Today Alan Contreras, author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding the American West, co-editor of Birds of Oregon, proofreader for the OSU Press, and private press owner, discusses the process of writing and publishing books. His press, Oregon Review Books, just recently reissued Eleanor Baldwin’s book The White Zeppelin after Alan had the opportunity to proofread Larry Lipin’s new book, Eleanor Baldwin and the Woman’s Point of View for the OSU Press.
OSU Press: Briefly describe the books you have published with the OSU Press.
Contreras: My five books to date with the OSU Press have been about birds and the natural world. Among these are the huge Birds of Oregon for which I served as co-editor and the more personal Afield: Forty Years of Birding the American West. I’m currently working on an edited collection of essays about the Malheur-Steens region for OSU Press. Down the road I hope to write a history of Oregon ornithology.
OSU Press: What originally drew you to observing and researching birds? Can you briefly discuss what led you to compiling these guide and reference books about Oregon birds? How has your fascination with birds blossomed into some of the foremost handbooks for Lane County and Oregon birds? Can you talk a little bit about the process of moving from observer/researcher to author?
Contreras: When I was 11 years old—fifty years ago last year—my friend Sayre Greenfield invited me to look at birds. He had received a bird book and binoculars as a gift. I found the variety and behavior of birds fascinating. My writing began very early, as Sayre and I decided at about age 12 (we were born the same day) to start our own bird newsletter, The Meadowlark (the historic first edition is shown here—note the misspelled title). Thus I have always been a writer, dating to my earliest days of birding. I was raised to appreciate books and could read pretty well by age 4 or 5, typically far above grade level. There is an old saying that the ability to express himself has kept many a man poor, but in my case it helped offset a lack of other skills such as complete incapacity to do mathematics.
OSU Press: What kind of impact did you hope to make with these books? What kind of audiences were you hoping to reach?
Contreras: The first one, Northwest Birds in Winter, was intended to fill a gap that existed at the time because bird books focused almost exclusively on breeding activity, habitat, and ranges. Today, Northwest Birds in Winter seems a little crude because the data available online about winter ranges is so much better, but that was not true twenty years ago. Obviously Birds of Oregon, which took five years for many people to write, is the monster book. It was expressly intended to replace and update the Birds of Oregon by Gabrielson and Jewett published in 1940 by OSU. Our senior editor, Dave Marshall, actually knew Gabrielson and Jewett, which added a special note to the project. The other books are smaller special-purpose items. Afield is not a reference at all, it’s a personal essay collection about birding in the west.
OSU Press: Why did you publish these books with the OSU Press? What was your experience with the OSU Press? What insights do you have after publishing your books with the OSU Press?
Contreras: I had seen many books by the OSU Press over the years (in particular the wonderful Atlas of the Pacific Northwest) and my first book, Northwest Birds in Winter, seemed like a reasonable match for what the press focused on. My experience working with the OSU Press acquisitions and editing staff has been very good. They have not always accepted my initial drafts and through the editing process and external evaluations have helped make everything I worked on much better (though I do grumble now and then.) This was especially true of Afield and will definitely be true of the Malheur collection, which has been a real challenge to assemble, but which I think will be a very successful book over time. In addition, I have worked as a contracted proofreader for the Press for many years and have enjoyed the opportunity to work on some projects other than my own. I think my knowledge of Oregon history and geography has been useful to the press.
OSU Press: Please briefly describe your press Oregon Review Books. What is its mission? How did the press come about?
Contreras: Oregon Review is the name of the blog I maintained for many years. It still operates in a small way. I retained that name when I decided to do some reprints. These days it is relatively easy to publish small, specialized books in quality paperback form. That’s what I do. I have come across some excellent writing, mostly from a hundred years ago, that I think deserves to be made available to modern audiences but which has such a low demand (and no obvious source of a subvention) that it is impractical to bring to a university press or a commercial press.
An example of this is the collected essays of John Jay Chapman on higher education issues. This material, which is astonishingly as applicable today as it was in 1910, was never available in one place—even the superb Collected Works of John Jay Chapman does not include all of his magazine articles. So I assembled this material (and paid a monstrous fee to one of Chapman’s original publishers for one article that was still in copyright) so that it would be available to people interested in his work. The same is true of Pursuit of Happiness, the collected libertarian speeches and writings of the great Oregon lawyer and civic leader C.E.S. Wood (OSU Press has a good anthology, Wood Works, of some of Wood’s other work). I have sold fewer than forty copies of each of these two, but that’s fine—the people who buy them are no doubt overjoyed to find this work available at all.
The other purpose of Oregon Review Books is to give me an easy way to publish some works of my own that can’t easily find another outlet. One of these, State Authorization of Colleges and Universities, is the definitive reference in my professional field of college and university degree authority and interstate licensure. It is used by state agencies, law firms, universities, and accrediting bodies all over the country. Even so, its sales are in the hundreds, not the thousands, owing to the arcane subject matter. That small-run niche is one that a private press can fill, especially if it doesn’t need to make a profit. It’s also a way to issue some purely personal items, such as my poetry, in an attractive format.
OSU Press: You just recently reissued Eleanor Baldwin’s The White Zeppelin. Why did you decide to reissue this text?
Contreras: This was a delightful accident of history. I happened to be assigned Larry Lipin’s biography of Baldwin, which focused on her political activity and writing, as a book to proof for the OSU Press. In the book there is a reference to Baldwin’s short story The White Zeppelin. I was intrigued by the story and dug it up online. I thought it exceptionally well-written and still timely in its anti-war themes. I was raised in Quaker meeting so this felt like familiar territory.
Deciding what to reprint requires some sense of good writing and also whether the work still has relevance to today’s readers. Baldwin was a good writer and there are some unique aspects in this story. One of the remarkable scenes involves one soldier saying to another, in effect, “you talk like a woman.” The response is essentially “that’s hardly a surprise, I am descended from women.” My quotes here are not exact but you get the idea. This is a distinctive voice; I don’t think a male writer of that era (or even today) would snap out a great line like that. I arranged for my old friend, Salem artist Eric Wuest. to provide illustrations to jazz it up a little. As a side note, I have also written a poem based on the story, which will appear in my poetry collection In the Time of the Queen in April, 2018.
I am never sure whether one of my reprints will find a large audience. The poet James Merrill said he’d rather have one perfect reader than do what was necessary in how he wrote to attract a large audience. I suppose I need to do more marketing, though the luxury of having no overhead or inventory costs means that I can work on these projects without the need to generate constant income.
I remain persuaded of the value of print, particularly of the value of books. When my laptop stops working or the so-called “Cloud” gets gummed up or the Internet has one of its hiccup days or North Korea succeeds in poisoning the web, all the electronic files on Earth do us no good. Some of them can be lost forever. That is not true of my library of books, which remain perfectly capable of performing their intended function under almost any conditions short of fire or flood. There is something remarkably solid and reliable about a book. I am glad to have been able to work with the OSU Press and to make my own small contribution to the world of books.