2015 Jack D. Rittenhouse Award

PubWest Announces 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award
Goes to Dennis Stovall

Dennis Stovall has more than 39 years’ experience as a writer, designer, and publisher. Dennis and his wife Linny founded Media Weavers and then Blue Heron Publishing in the 1980s. In 2001, he founded the graduate program in publishing at Portland State University, and with his students founded Ooligan Press, a student run press that has published more than 30 books and is the unique laboratory for the graduate program. The PubWest Board of Directors selected Stovall in recognition of his extraordinary career and how his lifetime of work has shaped and inspired the book publishing community.

PubWest Board President Dave Trendler said, “The Jack D. Rittenhouse Award was established in 1990 as a way to thank and honor those who have made a real contribution to the Western community of the book. Today, the Rittenhouse Award is truly a lifetime achievement award for those who have made long-lasting contributions to how books are made and sold. I’m truly pleased to welcome him into the company of Rittenhouse Award recipients.”

Stovall accepted the Rittenhouse Award during PubWest 2015, which took place February 5-7, 2015, at the Westin Pasadena in Pasadena, California.

A 4th generation Oregon native, Dennis Stovall was born in Portland in 1946 and raised in The Dalles, Oregon, on the Columbia River in Eastern Oregon. He graduated from Wahtonka H.S. in 1964, where he’d already begun to write. He served as editor of the high school newspaper, as well as being student body president, and co-valedictorian.

In 1968, he graduated “with Distinction” from the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. His degree was in political science. In that tumultuous period, he turned to labor and community organizing. He worked widely in construction, steel working, and teamsters, before turning to full-time writing in 1976. His list of jobs is too long to include, but “sand hog,” crane operator, paper pulp maker, quality control supervisor, and truck driver are among them. Stovall notes that none of his jobs was wasted when he moved to writing and publishing.

It was through contract writing that he began learning the ropes of our industry—at least on the production side—as clients asked him to see projects through publication. He was smitten and fell in love with the entire process of publishing, from writer to reader and from its earliest history to its current and future forms. Always fascinated by new technologies, he was an early adopter of computerized writing, design, and production, buying his first system in 1976 for a mere $16,500.

In 1985, having returned to Portland after nine years in Pittsburgh, Stovall compiled a regional market list to help establish himself in the Northwest. Recognizing the rich literary life of the Northwest, his research quickly evolved into the 1st edition of Writer’s Northwest Handbook, and he formed Media Weavers with his wife Linny and cousin Doug Freeman to publish this directory to all things writing- and publishing-related in the Northwest. Awards accrued and the Handbook became biennial, while also being named an Official Resource of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Publication of the directory, with its large sections of craft articles for participants in the broad community of the printed word, lead to the addition of a quarterly tabloid newspaper, Writer’s NW, that achieved a readership of nearly 70,000 before the project and the Media Weavers imprint were sold in 1994. The project was an incredible platform for literary activism, for helping create a more self-conscious literary and publishing community in the NW. The Stovalls turned their attention to that challenge with great passion, creating major collaborations with the arts agencies of the Pacific Northwest states, with Dennis providing craft and technical workshops throughout the region on freelance writing and independent publishing.

After Stovall’s cousin left the business, Media Weavers was joined by general imprint Blue Heron Publishing, which became the company name soon after. The press focused on books for writers, publishers, and teachers of writing, English, and journalism. To this area were soon added books for young readers, with nine titles by Walt Morey of Gentle Ben fame leading the list. As it became possible to take greater risks, adult literary titles evolved around the Left Bank Books imprint. Among the authors published are many familiar names: Chuck Palahniuk, Ursula Le Guin, David Duncan, Marvin Bell, Robin Cody, Dorothy Allison, Sherman Alexie, Mikal Gilmore, Matt Groening, Lorian Hemingway, Pico Iyer, Ken Kesey, Barry Lopez, Norman Mclean, and dozens more.

Because Blue Heron lacked capital for growth and the Stovall’s had few resources, they took on contracts from other publishers, both national and local. Until big publishing figured out how to work digitally, Dennis provided interior design and some editorial work to houses as diverse as Van Nostrand Reinhold and Penguin. These jobs allowed Blue Heron to grow and to stay in front technologically in book production and marketing. Within Blue Heron, Dennis handled nonfiction editing, public interfacing, contracts and general management, and design and production.

Stovall’s writing was in the service of Blue Heron until the press was sold in 1998. That service was represented by dozens of newspaper and handbook articles, but most prominently by Classroom Publishing: A Practical Guide to Enhancing Student Literacy. This award-winning book—Stovall was honored for both writing and design—put forward new ideas on how the publishing process can be used to advantage in almost any classroom, either as an adjunct to an existing curriculum or as the foundation for an entire curriculum in any subject, with any budget, and with any level of technology. This work was co-authored with textbook writer/teacher Laurie King. It was recommended and sold for use “elementary through high school” by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Classroom Publishing was the result of Dennis’ growing interest in literacy and education. No comprehensive, consolidated resource existed to help teachers understand publishing and how it might be best used by them or their students. After Classroom Publishing’s release, Stovall moved his advocacy from a regional forum to a national one, working through the National Council of Teachers of English, in particular.

Because the Stovall’s were so active within the region, they were jointly recognized by organizations in the field for their contributions. Dennis has received major awards from Portland’s Literary Arts, Willamette Writers, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Society for Technical Communication, Northwest Assn of Book Publishers, Bumbershoot Literary Arts Festival, and the Library of Congress. He has served as a director of several important literary and publishing organizations, including Literary Arts, Oregon Writers Colony, Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and Northwest Assn of Book Publishers.

In 1998, Blue Heron Publishing was sold, though Stovall remained briefly as publisher. He continued to do book design as he moved back into his own writing, which was again sidetracked when Portland State University hired him to teach a test class on publishing in the newly formed Center for Excellence in Writing, a master’s degree program. Some years before, Dennis and Linny had been asked to advise on the creation of this new graduate program; they had suggested that the addition of a publishing curriculum would make the program unique and attractive. PSU could not manage such an addition at that point and the idea was shelved.

Stovall’s publishing classes were overbooked from the beginning, and the university took note. When the buyers of Blue Heron decided in 2000 to close the press, he decided to step in and try to convince PSU to buy company and turn it into a student-run teaching press. Months of discussion and negotiation ended with the university saying they could not afford the cost or the risk of something so untested. However, they told Dennis that they would hire him to create a new graduate publishing program organized around a student-run publishing house that had to survive on its own within two years. Much to Stovall’s surprise he was hired as an assistant professor, given an office, and told to make haste and make books beginning in fall 2001.

Of course, he had no students and he learned that establishing a degree granting curriculum would, by itself, normally take a couple of years. Somehow, he managed to negotiate his way through the maze of academic committees quickly. The degree was real by the end of the first year, but there was already a show faith on the parts of dozens of students who filled the classes as quickly as Stovall could flesh them out around the division of labor. The graduate enrollments during the first several years were: 18, 32, 42, 60, and 80. Students in the program were full participants in the creation of both Ooligan Press and the degree. Better yet, as they left they found employment with their new skills and education.

2011 marked the 10th anniversary of the publishing program, at which point Stovall was named Teacher of the Year by the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and soon announced his exit. Retirement of some sort seemed to him like a great idea, but he did not want to abandon the work he considered most important—empowering a new generation of publishing professionals who might be specialists in some aspect of craft but who thrive as generalists, able to do it all or find the right people to do the parts.

His opportunity to continue serving came in the form of the Fulbright Specialist Program. In 2012, he did an assignment at Amsterdam University, where he lectured on American publishing and consulted on the development of a publishing program modeled on PSU’s. In spring 2014, he did the same sort of work at Loughborough University in the UK Midlands.

Back in Portland, he has worked since his retirement with a high school writing and publishing center. For two summers, he brought high school students to the university for concentrated workshops on publishing basics. Graduate students assisted in this teaching.

Now, he is again hoping to return to his writing. There are stories to tell as fiction, and he looks forward to writing more about the power of publishing in our lives and in education, and about the incredible opportunities for invention and reinvention that new media give us.

About PubWest: PubWest is a non-profit trade association for North American book publishers, from small independent presses to publishing companies with worldwide operations, and related professionals, such as printers, designers, binderies, and publishing freelancers.

The PubWest Board of Directors selects a Rittenhouse Award recipient each November, and the award presentation takes place during the annual PubWest Conference.

See a list of past recipients of the Rittenhouse Award.