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Building on a Rich Tradition: The University of Oklahoma Press Story

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The first university press established in the Southwest, and the fourth in the western half of the United States, the University of Oklahoma Press describes itself as a “preeminent publisher of books about the West and the American Indian,” with an interest in scholarly disciplines such as archaeology, classical studies, energy studies, natural sciences, political science, women’s studies, and selected literature and poetry.

Father of Route 66There’s no question about how well the Press is maintaining that position, with this year’s titles including Charles M. Russell: Photographing the Legend; The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane; American Indians in U.S. History; Connecticut Unscathed: Victory in the Great Narragansett War, 1675–1676; A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps; Following Oil: Four Decades of Cycle-Testing Experiences, and What They Foretell about U.S. Energy Independence , and Father of Route 66.

Based in Norman, which is so close to Oklahoma City that it can serve as a suburb, the Press today has a full- time staff of 28, supplemented by several student interns and part-time employees. Together they launch dozens of titles each season, with 75 in both print and e book formats plus 10 in audio projected for 2015.

Although much of its audience is academic, only about 20 percent of the Press’s revenue comes from the sale of texts and other course materials. In terms of titles, says Dale Bennie, associate director and sales and marketing manager, approximately 25 percent are academic and intended for course adoption; 55 percent are scholarly, and 20 percent are general interest.

A Backlist Bonanza

And then there’s the backlist, which thanks partly to print-on-demand has skyrocketed in size.

“Along with e-books, POD has helped us expand our backlist by about 285 titles,” Bennie reports. “Implemented thoughtfully as a technological innovation, POD has substantially relieved cash-flow pressures relating to assuring sufficient inventory without huge investments.”

In total, the Press has 775 books in print in hardcover, 1,169 in paperback, almost 300 in such e-book formats as Kindle and Nook, and an additional 1,169 available as PDFs. Nothing is launched print-on demand, although the company occasionally does a digital short run before a title goes to offset in order to assess potential demand. “For consumer titles we print 1,500 to 4,000 and for academic titles, 500 to 1,000,” Bennie says.

Given the scope of its editorial focus and the vast backlist, it’s no surprise that Oklahoma has an international market. “Less than 10 percent of our sales come from Oklahoma,” Bennie points out.

Calamity JaneIts authors are also all over the map. The author of The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane is fairly nearby, in South Dakota, and the author of another recent release, Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man, is fairly close too, in New Mexico, but other authors are situated all across the U.S, as well as in Canada,
Mexico, Asia, and Europe.

Investment Initiatives

In recent years, the Press has made major investments in technology, including the purchase of a press-wide title management system that posed challenges. “When you implement a press wide database across departments, everything changes about the way that you gather and store information and tasks,” Bennie explains.

Before the Press had the new system, it was “using multiple databases to get the work done.” Now, Bennie notes, “our title management system tracks information and tasks associated with all of our books and authors from acquisition to publication. It also sends out print and e-book metadata in ONIX format and sends our e-book files to our trading partners.”

The Press, which uses Cat’s Pajamas for inventory and fulfillment, has also invested significant time and resources in new approaches to marketing. Its seasonal and subject catalogs are now online at such sites as Scribd.com and Issuu.com, and Bennie says “we’ve added electronic marketing initiatives to the mix in the past five years: for example, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, a blog, and e-mail campaigns.”

New titles are still launched with such traditional promotional tools as direct mail, press releases, and both hardcopy and online press kits, and the press also works with Firebrand Technologies to send covers, metadata, and e-book files to its trading partners.

Bennie calls Firebrand “invaluable in helping us increase the discoverability of our books and reduce the time it takes to get information to our trading partners.” Now, he notes, complete metadata is sent to more than 100 booksellers in ONIX format on a weekly basis—and that’s paying off in retailers’ awareness of the titles.

Looking Good

The University of Oklahoma Press staff works hard to ensure that once books get to stores, they sell well. “We put a lot of effort into making our books attractive, both in appearance and in readability,” Bennie emphasizes. “Our approach is to make our offerings attractive to the widest possible audience.”

Press titles can be short (some are only 200 pages) and they can be long (500, 600, even 700 pages). Regardless of length or intended audience, interiors are designed with what the sales and marketing manager calls “aesthetically pleasing space” in margins and gutter. The colors for case binding are carefully chosen to match the dust jackets, and bindings are Smyth-sewn. “And, of course, we strive for striking jacket (or paperback cover) designs,” Bennie says.

If you visit oupress.com, you’ll see how well the Press meets that goal, with such award-winners as the coffee table format American Ski Resort: Architecture, Style, Experience; the novel The Block Captain’s Daughter, and the biography When Law Was in the Holster. Even academic tomes such as a 720- page bibliography, Custer, the Seventh Cavalry, and the Little Big Horn, have attractive covers.

And if you check worldcat.org, you’ll see how well the Press meets the demands of both lay and academic audiences. At least 70,000 copies of various Oklahoma University Press titles are available in public, academic, and military libraries around the globe.

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle, where her history, Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press), includes a recommendation by a University of Oklahoma Press author, James B. Allen, author of The Company Town in the American West.

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