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Writing Students to Become Publishers

June 11, 1988|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

"First-Time Novelists' Manuscripts Wanted."

So reads the flyer for a new publishing house that plans to specialize in the works of unpublished novelists.

The fledgling publishing company is based in Orange County. But that's not the only thing that makes it unusual: It is being run by a group of college writing students who are taking their publishing venture as seriously as they take their own writing.

The as-yet-unamed publishing house is a class project for students who have signed up for a new class to be offered at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa this fall: How to Publish.

Instructor Ray Obstfeld describes the class as "a practical, hands-on experience in publishing through the formation of a publishing house," or "guiding a manuscript from reception in the mail to delivery in the bookstore."

"As far as I know there is nothing like it anywhere," said Obstfeld, 36, who has been teaching creative writing and literature classes at the college for 11 years. "There are university presses and university magazines that students work on, but this, as far as I know, is the only autonomous publishing company in existence in any school."

Obstfeld, himself the author of 28 published books--everything from mainstream novels and poetry to mysteries, Westerns and espionage--said the course will be divided into three groups: editing (selecting the manuscript to be published and working with the author on editing it), production (finding somebody to do the cover artwork, typesetting and book design), and marketing ("making sure every single copy we print gets sold.").

"When we went into it, we went in with one firm rule: If they're going to do this, they owe it to the author they select to do the best job they could," Obstfeld said.

Although the class won't begin until September, a 10-person student steering committee that will oversee the publishing operation is already soliciting manuscripts so they can get right to work in the fall. The one book they will publish this year must be in print by the end of class in December.

The deadline for submitting completed manuscripts (any genre is acceptable) is July 1. They can be mailed to Lila Amor, 1875 Wren Circle, Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626.

Flyers soliciting novel manuscripts were sent to college creative writing classes in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties in May. But word is spreading beyond Southern California. Obstfeld said some manuscripts are even coming in from writers in New York.

Steering committee member Vernon Pitsker of Fountain Valley anticipates a flood of submissions--"if people think we're serious, and we certainly are."

"We think there are a lot of manuscripts sitting out there," said Pitsker, 46, a former U.S. Customs special agent who is writing his own first novel.

The idea for forming the student-run publishing house arose out of a hypothetical question Obstfeld posed to the students in his novel-writing workshop this spring.

"Sometimes when going over manuscripts, as a point of putting it into perspective, I try to get them to think if they were on the other end would they want to buy this manuscript if it was their own money they were putting into it: Would they be willing to mortgage their house or spend all their life savings on it? If they do, then there's probably something to their manuscript," said Obstfeld, adding with a laugh: "Most people blanch when I ask them that question."

To get the publishing company off the ground, Obstfeld has bankrolled the students to the tune of $2,000. And it's a gift, he said, not a loan.

"If it ever was going to be done," he said, "this is the only way it's going to be done. The problem is always financial in wanting to do something like this. No school wants to part with money. They (the students) have ideas for raising other money. What I did was just sort of give them a bedrock."

Obstfeld said he thought the student-run publishing house "would be a good experience for everybody."

"You have to understand who these students are: They're serious-minded," he said. "Most of them have full-time jobs, and in their spare time they work on their novels and they attend a four-hour workshop once a week. Their level of dedication is admirable--not to mention their incredible abilities as writers. I could publish at least six of their books and feel comfortable that they would compete with most of the novels being published today."

Obstfeld, who will serve strictly as an adviser for the publishing company, said they have not solicited funds from the college or elsewhere.

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