By SUSAN JONES
The University of Pittsburgh Press has long been a big name in poetry publishing circles, but now it’s starting to get recognition in more mainstream media, like the New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement in England.
JOHN KANE BIOGRAPHY
The most notable book coming this spring from the Pitt Press is “American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane” by Maxwell King, who wrote a biography of Fred Rogers, and Louise Lippincott, a former curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The book is a biography of Kane, a blue-collar worker from Pittsburgh who had one of his painting selected for the Carnegie International in the 1930s and went on to be a celebrated artist. There will be events at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg and the Heinz History Center in the Strip District surrounding the release of the book in April.
“It takes time and intelligent work and we’ve been putting that in,” said Peter Kracht, director of the Pitt Press since 2013. “It’s really starting to pay off in terms of the reviews. And I’m just thrilled that we’re starting really to punch above our weight. … But it’s important that we do that because it will fuel and sustain our further growth and improvement of our lists.”
The Pitt Press’ reputation has been building over the past several years. Kracht compared it to how the University as a whole has improved its profile.
“Pitt has succeeded in making itself a better and better university, but there’s always a lag on how others perceive that,” he said. “It’s a little bit the same with the Press. The Press has always published very good books, but I think especially in the last 10 or 15 years, the average quality of books has gone up a great deal here, because we have a terrific editorial team and a fantastic marketing team — it’s just better.”
While the scholarly media have always paid attention to books from Pitt Press, Kracht said it takes a little time for high-profile review media in general publications to pay attention, “because they’re swamped. Every publisher in the world is sending them practically all the books that they publish.”
With those large stacks, reviewers often ignore books from publishers they’re not familiar with, he said. “It’s hard to break through that and we’ve started to break through it.”
“We’re still not mainly a poetry literature publisher; we’re mainly a scholarly publisher with works on Latin America, Russia and Eastern Europe, environmental history, all kinds of things. That’s really our main mission,” Kracht said. “And so the reflected glory, as it were, of the poetry program is very, very helpful, but it has its limitations, because it’s such a separate phenomena. We’re working very hard to get more energy going with the scholarly books.”
They’ve been having some success in that area.
In 2020, Pitt Press had its first review in the Times Literary Supplement and the second book was reviewed earlier this year — “Explorations in the Icy North: How travel narratives shaped Arctic science in the nineteenth century” by Nanna Kaalund.
The New York Review of Books first reviewed a Pitt Press book in 2020. And in January, the Press had its second review — of "Pale Horse: A Novel of Revolutionary Russia" by Boris Savinkov, translated from the Russian by Michael R. Katz and with an introduction by Otto Boele — in this wide circulation publication.
Kracht said he thinks the second reviews are significant, because it means the first one wasn’t just a fluke.
“We’re not Harper Collins or Random House pumping out hundreds of books. We’re not even the University for Chicago Press pumping out hundreds,” he said. “We’re a medium-sized press publishing about 75 books a year.”
Kracht said they’ve been very targeted in getting review copies to publications and are making sure to share positive reviews from one publication with some of its rivals.
“If you plant a little seed like, ‘Oh, yeah, I passed over that book, but I see my competitor reviewed it, so maybe I should pay attention to this little University of Pittsburgh Press.”
Another Pitt Press author, Andrei Kozyrev, who was foreign minister of Russia under President Boris Yeltsin from August 1991 to January 1996, was recently featured on ABC News talking about the war between Russia and Ukraine. His memoir, “The Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy,” was published by Pitt Press in 2020.
The Press also has been promoting its Drue Heinz Prize, which is one of the top awards for short story collections. “There was sort of an assumption that everyone knows it’s a great prize, so why do I need to say anything about that? And my view is, we need to remind people and not just not just the individuals but the review media by using ads in their spaces,” Kracht said.
Another initiative the Pitt Press has started in the past few years is repackaging some of its classic titles. One of those books, “Thunder in the Mountain: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21” by Lon Savage, has been optioned by a Los Angeles production company to make into a film or series, Kracht said.
“We still don’t know for sure that will happen, but they recently renewed the option and they’ve been reporting back that things are moving forward with that very, very well,” he said.
Pitt Poetry Series
Much of the success of Pitt’s Poetry Series can be attributed to Ed Ochester, who unexpectedly retired last year after more than 40 years as editor of the series, Kracht said.
“We have series editors but Ed was in a special position. His title was series editor, but he was also really the acquisitions editor,” Kracht said. “The job of this editor is to select works of art. It’s not to put manuscripts into the peer review process and determine their scholarly worth, make a recommendation to publish and so on. It’s a question of creative experience, taste, feel for trends, etc.”
One of the Pitt Press poetry authors getting attention lately is David Lehman, the founder of and series editor for The Best American Poetry anthology. He was interviewed in the L.A. Review of Books last year about his latest collection “The Morning Line.”
Works by two Pitt Poetry Series authors — Richard Blanco and Sharon Olds — have been featured on PBS’s “Poetry in America” series this year.
The new editor will likely be a very long-term appointment, Kracht said, so they want to take their time filling that role. In the meantime, award-winning poet Terrance Hayes, who co-founded Pitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and won a MacArther “genius” grant in 2014, will serve as series editor, along with fellow poets Nancy Krygowski and Jeffrey McDaniel.
“It seemed like the best way to keep things moving and show that we were still extremely committed to a high-quality poetry program,” Kracht said. “I thought it made sense to work with these people to create an interim committee, and the committee is to reflect the range of styles of poetry. It also signals to that community that we’re maintaining the kind of creative diversity that the poetry series is known for.”
The competition for the poetry series comes mostly from other small, literary presses, like Copper Canyon, he said, instead of academic presses. And like those literary presses, Pitt Press has a submission window in the fall for poetry books. During that time, they receive around 300 submissions and end up publishing around 12 books of poetry a year.
“Those were coming in, regardless of Ed’s announcement,” Kracht said. “And we needed to start looking at those. Ed left behind a few picks for what he wanted to see come out this spring and a couple even for the fall coming up, but we needed more.”
The committee will recommend the rest of the poetry books for the fall, and Kracht said they hope to have a new poetry series editor on board later this year.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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