in their respective M.F.A. programs and how they came to realize that their skills were better suited to a different aspect of the writing process.
Both Casey and Shotts had worked in publishing before pursuing their M.F.A.s, entering their programs with the belief that they would become writers, though both ultimately stopped writing. Shotts soon discovered that he was "interested more in reading than writing," and enjoyed the process of critiquing and editing his peers' work. In her M.F.A. program, Casey said she "learned to read in a different way and how to work with writers." Because of that experience she's "really good at advocating for other people's books" and enjoys "helping writers figure out what they're actually good at."
Shipman and Martin, on the other hand, are working writers, Martin having just published her poetry debut. Martin said that her work in the publishing industry had given her a "grounded sense of where my writing stands in the world." She echoed Casey's comments that being in an M.F.A. program taught her to read in a new way and pointed out that "being a deeper and wider reader makes you a deeper and wider human," which informs everything that follows. Martin also noted that, for those who want a society that supports the writing life, getting an M.F.A. offers a chance to understand all the different ways that books touch people.
At the National Book Foundation, Shipman does more than help oversee the National Book Awards; the nonprofit also supports educational programming. She finds it "incredibly inspiring" to be around such talented writers and that close contact "makes me ask questions and pushes me in ways I had not anticipated." Three of the foundation’s full-time staff of six hold M.F.A.s, as she looks for "people who care about the work." Many smaller publishing houses, such as Coffee House, are also nonprofits, and Casey appreciates working in that world, as those organizations have a different set of priorities and constraints.
The panelists addressed other skills they gained in their programs and gave some advice for those interested in pursuing work in publishing. Teicher said M.F.A. students had to learn to be adaptable and make compromises, which are essential for any career, but are of particular value in publishing, where positions are, as Shotts noted, often horizontally aligned in their duties. "There are people who love grant writing," Shotts half-joked, and he also remarked that getting his M.F.A. helped him "internalize the tools of the trade," learn the mechanics of form, and improve his relationship building. Casey recommended that M.F.A. students get involved with their program's literary journal. Once out of a program, she reminded students to keep reading for fun and joy. For those who read for work, she said, "you have to make space to read for yourself." Martin reminded the audience that publishing is a "consuming passion project" and that "book publishing should never be seen as a route to getting your book published."
During the Q&A, audience members expressed concern about finances and finding jobs or internships in the publishing industry. The panelists agreed that there were no simple workarounds and that anyone interested needs to be prepared to start at the bottom, work diligently, and explore their options. Publishing still operates on an apprenticeship model, Shotts noted, and learning is done on the job.