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Students Staff This Publishing Company: The Apprentice House Story

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Students Staff This Publishing Company: The Apprentice House Story

by Linda Carlson

Five years ago, Apprentice House was a glimmer in the eye of a Baltimore journalism professor. Four years ago, it was a college project that gave students hands-on experience with mock books. Today, Apprentice House describes itself as the only campus-based and student-staffed book publisher in the United States.

And it’s not a wannabe, with only pie-in-the-sky dreams of books that might come to be. When it was featured in Publishers Weekly a year ago, it already had 10 books in print, and by the end of 2008, there should be 20 available, including From Luababa to Polk County: Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress, Wine, Communism, and Volcanoes: A Story of Chilean Wine, and a student anthology of nonfiction, Lavender and Old Ladies.

Established at Loyola College in Maryland, a Jesuit university that emphasizes experiential learning, Apprentice House operates with 20 or so students enrolled in three upper-division book publishing–related courses in the Communication Department, plus an additional handful of people participating in the Apprentice House Book Publishing Club.

Director Gregg Wilhelm, a Loyola alum and publishing veteran who started his career at Johns Hopkins Press, explains that students in Introduction to Book Publishing, Book Design and Promotion, and Book Marketing and Promotion serve as staff in acquisitions, design, and marketing.

“Unlike in the ‘real world,’ where at a certain point all phases of the publishing process are happening simultaneously, the Apprentice House process is more linear,” says Wilhelm, who was hired less than two years ago. He is employed part-time at AH and also serves as an adjunct Loyola faculty member and as adviser to the Publishing Club, a extracurricular student activity allowing students to put in extra lab time to finish up books that require more than a 14-week semester of work, or to get hands-on experience in publishing even if they are not enrolled in any of the three-credit publishing courses.

What makes Apprentice House a viable operation? The small paid staff, the couple of dozen students, the nonprofit status—and print-on-demand technology, which eliminates the challenge of forecasting market demand, the cost of printing and warehousing, and the problem of returns.

How Manuscripts Make the Grade

That doesn’t mean that Apprentice House publishes any title the students find interesting.

“Some projects do result from student ideas,” Wilhelm says, but, he adds, “we work with faculty and students, as with the series of humanities texts created by the Classics Department; we review unsolicited submissions; and we assign manuscripts that made their way to the Press through our author networks or media contacts.”

Regardless of how a book proposal comes in, he emphasizes, “students must pitch the concepts and persuade the editorial review board that any given project possesses editorial merit, would be economically feasible to produce, and can be effectively marketed.”

Nor do Wilhelm and his colleague Kevin Atticks—a full-time faculty member, the student newspaper adviser, and executive director of the Maryland Wine Association—cut the students any slack on quality.

While stressing that they are educators first and foremost, Wilhelm says, “We would not allow a book to make its way to the marketplace if the editing was shoddy, the design inappropriate, or the marketing plan unfocused.” In fact, he adds, “two projects from the fall 2007 design class were not completed and required some refinement. The students did sufficient work for grading purposes, but the projects were not ready to go to press, so we finished them in the club.”

Meshing with a School Schedule

One unusual challenge for Apprentice Press involves working around student schedules, especially summer vacations.

“That’s been a learning experience for Kevin and me,” Wilhelm says, “and frankly just something we deal with, given the uniqueness of the program.” He believes that the delays resulting from summer vacation and semester breaks are compensated for by the quantity of work students do during the 14-week semester: in class, after class, and in the publishing club lab sessions.

“Manufacturing via POD shaves another four weeks off a schedule,” he notes, “but we still set pub dates for three months or so after we have finished books. The modernized and newly annotated edition of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure we turned around in about eight weeks. Prayer for the Morning Headlines, which features the poetry of Daniel Berrigan, a foreword by Howard Zinn, and possibly Kurt Vonnegut’s last book endorsement, we did in eight months.”

A High Note at a Hybrid

Wilhelm describes Apprentice House as a scholarly press/independent publisher hybrid. “We publish trade books as well as academic work. That said, we do not operate like a university press: we don’t send manuscripts out for peer review.”

This means that publication by Apprentice House does not provide the credential that academics seeking tenure require, and so Wilhelm and Atticks have to send authors who publish for career advancement purposes to “pure” university presses.

For students, Apprentice House offers significant experience in both manuscript preparation and collaboration with faculty. One example: “Through the Aperio Series (of which Measure for Measure was a publication), we publish texts that have been edited, annotated, and/or translated by Loyola students in collaboration with faculty, who serve as project editors,” Wilhelm says.

Asked what can all of us in publishing learn from his experience with student publishers, Wilhelm responded: “Don’t underestimate the abilities of student interns and recent graduates. Despite the fact that they represent the demographic with the steepest decline in book readership, our students are excelling at publishing!”

 

 

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