Six years after its official launch, Ooligan Press has published 30 titles, with all but five still in print. Founded and still run by Dennis Stovall, Ooligan is the publishing affiliate of Portland State University in Oregon, giving graduate students real-world publishing experience. With an independent press background as one-time publisher of Blue Heron Press, Stovall was hired to be PSU's coordinator of publishing curriculum, a series of graduate-level courses within the English Department designed by Stovall to turn each student into a publisher. By 2004 Ooligan Press was launched and became integrated into the graduate writing program via "Introduction to Book Publishing," a course taught by Stovall, one other full-time faculty member, and seven adjunct instructors. "It's a gateway class that sets the stage for the students and puts publishing into an economic, practical, and historical context," Stovall said. With 25 to 30 students working on each Ooligan Press title, every step of the process—from development to copyediting and book design—rests in the hands of the students. "I'm the publisher of Ooligan," said Stovall, "but in reality the students are the publishers."
The 25 titles currently in print reflect the literary tradition of the Pacific Northwest. "Our books have a strong sense of place and connection with the region. They show the cultural diversity of the area as well, and run the gamut from academic to trade publishing," Stovall said. Ooligan's bestselling title is Ricochet River by Robin Cody. Published in 2005, the coming-of-age novel is set in a small Oregon logging town and has sold 10,000 copies. The just-released Brew to Bikes: Portland's Artisan Economy by Charles Heying was bought by Costco for its regional locations and is part of Ooligan's OpenBook series, named to call attention to Ooligan's commitment to transparency on its path toward sustainable publishing in ink and paper sources and efficient and safe production practices.
The press, which is distributed by Ingram Publisher Services and receives about 100 editorial submissions a month, does not pay advances, but offers traditional royalties and the opportunity for early reversion of rights back to the authors if they so wish. First printings range from 1,500 to 3,000 copies. Ooligan has been offering its titles in both print and e-book formats for the past couple of years, and Stovall is working with authors to get digital rights to its backlist titles.
Each book in progress is assigned a student "champion" who stays with the title through its publication. "Because the process is institutionalized, the students in the program come and go. A champion directs and maintains a running checklist to make sure the workflow is consistent; they are essential to bringing each book to fruition," said Stovall. "We're sort of accordion pleated in the way we work," he added. "The groups are formed around divisions of labor, allowing special groups to be formed ad hoc, though with the expectation that they will be folded into one of the core groups at some point." Within those core groups—editing, marketing, sales, and design—subgroups develop when the work calls for them, all coordinated in general meetings of the press and with faculty. Each work group has two student leaders, which facilitates training and provides some protection from mistakes.
There are more than 100 students in the program, and many stay beyond the two-year mandated period because of their commitment to the book projects. "The core curriculum of the publishing course is from author to reader," said Stovall. "Ooligan is a teaching press." Several of the alumnae of PSU's publishing course and Ooligan have gone on to successful careers in publishing, and now hold positions at Routledge, Beyond Words, Dark Horse, Timber Press, and Tin House, among others.
Although there are other courses similar to PSU's around the country, none hold the distinction of including a student-run publishing company within its framework. ‘We're unique because we've given the power over to the students," Stovall said. "And thanks to Ingram, we've turned a corner financially and are operating in the black now. It's a serious curriculum, and a serious publishing effort, and to see the looks on the faces of the students when they finally hold finished books in their hands is wonderful. They're inventing the future of publishing."