Readying for postgrad life, as publisher or published

by Jess Waters / Beacon Correspondent • April 10, 2014

Liza Cortright is a self-proclaimed “publishing kid.”
Liza Cortright is a self-proclaimed “publishing kid.”

Liza Cortright isn’t really a beer person.

It’s a common misconception, she admits, as president of Pub Club. She doesn’t like wine either — she prefers coffee over anything else. It keeps her up through long hours of editing, layout, and design. 

“‘Pub Club’ is a lot shorter than ‘Undergraduate Studentsfor Publishing.’ We’d make that the official name,” Cortright says, and grins, “but we don’t want people to get the wrong impression.” 

Cortright’s business card — stylishly modern and a spirited purple — lists her as a “developmental editor and graphic designer,” but her own description of herself is simpler: “Oh yeah,” she says, “I’m a publishing kid.”

Cortright’s case highlights the fact that each of the three components of the writing, literature, and publishing major is distinct and nuanced in its own right. Even “publishing kids,” Cortright explains, are split between designers, editors, publicists, agents, copyeditors, rights managers, and more. For the graduating class of 2014, these divides are especially poignant. As these WLP students head out into the job market, they have to figure out how to pursue their passions while supporting themselves.

Though the distinctions between writing, literature, and publishing are clear, the careers are not without overlap, as Cortright is quick to point out.

“A lot of the kids in publishing classes want to be writers, but want a steady job to support themselves,” she says. “Publishing offers a quicker return on investment.” 

Returns aside, publishing is an appealing option to young graduates who love reading and writing, but are not willing to take the risk of trying to live off their work. Senior WLP student Rebecca Pollock dreams of writing a novella and a flash fiction collection, but has so far applied exclusively for publishing jobs. 

“I mean, writing is the ideal,” said Pollock. “But the ideal-realistic would be like, an editorial assistant, or some legal contract position.”

Pollock has kept the “ideal-realistic” in mind throughout her years at Emerson, splitting time between writing (workshopping, working on her BFA thesis, publishing her work through Emerson’s literary magazines and the internet) and publishing, joining the staff of Stork fiction magazine and working her way up to editor-in-chief. 

“I’ve seen just about every side of publishing. Editing, design, you name it,” says Pollock. “I mean, I could probably go out and start my own lit mag if I wanted to. I’ve got the know-how.”

Pollock says she believes maybe “one in a million” people can live exclusively off his or her writing. Maybe so, but not all would-be writers turn to publishing. Nor do they follow Ploughshares contributor Steph Auteri’s suggestion in a recent column, “How to Avoid Homelessness and Starvation As a Writer,” which primarily advises marrying rich (although Auteri also works as freelance editor and yoga instructor, in addition to writing). 

Laura van den Berg, a part-time professor at Emerson College, has never held a job in the publishing industry but has published two short story collections, and has a forthcoming novel. However, she has something that neither Pollock nor any other Emerson senior has: a graduate degree. 

Van den Berg’s first story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published in 2009—only a year after her graduation from Emerson’s creative writing MFA program. The collection was adapted from an early draft of her thesis.

“Every story in that collection was workshopped, at one point or another, at Emerson,” says van den Berg, who believes Emerson’s program was critical to her publication.

The program’s website is littered with similar success stories — MFA graduates who’ve published memoirs, poetry, nonfiction, and novels — but even those who’ve profited warn that a creative writing degree isn’t a golden ticket.

Kirsten Chen got her MFA from Emerson in 2009, and published her first novel — a revised version of her thesis — earlier this year.

“A graduate degree does not automatically get you a publishing contract,” said Chen. “And it’s hard to justify spending all that time and money with no guarantees.”

Both Chen and van den Berg agreed the program’s biggest benefit was the networking it provided.

“All of my beta readers — all of them — come from my time at Emerson,” said Chen. “They were the biggest gift I got.”

Perhaps this is what makes MFA programs so appealing to young, aspiring writers. Pollock says her goal is to get her MFA by age 30. Aaron Griffin, a junior writing, literature, and publishing student and aspiring poet, has a different goal in mind. 

“I want to be living off my published works by the time I’m 30,” says Griffin. He adds, almost as an afterthought, “I mean, I’d love an MFA too, but it’s not on the to-do list.” 

Griffin believes one of the most critical steps to his career will be establishing an online presence. 

“I’ve already started getting my stuff out there,” he says. “It’s all about building a brand, you know?”

Griffin’s not the only student taking an entrepreneurial approach. Ben Lindsay, a senior who crafted his own interdisciplinary major around magazine publishing and featuring writing, intends to support himself with freelance writing after graduation.

“I was already publishing stuff freshman year,” says Lindsay. “The whole time I’ve been at Emerson I’ve been building a portfolio of references and examples. Emerson’s given me the knowledge I need to succeed, but this is what’s going to get me jobs.”

 Striking out as a writer with no back-up—whether that means a second job or a second degree—is certainly risky. The 2012 Freelance Industry Report listed the top challenges for freelancers that year, including finding clients, the “feast-or-famine” cycle of work, maintaining a balance between work and life, and getting affordable health insurance.

“People say that publishing is a dying world,” says Griffin, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. If you truly love writing or poetry, it’ll happen.”

Chen has her own thoughts on the matter: “There’s no guarantee of anything. But hey — that’s art, right?”