/ Graduate Programs in Publishing: Are They Worth It?

If you’re considering graduate programs in publishing, you may be wondering just how relevant those courses are. After all, in an industry that is so heavily learned on the job, how much good could something a professor tells you in a classroom do? You’d be surprised. As a relatively recent graduate with an M.A. in Publishing, I’m here to tell you just why (or even why not) to consider enrolling in a publishing program. Its trials and its benefits will be laid out in terms of my experiences, and perhaps you’ll come to the same conclusion I did.

As one of many English majors with daydreams of entering the publishing industry, I found myself facing a common dilemma. All of my classmates aspired to be the next Tolkien, Rowling, Austen, Brontë, or maybe even the next Stephen King. If this was not their goal, then chances are that they wanted to be editors buried in a sea of riveting manuscripts, finding the next “big hit” in the slush pile. If they were feeling daring, my classmates dreamed of sitting behind a desk in a sparkling high-rise chatting about marketing efforts and release parties.

I was one fish in a sea of many. I’d taken on an editorial position at my college’s yearbook, started an e-magazine that was doing moderately well, and had an editorial internship at a high-profile New York food magazine. Still it seemed this was not enough if I was to compete with at least several hundred people for an entry level, low-paying assistant job. I needed more.

It was a part-time job in college that led me to the answer. Working in the digital publishing department of the University of Michigan’s Scholarly Publishing Office (now known as Michigan Publishing) I found my passion: I loved ebooks. That love encouraged me to search for graduate level coursework in publishing, specifically in ePub.

For those not well-versed in the jargon of the digital publishing world (it changes often), ePub is the digitally packaged format of most ebooks.[1] Think of an ebook as a whole book, stacked page-by-page in a small box. Think of your eReader as having the ability to x-ray that box to different depths, viewing one page at a time. This is in a sense an epub document: layers of chapters and other materials, all laid out in order.

It was uncommon to find a graduate program that offered coursework in traditional publishing and the new digital counterpart. At the time I was applying, only the first few eReaders had been released. The original Kindle was still a common sight, and the iPad 1 was only recently on shelves. I was still using a rather clumsy Sony eReader that required multiple calls to a technical help desk and a backdoor to older computer software just to operate.

As of this writing, only 59 schools are registered with full publishing programs on the popular research website http://gradschools.com. Searching within those programs for “electronic publishing” at the master’s level yields only 20 schools, and “digital publishing” returns 29 graduate programs. The most notable results are NYU’s School of Continuing Professional Studies, Emerson College, Pace, and Columbia. When I searched for a school in 2010, I knew of only four full digital publishing graduate programs available.

My choices at the time were whittled down to two top contenders. NYU and Emerson both had strong, long-standing ties to the publishing communities in New York and Boston. Both offered a traditional publishing program and both boasted strong connections to the publishing houses for whom applicants dreamed of working. I visited each program’s campus, read up on their histories and notable alumni, and examined the courses I’d be taking. It was after scouring the course selections that I made my decision.

Emerson had the most enticing electronic publishing classes in that they covered a variety of coding techniques (Javascript, HTML, CSS, EPUB, etc.), which would be useful in my professional development. Although the official ePub program would be new as of my graduating class, they’d been offering courses in some form of digital publishing for almost a year. They also weren’t constrained to books read on eReaders either. There were courses in basic web development and in content management systems as well. I was sold and in September 2011, I started my first semester at Emerson College in the heart of Boston.

Entering a Publishing Based Graduate Program: Coursework

Emerson has a very holistic approach to teaching. Many of the students enrolled in their program are actually publishing professionals or interns, so all of their courses occur at night. This class structure also means that Emerson can actually employ current publishing professionals to teach. My courses were taught by professional copy editors, editors, designers, associate publishers, writers, and ePub developers. This made my teachers both busy and incredibly up to date. I ran no risk of getting old information, and I highly encourage asking about this when considering publishing programs. Who is teaching? How relevant will they be to your work?

Here’s the great news for those who love literature and are considering a graduate program in publishing: you see an entirely different side of print and digital media through a wide range of classes. During my time at Emerson I took a multitude of courses that applied to traditional and digital publishing. On the traditional side I took courses like Copy Editing, Book Editing, Magazine Publishing Overview, Book Publishing Overview, and a course called Applications for Print Publishing, which was more or less a course in Adobe Photoshop, inDesign, and Illustrator and how they’re used in publishing.

The traditional publishing courses are well thought out and developed over time. Each brought something entirely unique to the table and provided hands-on experience in the running of and tasks associated with the day-to-day publishing business. In one course, Book Editing, I not only learned how to draft a well-conceived book proposal, I actually worked with authors, both aspiring and established, giving them constructive feedback on their manuscripts at varying stages. At one point we were even asked to read through a manuscript, summarize it, and make a recommendation as to whether or not it should be published, only to find out that the manuscripts we’d used were real and some had, in fact, been published.

One of the teaching strategies that best prepared me for the much coveted role of “editor” was actually a part of this course. Our professor would have us discuss the flaws and points of interest in a manuscript without the author present. Then he’d invite the author in to talk with us, answer our questions, and hear our advice. The difference between the two talks was astounding. When the authors are absent, it’s easy to be harsh and jump to conclusions about their meanings. Anyone who has ever taken a classic literature course can attest to the unending interpretations of motifs and themes in a Jane Austen novel, but chances are that she was only aware of a small number of these implied meanings when she wrote the novel.

It’s the same situation with a current manuscript. Having an author and publishing students meet immediately clears up misunderstandings and helps bring attention to flaws in the writing. It opens up a world of possibilities that the author hadn’t considered. However, having the author present is limiting to the discussion. We learned that criticism could quickly shut down communication unless it was tempered with notes on what worked, questions, and constructive feedback. No matter how flint-mouthed we’d been when the author was not present, we’d quickly find ourselves softening in an effort to keep the author engaged. It was and is one of the best lessons I took from Emerson and has kept me from embarrassing myself professionally with brash statements or rude, poorly thought out comments. What you say counts, sometimes more than you mean it to.

There is an interesting phenomenon in graduate coursework for publishing when it shares a program with a strong writing program. A surprising number of students who enroll in the program aren’t actually there for publishing. They are writers who, either wary of limiting their degree strictly to writing, or unsure of their abilities, will decide on a master’s in publishing rather than one in writing. While I’m sure none would readily admit it, they are far more interested in taking the writing courses than the publishing classes. This can create an interesting problem. Writing classes fill up quickly, leaving some declared writing students without a place in their own courses. On the other side, the teachers in the publishing program then have a hard time justifying adding new and interesting courses when they can’t fill all of their other classes.

This can strain the administrative faculty who are receiving pressure from their students and from admissions to create a current and interesting curriculum as they are abruptly stonewalled when adding new courses. If you do choose a publishing program that is tied to a strong writing program, ask how cross enrollment works and how your program ensures that you will get priority in publishing courses over students in other programs. Emerson has considered the idea of dealing with this issue by actually separating the programs, which would require that publishing students get special permission to take writing program courses and vice versa.

Electronic Publishing: Where Does It Fit in?

On the electronic publishing side, I had the pleasure to take an electronic publishing overview, a course dedicated entirely to building books in ePub, web development, and writing for the web; I even had the ability to develop my own coursework on Javascript in ebooks, coursework that was later adopted and adapted to be part of the college’s curriculum.

This program faced a new and distinct challenge that the traditional publishing program had not had to face in a long time: keeping up. Epub was and is a rapidly changing standard that can be unforgiving in its changes. By the time a curriculum is created and approved, chances are that something’s changed in ePub. One month into my second semester, and my ePub course, the ePub standard changed from ePub 2 to ePub 3. None of the professors were entirely sure what to do about it. The standard was so new that they didn’t always feel that they had the necessary experience to teach it. At the same time, they didn’t want us to leave our courses with dated information. As a result, I got one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had. We learned the new standard together.

Sure, we had consistent lessons in the freshly outdated ePub 2 but our teacher, an ePub developer at a Boston publishing house, regularly mixed in new qualities she had just learned, and occasionally she learned something new herself in one of our classes. Or we’d find a new issue she didn’t have an answer for yet, and she’d ask others in her office/field to get one. She also gave us an unexpected advantage in that our class tools weren’t designed for students; they were the actual tools of the trade. Though they may have taken a little longer to get accustomed to, just having access to those tools put me leagues ahead of some of my coworkers upon graduating, even those in my field.

When looking at the courses a program is offering, ask yourself: how up to date is this content? If you can, ask admissions to put you in touch with the professors who teach classes you find most interesting and see what their plan is to keep you current or handle an impending change in the industry. I guarantee the resulting dialogue will be interesting; if it’s not, then that may help you to rule out a class, or even a program.

An unexpected and somewhat challenging, yet worthwhile, takeaway from my program was the friction between print and digital publishing. Emerson’s graduate students in this program are largely current publishing employees, interns, and hopefuls. They, and even some of my teachers, reflected the threat that print publishing felt from its quickly expanding digital brethren. This sentiment did mellow a little over time, much like the industry sentiment has, but was still present when I graduated. I’d regularly hear someone grumble about how digital was a passing phase or they’d take a radical view against digital. It was as though they thought that digital books, and those who built them, hoped to replace print someday.

Though this may sound unpleasant, it was actually an invaluable experience. At one of my first job interviews at a large New York publisher, one of the first things I was told was that their staff didn’t like digital much and that I may find them hard to work with at first. I didn’t bat an eye. I’d long since gotten used to the politics around ebooks simply by interacting with my classmates. Though I did not take that job, I found more or less the same thing at the job I did take. Digital is an interloper on an age-old and very refined workflow. It makes waves, and as a result causes stress.

For those uninterested in digital but considering traditional print publishing grad work, I’d still choose a graduate program that offers digital publishing classes. This means that the school and professors are more likely to be up to date on current and rapidly changing workflows that incorporate digital publishing. Even the editors of the world are affected by the digital movement, and having some awareness of that before entering the field will immediately make you valuable in your field and amongst your colleagues.

The Traditional Benefits

Entering a publishing program offers many of the benefits you’d expect from attending a graduate program, benefits such as networking, job opportunities, and a well-established alumni, which are all immensely helpful when moving forward in your career.

Emerson put me in touch with not only the professionals amongst my classmates and professors but also a number of individuals that came and taught my class for an evening or simply spoke to us. Emerson also has an internal means to keep track of job openings and internships in an effort to make them more accessible to their students. In my year and a half at Emerson, I had two long-term internships, a job, and some freelance work, and I and rolled right into an ePub fellowship without any issue.

Ultimately grad school paid off in a big way for me. When I applied for the job I ended up taking, I got a call back the next day and in a few weeks I was hired at a digital publishing startup in San Francisco. Now I get to work with a wide range of publishers on a huge number of topics, and I managed to skip entry level work. When I asked my boss why she hired me, she explained that I had seemed like a perfect fit because of my degree, my internships, and my fellowships. Though many of these choices were ones I decided to pursue on my own, Emerson had provided me with the tools necessary to get what I wanted. It was a truly rewarding moment that made my decision to attend graduate school feel worthwhile. As for my Emerson classmates, most of my acquaintances there have jobs at magazines or publishing houses. A few decided to freelance with their new skills and a rare few decided that they wanted something else from their working life. Not one of them has ever told me that they regret getting their degree.

Veronica Thompson (@VeronicaThomp) is the Technical Process Designer at Inkling, a freelance writer for Brit + Co., and formerly served as a Digital Design Fellow at Chronicle Books.


    1. Excluding Kindle and several app-based products.return to text