It’s doubtful that Nicholas Sparks will seek out Wesleyan University Press for his next novel. And if he did, his book would have to make it through a thorough vetting process to even be considered for publishing.
The 55-year-old press has published the likes of big-name poets John Cage, Norman O. Brown, and James Wright. T.S. Eliot even briefly sat on its editorial board in the early 1960s. Long committed to the development of modern literary perspectives and interdisciplinary thinking, the press has published Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners.
“We’re not doing ‘40 Shades of Grey’ here,” said director and editor-in-chief Suzanna Tamminen ’90, who began working at the press in 1987 as a work-study student.
She runs a surprisingly small-scale operation. The editorial staff of Wesleyan University Press, which published 18 books this fall, has only four members: Tamminen, acquisitions editor Parker Smathers, assistant director and marketing manager Leslie Starr, and publicist Stephanie Elliott.
But Tamminen doesn’t worry that the low staff count will impede productivity. In fact, she views the press’ size as one of its biggest strengths because its intimate atmosphere compels the staff to carefully evaluate manuscript drafts and is conducive to close communication between the authors and the editors.
“Our authors get a lot of input and a lot of control, which I think is not the case when working with a larger press,” Tamminen said. “Unless you’re the top fish for that [sized] press, you probably don’t get a lot of attention.”
The press’s editorial staff carefully scrutinizes all of its potential writers’ work to determine whether or not the work will be published. After an author submits a manuscript or project proposal to the press, the staff meticulously reviews it. Then, the members have a group discussion about the project’s potential and decide whether to pursue publishing it.
Often, when works are originally submitted—mostly by professors from other universities but sometimes from writers outside the educational sphere—they are only partially completed. If the staff selects an unfinished piece for publishing, it requests that the author complete it and provides guidance if needed.
Once the manuscript is complete, it is sent to two readers who are experts in the field relevant to the work. The readers send their commentary and suggestions to the press editors, who then share the readers’ feedback with the author, along with the editors’ own comments.
Taking the criticisms into account, the author edits the manuscript. The newly drafted work is then sent to the editorial board, a group of tenured Wesleyan professors of a variety of subjects, for final approval.
“We officially accept the manuscripts that go into publication,” said Professor of Music Mark Slobin, a member of the editorial board, in a phone interview with The Argus. “Of course, Suzanna Tamminen and Parker Smathers do all the real work and ultimately guide most of it. It comes to us in a very late stage.”
The press is perhaps most renowned for its poetry series. The second oldest poetry series in the country, it was founded in 1959 by Wesleyan professor and famed poet Richard Wilbur, who intended to publish experimental poetry in a prestigious setting.
“There weren’t very good outlets for poetry that was a little riskier or more cutting-edge than the things that the trade houses were doing,” explained Tamminen.
In 2010, Rae Armantrout won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “Versed,” the fifth time a Wesleyan University Press poet has won the award. For some, the success of the press’s poets leads to questions about their decision to work with a small publisher.
“There are many senior poets who stay with Wesleyan even though they could make more money at some other publisher because they’re loyal to us,” said Slobin. “They know us as a distinguished place to have their work published.”
Though tied to its tradition of literary excellence, the press recently made a major change to adapt to the modern day: all of its new titles are now available as e-books.
For Tamminen, the shift to online offerings was logical in the rapidly changing and unpredictable industry of publishing.
“That’s just the way the industry is moving, so it was clear that it was something we should move into,” she said.
This season’s new books, which are also available in good old-fashioned print, include “Carved in Stone” by Thomas E. Gilson and William Gilson, a collection of photographs of gravestone carvings; “Musicking Bodies” by Matthew Rahaim, a book about North Indian dance; and “Garnet Poems” edited by Dennis Barone, an anthology of historical and contemporary Connecticut poetry.
The press’s catalogue, available on its website, offers new books on subjects ranging from ethnomusicology to the history of science fiction, an experimental series that the press began in 2010 and the success of which somewhat surprised the editors.
Slobin points out that while the press’s offerings are impressive, they aren’t likely to include works like “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games.”
Said Slobin, “You’re not going to find some bestseller vampire series.”