How a successful small American publisher helped Grattan Street Press get started…
A major inspiration for Grattan Street Press was Ooligan Press, the teaching press at Portland State University, Oregon. Late in 2015 its director, Per Henningsgaard, visited Australia and stopped off at the University of Melbourne to meet staff of our program. A few months later, I took a plane to the US to learn more about Ooligan’s operations firsthand.
Portland, Oregon in winter. Pic: Jeremy Jeziorski
Portland proved to be rain-soaked, foggy and much much colder than the 4 degrees Celsius that was forecast. But as I warmed up my frozen brain over many cups of the local artisan-roasted coffee, it was impossible to miss the alternative creative vibe on which Portland prides itself. Situated in the Pacific Northwest, a region famous for its rich natural beauty, the city has crafted an identity that is clean, green and liberal (in the American sense of the word). Plastic bags are banned in Portland, and the city’s metropolitan planning authority is democratically elected, unlike most in the US. The state of Oregon went easily to Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, but its Democrats actually liked Bernie Sanders even more. Portland’s “new Millennial-hippie culture” is affectionately satirized in the TV show Portlandia which, not surprisingly, includes a (mythical) feminist bookshop as one of its prime locations.
Indie publishing and bookselling are very much part of the Portland scene, partly through the Independent Publishing Resource Center, which opened in 1998, and rather like Melbourne’s own Sticky Institute and 100 Story Building is a resource and a meeting place for local authors and would-be publishers. There are at least 30 small publishing independent publishers in Portland, including literary publishers like Future Tense, Hawthorne Books and Perfect Day. There is also a strong community of local writers, including internationally celebrated authors like fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin.
It was from this fertile literary ground that Ooligan Press emerged in 2001. Although it began with seed funding from its parent, Portland State University, this teaching press has managed to become sustainable through books sales and public events. Master’s students in the university’s Book Publishing program work in all aspects of the teaching press’s operations – commissioning and acquisitions, editing, design, production, sales and marketing, distribution and publicity – under the guidance of academic staff with backgrounds in publishing. “Ooligan Press publishes fiction—both adult literary fiction and young adult fiction—as well as general interest nonfiction,” Henningsgaard says. “The publishing house has a regional mandate, publishing books by writers from the Pacific Northwest or that feature the Pacific Northwest’s unique characters and stories. But Ooligan Press aspires to take these regional stories and share them with the nation and beyond. Ooligan Press receives several hundred submissions per year and also commissions works through contacts forged at writers’ festivals and other literary events. Keeping the publishing list diverse is important for the sake of local literary culture and students’ educational experience.”
How Ooligan Works
What impressed me most about Ooligan was its professionalism, as shown in the steady stream of well-made books it has produced. In recent years, releases from Ooligan have won or been shortlisted for a host of literary awards, from local to international. This professionalism starts from the close attention paid by Henningsgaard and his colleague Abbey Gaterud to supervision of editing, design and production. It’s a hands-on process. Every Monday, the week kicks off with an all-in meeting of the program’s entire cohort (about 60 students and staff), where student leaders deliver updates about edits, design, distribution, and of course the press’s interaction with writers, publishers, readers and reviewers.
From there they break off into “departments” led by students in their second year of the degree, who run their teams’ operations on a weekly basis. I participated in a marketing department meeting which discussed conventional and social media marketing campaigns for a forthcoming title. It was clear that students who are passionate about publishing throw themselves into the many hours of work required in the more routine jobs in publishing, including proofreading, sending books out to reviewers and customers, and writing and distributing marketing material.
Rather than compete with other small publishers, Ooligan has followed the Portland tradition of sharing its cultural capital, creating yet another space in the life of the local literary community for discussion, common action, workshops and masterclasses. Every year, it hosts Transmit Culture, a quarterly event that’s free, and focused on the local literary community, and Write to Publish, a major event for local writers and publishers, which raises money for the press, and also draws new talent to Ooligan Press and its affiliated Master’s program. In 2017, it also helped Portland host the PubWest conference, a major annual gathering of people who own and/or are employed in small and mid-size publishing businesses from 31 states.
As I was writing this blog, news broke that after five years as Portland State University’s dedicated Director of Publishing, Henningsgaard is moving on. A decade ago he
undertook his PhD at the University of Western Australia; soon he will return to Australia, to take up a lectureship at Curtin University, Perth. He says: “When I started at Portland State University in 2012, I inherited a fantastic educational opportunity in the form of Ooligan Press. Over five years, I worked hard with my colleagues to build on that foundation, to make something bigger and better. I will miss many things about Ooligan Press—not least my colleagues, the authors I was fortunate enough to work with, the hundreds of students that are responsible for every great achievement at Ooligan Press, and the Pacific Northwest’s tremendously supportive publishing community—but I’m also excited to build a student-staffed publishing house from the ground up at Curtin University and to make it reflect its unique environment.”
In Melbourne, we will no doubt continue to look to Ooligan as a model and a guide. Grattan Street Press differs from Portland State University’s in some respects (for example, our teaching press subject runs as an elective rather than a compulsory unit). Yet it still demands of students and staff the same qualities: strong editing and publishing skills, a great deal of stamina, and inspired problem-solving on the fly!
Dr Sybil Nolan is a lecturer in publishing and communications at the University of Melbourne, and a co-founder of Grattan Street Press.