USU Press extends research image to national readers

by Jacoba Mendelkow

The May Swenson Poetry Award, a contest held annually by Utah State University Press, has become a prestigious prize for poets around the nation. Swenson, former USU alum and poet, hails from Logan, Utah (she is buried in the cemetery adjacent to the USU campus), and during her literary lifetime she published eleven books of poetry while living and working in New York City, where she moved after graduating from USU in 1934. In 1987, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from USU.

Now in its thirteenth year, the May Swenson Poetry Award involves Utah creative writing faculty members and community writers in screening hundreds of submissions—800 in 2009.  Nationally renowned writers, however, are also involved with the judging. Billy Collins, former U.S. poet laureate, judged the 25 finalist manuscripts and chose Tomorrow’s Living Room, by Jason Whitmarsh of Seattle, Washington as the contest winner for this year. “Because of the caliber of judges like Collins, and the outstanding work we receive, the award is getting more prestige,” said Michael Spooner, director of the USU Press. The recognition, in turn, means more distinction for Utah State University.

The reputation of the May Swenson award helps keep USU Press on the radar of creative writers all over the country. Even Garrison Keillor has noticed. Keillor, author of Lake Wobegon Days and voice of the Prairie Home Companion, has selected poems from the May Swenson Poetry Award series to read on National Public Radio’s “Writer’s Almanac” to an audience of one to two million people.
The goal of USU Press, first and foremost, is the dissemination of knowledge, and that is a commonality of all university presses: “If the mission of a research university is to create knowledge, then the mission of its press is to disseminate knowledge,” said Spooner. Professors move ahead in their careers and share their work and discoveries through research and publication, and university presses play a primary role in publishing that work.

Like other university presses, USU Press publishes within subject niche areas, and this is one way it distinguishes itself from other presses. USU’s specialties include folklore studies (USU is known for its Fife Folklore Archives held in Special Collections at the Merrill-Cazier Library), Western history, poetry, regional nature and environment studies, and composition. By focusing on these niches, USU Press is able to attract and reach specific research as well as general audiences.

When a book within a niche area is proposed to USU Press, Spooner and his staff look for its marketability, scholarly substance, and originality; they want to publish books that make the most impact. “We have a rejection rate that exceeds 90 percent,” said Spooner, which allows for only the finest works within the press’s specialized areas to be published. The press receives 220 to 250 submissions a year—some solicited and others unsolicited. Either way, the review process is “blind,” without releasing the scholar’s name.

With just a small staff to handle acquisitions, copy-editing, book design, and marketing, the work done by USU Press gets Utah State University’s name into the hands and minds of some 20,000 readers each year. Since 2000, 35 USU Press titles have won major awards, including 2008’s winner for the Utah Book Award (Christine Allen-Yazzie for The Arc and the Sediment), the 2006 Best Book Award from the John Whitmer Historical Association (Melvin C. Johnson for Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight’s Mormon Villages in Antebellum Texas, 1845–1858), and the 2004 Chicago Folklore Prize (Barre Toelken’s The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West).

In the mid-1970s, USU Press was printing as few as two books annually, and in 1993, when Spooner joined the press as its newest director, it was publishing just three or four books a year. “I was hired to make the press grow,” said Spooner. USU Press now publishes up to 20 books a year, comparable to the volume of other small university presses. This change developed as Spooner began focusing on specialized subject areas and expanding its production. The range of topics published by USU Press is narrower than in its beginning years, but the list of titles is deeper than ever before. The press now has over 250 titles in print.

USU Press began a relationship with the University of Chicago Press in 2005 to store and distribute books. Prior to this new arrangement, the press distributed all its books from its USU office on campus and handled all business and editorial functions as well. “Using the Chicago Press’s more advanced technology, USU Press is even more effective in enhancing USU’s research image. The image of Utah State as a research university is national, and so is the reputation of its press,” according to Spooner. With readers in every U.S. state, as well as in Canada, Europe, and Asia, more books from USU Press are sold beyond Utah than within the state.

Regardless of their origins, all university presses have the same goal: to disseminate knowledge from one campus to another, from one scholar to other scholars all over the world. USU Press is a unit of the university—with funding from USU to pay for most of the staff and book sales paying for all other costs—that provides a venue for the scholarship of faculty who study within the press’s specialized areas. And thanks to the variety of books published, readers seeking out USU Press’ books will have something new to read—up to 20 times a year.