The Creative Writer at the University Press

Kevin Haworth | April 2014

In Summer 2013, Peter Givler stepped down after fifteen years as Executive Director of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), the umbrella group for university presses—roughly AWP’s equivalent in the scholarly publishing world. In his farewell talk after many years of service to university presses, he describes publishing as the “accidental profession.” He continues to say that when he first started out in scholarly publishing:

That most of us had just fallen into it also meant that the only way to learn it was to do it. The only credential needed for an entry-level job in publishing was a bachelor's degree. It wasn't supposed to matter what the degree was in, but in fact a high percentage of us had been English or History majors. In other words we had read a lot and were reasonably literate. Our bosses, who had read even more and were, for the most part, even more literate, assumed that we had all the basic equipment they could ask for, and that, presumably, we could learn everything else we needed to know the same way they did: by just doing it.

For graduates of MFA or PhD creative writing programs, looking at a difficult (to say the least) market for tenure-track teaching jobs, and wanting to stay connected to the academy, that description sounds very compelling. After all, Givler’s account of the typical publishing professional connects quite well with how many creative writing graduates see themselves: we are people who have read a lot, and come equipped with a graduate degree in a field of English, no less. And learning by doing—well, that’s what creative writing programs are all about; whether it’s writing or teaching, we are used to learning on the fly and improving as we go along.

…the typical publishing professional connects quite well with how many creative writing graduates see themselves: we are people who have read a lot, and come equipped with a graduate degree in a field of English, no less.

But university presses have changed a great deal since the days that Givler describes. Today’s publishing, whether in the for-profit realm of the big publishers, or at the university level, is much less the “gentlemen’s profession” it was often thought to be, something you fell into with a relevant degree and a desire to make books. University presses—once highly subsidized by their institutions in the interest of promoting scholarship—have faced severe cutbacks from their universities in the last few years. Declining budgets from libraries, once the core customers for university press books, coupled with the general economic downturn and the uncertainties of digital publishing models, have all combined to create much more pressure on scholarly publishers to develop books that can earn their own way in a crowded marketplace. Many university presses have had to cut positions, leading to greater workloads and competition for job openings. And there is certainly less room to learn as you go, as editors, marketers, and publicists all need to choose books wisely, sell them well, and use time and resources with great efficiency.

University presses certainly can be excellent landing places for creative writers, and so a full accounting of the benefits and challenges of working in scholarly publishing is worthwhile for anyone considering a career path that keeps them so close to their literary interests.


The Scholarly Publishing Landscape

There are more than 130 university presses in the United States and Canada. They vary tremendously in size and scope, from tiny presses with one or two employees publishing just a few books a year, to multi-million dollar publishing programs like University of California Press or University of Chicago Press, which employ hundreds of people and publish books and scholarly journals in dozens of subject areas. Press employees generally fall into four categories: editorial (which includes acquisitions editors, copyeditors, and permissions); marketing and publicity; book design and production; and business operations. Editorial positions are perhaps the most natural destinations for creative writing graduates, though marketing and publicity, which require strong writing skills and being able to speak about books in a compelling manner, is a close second. Press directors are drawn typically (but certainly not always) from the editorial ranks, though by that time expertise across the range of press operations is certainly expected.

Traditional scholarly monographs still make up the core purpose of university presses, but almost all presses now feature trade books ranging from cookbooks to local histories to photography guides, as well as books by scholars and other writers that reach for broad audiences in areas such as politics, culture, and film. In fact, despite their academic affiliations, university presses now have much in common with small- or medium-size independent publishers such as Graywolf Press or Milkweed Editions in the range of books they offer and in the way that they must often seek grants or private funding to support their missions, making the skills required for university press employees broadly applicable to independent publishing generally or even nonprofit work in literary organizations.

In the creative writing world, university presses have long been associated with poetry. But many university presses now also publish regularly in fiction and nonfiction, and often do so as part of an ongoing series or with a specific geographic focus linked to where the press operates. The University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives series in nonfiction, edited by Tobias Wolff, and Louisiana State University Press’s Yellow Shoe Fiction series, overseen by Michael Griffith, are but two examples.

Creative writing graduates are drawn to these jobs, in part, because the salaries, particularly at the higher level, compete very well with tenure-track teaching positions.

Wolff and Griffith are not press employees, of course, but rather creative writing professors who serve as series editors on an occasional basis. The bulk of the editing, design, and marketing for these books are done by full-time publishing professionals typically equipped with backgrounds in the humanities. Though affiliated with universities, employees at university presses have jobs that function much more like administrators than like faculty; employees keep 9-to-5 hours (if not longer), and because the production schedules run all year long, there are no end-of-semester breaks, or summers away, but rather the vacation and sick days afforded to the administrators of a that particular university system. For creative writing graduates who are used to balancing writing and teaching, this shift in schedule can present a challenge.

Lela Scott MacNeil is the Sales Manager at University of Arizona Press, which maintains a traditionally strong list in creative writing from Chicano/a writers. Having just started her MFA at University of Arizona, she is balancing her full-time job with the requirements of graduate school. One of the most significant elements of being a creative writer in the press world, she says, is that “university press jobs are demanding. MFA grads working at university presses have to be disciplined in carving out time to write.”

Maintaining a regular writing schedule is a challenge common to any day job, MacNeil notes, but moving into publishing comes with additional challenges. “The learning curve is steep,” MacNeil says. “You are not only selling a physical object, you are also selling content and ideas. This means you have to make sure you don’t run out of books, and you have to think about production and shipping, the way a manufacturing company would. In scholarly publishing, things get even more complicated. You have to make sure everything you do is in line with your mission, and you also have a number of stakeholders to consider, including board members, authors, parent universities, and the academic community at large.”

At the same time, from MacNeil’s perspective, these worlds “share the same goals, the creation, publication, and distribution of important books.” While there is often no direct line from MFA programs to the university press world, these fundamental affinities have helped creative writing graduates to find their way to a number of executive positions at university presses. Current high-profile appointments include Dean Smith (MFA from Columbia), Director of Project MUSE, the enormous digital journal and book project at John Hopkins University Press, and Mark Saunders (MFA from Virginia), Director of University of Virginia Press. My MFA from Arizona State helped inform my work during my three-year term as interim head of Ohio University Press; my predecessor, David Sanders, earned his MFA in poetry from Arkansas.

Creative writing graduates are drawn to these jobs, in part, because the salaries, particularly at the higher level, compete very well with tenure-track teaching positions. While salaries vary greatly with press size and with geography, a press director earns at least $70,000 a year, with many earning more than $100,000. Editors and directors in others departments such as marketing, sales, production, and finance typically earn between $50,000 and $80,000. Salaries for positions involving permissions, publicity, copyediting, or assisting editors will most often be $25,000-$50,000.

In a competitive teaching market, even an entry-level job at a university press likely pays significantly better than, say, adjunct teaching jobs; unlike adjuncting, almost all university press positions come with full benefits such as health insurance and retirement contributions. Many university press employees are “lifers,” having moved up the ranks from, say, editorial assistant to acquisitions editor (in charge of acquiring books in certain subject areas) to editorial director (overseeing all book acquisitions) and even to director of the press itself. Despite the upheavals of the last few years prompted by the economic downturn and less university support, life at a university press tends to offer more job stability than one might find elsewhere in publishing. Unlike in trade publishing, it is rare for a university press to be acquired by another press and thus for the staff to face significant layoffs or reorganization, and while university presses do sometimes close down, the failure rate is much smaller when compared to independent publishing or other kinds of small presses. For writers who successfully land a university press position, a reasonable salary and a fairly stable position are a likely result, though the pace is significant and the challenges substantial.


Benefits of Another Kind

For writers after graduate school, university presses also offer the opportunity to continue learning, both in a scholarly and real-world sense. Steve Yates earned his MFA from Arkansas after a number of years in journalism. He now works as Assistant Director and head of sales and marketing for University Press of Mississippi, a consortium supported by Mississippi’s eight public universities. In addition, his most recent story collection, Some Kinds of Love, won the Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press.

Working at University Press of Mississippi provides a continuing education on several levels, he says. “The immersive learning of subject matter you might not have been exposed to—comics studies, folklore, and post-Colonial literature were all new to me—is invaluable for expanding the range of knowledge you can bring to characters in your fiction.” MacNeil seconds this idea: “As a writer, I find value in anything that broadens my knowledge of the world at large. I love attending archaeology and anthropology conferences and talking to experts about their research. I learn so much from our authors and their work.”

The learning takes place outside of working with scholarly books, too, Yates says. “There’s the travel: for sales calls I have to be in New York City and New Jersey every six months, Nashville every six months, and a lot of other places. That’s the real working world of airplanes, trains, subways, rental cars, Iron Skillets, and Hampton Inns. I don’t have to do a lot of research to give my characters jobs. I witness all kinds on the road.”

Despite the upheavals of the last few years prompted by the economic downturn and less university support, life at a university press tends to offer more job stability than one might find elsewhere in publishing.

The demanding nature of day-to-day publishing life creates certain limits for working writers, Yates acknowledges: “We are a tiny staff publishing over 200 author creations each year in traditional offset print, digital short run, print-on-demand, and electronic form. The assistant director/marketing director has five minutes of work for every one minute he can be seated at his desk. That will never change. So I cannot go to Sewanee and Bread Loaf even if such distinguished places would sully themselves by having me around. I can’t go to the AWP Annual Conference—Mississippi doesn’t have a list in poetry or fiction that would warrant a booth. So I have no access to the normal and natural networking aids.”

What Yates does gain from his particular university press job, however, is a deep understanding of how books reach readers, as well as connections with the people who put books in readers’ hands. “As sales manager,” he says, “I travel to independent bookstores, and we have a ton of great ones in Mississippi.” These connections may not have helped his own small press short story collection in New York, but it certainly did in the South. “Hardly anyone outside Springfield, Missouri, would be reading me if it weren’t for Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the stores in Mississippi. I met the booksellers and understand their realities, and they trust me because of what I do at University Press of Mississippi.”


Breaking in is Hard to Do

Practical barriers remain, however, for creative writing graduates who might want to use their skills in scholarly publishing. The first is that creative writing graduate programs tend to do little to create awareness or direct students to opportunities in this field, so graduates may have little knowledge of what these positions entail or what it takes to be hired. A. Papatya Bucak teaches in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University; prior to her own MFA education, she worked for a couple of years in entry-level jobs in publishing. Her program, she believes, is typical in that professional preparation emphasizes teaching with only a nod to related fields. “When I teach our graduate course on creative writing pedagogy I always do a class period on non-teaching jobs.” But, she says, “Our program, so far, doesn't have any other conversations with students about non-teaching jobs.”

Part of the issue, perhaps, is the continuing perception of university presses as almost exclusively generators of scholarly monographs, rather than the scholarly/trade balance that most of them now pursue, incorporating hardcovers, paperbacks, and an innovative range of digital publishing. “I find our students to be pretty uninformed about the profession. I confess that even I think of university press jobs as an avenue more for scholars than for writers,” Bucak says.

Even when prominent presses and prominent creative writing programs share the same university, as many of them do, the links are not necessarily strong for students to learn more about how university presses operate. One exception is the University of Iowa. There, the press and the creative writing program jointly run book prizes in both fiction and poetry, with the winning books chosen by faculty from a national pool of submissions and then published by the press. (This type of arrangement exists, to varying extents, at other universities as well.) But more direct career-building connections exist as well: each year, a student from the MFA program interns at the press to gain experience in publishing.

Internship experience is necessary, says Elisabeth Chretien, who as Acquisitions Editor at Iowa oversees most of the press’s creative writing titles. Without this experience, says Chretien, who told me about the internship program, creative writing graduates will have difficulty being competitive in the university press job market. “Frankly, unless an MFA student interns with a press at some point before, during, or after their program, I don't think MFA students are prepared to work in publishing,” she says. “Almost every person I know who got into publishing in the past ten years started out as an intern, as so much foreknowledge about publishing is required for even entry-level positions. This is true of university press publishing, small press publishing, and large press publishing, and is largely true across all departments within a press.”

Such formal or semi-formal arrangements between creative writing programs and presses are relatively rare. But that doesn’t mean that the opportunity doesn’t exist; it just may be up to the student to initiate it. Almost all university presses welcome interns and student help; many depend on them for numerous daily tasks. During my tenure at Ohio University Press, we regularly employed up to six students at a time, either as interns receiving class credit, or as hourly employees, with regular apprenticeships in copyediting and book publicity. Most of these were undergraduates, but we had occasional graduate students as well, who typically worked handling permissions or as assistants to the editors.

Another possible preparatory step requires more formal schooling, though without the same commitment as, say, another master’s degree. Publishing certificate programs have grown in number, varying in approach from week-long intensives to summer-length programs to weekend workshops. Some of the most well-known programs, such as those at NYU and Columbia, are connected to New York City and the core of the publishing industry. But options exist elsewhere as well, even as far west as Arizona State, which offers a certificate program that focuses specifically on scholarly publishing. Opinions vary about the value of these programs in light of their costs, but the nitty-gritty details of tasks such as rights and permissions can certainly be learned in a kind of classroom setting. For MFA graduates, coursework in publishing could also have additional benefits, such as lending insight into the process by which a manuscript might work its way through the publishing process.

The fact remains that present-day scholarly publishing is a full-time occupation requiring enormous devotion and investment of intellectual resources. Many creative writing graduates have found rewarding careers at university presses, though in a different configuration and in a different relationship to one’s own writing ambitions than teaching at the university might. Some preparation is necessary, as is a willingness to find time to write in and around the demands of nurturing other writers’ books to market. But even in today’s difficult publishing climate, university presses are part of the academic enterprise, a place for smart people and smart books.


Kevin Haworth's newest book is Famous Drownings in Literary History: Essays on 21st Century Jewishness. He recently stepped down after three years as Interim Executive Editor of Ohio University Press, where he co-founded the Modern African Writing series and oversaw the re-launch of Swallow Press's classic author series. He now teaches in Ohio University's Honors Tutorial College.



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