Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Lacking the population to sustain commercial publishing, the Great Plains has been, in book publishing, largely the domain of university presses, notably those at Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas.

The first influential book publisher in the Great Plains was Haldeman-Julius of Girard, Kansas, publishers of the Little Blue Books. Between 1918 and 1928 Haldeman-Julius published some 2,000 titles, each priced at five cents a copy and sixty-four pages in length, on every imaginable topic, from abridgments of classics of philosophy to religion to politics to sex, and sold 100 million books worldwide. With a distinct skeptical and socialist bent, Haldeman-Julius fed an enormous hunger– and market–for intellectual stimulation among newly literate classes of Americans.

The Little Blue Books were not primarily literary, and a relative dearth of literary publishing has characterized the Great Plains ever since. But a mission to cultivate a literate and informed citizenry was evident in the program of the next significant publisher to arise on the Plains, the University of Oklahoma Press, founded in 1928.

At first the Oklahoma list showed a fondness for the common person and the common voice–the journal Folk Say (1929) and the longtime bestseller, E. H. Faulkner's Plowman's Folly (1943), come to mind—and at the same time a commitment to making Greek and Latin classics readily available. The list reflected the tastes of the press's second director (from the mid-1930s until the late 1960s), Savoie Lottinville, a Rhodes scholar, classicist, and committed Oklahoman with a vision of greatness, and the hard work of his editor, Mary Stith. Oklahoma made its most lasting contribution by publishing books of scholarly rigor about the people of the Western Hemisphere, notably in the Civilization of the American Indian series, which between 1932 and 1997 had extended to 225 titles. Like Haldeman-Julius, the early University of Oklahoma Press had its own printing plant. Under the motto "Books Worth Keeping," however, Oklahoma went Haldeman-Julius one better, using its plant to produce prize-winning design and high-quality letterpress printing in hard bindings.

It was by capitalizing on new trends in printing and binding that the University of Nebraska Press challenged Oklahoma. In many ways, Nebraska followed Oklahoma's road to success. Oklahoma published histories of the surrounding states. So did Nebraska. Oklahoma reprinted classics of the western frontier and of Native American cultures. So did Nebraska, sometimes reprinting the same public domain books. However, while Oklahoma reprinted regional books by typing fresh manuscripts and reediting, redesigning, and retypesetting them in hot lead, printing them letterpress, and publishing them in cloth bindings, Nebraska took advantage of the rising quality of photo-offset printing technology to publish paperbacks.

The University of Nebraska Press had been founded in 1941, but it was only in 1959, when its editor, Virginia Faulkner, and its hardworking director, Bruce Nicoll, established Bison Books (the first university press quality paperback imprint in the United States), that Nebraska rose to prominence. Today it offers a dynamic list in several areas of scholarship. Nebraska has built a substantial list in Native studies and western history, translations of European literature, creative nonfiction, and sports history.

The third university press to rise to prominence on the U.S. Great Plains, the University Press of Kansas, was founded in 1946 and came into its own in the late 1980s. The press's director, Fred Woodward, its longtime editor, Kate Torrey, and its marketing head, Susan Schott, learned from their predecessors and achieved success by following a specialized editorial program in a very business-like manner. Alone among the three, Kansas publishes books strictly about the United States, including series on the American presidency and natural resource policy. As its name suggests, the University Press of Kansas is supported by a consortium of state campuses.

These three presses, hosted by universities, have focused on scholarship, not on contemporary literature. Literary publishing in the Great Plains has been the domain of several small university presses in Texas; trade houses such as the Swallow Press, originally in Denver; small presses like Frank Parman's Point Riders Press in Norman, Oklahoma, and Ted Kooser's Windflower Press in Lincoln, Nebraska; and a few fine printers like the Abattoir Press at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Among textbook publishers on the Plains are branches of Harcourt Brace and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in Texas and, until 1998, when it relocated to Indianapolis, Cliff's Notes.

Canadian Plains publishers include presses at the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, and Manitoba and the Canadian Plains Research Center at the University of Regina. Fifth House in Saskatoon, Coteau in Regina, and NeWest and Hurtig in Edmonton are influential regional presses, while Winnipeg's Pemmican is one of the oldest and best established Native presses in North America, producing books by Native authors and reaching a wide Native audience in Canada.

See also EDUCATION: Cliffs Notes.

Stephen F. Cox University of Arizona Press

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