For a small university press, where each staff member is their own department, one of the most important parts of our publishing program is our partners. These collaborators allow us to broaden our offerings and to gain outside perspectives as we decide what books to bring out.
Throughout the last two years, TTUP has been trying to rethink some of publishing’s gatekeeping practices. We pledged to equalize peer review to make it less white and less male. We have sought to create new avenues to support communities that lack access to traditional publication, including scholars who don’t have jobs on the tenure track. And we have tried to devise new ways to support creatives working in modalities not considered commercially viable.
Speaking as an acquisitions editor, I contend that these are much needed changes in the publication process. It gets tricky when you’re a small department because the only set of eyes you have is your own. Even as I make efforts to rethink peer review practices, it’s still me that’s directing that traffic and deciding whom to ask to read. And no matter how open-minded I may think myself, I am still just one guy, lugging around the baggage of my own experience and point of view.
This is one of the areas where our partners and series editors step in. When I started in acquisitions in 2019, an early initiative was to start balancing out the angles that we’re propagating on the US conflict in Vietnam. Long one of our recognized endeavors, we have published considerable scholarship and several memoirs from American GIs.
Theirs, of course, is not the complete story.
But this is the challenge: do you really think I am the right person to redirect that publishing change? Do I know enough about the Vietnamese perspective to know which writers to be looking for or what kinds of narratives and thought might best resonate?
Reader, I do not.
Thankfully, there is a whole organization devoted to amplifying Vietnamese voices: the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN). These partners draw from their immense network of writers, artists, and scholars to furnish us with projects to consider and with the right folks to advise on the decisions about what to publish. DVAN has focused on initiatives and genres I wouldn’t have thought to pursue.
Which is the point.
Working with DVAN founders Isabelle Thuy Pelaud and Viet Thang Nguyen, our hope for this DVAN/TTUP initiative is to support innovative literary and poetic Vietnamese American voices that broaden the scope of what constitutes Vietnamese American literature, as well as Southeast Asian American literature as a whole.
We don’t publish a ton of poetry, but we have long published one series of poetry works: the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize. In collaboration with the English Department and Creative Writing Program, this award was established in 1990 to help support early-career and unknown poets, many of whom did not have financial resources or institutional support behind them, but whose work nonetheless merited a book publication. The selection process for this small competition found praise within a discipline disenchanted with large competitions and has yielded exceptional manuscripts, bringing the work of previously unpublished poets into the marketplace.
Our poetry series works because of the intrepid work of series editor Rachel Mennies, who devotes her time to reading poetry journals and identifying new voices.
Poetry is not the only genre publishers avoid, however. Collected short prose (fiction and otherwise) is also often neglected. Wanting a model like the Walt McDonald Prize to offer similar support to prose writers, I turned again to partnerships. And I didn’t have to look far.
Right on Texas Tech’s campus (housed in the Department of English) lies the Iron Horse Literary Review, which is well equipped to locate writers and readers of short prose. Together, with Jill Patterson and Katie Cortese, we collaborated on a model that allows us to consider a huge array of manuscripts and equitably allot our resources to pick a winner.
As usual, the best way to expand my mind is to let other people add their thinking and experience. The publication of these books would be utterly impossible without our Iron Horse partners.
In a recent blog post, our faculty director wrote that university presses are “like a radio tower for their home institutions.” In amplifying the research of writers and scholars, both affiliated with our institution and not, we broaden our university’s research profile. Such is the mission of university presses.
As nonprofit publishers, we also must be mindful of how we can democratize the conversation. While the reasons to publish a book can differ, fundamentally each act of publication has something in common. We are saying to our reading public: here is something worth knowing, worth thinking about.
Thus, it follows that we must expand the circle of those who get to make that call.