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University Presses: Ana Maria Spagna on What They Are (and Aren't)

November 12, 2012

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We are pleased to have OSU Press author Ana Maria Spagna blogging for us as part of the University Press Week blog tour.  A complete blog tour schedule is available here.

Ana Maria SpagnaI admire university presses, revere them even, for more reasons than I can name. There’s the wealth of information their books had provided me during research. Need to know about American Indians? There’s Oklahoma. Civil rights? Mississippi. Western water wars? Utah. Then there are the reprints, those lost gems. My own home press, Oregon State, has resurrected some of my personal literary heroes H.L. Davis and Don Berry. Then there’s the long tradition of essential writers who got their starts with university presses, many of whom stayed: Edward Abbey, Norman McLean, Rebecca Solnit, Scott Russell Sanders, Lucia Perillo, Stanley Crawford.

But most of all, I adore university presses, cherish them, for what they are not.  A few years ago I thought I was on the brink of something big. An agent (an agent!) was shopping my first collection of essays around New York. Not surprisingly, at least in hindsight, the collection did not receive a warm reception (essays?), so the agent suggested that I rewrite the manuscript to make it more saleable. OK, I said. Sure. But what did she mean? Could she suggest a book that might serve as a model?  

The Da Vinci Code, she said. Read The Da Vinci Code.

I was stunned. The distance between my little book of nature essays and Dan Brown’s mega-seller could be measured in light years. Her suggestion was ridiculous, nearly outrageous. I was disheartened the same way I’d be disheartened a few years later when an editor at a large publishing house gushed in admiration of one of my books, and then took it to the marketing department where it was rejected out of hand because they didn’t think it could sell the requisite 25,000 hard cover copies. Twenty five thousand?  That seemed a very high bar. How many of my most beloved books would not exist if they’d been required to sell that many copies out of the gate?  Nearly all of them, I realized. 

That first collection finally found a home at a university press, and home was the right word.  The small staff proved helpful and encouraging, dedicated and demanding and very very smart. I was honored and humbled to work with them—I’m honored to be with them still—but I’m honored even more to be part of a sub-culture that cares about, well, culture. Not the mega-seller, but the best book possible, sometimes from the least expected author, the least expected place. In that way, university presses, like indie record labels, have become incubators of talent and a bulwark against highly profitable sameness. 

How many Da Vinci Codes do we really need?

Ana Maria Spagna, October 2012

Ana Maria Spagna is the author of Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness and Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw (both from OSUP). Her essays have appeared in Orion, Utne Reader, Open Spaces, Backpacker, and Best Essays NW. She lives in Stekehin, Washington.

 

 



 

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