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January 2007
Volume 2, Number 1

Celebrating Publishing in the Pines
Montgomery College Offers a Festival a Home

Cliff Hudder and Alicia Bankston

On a Mission

The state of publishingWhere can inexperienced and aspiring authors explore the business of publishing, chat with editors of small presses, learn the grassroots steps of publication, and obtain advice from successful authors? For several years in the Texas Gulf Coast region, that place was the Texas Writers and Publishers Festival, presented annually at the Walden Yacht Club by the Montgomery County Literary Arts Council. Founded in 1995 by community leaders and citizens enthusiastic about the written word, the council presented the conference along with a yearly reading series and worked hard to, as their mission statement says, “bring the most distinguished minds and visions to the citizens of our region.” Through partnerships with libraries, corporations, and individuals, the group’s programs and readings drew enthusiastic audiences, but by 2001 rising costs and funding woes forced the abandonment of the popular Publishers Festival.

That is, until Montgomery College got involved.

Situated in the pine forests about an hour’s drive north of metropolitan Houston, the college is a member of the North Harris and Montgomery County Community College District. Faculty from the Behavioral Sciences, English Languages and Speech Division at the college immediately recognized in the Literary Arts Council an extraordinary partner to help with its own stated mission: “Fulfilling individual dreams and enhancing community life.” The faculty, which includes graduates from the nearby University of Houston Creative Writing Program, has always worked to emphasize writing as an experience to get excited about, not just a class to get credit for. Council and college already have a track record of cost-sharing for a monthly series, Writers in Performance, that brings established authors to the campus for readings, classroom visits, and even sit-down dinners with students. Creative writing sections at Montgomery – offered simultaneously for academic or continuing education credit – have a history of attracting students and other community members who desire to learn about crafting stories, poems, and memoirs. Montgomery even publishes a sophisticated, student-edited, four-color literary magazine, SWIRL, which features writing, art, photography, and a CD of musical performance. Helping out with the festival seemed an obvious addition to the college’s continuing literary outreach programs.

Think Small

Publishers festivalThe Publishers Festival had throughout its history specifically called attention to the work of small presses, an aspect of the publishing industry not emphasized elsewhere in the region. As traditional publishing outlets have been absorbed into larger corporate structures with profit-driven and product-oriented offerings, small presses have leapt into the publishing vacuum to offer reading material of high quality.

With this same emphasis in mind, work began to revive the festival for the Fall of 2005. Moving the program to the college campus saved facility costs, but available funding still fell short of ensuring the ambitious program that had been presented in the past, especially if the day-long event were to remain free to the public. Community leaders, English faculty, and administrators worked hand in hand to seek grant money for the project, eventually obtaining support from community fund-raisers, the college’s student activity fund, and the state agency, Humanities Texas. Presenters were invited from around the state, and college resources were used to design attractive posters and postcard invitations mailed to interested writers and readers throughout the region. The college’s Student Ambassadors enlisted to help with book sales and general ushering for the event, and students from composition and creative writing sections, as well as the staff of SWIRL, all volunteered services. On the morning of Saturday, November 19, the conference, renamed The State of Publishing: A Texas Small Press Conference and Book Fair, opened its doors to an enthusiastic crowd of interested writers and readers.

Book Culture

A dozen presenters representing six small presses made up the day’s program, with an extensive book fair running concurrently in a nearby foyer. Two keynote speakers set the tone for the day. In the morning, scholar James Ward Lee of Texas Christian University Press delivered a humorous but insightful overview of the need for reading and critical thinking in our society: “Reading Will Ruin You.” In the afternoon, University of Texas professor Michael Winship examined the intersection of economics and literature in his presentation, “Reaching the Market: An Historical Overview of American Book Distribution.” Hourly sessions that made up the bulk of the schedule each included an editor or publisher presenting a particular press who then introduced a representative author. Bryce Milligan, for example, of Wings Press, gave an account of the trials, tribulations, and rewards of bringing to the public works like the ecological anthology, Falling From Grace in Texas, and the recent reprint of John Howard Griffith’s Black Like Me before introducing the evocative poet Wendy Barker, who read from her Wings Press book, Ways of Whiteness. Publications panelPublishers and editors gathered for an afternoon panel discussion on “The Role and Future of Small Literary Presses,” moderated by Texas A&M Press’s Charles Backus, and the day closed with a reading from one of the state’s most distinguished authors, the dean of Latino literature in Texas, Rolando Hinojosa. Question and answer periods were available for each session, and the audience also enthusiastically interacted with authors and publishers as they examined books in the foyer displays.

All in all, public feedback – collected from a response sheet available at the exit – was positive, and the festival is back on track to appear regularly as a resource to the community. Montgomery College sees association with such community projects as a value added to its reputation, and the Literary Arts Council has found in the college an amenable home for its well-regarded conference, which all parties believe will deliver a long-term benefit to the region. It is hoped that the conference will raise public consciousness about the role of small presses; encourage Texas small press publications for inclusion in local book discussion groups, classrooms, and libraries; and facilitate the submission of manuscripts to these presses from authors in the community.

This experience has also educated the college about the way citizens, students, and faculty are equally hungry to support arts and humanities in their communities. Prestigious figures in the world of letters are eager to spread the word about their work for nominal fees, and arts organizations stand ready to support such activities in the form of grants, fellowships, experience, and advice, especially where partnerships are in place. Those who worked so hard to revive this important festival feel any college could gather resources in any community, region, or state that could duplicate the success of The State of Publishing.

Cliff Hudder and Alicia Bankston are associate professors of English at Montgomery College in the North Harris and Montgomery County Community College District, Texas.

This edition of Innovation Showcase is sponsored by Thomson Learning.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor