Writing the book on success

Flipping through the Spring 2009 catalog for the Oregon State University Press, a bounty of beautiful covers jump out, with names like “Water in the 21st Century West,” and “The Way of the Woods.” Birds dance across some covers, while leaves rest peacefully on others. Karyle Butcher, director of the OSU Press as well as of the Valley Library, tosses a book onto the table in front of her. The cover shows a bicyclist bearing an enormous red flag. She smiles.

afieldfrontcover“These are gorgeous books,” she said. “The fields we emphasize, the natural resources work, and history and culture, have really come into their own.”

As the only university press still existing in the state, and one of a handful in the Northwest, the OSU Press is bucking the national trend of academic presses which are either closing down altogether or reducing the number of titles they produce. The OSU Press is expanding its number of titles, and hopes by next year to produce around 23 new books. For 2009 they’re up to 18.

“We’re doing great,” Butcher said.

More than great. The OSU Press is garnering a lot of attention with some of its latest titles, including “Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957,” the inaugural title in the Northwest Photography Series, which will receive the 2009 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award in March. Lauren Kessler’s book “Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese American Family,” is also doing well, thanks in part to it being chosen by the Oregon Library Association as an Oregon Reads book this year.
Brian Doyle’s “The Grail,” also was named the February selection for the City Club of Portland’s Citizens Read book club. It’s the fifth OSU Press book to be selected for the program since it was launched in 2004.

And Butcher has high hopes for the bicycling book as well. “Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities,” by Jeff Mapes, senior political reporter for the Oregonian, has the potential to go far, especially given the growing bike culture in the Northwest and beyond.

Butcher said there are several reasons for the Press’s success. The first is a narrow focus on Pacific Northwest history, culture, literature, the environment and natural resources.

“Oregonians are waking up to the fact that our bread and butter is natural resources,” she said, both for the state economically, and as an area of focus for the press.

“For newcomers to the region and those who are drawn here, we’ve got all the books that answer their questions (about the Pacific Northwest),” said Tom Booth, associate director of the press.

The press does small runs and then reprints selections that sell out. They have a low rate of returns from bookstores, and their backlist titles continue to sell, especially books that feature topics near and dear to Oregonians’ hearts, like wine, birding, the coast, and Linus Pauling.

The press typically stays away from printing textbooks, which recently is another area where other presses are seeing losses. Textbooks are often published in large runs, and have a higher rate of return, not something the OSU Press can afford to shoulder.

Butcher said 75 percent of their sales are in Oregon and Washington, so they’re not stretched too thin. And when the press was moved under the umbrella of the OSU Valley Library a year-and-a-half ago, and Butcher became director, the move saved enough administrative costs to hire a full-time marketing person, Micki Reaman, as well as free up Booth, the associate director.

Booth said it seems that on a fairly cyclical basis, the future of the press is called into question. The last time this happened was in 2006, when the press suddenly found itself without a director. A task force, led by Butcher, was assembled to look at the press and its role at the university. The task force took nine months, but came back with a glowing report on the press, as well as the recommendation that it join with the Valley Library.

“It was a fabulous move,” Booth said. He said Butcher was a problem solver and a risk taker, and her direction has helped move the press forward.

The team at the OSU Press, including managing editor Jo Alexander and acquisitions editor Mary Elizabeth Braun, is well respected among publishing circles, Butcher said, and with such a qualified team staying focused on the topics they are known for, and the press’s new found stability and security within the library, more authors are interested in working with the press.
It doesn’t hurt that there aren’t as many places for authors to go. The University of Oregon and the Oregon Historical Society have both shut down their presses, and the University of Washington is taking on fewer projects, Butcher said. So more authors are looking to OSU as a place to get published.

The year has started off strong for the press, who learned that they are one of four scholarly presses to receive part of a $1 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to create an Indigenous-Studies series. Along with the University of Arizona Press, the University of Minnesota Press and the University of North Carolina Press, OSU Press will use the money to reach out to the foremost scholars in the field and bring their work to academic and indigenous communities worldwide Not only will it expand their catalog, but it’s an honor to be associated with the award.

“To have your name associated with Mellon is always a good thing,” Butcher said.

In addition to increasing the number of titles they produce every year, Butcher is looking to other collaborative efforts to increase the reach of the press.

She’s hoping to work with OSU Printing to arrange a print-on-demand option for some of their backlist titles, and wants to digitize titles so that they are available both on the OSU Press Web site and for printing purposes.

She’s also in discussions with other groups on campus to potentially start offering OSU-related journals in their catalog.

For now, those areas are still in the discussion phase, but what is certain is that the future of the OSU Press is looking rosy in spite of serious economic times.

“The fact that we’re still here and doing well,” Butcher said, “is going to add more authors into the pipeline.”

~Theresa Hogue

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