Students discover the editor within, and get the word out

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Does anyone have a piece of paper?" Dennis Stovall asks as he looks around the room.

One student offers a press release she wrote for her assignment, but rescinds the offer when Mr. Stovall says he's going to rip it up. Another student gives him a white scrap. Stovall tears off a piece.

"This is how you tell the grain of the paper," he tells the class, and puts the scrap on his tongue. The paper curls at both ends. "You can see that the grain runs up the trough of the paper. You'll want to do this with your books, because the grain should run with the spine." Sometimes, he says, printers cut corners and run the grain crosswise.

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Around the room, future publishers take note. They are part of a new program at Portland State University in which the students actually become publishers at Ooligan Press, a "teaching press." Other graduate-level publishing programs focus on work in large firms, while this one is aimed at small and mid-level publishers.

For 15 years, Stovall ran a small literary press called Blue Heron Publishing, and like most people in the business, he learned as he went. He and his wife started Blue Heron in 1985 on a shoestring budget with the "Writer's Northwest Handbook." When they sold the press, they had 42 titles in print. Now he sees himself as holding the small-press torch aloft.

"With the massive changes in publishing," Stovall says, "there is a tremendous negative pressure on literary culture. And to reinvigorate the center of literary culture, you have to reinvigorate the edges." The small press, he says, serves as a "conscious incubator of talent." Now he hopes to start some new incubators while at the same time giving students ideas about how to make a living in the creative arts.

A career possibility opens up

Branwalather Bond hadn't thought much about making books, least of all for a career. "I just needed a new elective," Mr. Bond says, "and Publishing Demystified fit into my schedule." Now he plans to be a nonfiction acquisitions editor at a small or mid-level publishing house.

In the meantime, he's helping set up Ooligan Press (named for the fish that "Oregon" comes from), which is at the center of the new program. Ooligan will publish nonacademic books for profit, as well as books from other university departments.

Ooligan has acquired one title and is looking at other possibilities. Soon, students studying book editing, book design and production, book marketing and promotion, and other subjects will be thrown into the actual production process.

In the meantime, they are working on other projects, like devising marketing plans for locally published books, and listening to speakers from throughout the industry.

Richard Abel, founder of eight publishing houses, recently spoke to the class about his career and the state of publishing. He said that publishers have a "high ethical responsibility" to present new information and act as "gatekeepers to keep the trash out of the marketplace."

Outside class, however, Abel says he's skeptical about the value of academic training in the field. "This is an interesting idea," he says, "but I don't know any publishers who preferentially seek graduates of these places for their staff." Instead, he says some things are better learned on the job. "Is the student going to pass or fail on the basis of whether the book sells in the marketplace or not? I think not."

Does it beat an internship?

For Norma Schell, though, the training program's value seems obvious. Her self-published book, "Heal From the Heart," was used by her marketing and promotion class. "I've got a marketing plan," she says. "I've got PR kits. I've got ideas for how to interface with the marketing world. I learned how to solicit distributors." Now, Ms. Schell says, she knows what she needs to do to find her readers, and currently her book is in stores in Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis.

Karin Taylor of the Small Press Center in New York says the program sounds promising. "The trouble with [standard] internships is that the intern can end up stuffing envelopes and sending out packages. This sounds much more hands-on and much more beneficial," she says.

For his part, Stovall says that's what sets the program apart: It isn't nearly as theoretical as others, and gives actual experience along with general knowledge. Moreover, in spite of all the difficulties faced by smaller presses, he sees new opportunities that shouldn't be wasted.

"When you have these megacorporations dominating things and driving a significant portion of publishers out of the business, in their shadows there are, I hate to say table scraps, but opportunities they can't take because of the economies of scale in which they work," he says. "Small presses that can find a way in – and understand how to address markets strategically – can build themselves well in the shadows of those giants."

Easy to start, hard to sustain

There is some evidence to back up his assertions. Ms. Taylor says that because of new technologies, and in spite of closures, there are even more small publishers than there were 10 years ago. According to a study by the Book Industry Research Group, in 1999 there were 53,479 independent and small publishers in the US, and in 1997 these accounted for 77 percent of all books in print.

But how many of those new ventures survive will depend on how well they reach their audiences. "Over the years," Stovall says, "I've seen an extraordinary number of people begin publishing companies, because it's very easy to get into the game, only to find themselves with warehouses or garages full of books, and unable to market them because they weren't aware of that side of it."

That awareness is one thing Stovall hopes to instill in his students. Abel agrees it's an important lesson, but says only hard experience can teach the needed skills. "[Anybody] can get a book into a warehouse" he says. "Getting it out of a warehouse is quite another chore."

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