Dennis Stovall, Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of Publishing Curriculum at Portland State University in Oregon, has too long a title. That was the only negative of the first hour and a half he spent with me (from my perspective). He met me at the Write to Publish Conference organized by Ooligan Press. I’d just finished checking in, signed my debit card receipt, noticed engineering student Flake had left the amount blank, thrust a finger in his chest and demanded, “Fill it in.” I’m exaggerating. I was nice, but he continued to mess up and processed incorrect card verification code which created a small stir when the box office had to track me down in the afternoon for ‘re-processing.’ I have no idea why everyone gets sidetracked when I appear.
Professor Stovall is a friendly guy, walked right up and asked if he could help us find our desired session. I hadn’t chosen anything—and thrown off guard by someone just as friendly as me—regarded him suspiciously. He smiled, we exchanged formalities, and once I figured out who he was (my friend Eliza whispered his department position and warned “Behave!”) I stated, “I’m following you!”
Hang out with the top guys I always say. I wagged my tail like a puppy and padded after Stovall to Classroom B.
“Are you a writer?” he asked.
“Not a real writer,” I sighed, then brightened, “Wait a minute, I am! I am published in a book. I’ve got a whole chapter, or at least part of one, can’t remember. It’s a book called Laughing Nine to Five: Humor in the Workplace.”
That’s when he brightened, “I designed that book.” We high-fived over the twenty people who had purchased it.
Now that I was elevated in his eyes, due to my collaborative published work, it was his turn to impress me. I took a seat, pulled out my laptop, quirked an eyebrow as fingers hovered over the keys. I was here to learn the business. Isn’t that what all the literary agents’ blogs stress, learn the business? Bring it on, baby, for six hours I’m a student of publishing.
Ooligan, a teaching press
Stovall’s perspective comes from a unique position: author, educator, publisher. He runs Portland State’s publishing program and press. It is unique in the world. Similar curriculum exist elsewhere, you can find it in four other schools, but other universities are not willing to turn everything over to the students. At PSU hierarchy is practically vanquished, students are colleagues of professors, and separation of classroom and press a mere nuance of proximity.
The PSU’s masters in publishing program produces a high level of participation and extraordinary student commitment, and despite budget cuts in all areas of education, this program is not suffering. It’s self-supporting. The grad students learn the art and craft of publishing by, well, publishing books! Book revenues underwrite a portion of their funding.
Ooligan Press is the general trade press where the students apprentice. They chose manuscripts carefully, and their 2008/2009 catalogue offers 21 titles featuring Pacific Northwest writers and works which honor the cultural and natural diversity of the region.
Part of my interest in Ooligan was their prior interest in me. A Willamette Writers encounter with a student holding pitch sessions resulted in a request for my first four chapters. At the time, I realized it wasn’t a good fit, but it felt good, and I lived on that encouragement for months. In retrospect, I can admit my query was about 10 months premature. Today, I’m a better writer, better educated, and better armed to do battle with publishing, and Stovall filled in the gaps.
He got right down to the stats.
Last year 560,000 new titles were published in the United States, up from the year 2002 which only saw 120,000. “That enormous increase runs at a rate of 70 books an hour, but that doesn’t mean that all those books even ought to have been published,” Stovall said. The advent of very inexpensive self publishing, POD (print on demand), and espresso book machines have allowed authors to rush their work to the marketplace without thorough vetting via professional editing serivces. “For the first time, the addition of e-books and digital books surpassed traditionally printed books. If we don’t include stats on these forms of publishing we will be misled. The trajectory they point to, may give us the direction of the future.”
I’d never heard of a book vending machine, and I am fascinated by the notion. I can imagine The First Carol running a small, highly lucrative bookstore, small as in closet-sized, low rent, pushing buttons and popping out books by request. According to what I saw on You Tube, it’s within the realm of possibilities for the book seller, but really I’m more interested in writing.
What does self-publishing mean to an author? A money drain and no book review according to Dennis Stovall. “It’s estimated self-published writers can expect in the range of 10-20 copies sold during the life of their book.” That’s the total for all time, and for those twenty sold copies thousands of dollars are being spent to have that book in hand, but with no hope of a book review. “Nationally, we’re down to only a handful of professional reviewers,” Stovall said, “We don’t have enough to even look at them. Virtual marketing on Twitter and Facebook has assumed much of the role of the professionals, and today, the public is regarding the casual review of readers on Amazon, for example, more heavily than reviews of professional reviewers.”
Devote a career to learning the craft of reviewing literature only to be usurped by the overindulged, over net-worked, over-opinionated public. Hm, can't beat 'em join 'em? Just a thought.
Tax laws, back lists and the right of return
Not only has the system of reviewing morphed, but so has the entire system of publishing. A publisher’s back list used to represented their gold mine and how they sustained the press. But tax decisions of the late 60-70’s affected how manufacturers handled obsolete inventory. The new laws made publishers abandon much of their backlist; they couldn’t afford to keep it in inventory. Books now needed to sell quickly, warehousing was no longer affordable. Prior to these tax laws, a publisher could invest in an author with a long term view, banking on receiving a payback by the fifth or sixth book. Waiting to discover what the author would develop in six years was a time and expense luxury no longer affordable. Unsold books become remainders. Remainders ended up in discount outlets (which pay nothing to the author) and came to represent that the publisher had given up on the book.
The ‘right of return,’ in place since the great depression and originally intended to allow a smaller bookseller to try and find the correct mix of books for their store, allowed unsold inventory to be returned to the publisher for a credit. “You could try them out and send them back to that publisher if they didn’t sell,” Stovall stated. The publisher was only required to offer new books, not a cash refund.
That altered in the 70-80’s when superstores came to dominate. Publishers found themselves with returns coming in from huge corporations powerful enough to control the conditions. The big players dictated books could be returned at any time—no matter the condition—and still earn a full refund. In cash. Not a replacement.
Under the dominance of the big guys collegiality disappeared. Money woos and publishers fell under the spell of the mega-store influence. “As that shift took place we began to see publishers making accommodations to the new markets and no longer printing books that their marketing department did not agree with; they were overwhelming being driven by the marketing potential of a book.”
The industry, in great turmoil, cut loose a lot of authors...
- Will the mega stores continue to demolish collegiality in publishing?
- Will abandoned authors shake themselves loose of publishing or use their creativity to develop new strategies to stay in print?
- Will self-published authors ever learn the value of professional editing?
- Will The First Carol be courageous enough to re-pitch her manuscript to Ooligan Press?
Stay tuned. Dennis Stovall’s lecture and more from Ooligan’s Write to Publish conference continues throughout the week. Remember to note in comments your entry to win the free book.