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OSU Press Interns on Attending PubWest: What We Learned

March 24, 2020

Recently, OSU Press interns Ashley Hay and Isaiah Holbrook attended PubWest’s annual conference. Both on the cusp of entering the publishing industry, they reflect on their experience at this publishing association’s conference below




Last week, I was lucky enough to attend PubWest in Portland as an intern at OSU Press. Despite my youthful status and relative inexperience in the industry, I encountered friendly conference-goers, thoughtful conversations, and colorful debates over the course of the day. While at times I found myself overwhelmed at the depth and community of the industry I’m planning to enter, I think this was a useful step in immersing myself into this strange new culture.

I primarily embraced the role of passive observer, newcomer to all the etiquette, relationships, and practices playing out before my eyes. I learned a lot of about marketing this way, sitting in panels that discussed generational marketing, metadata, Pinterest, and sensitivity readers. Debates over the diversity of editors raised questions I never would have thought to ask. Contracts that require authors self-promote was previously a totally foreign concept. Partnerships with libraries, schools, and local media outlets all hold significant potential, and I might not have learned about the strategic ways some publishers connect with their communities elsewhere.

But I found some ways to participate in conversations, as well. During PubWest’s “Peer Pairs,” an organized speed-conversation event, I received plenty of advice and stories from industry professionals about the start of a publishing career. “Confusion is a learning state,” one woman told me, a marketer who cited the numerous times she, herself, had failed initially. “Pump them for all the ‘why’ questions,” another woman—an educator—said, suggesting I use mentors to learn about the history of any industry I enter. In return, my Gen-X status became a boon as I found myself answering all sorts of social-media-related questions. (Yes, Twitter is a surprisingly useful platform for community engagement. No, you shouldn’t use the same hashtags on every platform.) 

To be honest, I certainly didn’t expect such a strong sense of community to emerge almost immediately. Amongst the two hundred or so attendees, most people seemed at least vaguely familiar with each other, and I’d often see conversations across aisles, shifting clusters of familiar faces, and warm greetings of old acquaintances. Keeping my ears to the ground, I picked up plenty of industry gossip, much to my delight. Speakers and panelists all had their own stories and experiences, which they were all too willing to share, and even the drier moments held gems of unknown phrases, histories, or ideas I feel lucky to have caught.

Broadly, I feel lucky to have had this experience. Being able to dive so quickly into a professional community like this was a terrific learning experience. While this time, I focused on listening to and absorbing others’ knowledge, perhaps in the future I’ll become the one initiating conversations—or even sitting on a panel myself.


 The PubWest conference enabled me to gain even more knowledge about the publishing industry through both the marketing and editorial lens. As a fiction student in the MFA Creative Writing program at OSU, most of my conference experience stems from AWP, and although the perspectives from a writer’s eyes and a publisher’s are completely different, there are parallels between the ways that publishers think and the ways in which I think about writing and marketing my own work.

One of the panels I attended spoke about generational readership in publishing and gave a brief overview of the interests and disinterests of the majority of readers from each generation (from the Silent and Baby Boomers to Gen Z and Gen Alpha). Through this panel, I realized that an awareness of audience is essential in knowing how to tailor your books and advertise them to your generational audience. But listening to the panel, I couldn’t help but relate this same marketing tactic/awareness to a writer, and how writers also have to be cognizant of their readers, who their stories might attract, and figure out how to broaden their readership even when their freedom of experimentation in their work veers away from their initial work. Even though as a writer I’m more focused on generating work than on attracting my audience, this panel made me aware that in order to be visible, a writer must pay attention to their readership.

From this conference, I came to further understand the universal conversation the publishing world is having about increasing diversity and representation within the process of book publishing. I attended another panel that focused on  what it means to highlight diverse books and voices through a predominately white industry. This discussion covered a variety of topics that raised various questions such as: Who is allowed to write about people of color? How can we be a better representative of diversity and inclusion from an editor’s standpoint? From a marketing/advertising standpoint? Should sensitivity readers only be limited to the transmittal phase? It was through this conversation that I further learned my desire to be in that conversation, to make my presence and voice known as a person of color, and to contribute to a small solution to a global issue.

Not only were the panels a learning experience, but also the keynote speakers, specifically Charlotte Abbott’s talk on reader engagement. Abbott’s speech encouraged me to think about how my position as an intern can contribute to readership engagement. She articulated that in the small press community, many of us strive to reach for a broader audience that is often more accessible to bigger-named brands/trade publishers than academic presses; however, that doesn’t mean that increasing readership engagement isn’t accessible to us. Abbott’s talk was a stepping stone for my understanding of how interns can be a part of that conversation and enabled me to take what I learned back to the office and begin to apply it to our everyday practice.

I’m very fortunate that my work at OSU Press led me to this conference and gifted me further educational access into the world of small press publishing.


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