Ooligan Press: 20 years in the books – Portland State University

PSU's book publishing program celebrates milestone anniversary
by Cristina Rojas October 25, 2021
Denise Morales Soto still remembers the first time she saw one of the books she helped publish on the shelves in Powell’s City of Books.
“It was such a surreal moment,” says Morales Soto, a 2020 graduate of Portland State’s Book Publishing program. “It was incredibly cool knowing that what we were doing wasn’t just learning. We were actually making real books that would go out to real people that would be read.”
Started in 2001 by Dennis Stovall, the graduate program combines core classes with real-world publishing experience. Twenty years later, the student-run Ooligan Press has put 60 books out into the world and the program has graduated more than 500 students who have found success in the publishing industry, established freelance careers, started their own companies and more.
“They come out of the program with a two-year internship and management experience,” said Rachel Noorda, director of the book publishing program and assistant professor of English. “Most students in other programs don’t get that level of experience.”
In any given year, Ooligan Press has four to five books at different stages of production, and students are involved in every step of the publishing process with guidance and supervision from faculty.
This year’s books vary in style and genre: From Knowledge to Power, a climate science advocacy book by PSU Chemistry Professor John Perona due out at the end of November; Short Vigorous Roots, an anthology of flash fiction by first- and second-generation immigrants due out February 2022; Court of Venom, a young adult fantasy book due out April 2022 in partnership with the Multnomah County Library Writers Project; and Love, Dance & Egg Rolls, a Filipino-American young adult book due out May 2022. 
It’s that wide range of titles that gives students a variety of experiences, Noorda says. 
The common thread through all of Ooligan’s books is the Pacific Northwest — the author is from here, the book is set here, or there’s a theme that would resonate with the region — but the press has become more selective through the years as it’s worked its way toward becoming financially self-sustaining. 
Children’s books — a beast to publish with fully colored pages — and poetry are a thing of the past, while ebooks and audiobooks have become areas of growth. Nonfiction and young adult titles are consistent bestsellers. 
“It has changed over 20 years because publishing has changed a lot,” Noorda said, adding that a recently formed advisory board of industry professionals is helping guide the program’s evolution.
“With how rapidly things change, it’s important to keep in touch with the skills our students need in the industry and make more connections for internships,” she said.
The pandemic brought on its own changes and students learned to pivot in innovative ways. They tweaked their production workflows on the fly, grappled with printing and shipping impacts and brainstormed new ways to promote their books without in-person author events. 
Amid the racial reckoning in the country and publishing industry, Ooligan is also working to address inequities in the industry and press by elevating marginalized authors, characters, topics and readers. It has committed to acquiring at least 25 percent of its titles from Own Voices writers each year — that is, books about characters from underrepresented groups in which the author shares the same identity. Also new this year is a publishing assistant for diversity, equity and inclusion. 
Leah Altman, a 2011 alum and board member who is Native American, says the program has made strides to diversify both its student body and press. For years, she attempted to draw attention to the inequities between BIPOC students and their white counterparts. Now, she’s seen a larger effort around recruitment and retention of students of color, including more outreach to Native communities, a diversity scholarship, and panels and workshops to engage BIPOC writers and connect them with agents and publishers.
Current students and alumni say they’ve enjoyed the freedom to tailor their experience to their interests and discover new niches.
“One of the things I love about this program is that our professors really individualize our learning experience,” second-year student Rosina Miranda said. 
Miranda arrived at PSU as most do with a desire to become an editor but soon became intrigued with foreign and translation rights. Noorda helped her plan a course of study that would best prepare her for that type of work and Ooligan publisher Robyn Crummer-Olson worked with her to create a foreign-rights manager position for the press. This term, she’s trying to sell the rights for Love, Dance & Egg Rolls to the Philippines and anticipates that the role’s importance will only grow as selling a book’s rights can provide a much-needed financial cushion to the teaching press.
“They listen and respond to what you need with a real focus on the job market and job applicability,” she said. “It’s always about how this will best serve you after you leave.”
Devyn Yan Radke, a second-year student, says she’s enjoyed being able to tap into the vast “Oolie” network through a new alumni mentorship program that pairs students and alumni together based on their interests each term.
“Being able to talk about my thoughts, my classes and gaining that additional support and knowledge has been really useful,” Radke said. She’s now more interested in the marketing and business side of publishing, thanks to some of her mentors.
Morales Soto, who landed a job last summer as an editor in the book division of Portland-based A Kid’s Company About, says she’s just as grateful for the book-loving community she found in the program as she is about the skills and experience she gained.
“Once an Oolie, you’re always an Oolie,” she said.
Photos by Jeremy Chun Sajqui
Outside Portland