"Providing a ‘Safe Space’ for Women to Submit Their Writing."
A Chat With Debbie Taylor, Editor of Mslexia
Mslexia is a British based magazine for women writers. There are unique qualities about the magazine that make it remarkable and interesting. The editor and staff are focused on championing women writers in a variety of unique and exciting ways. I enjoyed this interview and learning more about this successful and far reaching journal. Mslexia has found amazing ways to re-invent itself and stay fresh, compelling, and distinctive.
Interview by Connie Post
I was immediately intrigued by the name of your magazine “Mslexia”. Can you tell me about the origin of the name and how it captures the essence of your journal?
We struggled long and hard to find a name that would encapsulate what we were about without harking back to eighties wimminspeak. So we opted for a completely new word, a play on the term dyslexia. The Dyslexia Society in the UK were consulted and were decidedly NOT offended, so we went ahead. Ms = women, lexia = words in Greek. Dyslexia is a difficulty, more common in men, with reading and spelling. Mslexia is a difficulty, more common in women, with being published.
When was the magazine started and how has it changed since its inception?
The first edition came out on International Women’s Day in 1999. The formula has not changed – we still publish advice and debate about writing, insights from leading women authors, and cutting-edge poetry and prose. But we now also issue a monthly email supplement, with jobs, writing prompts and news as well as the print magazine itself. We also run four high-profile writing competitions every year and publish an annual Writer’s Diary and guide to Indie Presses.
Were there a particular set of issues, or circumstances that motivated you to start a magazine by women for women?
Women are far more likely to study literature than men, they read, buy and borrow far more books, are more likely to attend writing courses and literary events – but are much less likely to submit their writing for publication, to be reviewed when they are published, and to win literary prizes. The reason is because they have less time than men, less confidence in their writing, and are treated with less respect as writers. That’s it in a nutshell.
Can you tell me about your staff and the inner workings of the team? What blend of attributes are optimal for team members individually and as a whole? How often do you meet and what is the collaboration process?
We are a team of 7-10 women, depending on who is on maternity leave and working part time. Most members of the team also write for the magazine Mslexia, and for Little Ms, our email supplement; but their main roles are in admin, marketing, finance, project management, production, ad sales, etc. There is one editor, me, and an editorial assistant; we originate/ commission the bulk of our material.
Your print magazine is of high quality, the pages sturdy, and the tangible nature of it, just feels good in one’s hands. I love it! How did you decide what print style and quality you would go with and how that may affect the magazine’s physical qualities? Can you say a few words about the pros and cons regarding the print magazine as opposed to on line?
We believe in print! In the most recent edition of Mslexia I wrote the lead feature which was about literary magazines. The logistics of print magazine publishing are punitive: print, postage and distribution costs are driving lots of magazines online, and many new start-ups never exist on paper at all. To survive as a paper product we have to maintain high production values, so the magazine becomes a collectable item. We also have to abandon any serious attempt at retail distribution.
This question is coming from me as an American woman author. I would like to know if you see any key differences in the American feminist movement as it relates to writing as compared to the British feminist movement.
Creative writing as a subject taught at universities has a much longer history in the US than in the UK, which means the market for minority genres like poetry and short fiction is much larger. But I am not aware of any ‘feminist’ differences per se.
Mslexia has a wide and interesting array of sections in each issue. How did you develop the ideas and implement this cornucopia of variety? How much time does it take for advance planning for each of the issues? I can imagine it is challenging with such a vast array of subject matter.
The magazine is quarterly and is commissioned at the start of each quarter. There’s very little overlap from one issue to the next (thankfully). I rethink the contents of the magazine every year and make minor changes annually. There is a major redesign every three or four years – as there must be to keep up with changes in the market, in the media, in technology… The redesign affects the look of the magazine as well as the contents. We have just redesigned for the fifth time to ensure the magazine now contains material you simply can’t find anywhere else. Our main competitor is free material online. We operate a very (I hope) welcoming submission policy and actively encourage pitches for features and columns – and receive loads of interesting ideas. I commission some of these directly, or adapt them for commissions that better suit our pages.
Can you elaborate on your “Showcase” section and how you decide what is included in this section? What have been some of the highlights of this area, most memorable?
Showcase is the section in which we publish original poetry and short fiction. Twice a year we invite submissions on a particular theme, and invite a guest judge with a track record of publishing on that theme, to chose the best. At other times of the year the contents of ‘showcase’ are the winners of our annual poetry and short story competitions – again selected by a guest judge, who is a leading author in that genre. Highlights would have to be the poems and stories that have subsequently been broadcast on national radio in the UK. We don’t approach broadcasters ourselves with this in mind, but many leading producers and editors subscribe to Mslexia in order to discover new and compelling writers.
What Section in the magazine gets the most readership response? Are there any new sections you have been thinking adding and or are in the beginning phases of development?
As I mentioned above, we have recently redesigned the entire magazine in order to introduce new material that readers could never find on the internet. We ran a series of surveys recently in which between 1,800 and 4,000 women writers took part – so that would have to qualify as the biggest response! And we are in the process of developing Mslexia Max – a members only area on our website.
What is the most critical way that you see Mslexia supports women writers? Can you share any sections that would exemplify this?
So many ways – I hope! Here’s a summary:
· Stimulating awareness and debate about issues that affect women writers
· Conducting and disseminating original research into those issues
· Providing information about opportunities, resources and events for women writers
· Providing opportunities for women writers to be published
· Publishing information about the craft and business aspects of writing from leading experts in the field
· Providing a ‘safe space’ for women to submit their writing, where it will be read by women, on its own terms and not in competition with men
When Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Britain’s Poet Laureate in 2009, how do you think that changed the face of literature for women, and the overall view in the literary community and beyond? Did you feature any of her work in your magazine?
Carol Ann has been a supporter of Mslexia from the beginning and judged our annual poetry competition a few years ago. She has been, and continues to be, an amazing advocate for poetry and for women writers.
I was impressed to see the way you provide a wide array of exercises, submission openings, events, and even a forum section. What kind of feedback do you get from your readers that indicates the overall benefit of these sections? Is there any one that is a stand out?
We get a huge number of submissions for our 12 regular submissions slots – and some are definitely more popular than others. So much so that we have ‘added value’ to a subscription recently by making the three most popular slots open to subscribers only.
Are you aware of some of the American literary magazines that focus on women’s writings? To name a few; Calyx, Literary Mama and Mom Egg. Have you had contact with any of these magazines and would you consider having a collaborative issue with an American based women’s literary organization?
What a good idea!
What is your general volume of submissions and how do you keep up with submissions? What is your typical response time? What is the number one mistake that frustrates you the most regarding writer’s who submit?
We respond to all submissions within three months and have a very rigorous reading schedule to ensure we don’t fall behind. The number one mistake? Totally inappropriate feature pitches where it’s clear the writer has never bothered to read the magazine before pitching.
There is the obvious controversy of special interest magazines, the criticism being, are they necessary in this day and age. I personally think there is a worthy place for special interest magazines, but I would appreciate any thoughts you’d like to share on this controversy.
The results of our surveys reveal, again and again, that there is a significant group of women writers – perhaps 30 per cent – who are wary of showing their writing, who rarely submit work for publication, who find criticism incredibly undermining, who lack the self-belief to make time for their creative lives. These women, in particular, need a magazine like Mslexia.
How do you see Mslexia changing in the future? What are your hopes for the magazine?
For years Mslexia has operated as a literary publisher that also runs writing competitions. I’d like us to expand our activities to become a literary organisation that fosters and supports women’s writing in a wide variety of ways – through events, workshops, additional publications, competitions and online services, plus an interactive website – Mslexia Max – that operates as a virtual ‘mother ship’ for women writers.
Is there anything you want the readership to know that I did not ask in any of the questions above?
There didn’t seem to be a question that gave me the opportunity to say that Mslexia and Little Ms are fun!
Connie Post served as the first Poet Laureate of Livermore, California from 2005 - 2009. Her work has appeared in The Big Muddy, Calyx, Cold Mountain Review, Crab Creek Review, Comstock Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Slipstream, Spoon River Poetry Review, and The Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poetry awards include the Caesura Poetry Award and Second Prize in the Jack Kerouac Poetry Contest. Her poetry has received praise from Al Young, Ursula LeGuin and Ellen Bass. She has been short listed for the Muriel Craft Bailey awards (Comstock Review) Lois Cranston Memorial Awards (Calyx), Blood Root Literary Magazine, and the Gary Gildner Award (I 70 Review). Her Chapbook “And When the Sun Drops” (Finishing Line Press) won the 2012 Aurorean Editor’s Choice Award. Her first full length book Floodwater was released by Glass Lyre Press in 2014 and won the 2014 Lyrebird award.