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Q&A: CMU Press Senior Editor Cynthia Lamb

Cynthia Lamb is the senior editor of the Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is currently cultivating a series of books about Western Pennsylvania. One of the first books in the series was published last fall - "The Paris of Appalachia" by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O'Neill. Cynthia talked to H&SS News about the project and O'Neill's book - which recently became the fastest selling book in the history of the Press.

Cynthia, you've worked at the Carnegie Mellon University Press for a number of years. Could you talk about some of the roles you've held?
I began my job by becoming immersed, step-by-step, in the publishing process. In my first years, pre-computer design, I learned much about publishing by helping with the paste up of book covers. As software improved, I assisted the cover designers in very practical matters such as soliciting from the authors the core elements of their books scheduled for publication, including book cover art, biographical information, book blurbs, and author photographs. I obtained the ISBNs, the barcodes, for each book and applied for Library of Congress numbers, all of the steps it takes to make a book. Eventually, I undertook the proofreading of each book's text and its cover, pre-publication. Then I began working closely with the various book manufacturers that produce Carnegie Mellon University Press books.

What is involved as your role as senior editor of the CMU Press?
In the five past years, especially, my role at the Press has evolved rapidly, largely because of the ever-increasing complications faced by university presses and independent presses to keep pace with electronic marketing and the swift changes in technology. Most recently, there is great pressure upon publishers to move into digital publishing, which continually prompts the question of rights. Carnegie Mellon University Press has long been recognized for its list of fine poets, and therefore, holds a prominent place among university presses. The Press has published these authors over the course of their careers. In addition to authors outside the university, the Press publishes a variety of Carnegie Mellon faculty, whose works fit with the subjects ordinarily published by the Press. As senior editor, I work closely with each of these authors. In addition, each year the university press acquires new authors, and I've assumed the same type of relationship, guiding them through the process of publication. I continue to work with our designers, managing the details, which make each book a finished product. In poetry there is minimal editing, but with nonfiction I am more involved in the process.

My role at the Press expands each year, largely because publishing is much more complex than when I began. For example, marketing the Press' books has changed dramatically, because of the advent of, primarily, but also all the other .com vendors. Everything we sent out for reviewing purposes used to be in print form. Now much of it involves Internet promotion. So sending book information out to all of the Internet sources that sell books has become a primary task for me, along with promoting books via in-print journals, magazines, and newspapers. I enter books in appropriate prize entries, which have proliferated in the past decade in the world of publishing; and I research and cultivate relationships with Web-based book reviewers. This is a cyclical process, so each year, I start all over again.

In addition to working with authors, I work closely with Carnegie Mellon undergraduate and graduate students who have fulfilled prerequisites to become part of the English Department's Editing and Publishing course. I value greatly this part of my job because these wonderfully bright and conscientious young people add incalculable energy and life to the Press, and we learn from each other. Many have gone on to publishing careers and we hear from them frequently.

One aspect of my job ,which I am very excited about, is that in the past three years, I have been responsible for finding and acquiring new subject matter and new authors. This challenge keeps me on my toes and it's one of the most gratifying roles I undertake.

What types of books does CMU Press publish? Are there certain guidelines?
The Press' list is primarily composed of poetry by individuals, including translations. The Press has published translations of Bulgarian, Portuguese, and Czech poetry. There are two series, the Poetry Series, which comprises first-time published collections, and the Classic Contemporaries Series. This series consists of books that were previously published by another press, became out of print, and subsequently put back into print by Carnegie Mellon. The director of the Press, Gerald Costanzo, sees these books as too valuable to be no longer available, and he created this series to see that these books go back into print. This series is widely known and appreciated not only by poets but also by those who study, read, and collect individual poetry collections. The series extends the life of earlier works by many poets. But the Classic Contemporaries Series has recently included fiction titles that also have gone out of print.

The Press also publishes new fiction, mostly short story collections. The variety of series continues to grow, including nonfiction, comprised of memoirs of writers and their respective writing lives, dramaturgical studies and dramatic interpretations of classic stage plays, scholarly art books, and most recently, books of social history content.

Guidelines are relatively simple and typical of most presses: poetry manuscripts must be at least 64 pages, but are generally around 88 pages. We ask that the author send the entire manuscript. For those who submit works of fiction submitters should send a selection of stories; and for writers of nonfiction, an abstract, a sample chapter, or essay, depending on the subject matter. Most poets and writers of fiction have had their poems or stories previously published in journals and literary magazines, and so they are not entirely new to the publishing process.

You're responsible for discovering Brian O'Neill's book, "The Paris of Appalachia," for the Press. Could you tell us how you came across it?
Brian and his book came to me. This was early August 2008. Brian had written a book and had been in negotiation with a publisher, but that publisher's funding situation was constrained. Initially, I learned of Brian and his book by chance during a call I placed to Tracy Certo, publisher and editor at Pop City, which is a wonderful online magazine about Pittsburgh. Pop City had run a feature of another of the Press' local authors, Peter Oresick. Tracy told me a little about Brian, and as a courtesy, I wrote an e-mail note to him, stating that I would contact him down the road about his book. He responded to my message:

As she [Tracy] may have mentioned, I see it as more of a biography of the city than as a history. The working title was the somewhat unwieldy "I Love Pittsburgh Like a Brother (And My Brother Drives Me Nuts)," which everyone in this town seems to understand immediately, but may be too much for the cover.

I think it could do quite a bit to advance the conversation of where this city is going as it heads out of its 250th year. So when can I get this to you?

Well, this statement alone intrigued me. Then, within a day or so after these email exchanges, there was a knock at the office door. There stood this mild-mannered looking man with a bit of apprehension in his eyes, but he was smiling. Typically, prospective authors do not show up unannounced at publishers' door. Sometimes it happens, and I'm usually put off by such aggressiveness, but in his case, I guess because of his very appearance and manner, I didn't mind. I invited him in. Generally speaking, I don't recommend that authors do this.

What was your reaction when you first read it?
Brian's manner and what I felt was his profound love of his work seemed genuine, and these qualities prompted me to take the manuscript home that night to read. It didn't take long to decide it was a book I'd like to see the Press publish. I had read a lot about Pittsburgh history and I was drawn right into his version of the story of Pittsburgh. Its tone, Brian's tone, were notably different than many other writers and their accounts of Pittsburgh. I liked the fact that Brian isn't even from Pittsburgh, yet it was obvious he thinks highly of this city and its people. I'm not from Pittsburgh either, but his book must have struck the same chord in others as it did for me.

The Paris of Appalachia has become the fastest selling book in the history of the Press. Did this surprise you?
Yes and no. I knew that we were thrilled to publish the book, but I didn't understand at the time, Brian's popularity in Pittsburgh. As a Post-Gazette columnist, Brian already had an audience. But after watching Brian in action, how he has gone about promoting his book with speaking engagements, many times radio, and on television; attending community events; making rounds to bookstores to present his book to the various buyers; and through his naturally pleasant demeanor, the book has sold remarkably well. Most books lose a little steam over time, but The Paris of Appalachia has an enduring quality.

What are some other CMU Press bestsellers?
The poet Rita Dove's book Thomas and Beulah has sold more copies than books of poetry generally do. Along with that book, Ted Kooser's Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, has also sold prolifically. Ted Kooser was a two-term Poet Laureate of the United States. The other volume of poetry, which sells very well, is Samuel Green's The Grace of Necessity. Mr. Green was also a Poet Laureate, of Washington State. All of these titles are collections of poetry that resonate with readers across the spectrum. They each represent human character in such a way that readers find both pleasure and direction in their own lives. Also, they are examples of well-crafted poetry because their individual "stories" could not perhaps be expressed as well in the form of prose.

Also, the Press has published the 25-year retrospective from the editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rob Rogers' book No Cartoon Left Behind: The Best of Rob Rogers. This book has sold all over the country.

Currently, you're cultivating a series of books about the Pittsburgh region. How did you get involved with this project and how do you envision the series?
After having published a collection of oral histories of family members of Pittsburgh steelworkers, Ellie Wymard's Talking Steel Towns; Warhol-O-Rama, Peter Oresick's collection of poems, which survey the life of the Pittsburgh icon Andy Warhol; and The Paris of Appalachia, all well received, I've found that there is still much to be written about Pittsburgh, and this region of Western Pennsylvania. I look for books that are not necessarily academic in nature, but which nonetheless offer much valuable information about this area.

Are there other books in the CMU press pipeline for this year?
The next book, which is Western Pennsylvania-related, is The Pittsburgh Stories of Willa Cather edited by Peter Oresick. Willa Cather's stories are for the first time in the public domain. While Cather is best known as a daughter of Nebraska and for her prairie novel trilogy, she spent ten formative years in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh, where she began her writing career and where she completed several of her early novels.

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