quick look at Off Topic Publishing’s website shows you they have a lot of plates in the air:
- a monthly contest that cycles between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry;
- a monthly poetry box, which sees a selected poem printed on postcards and delivered to subscribers alongside a square of artisan chocolate and a selection of specialty tea;
- chapbook and anthology printing, marketing, and distribution;
- a thriving Facebook group; and most recently,
- writers’ conferences and retreats
It’s hard to believe this literary juggernaut is run from the side of two very busy women’s plates! Both Jennifer Mariani and Marion Lougheed are writers with jobs and lives outside of Off Topic. They make the time for Off Topic because they have an important mission in mind: to celebrate good writing and forge a community of readers and storytellers. Everything Off Topic does is towards that end—and I should know, I’ve submitted to them countless times, and have even been successful with a few, including my short story, “Where We Have to Go” and my creative nonfiction piece, “Casting for Meaning.” I’m a proud member of the Off Topic family.
So, I was delighted for the opportunity to sit down with Editor-in-Chief, Marion Lougheed, to talk all things publishing on behalf of WOW!
WOW: Hi Marion, thanks so much for joining us! I love Off Topic Publishing and its many and varied initiatives. Can you tell us a bit about how Off Topic started, and how it has evolved over time?
Marion: I started Off Topic as an online monthly magazine and my original idea was to create a co-op publisher. There would still be a submission and vetting process to ensure quality, but only people who were members of the co-op could submit. That didn’t work out because I didn’t know what I was doing, so I ran it as a normal online magazine for a year. While I did end up publishing some amazing work, it was hard to get strong submissions every single month. I didn’t know how to raise awareness. I was also paying people out of my own pocket and not making any income, so it was financially unsustainable. After a year, I ended the project.
Later, during the era of COVID, I joined a Facebook group run by CBC Books for writers across Canada. Some of us got talking and I suggested running a monthly contest. That gave me the quality work to publish every month and a way to give out good prize money to the winner. From there, Off Topic grew and I eventually ran some open calls for anthologies and chapbooks. I also solicited a chapbook from Jennifer Mariani (All Forgotten Now), whose work I had read. She ended up joining the Off Topic team after that as a production manager. More recently, we’ve signed Finnian Burnett for a novella-in-flash called The Price of Cookies, which I’m very excited about!
WOW: A monthly contest, anthologies, chapbooks, novellas-in-flash—these are all very different directions. Where do all your ideas come from and how do you decide which projects and initiatives to pursue?
Marion: Hmm, where do ideas come from? I think people have been trying to figure that out since the dawn of time! In all seriousness, for Off Topic most of my ideas come from encounters with other writers or artists. I started an anthology project based around a music album called Wayward & Upward, by Spinoza Gambit, because I love when different art forms intersect and influence each other (like Kandinsky drawing on music theory to create visual art!). Other thematic calls are based on topics I would like to read about or that have some widespread appeal or relatability (home, exhaustion...). I like themes that are complex or multifaceted, so I can bring together work that challenges a single narrative or viewpoint (this may be because I’m also an anthropologist and I love exploring the wide array of human experiences). The charity project for Ukraine came out of a conversation with a copywriter I know who is of Ukrainian descent. And then sometimes I just read a writer's work, like with Jennifer or Finnian, and I approach them to see if they have something I could publish. Long story short (short story long?), I stumble into my ideas.
WOW: That is often the way for writers—we stumble into ideas for our work from experiences or thoughts we have—I guess it’s the same for publishing. Perhaps the most intriguing/unique element of Off Topic is your monthly poetry subscription box—can you tell us how that came about and how folks can get involved with that?
Marion: The Poetry Box was actually Jennifer's idea. We were talking about her chapbook, and she said how it would be cool to have a physical card or gift box with poetry on it to send out to people. She did all the legwork of finding a local organic tea vendor and an artisanal oatmilk chocolate vendor, etc. There’s no way the Poetry Box would exist without her. As the editor, I vet the submissions and choose one each month (which is hard, since there are so many excellent poems). I also find the artwork and design the cards. Then I send the design to a printer in Calgary. Jennifer packages them up with the tea and chocolate and mails them out to our subscribers. A lot of people purchase our 3-month option as a gift for a loved one or a treat for themselves, but you can also subscribe monthly or yearly. All the information, including how to submit and how to subscribe to this treat, is on our website at www.offtopicpublishing.com/poetrybox.
WOW: Subscription boxes are so popular right now—I love that you turned it on its head and customized it to writers and writing! But debatably the monthly contest is what Off Topic is most known for. It’s been a fixture for the past year and a half. How has it grown and changed? Have you noticed anything about the entries that win along the way?
Marion: The Off Topic Contest started exclusively for members of Canada Writes, the Facebook group I mentioned before. At first, people in that group were really excited about it and a lot of people submitted. That’s normal, and then the novelty wore off. Now it’s open to anyone worldwide and there’s steady growth.
More people submit in poetry months, I guess because poems are shorter. I’m happy that there has been a wide variety of winners and honourable mentions, including literary and genre fiction, poetry with vastly different styles, and creative nonfiction on various themes.
I try to have different judges every month so that personal aesthetic or thematic preferences don’t bias things too much. I think it’s working so far! I’ve even nominated a few winners for Best of the Net. I guess what I’ve noticed about the winning entries is that they are all excellent!
“[The contest judges] look at a variety of factors, including the skill level of writing, how much the piece grabs their interest or how creative it is, if the structure works, if the entry is polished, and things like that. For poetry, they also look at the overall idea and theme, as well as sensory or evocative use of language.”
WOW: The monthly contest also has a pretty unique format for the industry—a $5 entry fee is almost unheard of. Getting feedback on your entry whether you win or lose is also rare. Plus, the winner gets half the pot with the remainder paying judges and administration costs. Tell us a little about how you decided on this format, and why you continue to use it.
Marion: I think writers deserve to be paid. But I wanted to make this whole project sustainable for myself, too. So, I hit on this model for the contest. There’s always a fund to draw from to pay writers, judges, website costs, JotForm subscription, etc. As a writer myself, I know how invaluable personalized feedback can be. I don’t want Off Topic to just be another publisher; I mean it when I say that I am trying to build a community of readers and writers. I also feel that judges will think hard about a piece on its own terms when they have to provide explicit feedback.
WOW: What are contest judges looking for in submissions? What’s your judging criteria?
Marion: The judges are given a rubric depending on that month’s format (poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction). They look at a variety of factors, including the skill level of writing, how much the piece grabs their interest or how creative it is, if the structure works, if the entry is polished (free of typos and other errors), and things like that. For poetry, they also look at the overall idea and theme, as well as sensory or evocative use of language.
WOW: It sounds like you put a lot of time and energy into every element of Off Topic—especially the community building aspect. Time and energy many writers would rather put into their own writing. Does running Off Topic contribute too, or cost your life as a writer and a creative? How does being a writer impact the way you approach running Off Topic?
Marion: Both, for sure. I have met so many amazing writers through Off Topic, some of whom have become friends. There’s a Facebook group for Off Topic, which works as a little writer community, as well as including readers, which I think is a rare combination. Writers often meet other writers, but it can be hard to invite readers into the fold. So I’m trying to connect us all. Readers enjoy seeing behind the scenes too. But the amount of time and energy I put into Off Topic does eat into my creative energy and output (plus I have non-Off Topic work to do). Reading through hundreds and hundreds of submissions saps my brain, so it can be hard for me to work on my own stuff. On the other hand, I am grateful for the insight into what people are writing about and how people write. It’s easier for me to know what’s a common or tired trope if I’ve seen it in my inbox a hundred times. And the range of styles inspires me to try new things.
“Joining a writerly community helps you take your own work seriously: other people are doing it too! Maybe we're all nuts for wanting to write, but at least we can be nuts together!”
WOW: That definitely sounds like a lot to read and consider in addition to thinking of your own writing! Plus, in addition to writing and running Off Topic, you are also a PhD student, an Academic, an editor for hire. How do you balance Off Topic with all your other jobs and initiatives?
Marion: Heh, balance. The pandemic threw a monkey wrench in my PhD progress. That’s when I started Off Topic seriously. Now I’m back into PhD mode and it is difficult. I’m planning not to launch any new chapbook or anthology calls once I get Wayward & Upward, Home, and Exhaustion off my plate. The editing is my day job, the thing that pays the bills (and also a way to learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and why). I do everything part-time, and it adds up to more than a full-time job. I’m glad that some projects are coming to a resting point. Once I clear a few things away, I will be able to refocus entirely on a handful of things instead of a dozen. I don’t glorify busyness or overwork, for myself or anyone else.
WOW: Yes, it seems everyone feels busy and overworked these days—and we all have tasks we like and dislike on our to do lists. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of running Off Topic?
Marion: My favorite part is reading submissions, although it can get a bit overwhelming because of the sheer volume. But I am an avid reader anyway and I feel privileged to set eyes on works that are not publicly available! It also gives me a ton of joy to tell people they’ve won the contest or been selected for a publication. Least favorite is sending out rejection letters (nobody likes receiving them, including me, even though it’s entirely necessary when I’ve received 500 submissions for 15 slots). And the tedious stuff: creating items in the online bookstore or writing contracts or creating submission forms or mailing list content. Bleh.
WOW: 500 submissions. That’s a lot! Is that a typical number of submissions you receive per contest?
Marion: The contest varies month to month. I think the most I’ve received for that was in the dozens, not hundreds. But the open calls for anthology and chapbook submissions have been over 500 pretty much every time.
“I like to think Off Topic’s publications reflect a sense of interconnection and diversity in its broadest sense.”
WOW: I feel like we have a good sense of Off Topic now, and want to hear a little more about yourself and Jennifer. You are both citizens of the world and have lived and worked in many different places. How has that influenced Off Topic?
Marion: That’s an interesting question! One way that it influences me is that I love receiving pieces from people outside of North America. There’s a lot of great work in North America, but also in the rest of the world. Africa is particularly close to my heart, since I lived in Benin for five years as a child. One of the Poetry Box poems was by a Nigerian poet and spoke beautifully about talking drums—how could I not choose it? Jennifer doesn’t do anything on the editorial side, but certainly her own writing resonated with me because of our shared experiences of being “too foreign for here, too foreign for home,” as the saying goes. And of course living as white people in Africa, although our lives have been different in obvious and important ways: she is actually African and I am not; she lived in the south and I lived in the west; and so on. Zimbabwe and Benin are as far apart as Austria and Saudi Arabia, so there are many differences. But we both have transnational lines crisscrossing our lives and we are each connected to people in several countries. I like to think Off Topic’s publications reflect a sense of interconnection and diversity in its broadest sense.
WOW: The interconnection and diversity are definitely reflected in Off Topic. So, for anyone reading this who may want to join the community, do you have any advice regarding submitting or getting involved in another way?
Marion: Just submit! What’s there to lose? (That’s my advice in general, not just for Off Topic.) And don’t get discouraged if your work doesn’t land right away. I read and love a lot of submissions but simply can’t publish it all. (Also, read and follow the submission guidelines for the project you’re submitting to; I’m amazed by how many people sent me fiction for the nonfiction anthology Standing Up or work about how terrible war is—it is—when the theme was, well, standing up.) Believe me if I say that I like your work. Even if your writing isn’t quite there yet, we’re all on a writing journey. If we keep writing, we will improve. This is one reason I offer affordable online workshops too. I learn as much from them as anybody else! I’m a writer too. I know how hard it can be to send your work out to someone, especially a stranger. Know that I really do love reading every piece and I will treat your words gently. If you aren’t ready to submit, there’s always the Facebook group and the mailing list. Make yourself a cup of tea and lurk for a while, see what you think. I once told a fellow writer how many hundreds of people submit to my little micropress. They could hardly believe the numbers, because they only knew two other writers. Joining a writerly community helps you take your own work seriously: other people are doing it too! Maybe we’re all nuts for wanting to write, but at least we can be nuts together!
My thanks to Marion Lougheed, Editor-in-Chief of Off Topic Publishing, for her time spent chatting with me. I'm exciting to see what Off Topic does next!
Marion shared some great advice for anyone interested in submitting to Off Topic—or to any of the other calls you might find in the WOW! Newsletter. Submit. Try not to get discouraged. Follow the submission guidelines. Keep writing. Take training. Make yourself a cup of tea. Find community. Believe in your work.
Lindsey Harrington is an Atlantic Canadian writer. She found her love of writing four years ago, and since then she has been shortlisted for Nova Scotia’s Budge Wilson Short Fiction Prize and won their Rita Joe Poetry Prize. She has had work published by Sunlight Press, Books Ireland, Off Topic Publishing, and Brilliant Flash, among others. She is currently working on a short story collection about breakups, Coming Apart, and a memoir about choosing not to have children, called Free or Less. Follow her on Instagram @lindseyharringtonwriter.