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An Education in Book Publishing

Stack of published works by Otis Books
Lisa Butterworth

Walk into the large, open room that houses Otis Books, the literary imprint of Otis College of Art and Design on any given day and you’ll see people working diligently in InDesign, typesetting and creating layouts. Others might be reading through submitted manuscripts, or proofing pages of forthcoming titles. Someone else is busy corresponding with a distributor or an author. All of the normal activities that make a small press run. Except these people are students, and this intimate exposure to the oft-inaccessible side of the publishing world is part of Otis College’s MFA Writing program curriculum.

“It’s given me a sense of community and belonging, like another brick in the foundation that helps me feel grounded,” says second-year MFA writing student Faizah Rajput, of the intimate, yearlong Publishing Practices class. It’s a rare opportunity in the world of writing programs, where many schools have journals, but few have actual in-house book imprints, especially ones woven right into the curriculum. But it shouldn’t be, according to Peter Gadol, the writing program’s chair. “We recognize that publishing is not a corollary to writing but actually a part of writing, that it’s all one and the same and to be a writer is to be engaged in publishing,” he says. “This offers the students really excellent background and learning in an important part of where their careers may take them.” 

It’s one of the reasons Rajput, whose focus is on memoir, chose to take the elective class. “I was interested in the backend of submitting work,” she says. “We also edit, we design, we write, and create bids, maintain relationships with other writers and editors, and learning all of that was really important to me.” And though the learning opportunities are prolific, the environment is collaborative. “It’s really not like a class at all to me. It feels more like we’re all working together on this project,” says Guy Bennett, who teaches Publishing Practices, and has directed Otis Books since its inception in 2003. “It’s their press. It’s not one person that’s making the decisions; everybody is involved in pretty much everything.”

MFA Writing Class at Otis College

That includes which manuscripts are chosen for publishing. The press, which releases an average of four to five titles a year, skews toward the experimental. This spring’s forthcoming titles include a book of poetry by Steve Castro, Blue Whale Phenomena, and Gray is the New Black, a memoir by Dorothy Rice about “aging and sexism and self-acceptance,” Bennett says. The class is typically made up of eight or nine students, about half of those in the program as a whole, and it’s just one of the elements that make Otis College’s writing program so unique. Another is its multi-genre, team-taught workshops, which welcome poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers to the same table. “Writers now in their careers tend to move around genres a lot more,” says Gadol. “So you might have a poet who becomes an essayist and nonfiction writer like Maggie Nelson, or someone like Teju Cole who works in fiction and nonfiction and moves very easily among forms. I think that’s now the model writer and the kind of writer that we’re trying to prepare.”

Also, the impact of studying writing at an art school cannot be underestimated. “I feel so spoiled because you can’t help but look somewhere and feel inspired,” Rajput says. “You pass by a sculpture and you see something or there’s an art installation downstairs and you think of something. There’s this allowance of time and space to create [at Otis]. It’s not only encouraged but it truly is fostered.”

Learn more about MFA Writing at Otis College of Art and Design. Applications are currently being accepted on rolling admission basis as space remains available.