The Other Side of the Desk

I was talking to one of my fellow MFA students in the office today, and we noticed something. Almost without exception, the graduates of our program who are publishing consistently and professionally worked on the lit mag while they were students.

I’ve said repeatedly that it’s good for any writer to spend some time reading slush, if only to get a sense of what not to do. But I’m beginning to think there’s more to it than that.¬†

Most training programs — whether an MFA or a workshop or a retreat or whatever — focus very strongly on craft. And very little on business.

Theoretically, though, writing well — which most anyone who excels in whatever training they choose for themselves will do — should make your work rise to the top of the slush pile whether you’ve read slush or not. Realistically, a terrible cover letter won’t sink an amazing story. We’ll laugh about how bad the cover letter was, but we’ll still buy the story.

But there’s a lot more to publishing a magazine than the slush pile. The people who work for a publisher, even for a little while, see first-hand the wrangling about which of the “good” submissions work for the publisher and which don’t. They’re witness to the production. They see how marketing works or doesn’t. They wring their hands with everyone else wondering if the financial aspects are going to work out.

So how does all this make them more likely to write fiction that sells?

Well, remember, when we say that the readers are our customers, we’re lying. The editors and publishers are our customers. The readers are their customers. Any serious writer should understand readers because any serious writer is a reader. But not all writers actually know their actual customers very well. And, as with any business, it’s a lot easier to sell to a customer you know and understand.

So, apart from learning about the business of writing in theory, I now seriously think that anyone who’s serious about this business should find an opportunity to intern with a publisher. Get to know the business from the inside. I don’t know if it makes you a better writer, or if it helps you focus your writing on what you can sell, or if it helps you sell what you would have been writing anyway, but I definitely see a correlation between those who’ve done it and those who are getting into print.


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