Let’s Talk: Publishing Master’s Degrees with Tommy Blake

Interviewer: Melissa Ashley Hernandez
April 26th, 2022

Tommy Blake​ (they/them) is the Editor-in-Chief & Founder of the winnow, poetry editor of Dollar Store Magazine, a poetry reader for Persephone’s Daughters, and a poetry reader for Variant Literature. They have a BA in English Literature from Waynesburg University and an MS in Publishing from New York University: School of Professional Studies. They superimposed music and motels onto their poetry chapbooks MIXTAPES and swerve, respectively. Also, they wrote about the Internet in Trick Mirror or Your Computer Screen, and then their cat in Peanut [the cat] auditions as Courage […from Courage the Cowardly Dog]. Tommy is currently contemplating compulsory cishet and ambiguous trauma through horror titles.

Tommy offers their unique perspective on their Publishing Master’s journey and how it has helped them in the indie lit mag community!

Interview Questions:

The Minison Project: How has having a master’s degree in publishing impacted your relationship with the lit community?

Tommy Blake: In the first marketing course I took at NYUSPS, I made every effort in my final assignment to increase the number of the winnow Twitter followers and social media engagement. The lessons from that class coupled with the ~10x increased activity ended up paying off. At that time, which was the fall of 2019, the winnow had approximately 400 followers. By the end of the next term, the winnow had approximately 1000 followers. The major reason for the increase, besides activity/engagement, was potentially due to the first event the brand ever held: a writing workshop. We haven’t hosted once since 2020, but we plan to host another workshop in the future. 

TMP: How has the MS degree helped you as a writer?

TB: I learned how to write ad copy as well as long-form and short-form content. Essentially, it helped me become a better business-oriented writer, which has, in turn, helped with social media posts. As for creative writing, I wouldn’t say this program necessarily helped me, as I did not take a single creative writing course at NYUSPS, but the focus on magazine media did inspire the last packet of poems I wrote.

TMP: How has the degree helped you as EIC of the winnow?

TB: Besides giving me the push to plan for social media, my coursework has inspired me to look into different business opportunities for the magazine. Unfortunately, however, since the teachings are on such a macroscale–meaning that they are designed to aid you if you work at a big company–not everything was translatable. All in all, this has taught me how to be craftier in my research, and that connections are incredibly important across the board.

TMP: What do you think can only be learned by serving as an EIC vs. through courses in publishing?

TB: Let me first say that if you plan to attend an institution to better a nonprofit literary magazine or a micro-magazine/press, that may not be worth it as the cost of the education will forever exceed the “monetary earnings” (re: there aren’t any). I did not attend NYUSPS for that reason — I attended because I want to work in publishing beyond literary magazines for a full-time job. However, since the courses are designed for the latter, a lot of concepts need to be re-learned through the lens of indie publishing. The biggest ticket item is funding. I’m still working this one out, to be honest, as my coursework did not really dive into this for big companies since the money is already there for them. There was a course for start-up companies, which would have been very helpful, but it always conflicted with required courses for me. 

TMP: Do you think a master’s degree (fine arts or not) is necessary?

TB: The short answer: no, but it can be helpful. 

The long answer is that it depends on what you are hoping to gain from the degree. I sought out an MS to further my experience/understanding of business models in the publishing industry and to make long-lasting connections. However, I have not sought out an MFA because, for creative concepts, I work and learn best from hands-on experience. On the other hand, an MFA would grant me more connections and more opportunities, potentially, for that hands-on experience. Career-wise, I do not see an MFA assisting me with that aspect of my life at this time; however, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help someone else. All in all, I strongly suggest conducting research on any master’s program you plan to apply to and asking yourself why specifically that program and why you want it.

TMP: What makes this degree worthwhile and how has it helped you in the indie lit community? 

TB: This degree taught me how to put together a multifaceted business plan that would have the potential to succeed in the scope of the publishing industry. I will always be grateful for the business experience and skills it has gifted me. I can’t wait to translate those skills and experience into a career in publishing, whether it be in Books or Digital Media.

Also, the degree has helped me with personal ventures, especially putting together a marketing plan for a self-published or micro-press book on a shoestring (or $0) budget. It’s helped me with understanding brand recognition, transparency, and ethos which would’ve taken me much longer to learn/understand without the degree. It’s also given me the confidence to properly conduct additional research, which may involve the knowledge of my peers or colleagues at times. And, of course, it’s helped me a great deal with business ad copy and graphics.

You can find Tommy on Twitter @tommyblakepoet, tweeting about their cat, Peanut.

You can keep up with the winnow here: https://www.thewinnowmagazine.com/

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