Careers in Writing: An Interview with Mary Keutelain

An Interview with Mary Keutelain

Here at Niche Features we have launched several interview series, including MFA Spotlights and Journal Spotlights both of which are aimed towards aiding upcoming writers who want to move forward in their careers. As we all aware, schooling ourselves in the craft of writing and literature, and knowing where to submit our polished work is only half of the struggle. The other, and probably more relevant half, is knowing what careers we can go into once we’ve graduated with our degrees. Therefore, Niche is lunching a new interview series called Careers in Writing, which aims to answer questions, such as, what jobs can I apply for with a degree or two degrees in English or Creative writing? What jobs will sustain us as writers? How many graduates with degrees in English or Creative Writing actually continue to write and publish after graduation? Will I be able to find a job that will allow me to both feed my family and continue writing? What kind of questions should I be asking myself now that I’ve graduated? To begin the series, I’ve asked one of our own editors, Mary Keutelian to talk a little bit about her decision to pursue a degree in publishing, and her current job in a field related to writing. – Katya Cummins

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about what lead you to pursue to earn a degree in publishing?

MARY KEUTELIAN: Since junior high, I had settled on earning a creative writing degree, and through high school, I was convinced I would then move on to an MFA program after. However, it wasn’t until my first creative writing workshop in college did I realize that, while I enjoyed the craft of writing, I thoroughly enjoyed the technicality and process of editing and roundtable discussions. That’s when I began wondering, “Okay, what next? What happens after you’ve written these grammatically correct, fleshed-out stories? How do we approach submitting them to magazines? What if I had a collection of these stories and wanted to take the traditional publishing route?” These were the questions that would come to mind. I knew then that my passions went from a higher degree in creative writing to a higher degree in publishing. I wanted to learn the ins and outs of the publishing business in addition to the writing craft. I wanted to learn how the business worked and what the next steps are post-story completion.

NICHE: Why George Washington University in particular? Were you attracted to what George Washington calls “Distance Learning?” How are the classes held, and do you find this a beneficial way to learn? Why or why not?

MARY KEUTELIAN: I looked at many different institutions and degrees that related to publishing or editing–all three Publishing Summer Institutes at NYU, Columbia, and Denver, Pace University,  Emerson College, DePaul University, University of Chicago, just to name a few. This is about three years worth of research on universities, degrees, certificates, and locations. I knew moving away would be very difficult, considering I was working as a contractor at the time I was applying, and I had been working retail jobs prior to that moment. I wanted something that I could do either around home/the Chicagoland area or online.

I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I saw a Facebook ad for George Washington University that read something along the lines of “Want to study publishing?” How I missed GWU during my research, I don’t know, but when I looked at the course listings, I saw that it fulfilled many of my requirements for a program in publishing. I was looking for classes that covered a lot of the production side of publishing: A book is acquired, now what? So the courses in copyright law, production, business, promotion, even indexing all appealed to me. In addition to these types of courses, I was looking for an on-campus program with an online option from a well-known university at an affordable price. I was lucky enough to find it with GWU.

Again, while I enjoy creative writing, I was looking for a graduate program that would challenge me more in how the publishing industry worked rather than different types of writing genres.

The Distance Learning offered at George Washington was definitely a big draw for me. Classes are held online via Blackboard, and lectures are pre-recorded and uploaded each week. Of course, there are always readings, weekly assignments (for the most part) and weekly discussions (for the most part) also posted each week pertaining to the subject. At first, I found it challenging to balance work and school then bounce between two courses, but I was able to get a good rhythm going and have been doing really well, both with time management and academically. I honestly do like this way of learning, although the on-campus cohort gets to attend panels and meet guest lecturers in person. I think for those with busy lives and still want to learn, the way courses are structured will still be beneficial. Topics are challenging and demanding, and projects always promote deeper understanding of the topic (more on this later).

NICHE: Does George Washington offer any funding or financial support?

MARY KEUTELIAN: Not that I’m aware of. I know students qualify for financial aid as long as they take 5 credit hours per semester, but you’re almost always guaranteed to hit that credit hour mark per semester, so that’s not an issue. In terms of stipends or other funding, there are none available for this program to my knowledge.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about the classes you are required to take, and how they might be applied in the publishing industry?

MARY KEUTELIAN: All students are required to take six core courses: Fundamentals of E- Publishing, Book and Journal Publishing, Copyright Law in Print and Cyberspace, Business of Publishing, Marketing Strategies and Production Management. Once those six courses are done (they’re basically prerequisites to the rest of the degree), you can move on to concentrating in one of the following five tracks: Editorial, Marketing, Business, Design or Technology.

A lot, if not all, of the courses are specifically designed to apply to the publishing industry. The courses I mentioned above are pretty self-explanatory in their application to the industry: the first two courses listed above are basically an overview of the industry and challenges from technology disruption. Regardless of what track you concentrate during your second year, the courses still relate significantly to publishing. From learning more about copyright law and permissions to building a foundation for designing eBooks to creating profit and loss statements and title sheets, the courses and instructors make sure to teach you applicable information.

NICHE: What are the most beneficial or surprising things you’ve learned about the publishing industry while taking these courses?

MARY KEUTELIAN: I can’t narrow it down to one. I surprisingly liked the business and marketing courses, and was impressed with really how much precision and work goes into projecting the profits of a single book. Whether it was creating operating statements, balance sheets or title budgets (title profit and loss statements), it was, for a lack of a better word, impressive to see how much detail goes into a single book. One of assignments (or perhaps it was on a midterm) was to figure out what the certain cost of sales for a textbook title would be under certain conditions, and deciphering the numbers and evaluating a book from its price per page through production cost was daunting and eye-opening.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise, but actually getting my hands into assignments and projects made me realize the details and factors that need to be considered when starting a new endeavor or budgeting for a project. Though it sounds cliche, I do like how, with each class, we dig deeper into the topic and are exposed more to marketing, copyright law, production, and so on.

NICHE: Has working towards this degree help you gain an insight into the inner workings of publishing industry, and if so, what insights has it provided?

MARY KEUTELIAN: My classes have definitely given me insight for not only the publishing industry, but business in general. Having taken mostly liberal arts courses in college, I’ll admit my knowledge of marketing and business was limited. However, after taking my first year’s core courses, I actually feel better equipped in my current position too. For example, my marketing course, though geared toward published, did cover overall marketing concepts that could be applied to any industry, including market share, distribution methods, and challenges for different publishing segments. My production course made me think about how post office hours and mailing prices could affect delivery and printing costs (should postage be part of the package), etc.

In short, though, I feel like so far my program has answered a lot of the questions I had when I first arrived. I’d like to learn more about the acquisition of titles (I’m pretty sure this will be covered in my spring semester), but so far we’ve been focusing a lot on what happens after a title or article has been acquired and edited.

In my marketing class, we looked over brand extension, using resources and creating buzz words for a product or company, but one of our main focuses was how to market eBooks and how pricing and self-publishing, more often than not,

NICHE: What sort of jobs are you hoping to land after you’ve completed your degree in publishing?

MARY KEUTELIAN: A lot of what I do at my current job lines up with what I’ve seen in production editor roles, and with this Masters soon under my belt, I would definitely like to make the transition from eCommerce and apply this knowledge to an association or trade publisher. So, hopefully once I complete my degree, I can land a production editor position (I’m meticulous at spreadsheets, workflows and checklists) or fill an assistant editor/editorial assistant role.

NICHE: What advice would you give to others who are thinking of obtaining a degree in publishing?

MARY KEUTELIAN: Definitely make sure whichever program you attend offers the courses you would like to learn. Sounds pretty simple and very common sense, but it did take me almost two years to settle on a program that I thought best fit my interests. Like I mentioned earlier, I looked at a lot of masters and certificate programs before I set forth with GWU. Other programs either focused mainly editing styles with some electives in copyright and eBook formatting, focused a lot on genre writing (travel, magazine, comedy, etc.; I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, that’s just not what I wanted), or were too business-focused. If you’d like to learn more about writing or only editing techniques, then I’d say go for those programs, but I wanted something more encompassing to fulfill my curiosity and interests.

NICHE: Many graduates in creative writing wonder what they will do with their degrees once they’ve graduated. Many land jobs as technical writers or copyeditors. You’re obviously working your way towards a degree, but you’re also working as Sears Holding as a technical writer. Can you tell us a little bit about what that job entails, and how your skills as a creative writer have helped you in this particular industry?

MARY KEUTELIAN: My team creates both creative and technical copy that’s visible throughout the Sears and Kmart sites. While we don’t write product descriptions (that’s another team), we do write category descriptions and informational buying guides. I began as a writer on the team, but as our team expanded to nearly three times it’s size (two to six writers), I stepped up and began editing our work to ensure the quality and consistency in our work, as well as grammar, spelling, and punctuation. My creative writing background steps in more than you’d think. As an editor, it’s like having that workshop mindset always on: “Okay, this looks good, but what about phrasing it like this?” or “So what? Why is this important?” Just as we wrote in the margins of our peers stories, I do something similar in my current position, getting writers to catch their frequent (minor) errors earlier and think more about what’s important to the consumer.

In addition to editing, my capacity extends to doing a lot of workflow management, keeping spreadsheets of assignments and projects, and knowing what stage every project is at any given moment. I’ve learned so many Excel and Google Spreadsheet formulas that if you told me I’d be doing this a few years ago, I wouldn’t believe you. So in my position, there’s a necessity to be organized, meticulous and consistent.

NICHE: Could graduates make a decent living at that job, or would they need a second job to supplement the income?

MARY KEUTELIAN: Yes, I absolutely think that graduates can make a decent living as copywriters or copyeditors and do it full-time. However, considering I’m one of the (few?) blessed graduates still living at home with my parents, my expenses are considerably lower than those who pay rent, etc. However, If I didn’t have my tuition expenses, I would be fine on my own.

NICHE: Is there anything else you want our readers to know?

MARY KEUTELIAN: There is a program for you out there, you just need to do some digging for what fits your interests most and if it’s financially attainable. I know many continuing education students may rely on stipends or financial aid, just don’t be discouraged by the price tag of whichever university you apply and attend. Also, for those looking to balance full-time work and part-time school, it IS possible. You really need to stay focused and manage your time really well. As a commuter, I have learned to appreciate the time I have on the train not to nap, but to catch up on readings for classes so I can spend my evenings watching lectures or working on assignments.

This Career Spotlight was originally posted on Niche’s website on October 5, 2014

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