Ooligan Press: Making Books, Designing Careers

I recently joined Portland State University’s graduate program in book publishing. When I applied, I was aware that the program had its own publisher called Ooligan Press, but I must confess I did not think much about it. I thought of Ooligan as an interesting adjunct to the more important academic elements of the program. I could not have been more wrong.

As I have discovered, the breadth and quality of Ooligan’s publishing work is impressive by any measure. But what is beyond impressive is what Ooligan does for its students.

I am quite a bit different from almost all the students at Ooligan. I came to the program after retiring from a long career in a different industry. I came back to school simply for the joy of learning. I wasn’t—and still am not—thinking much about a career after graduation.

My much-younger classmates at Ooligan are in a very different phase of life. They are exactly where I was thirty-five years ago: they are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives and how they want to start their careers. Ooligan gives these students a hands-on, immersive experience in the publishing process. Quite literally, it is the students who do all the work at Ooligan. They own the publishing process from beginning to end. They are entirely responsible for the success of each book’s publication.

As Ooligan students build successful books, they are also building their own careers. Students are exposed to all the steps in the publishing process, so they get a chance to discover what interests them the most and where they might best succeed in the publishing industry. For those students who wish to pursue a career in writing (as opposed to publishing), Ooligan shows them all the practical steps required to realize their creative aspirations.

Beyond obtaining this hands-on experience, students receive another priceless gift: exposure to Ooligan’s values. For Ooligan, it’s not just about the process of publishing books into the marketplace. It’s about honoring the authors and the stories those authors are seeking to tell. The project teams at Ooligan strive to find authors who would otherwise go unrecognized and stories that would otherwise be left untold. The teams then work tirelessly to ensure each story comes through the publishing process just as the author envisioned.

Through their work with Ooligan, students see that publishing can be more than merely a profitable business venture. Publishing can be the business of finding and sharing important voices for the benefit of our society and our world. These are values upon which students can build meaningful and fulfilling publishing careers, whether they choose to focus on acquisition, editing, marketing, or any other part of the publishing process.

One of my favorite books (not published by Ooligan) is Creative Calling by renowned photographer Chase Jarvis. In the book, Jarvis offers a key insight based on his long and successful career: “Creative lives and creative careers are each designed. They happen intentionally.” Ooligan Press is giving each of its students the opportunity to design a publishing career and a life of purpose that they desire and deserve. And that is beyond impressive by any measure.

Saint Nick Loves Ooligan, Do You?

My family fled from the bitter cold winters the Midwest never fails to deliver. Home is now the Pacific Northwest, but if you’re not from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a short explanation you’ll need to construe: just “who is this Saint Nick?” and “what does he do?”

We hung our stockings; we were snug in our beds. Saint Nick slyly came by, but we didn’t lift our stiff heads. Saint Nicholas is remembered and honored December 6 for always providing necessary gifts. The story goes that when in need, Saint Nicholas would appear and toss bags—a good deed! Through the window bags flew with goodies and gold, right into the shoes or stockings with holes. They’d be hung by the fire, drying that night when good ol’ Saint Nicholas came by without sight. He’d slip in and slip out never to be caught for giving the gifts it was thought you could not. So be sure in the future, to leave your good shoes or stockings or socks—whatever you choose. Saint Nick might come by if you’re in need of a book. I hear he’s quite fond of the Ooligan nook.

Now a classic story, I’m sure you’ve all heard: “The Night Before Christmas” rings in our ears. But do you know each line or phrase or dashing reindeer?

How well do you actually know “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore?

What the Blurb

Imagine you’ve just walked into Powell’s; the tables of books stand before you, as does a maze of shelves beyond shelves filled with potential rainy-day material. A cover with interesting lines and a clever title catches your eye. You walk over and pick it up, naturally flipping the book to the back cover. Blurbs. Now, just take a minute (thirty seconds if that’s all you’ve got) and decide whether to read it. Will what others have said about the book (and who) motivate you to make the purchase? Will the mood you’re in affect this decision and allow you to fall victim to this persuasive game? Does the influence change depending on whether you were hunting for something specific or just browsing?

I don’t choose books based on the author, generally not even genre. I like to read what others have inspired and motivated me to read (whether it is a blurb or my mother-in-law). Read Nicole Krauss’s blurb about David Grossman’s book, To the End of the Land :

“Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude. David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I’ve ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique essence of her humanity. For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it. To the End of the Land is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense. To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.”

I would eat this blurb up (well, I kind of did). However, several entities reporting on this blurb thought it to be overwhelming and simply too much. What’s your take? Is it too passionate? Over the top? Would it turn you away? Miss Krauss certainly created some buzz around Mr. Grossman’s book—no publicity is bad publicity. The book was rated with five stars by 56 percent of people on Amazon, and some of those reviews appear to have a similar reaction to the story.

So do blurbs serve a purpose?

If you’re a new author and you land a blurb from an author respected by the industry, related to your genre, and more importantly, has a reader fan base, rock-on man; you’ve got some gold in your pocket. Blurbs don’t only serve the author and consumer, though; they also impress other publishers, editors, designers, bookstores, and book retailers.

The truth is, we don’t know a ton about the effectiveness of a blurb. However, NPR’s recent article shared that CodEx Group, an independent audience research firm, has worked with many major publishers testing a variety of book covers (including covers with no blurbs) to understand consumer habits. What was discovered? It matters who is blurbing and whether it is actually bringing value to your book. I suppose that leaves us in a pit we’ve already been puttering around. It’s nice to have some assurance that the hard work is valuable.

So I’m curious about how digital publishing is changing the world of blurbs. Gary Shteyngart has a tumblr page dedicated to his blurbs. Is this the wave of the future: utilizing authors’ social media pages and websites and asking to post about a book? Perhaps. When browsing Amazon, do consumers still read the blurbs? It isn’t as natural a process as flipping a book to the back cover in your hands—could there be a physical and visual attachment to blurbs? What do you think?