Arts degrees and employability: a career in publishing

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Creative writing MA student, Sarah Cumming, explains how her studies at Birkbeck helped her launch a career in publishing.

I chose to study creative writing for two reasons: the more obvious reason for studying creative writing – to become a better writer, but also because the course contained an optional publishing module – an opportunity to become one of a team of editors on a short fiction anthology. With a love of language and a slightly pedantic nature, I was always interested in the editing side of writing and I hoped to get an insight into the book business (where I hoped my future career might lie) from both a writer’s and an editor’s perspective.

The business of books

The publishing module began with choosing themes and artwork for the book and most importantly, the content. Along with the other editors, I read hundreds of submissions and once the short list had been whittled down to the final selection of stories, the editors and authors worked together to get the stories ready for publication. I had some experience of editing stories already because a huge part of this MA involves critiquing fellow students’ creative work. In groups of ten to fifteen, we sit in circles and unpick the author’s work and then try and put it back together again. As well as learning from my own experiences, I learn just as much from other people’s mistakes and triumphs. It’s a great way of picking up diplomacy skills too. The discussions can be intense with lots of different views, so I’ve also become better at articulating myself vocally.

The module included a copy-editing workshop, where I learned that the editing process involves two steps: the first, to stand back and look at the bigger picture – the overall structure and how a reader might receive it; the second, to hone in and look at the smaller details – consistency, sense and language use. The key to a successful edit is keeping these processes separate.

My learning curve did not end once the content was ready.  We then started work on marketing, distribution, pricing and organising launch parties and reading events. Social media was a key part of our marketing campaign and helped us reach a wider audience outside the college environment.  I thought I was quite clued up about social networking but I discovered plenty of new ways to reach people. We got our authors involved in interviews and podcasts and we wrote blogs on The Writers’ Hub. We also sent out hundreds of press releases covering every inch of the industry. One of my responsibilities was to oversee the whole process of producing the eBook, from formatting to actually pressing the ‘publish’ button on Amazon. I learnt a great deal about the digital side of publishing and how important it is in today’s ever-changing digital world. Nowadays, they are numerous ways for writers to publish their work and being on top of any new developments is vital. Things can change on a daily basis, especially with new business start-ups and publishing houses introducing digital imprints.  It was a proud moment for the whole team when the months of hard work turned into a finished product – a print run of 500 copies and an eBook in two different formats. This is what it looks like.

In the real world

During the second year of my MA, which I’m studying part time, I started a job as a digital editor for an educational publisher. My role involves developing online learning material for English language learners, from initial ideas to publication. It’s not just about checking for spelling and grammar errors, although this is important, it’s also about supporting authors and helping them shape their material so it becomes suitable for learners. Providing feedback for my peers at Birkbeck put me in good stead for this but it’s also shown me what’s like to be on the receiving end of an editor’s red pen – an important insight when looking after authors.

Although the compulsory lectures and seminars I’ve attended have been informative and helpful, I’ve gained the most from the ‘optional extras’ that the course offers. My advice would be to dive in head first and grab all opportunities. Since starting this course, I’ve introduced guest speakers at launch parties and readers’ events, negotiated with booksellers, written blogs for various publications, helped out on other anthologies and volunteered as a mentor on an adult literacy course. My student status gives me the chance to attend many other arts-based talks for free so I’m continually learning new things. Although I’m coming to the end of my course, the opportunities to get involved will still be there and I feel like completing my MA is really only the start of how it will benefit me in the future.

Sarah’s short story “Paradise”, is published in issue 10 of the Mechanic’s Institute Reveiw, launched yesterday (26 September 2010) and available from Amazon, local independent bookshops throughout the London area and from selected branches of Waterstones, and in e-book format from Amazon.


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