The Mind Behind the Major: Richard Sowienski

Belmont University holds many surprises and hidden gems that make it a unique and amazing place for so many students. One of which is the Publishing program. No, not music publishing: book publishing. The Publishing major is what put Belmont on my radar during college searches and gave me the room and opportunity to learn and grow my love for writing and books. As I start my fourth semester here at Belmont, I am still struck by how many students and faculty don’t know about the program. “Publishing? Like music” Again, no not music, books. “I didn’t even know that was a thing here!” No kidding.

To be fair, the program is still in its infancy with only around 50 students and 4 years at Belmont so far. We are a small but mighty major, so I wanted to shout it out from the rooftops “BELMONT HAS A PUBLISHING MAJOR!” But shouting from the rooftops might bring some questions of my sanity, so I decided to interview Richard Sowienski, our fearless leader, about the program.

Hi Richard! Thanks for taking the time to answer a couple of questions for HerCampus readers! I want to talk a little about you first and your experience in the publishing business. 

Ashley Harris: Where did you go to school and what did you get your degree in?

Richard Sowienski: I went to the University of Iowa and received my MFA degree in the Nonfiction Writers Program, named the top-ranked program by US News and World report, along with the Writers Workshop for fiction and poetry. I returned for my MFA after twenty-plus years in the magazine publishing business.


AH: How did you get started in the business? Why did this particular area of work stick out to you?

RS: My first “publishing” job was selling bible books door-to-door in Chattanooga for Southwestern Publishing. (I actually made enough to pay my tuition for the following year—those were the days!). But after my undergraduate years (also at Iowa) I went to work as Publications Director and Account Executive for Wesley Day Advertising in Des Moines, Iowa. I loved being part of a creative team, developing advertising plans, writing ad copy, and overseeing the publication of several newsletters. From there I went to Meredith Corp., in Des Moines, first as Copywriter for the Market Development Dept. of Successful Farming magazine, and then as their Advertising and Sales Promotion Manager. I transitioned to the editorial department as Senior Editor for a country music and lifestyle magazine called Country America. Finally, I joined Better Homes and Gardens magazine as Parenting and Education Editor.


AH: What do you think is the biggest difference in Publishing now than when you first started?

RS: One word: Amazon. They changed the entire book selling landscape. And as far as marketing, social media and the requirement (in most cases) that authors already have an established platform.


AH: What do you think the publishing business will look like in 10 years?

RS: Print will still not be dead. Publishers will have a mix of products: print, digital, voice. Video will become increasingly important in marketing. The small to medium-sized publisher will take advantage of the constantly changing publishing landscape to serve niche markets and authors the big guys will ignore.


AH: Why did you start teaching?

RS: As much as I loved my BH&G editorial job, I asked myself if I wanted to spend the next 20 years in a 10 x 10 cubicle. The answer was no, and I pursued my MFA. During the three-year program, I taught intro writing courses and creative writing courses and thought this is something I enjoy and can do. Interacting with students has always been the best part of teaching—and seeing their writing skills progress, or that light bulb turning on regarding some concept we might be studying.


Now, I want to shift over to Belmont and the Publishing Program.

AH: The Publishing degree is still fairly new to Belmont, but it is still one of the only ones available in the United States. Why do you think that is?

RS: We’re in our fourth year and enjoying a growing program. But other colleges and universities are catching on. Some are now offering a “concentration” in publishing (including my alma mater). Some of these concentrations are little more than a creative writing program with a few editing courses thrown in—and there’s nothing wrong with that for those who want a trimmed program. But to my knowledge, Belmont is still the only university to offer a fully developed undergraduate Publishing major, covering the business/marketing and editorial areas.


AH: What do you hope students who major in Publishing get from the program?

RS: A job in publishing. But in terms of skills, I want them to be better writers, sharp-eyed copyeditors, creative-thinking marketers, and appreciative readers. These skills are transferable, of course, to any number of professions. Ultimately, I want them to take the concepts and skills they learned in class and through their internships, and pursue a life of passion and purpose.


AH: What do you hope to see in the future for the program?

RS: I’d love to see the Belmont Story Review, our national literary magazine of culture and faith, grow in prominence. And some day, perhaps start a Belmont University Press, offering our students another hands-on publishing experience. As our number of majors and minors increase, I look forward to adding more professors from various publishing fields.

Okay, now a few fun questions to wrap up this chat. 

AH: Favorite book?

RS: Because I was asking our students this question during first days of class, I have this on my mind: Lord of the Rings. As a personal essay fan, my favorite writer is Jo Ann Beard (Boys of My Youth). My favorite short story writer is Lee K. Abbott. YA (and adult) novelist: Neil Gaiman.


AH: Character you wish you could meet?

RS: Freddy the Pig—a talking pig in one of my favorite book series I read as a young kid. That pig got around—I remember he took off for Florida once. And speaking of pigs, you have to love Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, written by E.B. White, who was an outstanding writer of personal essays as well—not to mention co-author of Elements of Style.


AH: Favorite place to read?

RS: A comfy stuffed chair with a good reading lamp over my shoulder, in front of a wood-burning fireplace. Now all I need is a fireplace.


AH: Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

RS: From My Utmost for His Highest, be like Abraham and go out even if you don’t know where you’re going. “Let your attitude of your life be a continual willingness to ‘go out’ in your dependence upon God…”. It’s this idea that gave me confidence to get my MFA and pursue a writing and academic career.


AH: Finally, let’s settle the debate once and for all… hardback or paperback?

RS: My heart says hardback, but my pocketbook says paperback (Oooh!—I like that alliteration and near rhyme). 


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