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Always In Build Mode: Women In Publishing Talk Shop

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, […]

Graywolf Press essay collections

Graywolf Press essay collections

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, you might start out making photocopies, but perhaps you’d discover a promising author whose hit debut novel would make your career. You’d rack up thanks on acknowledgments pages like they were bowling league trophies.

Turns out you don’t need to move to New York to work in publishing. But you do need to put in the time making photocopies… or else take the scary step of striking out on your own. And you also need to work very, very hard, basically forever, as the audience of a “Women in Publishing panel hosted by the University of Minnesota’s literary magazine, dislocate, recently found out.

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MFA candidate Elizabeth O’Brien moderated the April 23 discussion, which included Fiona McCrae, head of Graywolf Press; Ann Regan, editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Historical Society Press; and Meghan Murphy and Jamie Millard, who created the literary magazine and press Paper Darts and co-founded the description-defying, arts community-meets-business online platform, Pollen.

As in the Knopf fantasy described above, McCrae and Regan started out in entry-level roles, McCrae at the storied London publishing house Faber and Faber “working for a bunch of men who couldn’t type” and taking dictation from Samuel Beckett’s editor. After working at Faber’s small Boston office, McCrae took the director position at Graywolf back when the press published only 6 to 8 books a year. Now it puts out 30, and to great acclaim: Graywolf poet Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections just won a Pulitzer, while Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine won the National Book Award for poetry last year.

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Regan graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in history and Russian literature and said, “The only thing I really wanted to do was leave the state.” She got an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1978 and “lightning struck” in the form of a big project coming down the pike and a crucial employee’s maternity leave. Regan was assigned to the project, and she stayed. In a neat six-degrees-of-separation twist, she recently edited a book by McCrae’s husband.

McCrae and Regan agreed that the important thing after getting a foot in the door is to “overperform,” even if it means “taking a manuscript home on the bus,” as McCrae put it. Regan said she still spends her days in meetings and answering emails and spends evenings and weekends working directly with manuscripts. No rest for the weary, particularly if the weary work at nonprofit presses, it seems.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

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Murphy explained that she and Millard studied literary magazines with Terri Sutton at the University of Minnesota and wanted to work in publishing, but they couldn’t seem to move past internships into permanent positions. Finally, they took matters in their own hands and founded Paper Darts; they have worked as a designer (Murphy) and in nonprofits (Millard) “to support our Paper Darts habit.” The two occupy a “weird Cinderella space,” said Murphy,with Terri Sutton and the Bush Foundation as their fairy godmothers: a year ago, Murphy and Millard received a grant to the tune of $1.5 million to turn their lit mag sideline into a full-time job. They still run Paper Darts but have since also taken over as co-CEOs of Pollen. “Our day-to-day right now is trying to build a system that will allow us to exist after the three-year grant expires,” Murphy went on. She described their schedule as follows: “We wake up, we work, we go to sleep, we wake up, we work…”

Ominously enough, McCrae said of operating a press, “It’s always in build mode.”

“Well, that’s scary,” Murphy replied.

Regan said, “It’s the definition of publish or perish.”

So, what’s so great about working in publishing, if it’s tough to get into and tough to stay afloat? Regan cited the constant exposure to new ideas and intriguing creative projects: “Every day I learn something from some passionate, crazy monomaniac who has decided to write a book.” Murphy and Millard talked about the pleasure of developing a readership through their digital presence, art and events and discovering what audience engagement looks like in the age of social media. It may all sound very seat-of-the-pants, but Millard said, “Meghan and I do our best work when we’re terrified.”

McCrae talked about the close, rewarding relationships an editor can develop with authors. “A perfect manuscript doesn’t need you,” she said, and one where every sentence needs work is a slog, but there’s a right balance that is lots of fun.

Murphy concluded with a note of realism: she was on a panel last year where a participant said that “if you love books enough, there’s a job for you. Not true,” she said. “You have to hustle. As women, you have to hustle even more.” She also had a word of advice for women writers. Often, she said, women want to wait to submit work until they judge it to be perfect, while male writers hit send more freely. She echoed the explanation many editors have given for VIDA scores showing male writers vastly outnumbering women and exhorted women writers to be “strong and confident” and, of course, to try, try again.

Guess I’d better hit “send.”

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