A College Press Run By Undergrads
As many publishing houses — not least university presses — scramble to adapt to the demand for digital, online, and free content, one college’s decision to start a publishing enterprise that focuses on printed books by no-name authors might seem counterintuitive.
But that’s what Vermont’s Champlain College is doing with its Champlain College Publishing Initiative, a project that publishes student work and, in addition to selling it, collects it in anthologies to use as classroom texts for the college’s professional writing program.
The college funds a limited run of copies via commercial micro-publishing, also known as “print on demand,” which has become popular among university presses in recent years because it allows institutions to publish worthy manuscripts without worrying about losing too much money turning them into books. The point of the Champlain initiative, after all, is not to make money. It’s to make writers.
The normal mechanisms that purport to nurture aspiring authors — creative writing programs and internships at prestigious publications — don’t teach students how to be writers, says Tim Brookes, director of the professional writing program at Champlain and founder of the publishing initiative; they teach them how to be readers. An internship at a publishing house is more apt to teach a young writer how to work a copy machine than how to find her narrative voice, says Brookes. And a professor who assigns his students the travel classic Blue Highways does little to teach them how first-time author William Least Heat Moon transformed a litter of notes and journals and half-realized ideas into the immaculate 415-page tome on the bookstore shelves.
What’s missing from that sort of creative-writing pedagogy is an adequate articulation of process, Brookes says. “What you’re saying to students is, ‘This person is better than you,’ ” he says. “You’re not teaching writing, you’re teaching reading. If you want to teach someone writing, you want to give them a different kind of [text] — one that says, ‘Here’s how you do this.’ ”
In the anthologies of student work published by the Champlain initiative (one has been published and the other is on its way), Brookes has students preface each piece with a statement reflecting on their intentions and struggles. Traditional publishers, he says, are loath to peel back the curtain on the writers’ struggle, since deifying authors is a great way to move copy. The Champlain anthologies, by contrast, seek to make the act of reading more instructive by doing away with mystique and making the writer, and the writing, more human. “My students were very critical [of the anthologized works] at first,” Brookes says. “They said, ‘I could have done this,’ and I said, ‘That’s the point!’ ”
Other of the project’s titles are more explicitly instructional. Brookes says one of his main goals with the enterprise is to remedy the dearth of books designed to teach certain specific skills — and to do so with the help of students. For example, Brookes and Champlain senior Natalie Yaacob recently co-authored The Short, Sweet Guide to Dialogue, which was released last August. Practical Freelancing, another instructional text, co-written by Brookes and a professor in the business program, is in the works — as is a primer on writing effective press releases, slated to be written by a public-relations student. Later editions of these texts will likely be informed by student feedback.
The relationship between Champlain's academic curriculum and the publishing enterprise is still taking shape. The project employs a handful of students under the federal work-study program, and has interns from the college's graphic design and information technology programs working for credit. Beyond that, the project works its way into various course curriculums in an ad hoc fashion: Students in courses on travel writing and creative non-fiction have generated stories for publication; students in courses on copy editing have edited three of the books the project has put out; and recently the Vermont Mozart Festival approached the project to help put together an oral history of the festival, which Brookes says he plans to delegate to some of his advanced journalism students. The books Champlain chooses to produce, and the publishing services it decides to provide for outsiders, tend to arise in a similarly serendipitous manner.
Just as authors comprise only a fraction of the publishing industry, cultivating budding writers comprises only a fraction of the Champlain College Publishing Initiative’s mission. The enterprise also aims to serve as a live training exercise for aspiring publishers, publicists, Web developers, and graphic designers. Brookes says the project is now exploring ways to get students from elsewhere on campus involved in the enterprise. He imagines a future wherein students and professors from all corners of the college write content for books, design students work on art and layout, marketing students scheme publicity strategies, and technology-oriented students make a proving ground of the project's Web site.
Brookes says that despite the Champlain enterprise's "dead-tree" orientation, neither he nor the project is blind to the changing publishing landscape. Students are currently helping to redesign the project’s Web site, which he says will soon have student-driven blogs, interactive word games, and flash animation — as well as public forums where visitors can discuss content posted by invited contributors.
“We’re going to expand the traditional definitions of ‘publishing,’ ” Brookes writes on the project’s Web site. “Some of our books are first going to appear as podcasts, radio programs and live performances. Some may never appear in paper form at all.”
Novel marketing strategies are also on the agenda; Alisha Durgin, a Champlain junior, says her first assignment of the new semester is to create and drive traffic to a Facebook fan page for the initiative’s latest title. And Lindsay Webster, a senior and a publicist for the project, says that although e-books and e-readers are hot items among industry futurists, she believes knowing how to contract with print-on-demand services and market hard copy via the Web will be useful skills well into the future.
After all, the Champlain publishing enterprise is built on faith that there will always be space on the proverbial shelf for printed books. Talking excitedly about using the opportunities afforded by new media to hold asynchronous, worldwide roundtables on the project's Web site, Brookes remarks that certain discussion threads could merit publication as books. In the end, it seems, exporting to print is still the highest compliment a publisher can pay a piece of written work.
“The thing about online creation is that its not real in a tangible sense," says Brookes. "And what I've found that people are developing an increasing respect for things that are made in three dimensions.”
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