Talking With New Director Katie Cortese

After her first summer on the job, we spent some time talking with our new faculty director Katie Cortese about small-press publishing, being a university press author, and charting a path forward for all of us in the book business. 

Katie, welcome to TTUP! What has been interesting to you about your initial months being part of a university press? Anything particularly surprising? 

Thanks, Travis! I am beyond thrilled to be here learning the ropes at TTUP. It’s not an overstatement to say that everything has been interesting to me so far. I’ve worked with four or five literary magazines in the past and served as the editor-in-chief for one of them, so I’m not a stranger to periodical publishing (which may be helpful, someday, for TTUP’s journal program), but it’s felt like I’m having to learn a different language to educate myself regarding book publishing. One of the biggest surprises for me has been how relatively quickly and efficiently the system here at the press moves multiple books through all the stages of publishing. In my field (creative writing), we typically talk about the publishing process as being a slow and tedious one, and it’s not unusual for a project to take two or more years to go from an accepted proposal to an edited manuscript to a published artifact, but now that I’ve seen all the meticulous detail that goes into each project at TTUP, I’m amazed that anyone can make a book ready (never mind 10 to 15 titles per year like we do) in that amount of time, or—often—less. There are so many moving parts! From author consultations to the peer review process, editorial committee feedback to all the stages of editing (developmental, copyediting, proofing, etc.), layout and design to marketing and promotion—every book is a labor of love in the truest sense. Another surprise is how much I love being a part of the team. Every day presents new challenges and opportunities to learn, and I feel honored to be here for all of it. 

You published a book with a university press. Shout out to Make Way for Her and Other Stories! What do you think is particularly unique or worthwhile about the process/mission, looking at it as an author? 

I’m always grateful for a shout-out, so thanks for putting that out there. I’ve had two books published, and the first one came out with a small, independent press called ELJ Editions run by one person along with a few volunteers. That press gave me a lot of control as an author, especially as to designing the cover (and I was even allowed to commission art for it—here’s a shout-out of my own to the amazingly multitalented W. Todd Kaneko for the perfectly iconic icons he worked up for Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories). I had no comparison for the editing process, and I was glad at the time that it was pretty minimal and mostly involved fixing typos. I was happy they believed in the stories enough to put their name on them as publisher, and I’m glad the book was and is in the world, but I had a totally different experience with this aspect of the publishing process for my second book, Make Way for Her and Other Stories

At the University Press of Kentucky, the manuscript I submitted underwent a metamorphosis under the guidance of the series editor for the New Poetry & Prose Series, Lisa Williams of Centre College. My book was selected in the second year of the series’s existence, and after the editorial committee approved it (my first time with that somewhat nerve-wracking but ultimately affirming experience), Lisa worked the book like a sculptor with a block of clay. My version of the manuscript had lumped together sixteen stories of which she cut seven, and then we added one story to the book that hadn’t been in the original submission. After that, we talked about order, changed 85 percent of the titles—including the main title—and then she passed the manuscript to the copyeditor, Ann Marlowe, who went over every story with a fine-toothed comb. In response to some of Ann’s notes, I added scenes, tweaked endings, removed evening papers that had never existed, imposed consistency, and generally improved the book far beyond the point where I could have taken it on my own. As an author, I felt seen and heard, and sometimes overwhelmed with attention, and I would recommend the experience to any creative writer on the fence about sending their manuscript to a primarily scholarly press. The longevity, reputation, and range of expertise at university presses mean that every project is thoroughly vetted, painstakingly edited, and usually kept in print long after the “Big Five”—and some of the independent presses, which can sometimes close down with little notice—would have kept it alive. My book didn’t have the DNA to become a blockbuster, and it may never have found a home if presses like UPK and TTUP didn’t exist, but I like to think that it’s a good thing that it does, alongside all the other passion projects like it at university presses across the nation and the world. 

You’ve worked in publishing before—on the lit mag side—with the Iron Horse Literary Review. Can you talk a little bit about that experience there and what it’s like moving from a periodical to books?  

I talked about this just a little bit above, but book publishing does feel different to me than the journals where I’ve had a role on the masthead. I was the editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review as a graduate student at Florida State, and we had a nonexistent budget (all of our funds were raised through the ingenuity of the editors), a fully volunteer staff (except for me, who was compensated with one course release), and a limited time in which to publish two issues because we had to operate on the academic calendar. In my role at Iron Horse Literary Review (IHLR), my only responsibility at present is to read fiction submissions that are passed on to me—the best of the best from a given submission period—and to select the handful that will be published. It’s a privilege to be in that position, and there are deadlines involved, but I’m a small cog in a big machine that the editor-in-chief, Dr. Jill Patterson, keeps rolling through the six issues—including one chapbook—that she produces every year.  

One of the most impressive aspects of TTUP, and the biggest difference from the other publishing experiences I’ve had, is the teamwork I’ve witnessed that enables a staff of six people to produce 10–15 titles a year, plus four journals. I’m still learning about everything it takes to keep that giant machine well-oiled and productive, of course, but it seems that, at least for university presses, the most important ingredients are steady support from our home institution and a team of professionals who excel in their areas of expertise and possess excellent communication skills. Thankfully, TTUP has plenty of both. In terms of the day-to-day concerns of book publishing, some of the main differences that I’ve observed concern the high stakes associated with publishing a title that will contribute vital new research to a subject area. Peer review and editorial committee feedback are so vital for holding the books and authors accountable and for producing and distributing research that will measurably contribute to a given field and may eventually become a pillar of it. When I select a work of publication for a creative writing journal, my aesthetic naturally plays some part in the selection process, but at a university press, no one person has that amount of control over the material being published, which safeguards, vets, and validates it in ways that no other publishing operation can. Too, the relationships that the press enters into with book authors do seem particularly special, and the trust that develops universally results in strong and fully considered books. 

A lot of smaller publishers and journals are affiliated with universities. How do you think the missions of these two entities interlock and how can we better take advantage of these closely knit relationships? 

For a university press, its greatest ally, I’m learning, is its home institution. Texas Tech University Press is fortunate to be located under the purview of the Office of the Provost at TTU because that office is responsible “for the overall academic mission of the university.” TTUP’s mission is to not only support scholarship (and academics themselves) but to produce and distribute it since the bulk of our titles are scholarly in nature. Here at TTUP, we receive substantial financial support from the Office of the Provost—support we are very grateful for and, like the vast majority of other university presses, couldn’t survive without—but we also look to the faculty and its students for other forms of cooperative support. One of the most valuable ways TTU contributes to our mission is by supporting the research of scholars who teach here, and we’ve been lucky enough to serve as the home for many of their books with a wide variety of expertise. Just a few recent titles that show their range are Texas Natural History in the 21st Century (David J. Schmidly, Robert D. Bradley, and Lisa C. Bradley), Cotton & Thrift (Marian Ann J. Montgomery), Gracious: Poems from the 21st Century South (ed., John Poch), and a range of titles by Dr. Jorge Iber focusing on sports in the American Southwest. We also depend on a selection of faculty members from TTU to serve on our editorial committee in order to help direct the vision of the press now and going forward.  

One additional partner at the university that we’re expanding our involvement with now is the student population. For many years, we’ve invited undergraduate or graduate interns to earn credit or a stipend while learning publishing skills at the press on a semesterly basis, but we are now seeking to formalize and sustain a new initiative to support three or four graduate assistant positions every year so that graduate students at schools and colleges across TTU can partially or wholly satisfy their assistantship responsibilities through employment with the press while they work toward degrees in their home departments. This year, we are grateful to be partnering with the Department of English, the Department of History, and the College of Media & Communication toward this end, and we now have three funded graduate students pitching in on editing, production, and social media responsibilities at TTUP. 

To go back to the question in a more general sense, I believe that university presses should function like a radio tower for their home institutions. They detect and receive important research and creative endeavors conducted by scholars and writers both within and outside of the home university, interpret those signals (which may be faint when they are first detected), develop the signals, and then amplify them by broadcasting the signals back out to wider audiences at higher and better-detectable frequencies—each one branded with the supporting university’s particular station identification code so the world can clearly see the important work that school is supporting and producing. An independent press has to start from scratch to build and maintain its resources, authors, and readership, but small publishers and presses attached to institutions of higher learning are uniquely positioned to interface with, draw from, and return contributions to the resources that reside at their schools in terms of materials, personnel, and intellectual property. In the best and most productive iterations, it’s an interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship born of respect and overlapping missions, and we are lucky at TTUP to enjoy that connection in spades with Texas Tech.