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BOOKS & AUTHORS

Quixote Press Was Indeed an Impossible Dream

January 06, 1990|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They began their publishing adventure in the Spring of 1988 with the best of intentions.

The goal of Quixote Press, the student-run publishing house at Orange Coast College, was to publish a first-time novelist's manuscript by the end of the fall semester.

The students--members of writing instructor Raymond Obstfeld's How to Publish class--sent flyers soliciting manuscripts to college creative writing classes in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. But word of the fledgling publishing house's search spread throughout the state and some submissions even came from as far as New York.

Forty manuscripts were received, and "Max Golly," a comic novel by Rick Drager, a Davis piano teacher in the creative writing program at UC Davis, was selected for publication.

Over the next few months, publishing class members conducted a cover design contest through college and high school art departments, edited Drager's manuscript, worked on a distribution plan and--most important--sought donations to pay for printing costs.

But the December, 1988, deadline came and went.

So what's become of Quixote Press and "Max Golly"?

At last word in early 1988, Drager was continuing to rewrite portions of his novel, and the students were continuing their efforts to raise the $8,000 needed for a 1,500-copy first printing.

And therein lay the downfall of Quixote Press.

Despite an initial $2,000 donated by Obstfeld--and another $550 from other sources--Quixote Press unceremoniously folded last June.

"It was a nice project, and we felt confident we could raise the money from the arts patrons around here, but we just could not raise the money to put it out," said Vernon Pitsker, a member of the student steering committee overseeing the publishing house.

"A lot of people promised money, and then they didn't come through. That was a tough lesson for us," said Alexis Brown, who served as the primary editor.

What began as a 10-person student steering committee had, by the end, dwindled to just Pitsker and Brown.

"Like any project, you have great hopes for it in the beginning, and when it doesn't come around, you always have that feeling of regret," Pitsker said. "I suppose if we still had the momentum of participation, it may have moved forward, but there were just two of us left. We just said, 'We can't handle this ourselves.' It just came down to money and lack of participation."

"We learned an incredible amount," Brown said, laughing: "We learned the publishing business is tough."

"It was a good experience, and the thing was I felt really bad we couldn't finish it," Brown added. "Our intention was, 'No matter what, we're going to get it published.' That we had to abandon it was the most disappointing thing, because it was a good little book and it deserved to be published."

Obstfeld stresses, however, that the demise of Quixote Press should not be seen as a complete failure.

If its success or failure is going to be measured solely by whether "Max Golly" was published or not, he said, "then we've lost the point: To learn how to do something and try for it. The students learned as much as they did or didn't because they went through the process. That's the whole point of college."

Obstfeld, who served as adviser, said the students learned how to select a manuscript, how to edit, budget and plan distribution.

"Everything was there--except the extra money," Obstfeld said. "It's not that it couldn't be done. All the expertise was there, but part of my philosophy was (that) I wasn't going to do it for them; that wasn't the goal. The goal was for everybody to see how it's done and accept the responsibility: If you don't do it, it doesn't happen."

If the students benefited by the experience, Drager also came out ahead.

Brown said that, in addition to a $500 advance, Drager received "a lot of good editing."

"I think he was disappointed," she said, "but we were real up-front with him from the beginning, so I don't think he was totally distraught. I think he has a real good chance with publishing it elsewhere. We did quite a bit of editing. We made a lot of suggestions, and he made a lot of changes based on our suggestions."

Reached by phone in Woodland, Calif., where he now lives, Drager, 40, acknowledged that he was disappointed when he was told that his novel would not be published. But he takes the demise of Quixote Press philosophically, quoting a Writer's Market estimate that about 25% of all small presses fail each year.

"I got some good help with the book," he said as one of his piano students played in the background. "This time last year, I was trying to beat a deadline they had given me to finish their rewrites. It was mostly a matter of kind of clarifying some of the characters, especially toward the end of the book--keeping them more consistent."

Drager has by no means abandoned his novel.

He linked up with a Boston literary agent in November, and his manuscript, retitled "Chasing Cagney," is making the rounds of major New York publishers. Unlike other first-time authors he knows whose agents have asked them to rewrite their novels, Drager said his agent did not ask for any changes. "The book is kind of in a workmanlike condition," he said.

And if his agent is not lucky with the major publishers, Drager said, "I'll start hitting the small publishers again."

Small or large, it doesn't make that much difference to Drager.

"I do look at a published book as a published book since this is my first step out," he said. "It would be nice to have that on my resume."

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