A University Press Fiction Success Story

I joined the New York Public Library's Young Lions program in 2003, and since then have occasionally notified AAUP members about their prestigious fiction award. The particular set of qualifications, however, can be a tall order for university press publishers to meet. Which is why, when I read the list of the five finalists for 2008 on the ceremony invitation, I was pleasantly surprised to see a university press book represented for the very first time.

The Young Lions, an NYPL program for people in their 20s and 30s, presents a $10,000 award every Spring recognizing young emerging authors of short fiction and novels. To qualify for the Young Lions Fiction Award, an author must be an American, age 35 or under, and the book must be an original novel or short story collection. Five finalists are announced each year in March, and in April, the NYPL holds an awards ceremony and reading in NYC, hosted by Ethan Hawke, the group's co-founder.

The university press book finalist for 2008 was Teach the Free Man, published by Ohio University's Swallow Press imprint. The 12-story collection focuses on incarceration in the California prison system, as told through voices of the inmates. The author, Peter Nathan Malae, is a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University and winner of the 2007 Joseph Henry Jackson Award from the San Francisco Intersection for the Arts.

At the 2008 award ceremony, I asked Malae about his reasons for going with a university press publisher, as opposed to a trade house such as W.W. Norton, or Viking Penguin, both of whom had two books nominated as finalists. "When I sent my stories out to big NYC publishers," he said, "they said they liked them, but didn't think they would make any money."

It was suggested to Malae that he submit his stories to some of the big university presses. He sent his work to Louisiana State, Iowa, and Ohio. "With Ohio, their Director, David Sanders, contacted me directly," he said. Malae ended up sending his entire collection to Ohio University Press, who published the collection in 2007.

Swallow Press has enjoyed a lot of acclaim for Teach the Free Man, including a 2007 Notable Book selection from the Story Prize. However, according to Jeff Kallett, Ohio's Publicity Manager, following the announcement of the Young Lions Fiction Award nomination, a significant number of interview requests and outside attention began to come in. "We had inquiries from agents in New York, which has never happened," Kallett said.

While its age and submission counts do not compare to other literary awards such as the Story Prize, the Iowa Short Fiction Award, or the Flannery O'Conner Award, NYPL's Young Lions Fiction Award can be a sales and publicity boost for an author and his or her publisher. The ceremony, hosted by Hawke and featuring various actors performing readings, is covered by both the publishing and entertainment media. However, publicity about the finalists and their books can have significant impact even before the ceremony.

"We've had several books win academic prizes," said Kallett, "and as much as we're pleased about them, there is only so much notice many of those books will ever get. The New York Public Library, however, is a great publicity machine. And to have one of our books associated with this world is really something."

In the end, the 2008 Award went to Ron Currie, Jr., author of God is Dead (Penguin). But Malae has since been offered a two-book deal with Grove Press, probably in no small part from the publicity from the award. Kallet says the press is very happy for him, and Malae had nothing but positive things to say about university press publishers. "The experience with Ohio University Press has been A+" Malae said.

The Young Lions Fiction Award started in 2001. The committee receives about 110 submissions a year from publishers nationwide. Past finalists and winners include Myla Goldberg (Bee Season), Colson Whitehead (John Henry Days), and Anthony Doerr (The Shell Collector).

Rachel Weiss-Feldman
Marketing Manager, AAUP