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Small Business: Portland's small presses get cranking

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Thursday, February 01, 2007


From zines to best-sellers, Portland’s small-press scene writes the next chapter on niche publishing.

By Lucy Burningham

If a growing group of publishers has its way, Portland will rank alongside San Francisco and Seattle as a West Coast hub for the printed word. While the goal seems laughable to some, others cite the city’s growing number of literary agents, a unique graduate-level publishing program and both enduring and emerging small presses statewide as the existing elements for success.

Start with Oregon’s book-publishing scene. Fueled by Portland’s reputation as a city of book lovers, Oregonians around the state have been pumping out books of all kinds for decades, from graphic novels and comic books to trade fiction and literary nonfiction. Some have business plans and startup capital, while others run shoestring operations out of their garages. While there’s no way to track exactly how many “presses” exist in Oregon, Dennis Stovall, coordinator of the publishing curriculum at Portland State University, estimates the number at around 500, a number that seems inflated to some in the local publishing community.

But others trust Stovall’s judgment. “It seems like a large number,” says Marvin Mitchell, president of the Northwest Association of Book Publishers. “But since 75% of the general population seems to have a manuscript in process, it doesn’t surprise me too much. Many writers choose to self-publish.”

Kate Sage saw the city’s potential when she quit her job as a literary agent and relocated to Portland from New York City in 1998. Three years later, she met  Rhonda Hughes and founded Hawthorne Books, which publishes six works of literary fiction and nonfiction each year. “Portland was the undiscovered city on the West Coast with an art scene that was just beginning to blossom,” Sage says. “We felt that Portland was going to become a literary hub and we wanted to help create the city’s literary atmosphere with a new press.”

Book publishing has become a popular pursuit. Nationally, 11,000 new presses materialize each year despite foreboding odds. With high printing costs, a long-standing return policy that allows bookstores to return unsold copies to the publisher without warning, and the challenges of marketing books on a small budget, many small presses tank within the first few years.

“Publishing represents a basic need for self-expression as well as the desire to bring a book to the public,” says Jennifer Weaver-Neist, a freelance editor and president of the nonprofit Women in Portland Publishing (WiPP). “Typically, people don’t enter the industry to get rich.”

As new technology such as design programs and online publishing has made publishing more profitable and accessible, the marketplace has become more competitive. Weaver-Neist says that WiPP helps local graphic designers, writers, publishers and publicists gain an edge through job boards, networking opportunities and visibility. After meeting informally for years, the group became official in the fall of 2005. For Weaver-Neist, the growing networking circle represents the momentum of the local publishing industry.

BUT THAT MOMENTUM WOULDN’T exist without larger forces in the marketplace. A few local presses, while still considered small on a national scale, have pushed through difficult financial times to command sizable shares of their respective marketplaces on national and even international levels.

For example, Dark Horse Comics in Milwaukie is the nation’s third-largest comic book publisher and is celebrating 20 years in business. The press has produced comics based on movies such as the Alien series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Wars as well as translations of Japanese comics, all of which have made Dark Horse competitive against dominant publishers Marvel Comics and DC Comics.

Above: Hot Off the Press publishes how-to craft books.
Below: biff is a zine published by a dad and his daughter.

Another local press produces titles you won’t find in any bookstore, a strategy that has helped make it a publishing giant. Canby-based Hot Off the Press publishes how-to craft books and scrapbooking supplies and sells its products only in craft stores, catalogs and on the Web, outlets that don’t practice the returnable sales policy that dooms so many small presses. The press got its start in 1980, when president Paulette Jarvey self-published a book called You Can Dough It! Since then she’s grown the company to today’s impressive size: 55 employees who manage more than 800 existing titles that sell internationally.

Just as larger presses help create a vibrant marketplace that allows smaller ones to succeed, Jarvey says that without the bevy of local small presses, her company wouldn’t have been able to succeed. Thanks to local demand for printing services, Hot Off the Press had its choice of printers. When Jarvey found Paramount Graphics in Beaverton, she knew she’d struck gold.

“We needed a printer who would be a partner in developing our products, which as it’s turned out, has been one of the keys to our success,” Jarvey says. “Since our products involve many different types of papers and non-traditional print jobs, we must have a printer who is willing to try new things. Then we need to meet in person to make important decisions.”

Other successful presses value Oregon for different reasons. Timber Press, which has been producing horticultural and garden titles since 1978, enjoys being located in a “horticultural Mecca,” says COO Marty Brown. In May 2006, Portland-based Timber Press was purchased by midsized New York publishing house, Workman Press. The new ownership has allowed Timber to benefit from increased national-level sales and distribution while maintaining editorial control in the existing Portland office.

“Timber has been successful in its niche because of a great team here in Portland,” Brown says. “Workman purchased a company that works, which meant that they wanted us to stay here and continue doing what we’ve always done best.”


IF COMPANIES SUCH AS TIMBER PRESS CONTINUE to grow and succeed, they’ll need qualified employees. A 6-year-old publishing program at Portland State University aims to supply both local and national presses with just that.

When Dennis Stovall, who ran Portland small press Blue Heron, decided to design a graduate-level publishing program at PSU, he recognized that students would benefit from a comprehensive hands-on experience. Through the university, Stovall founded an actual small press, a laboratory for publishing students. Ooligan Press, named for a type of Northwest smelt, produces four to six titles a year that are chosen, edited, designed and marketed entirely by students in the PSU publishing program.

Since the program began, enrollment has jumped from eight to around 60 students, partially because of Ooligan’s unique draw — no other publishing program in the country operates a real, general-trade publishing house. Already, many Ooligan graduates have chosen to stay in Portland rather than relocate to places such as New York City. And they’re creating their own jobs by forming small presses and imprints, literary agencies and freelance businesses.

Notable presses around the state

Beachwalker Press, Aloha
A small press that publishes children’s books with a regional and environmental focus. Current title: Calvin’s Giant Jumps written by Marvin Mitchell and illustrated by Suzanne Mitchell.

Calyx Press, Corvallis
This 30-year-old nonprofit publishes fiction, nonfiction and poetry by women writers, with a focus on work by emerging writers and artists from diverse backgrounds. New titles include The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes: Notes from Nepal by Barbara J. Scot and Femme’s Dictionary by Carol Guess.

Story Line Press, Ashland
An independent, nonprofit literary press founded 22 years ago, Story Line specializes in poetry, prose and literary criticism. Previous titles include Now the Summer Came to Pass by John Taylor and Of Una Jeffers: A Discovered Memoir by Edith Greenan.

Wordcraft of Oregon, La Grande
Founded in 1988 as an outgrowth of Ice River magazine, Wordcraft publishes fiction and nonfiction with a literary bent. Titles include JD: Memoir of a Time by Greg Herriges and The Book of Mamie by Duff Brenna.

“Ten years from now, we’ll be introducing at least 30 to 40 people into the publishing profession each year, and while many will stay in Portland, they’ll also scatter across America,” Stovall says. “This program could have a major impact on arts and literature in this country for a century.”

THE INTERCONNECTEDNESS of the publishing industry extends to the fringes, beyond professional programs and well-funded business ventures. If creativity on the periphery fuels central economic growth, then Oregon sits poised for a literary boom. Visit the small-press section at Powell’s Books in Portland and discover hundreds of zines packed into the shelves. Many Oregon writers and artists produce zines as a low-budget method of getting their message out to a specific audience, while others view producing a zine as unbridled self-expression.

Bill Donahue, a Portland freelance writer, produces biff with his 12-year-old daughter, Allie. As “a magazine for kids and their parents,” biff has covered everything from a man with a metal detector, the same issue that included a cutout George Bush doll, to stories about people living within 253 paces of the Donahues’ home. With biff, Donahue indulges his creative side and gets to enjoy the artistic process with his daughter.

Allie Donahue says she has trouble looking at old issues of biff because she sees how she’s changed since the last publication hit the streets. And she says that because it lacks a particular political agenda, biff should be considered a magazine, not a zine. “A zine is kind of like a little kid, running around wildly, and not quite knowing what to do with his long skinny arms,” she explains. “A magazine is an old, wizened, grandfatherly gentleman, infatuated with knowledge.”

But as the Portland publishing scene gains momentum, delineating between zines, magazines or one-book-a-year publishers might become less important than the overall effect — a collective upsurge in the printed word, straight from Oregon.

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