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Bound to books

PSU's student-run Ooligan Press adds a peak to city's literary landscape
by: jim CLARK, Ooligan Press alums Gretchen Stelter (left) and Bernadette Baker are publishing their first book, “City of Readers: A Book Lover’s Guide to Portland.”

Dave Cowsert, a linebacker-size ex-cop, likes to say that his twin brother is a bookmobile.

The Sarasota, Fla., native says this because he was born on the same day Sarasota got its first bookmobile. He also says it because it summarizes his love of things textual.

Cowsert, 42, is a recent graduate of Portland State University's fledgling graduate-level publishing program. Along with other recent graduates, Cowsert plans to take his love of books and change the world. Or at least, increase Portland's foothold in the world of publishing.

Located 3,500 miles from the literary center of New York, PSU may seem like an unusual place to study the craft of turning a rough manuscript into a polished 400-page hardcover novel.

Portland harbors a number of publishers, including gardening-focused Timber Press and Dark Horse Comics, the nation's fourth-largest comic book publisher. However, there clearly are not enough jobs in Portland's publishing community to cope with scores of eager graduates every year. Which is one reason Portland is seeing an increase in new publishing houses, freelance editors and other publishing support staff.

The new literati seem to know what they are doing. Ask them why, and they credit a unique aspect of PSU's program - Ooligan Press, the country's only student-run commercial trade press. It has given PSU's five-year-old program, named after a Pacific Northwest smelt, national distinction.

'It's the only place in the country where you work on books in a commercial press,' Cowsert says. 'You've got some author's life in your hands. You can find these books in bookstores. There's nothing like this anywhere else.'

The PSU publishing program started in 2001 with 13 students and currently graduates about 70 per year.

Its primary driving force is Dennis Stovall, coordinator of publishing curriculum. Stovall, who formerly ran Blue Heron Publishing, is a fast-talking man who sports wire-rimmed glasses and cowboy boots.

As Stovall describes it, his initial goal with the program was to create an environment in which students could gain a practical overview of publishing. The obvious way to do this was to create a small press.

In its first few years, Ooligan struggled with growing pains, and Stovall still battles to come up with creative ways to fund each project. However, he remains passionate about the program's value.

'An important distinction is that this press is truly operated by the students - and they are also deeply involved in the ongoing organization and development of the rest of the operation, including the coursework,' he says. 'The high level of collaboration is amazing.'

At Ooligan, each aspect of a book's creation is worked on by a group. Students choose work groups each quarter. Students in the book design work group, for example, decide together how the text will look, then create the cover art and typography.

Using work groups ensures a measure of continuity, because any individual student may decide to leave the design group before the book's design is complete.

Ooligan published its first book in 2004. By this summer, Ooligan had produced nine more books, including a reprint of local author Robin Cody's 'Ricochet River.'

Some stay close after school

The collaboration required inside the program seems to continue in the working world. Cowsert's own publishing house, Ink and Paper, consists of five imprints and five partners, all graduates of or students in the PSU program.

They also produce a literary magazine, Sofa Ink Quarterly. Cowsert admits that making a living in publishing isn't easy, especially with four sons to feed.

'I'm scraping by,' he says with a smile.

Bernadette Baker, 26, and Gretchen Stelter, 24, also met through Ooligan. As a PSU student, Baker started her own literary agency, Bakersmark, which Stelter joined later. Today, the two women aim to carve a niche for themselves as agents specializing in graphic novels and literary nonfiction.

Baker, originally from Denver, came to Portland with plans to finish her undergrad degree at PSU then attend Lewis and Clark Law School. She ended up with a minor in publishing and a scholarship to attend publishing grad school.

'I love Portland,' she says. 'For our business it's a really great place for us to be starting. If we were to go to New York right now, as a business, we would not only have to transplant our whole lives, but we would be competing in an environment that is already really competitive. In Portland we have an edge because there are a lot of creators here but not a lot of industry here. The publishers here are more niche, and it's a small community.'

Baker believes that Portland and the surrounding area, full of talented, creative writers, is a natural place to develop more of a publishing industry.

'When we tell editors that we're based in Portland, they are always excited,' she says. 'They say how lucky we are to be where there are so many writers. The creators that we work with here are typically pleased that their agents are here as well. We can have face-to-face time, and more personal interactions. Ideally, we would like to have an office in New York and in Portland, but there's no plans on moving yet.'

Hands-on experience noted

Stelter, the other half of Bakersmark, was living in Australia when she decided to find a good U.S. publishing school. She said that PSU stood out because of Ooligan Press.

'I realized that if it was a student-run press you got to have hands-on experience and a completely well-rounded idea of what goes on in each stage of book production - from acquisition to editing to design to marketing - and I realized that was what I wanted an idea of,' she says. 'I still didn't know which part I wanted to have a career in, but I knew that was what was going to help me.'

Leslie Royal is another graduate who used her experience at Ooligan to jump-start a career in publishing. Royal, 25, originally from Woodinville, Wash., knew where she wanted to work before she even started the publishing program.

'I had volunteered at the Pacific Northwest Book Association trade show and had been a big fan of Seal Press for some time,' she says.

'While I was at the trade show I met this woman from Seal and told her how much I loved their books. I told her how I was about to go into the publishing program and asked if they had any job openings. She gave me her card.'

When she graduated, Royal contacted Avalon Publishing, the parent company of Seal Press, and flew to the Bay Area for a job interview. Part of the interview turned out to be educating her potential employers about Ooligan Press.

'I had this portfolio of books I had worked on to show them, and they were very excited about the program,' she says. 'They were impressed that I had worked on actual, physical books, and immediately started talking about offering internships to PSU students.'

Press called a hidden gem

Like Cowsert, Royal says that publishing is not an easy way to make a living, and admits that she almost took a second job after moving to the Bay Area. But she feels she has a job that can make a difference and fervently believes in a strong future for traditional book arts.

'Whenever I tell people about the PSU program they get very excited and think it's going to rejuvenate the publishing world,' she says.

Cowsert hopes so, but worries that Ooligan's uniqueness may be threatened.

'My one complaint about the program is that I don't think the university knows what they have,' he says. 'There's nothing like this anywhere, and we should be bringing people, industry people, from New York to study here. I think if PSU's administration doesn't give Ooligan more support, some university in New York or Boston is going to copy what we're doing.'

Baker and Stelter agree that the PSU publishing program and Ooligan Press already have started to change Oregon's literary industry. But they also think there is much more to come.

'There's already the talent here, there's a ton of writers here, there's a writing community here, and I think economically Portland can support it,' Baker says. 'It's very affordable, and it has the people who can work in the industry.'

Stelter adds: 'We've had nothing but a positive response from editors about us being in Portland, and I think we're just starting to see the beginning of more and more of a publishing industry here. I think we're really just seeing the beginning of Portland blossoming into the place to go for publishing on the West Coast.'