The series derives from a competition developed in 1990, at which time Walt McDonald was poetry editor of the Texas Tech University Press. Surveying approximately twenty literary journals annually for remarkable work by poets not yet published in book form, Dr. McDonald would invite a dozen or so manuscripts from poets whose work he admired. From these manuscripts he would select a winner only if he found one that he believed must be published. The first winning manuscript, The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, was published in 1992. This small competition, which found praise immediately within a discipline disenchanted with large competitions and which has since been emulated elsewhere, has yielded exceptional manuscripts and brought the work of previously unpublished poets into the marketplace.
When Walt McDonald retired as poetry editor in 1996, Robert A. Fink took over the editorship and the competition series using the same method as his predecessor. During his tenure, Dr. Fink selected 19 winners, whose published works met with significant critical praise. In 2016, Rachel Mennies was named TTU Press’s Walt McDonald First-Book Series poetry editor, a position that she still currently holds.