Chemeketa Press aims for publishing “revolution” by creating textbooks for $40 and under

Brian Mosher, managing editor of Chemeketa Press, poses next to algebra textbooks on sale in the college bookstore. The books cost $36.50. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A mission in four bullet points is outlined on a glass door leading to an office in Building 9 of Chemeketa Community College.

It includes typical college goals: Faculty support. Student involvement.

And then: “Revolution.”

This is the headquarters of Chemeketa Press, a scrappy four-person operation upending traditional academic publishing by creating textbooks for $40 or less.

“No book should be $300 unless it is rare or out of print or signed by Charles Dickens,” managing editor Brian Mosher said. “There’s no morality behind it.”

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Since its founding in 2015, the Press has published 33 textbooks and saved Chemeketa students about $2.5 million over the price of new textbooks from traditional publishers, Mosher said.

It’s the only academic press in Oregon, and likely in the U.S., based at a community college.

They save money by printing on-demand when books are ordered and shortening the development process.

Traditional publishers may require years of classroom testing and evaluations to bring a book to market. At Chemeketa, that work can be done in a few months, with revisions happening constantly as students and faculty using the books suggest changes.

The savings are a point of pride for the Press’ staff, who are all current or former Chemeketa faculty and see students struggle with the high cost of books.

Mosher teaches writing courses at Chemeketa and can speak at length about the problems with $200 and $300 textbooks.

At community colleges, students are often low income and juggling school with work or other responsibilities.

“It’s an interesting world when a student’s textbook bill is the thing keeping them from buying groceries,” Mosher said.

Higher costs per course mean a student may take fewer classes per quarter, meaning a degree takes longer to finish. Students in college longer are less likely to finish at all, he said.

One of Chemeketa Press’ first offerings, “Art for Everyone” replaced a $200 textbook for an introductory art appreciation class. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Art instructor Deanne Beausoleil recalled a student who bought a $28 copy of “Art for Everyone,” the department’s collaboratively-written textbook for an introductory art appreciation class.

It’s the most-taught course in the department, often taken by students needing humanities credit for a transfer diploma. The course’s commercially produced textbook used before cost $200.

Because of the money saved, Beausoleil said the student “was able to buy her children back to school clothes.”

The book grew out of a conversation in the hallway between department chair Laura Mack and Steve Richardson, the Press’ founder. Beausoleil said the two were discussing the high cost of the existing book and Mack proposed the department’s faculty work together to write a replacement.

It’s now available at the Chemeketa bookstore for $36.50.

The press isn’t just about money. Mosher said the publishing staff works with faculty to write books that are approachable and don’t employ needless academic jargon.

Israel Chavez, who graduated from Chemeketa this year, used one of the press’ writing textbooks in class.

“It was a lot easier for me to understand,” he said. “They go straight to the point of what you’re supposed to be learning.”

Students review books as part of that process.

Taylor Wynia, who just completed her associate’s degree, was a press intern over the summer. She copy edited books, checked references and made suggestions for new books on economics and technical writing, letting faculty know when a concept went over her head or an example about say, VCR repair, wasn’t likely to make sense to students.

“They want to make sure it’s understandable for incoming freshmen and sophomores,” she said.

Instructors also benefit by getting to hone their writing skills and become published authors. Beausoleil said she and other art faculty gained confidence in their writing through working on the textbook and got to include their views of what an art appreciation course should be.

For them, that meant showcasing less well-known and local artists and focusing on teaching students how to think and talk about art, rather than treating the course as “art history lite.”

“That whole process helped me to become a better writer and a more confident teacher,” Beausoleil said.

Chemeketa’s new president, Jessica Howard, was aware of the press when she applied for the job and said it shows much of what’s unique about the college.

“It spoke to an incredibly vibrant, proactive faculty culture,” she said.

Chemeketa Press managing editor Brian Mosher looks at a whiteboard outlining publishing timelines from his desk (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Chemeketa has funded the press with grants that pay for three of four staff, but the press’ goal is to be self-sustaining through book sales, Mosher said. During the 2017-18 school year, Chemeketa Press brought in $180,000 from sales. The college kicked in $317,000.

The low cost of books and limited market of Chemeketa students means breaking even will be a matter of expanding beyond the Salem area, Mosher said. They’re now seeking faculty at other universities to use books in class and gather feedback from students.

James Benton, a senior instructor of English and writing at Eastern Oregon University, was an early adopter. He used a $25 poetry textbook still in development during a course this summer and is using the Chemeketa Press writing handbook with students this fall.

Benton learned of the press during a conference in Portland in the spring. The low cost was a draw. He’s learned the hard way that when books are too expensive, students often opt not to buy them, which makes teaching harder.

But he was impressed with the quality of the books, and the fact that they came out of an Oregon college. The poetry book did what he needed without a lot of extras, he said: introduce students to the ideas and concepts so they can have informed discussions.

“It gave students completely unfamiliar with the idea of poetry a vocabulary they can use,” he said.

The press started after Richardson, at the time a professor of English, self-published a writing book for his classes and was interested in working with other faculty to publish their own materials. He proposed what would become the press early in 2015 and worked with faculty to develop four textbooks over the spring and summer. Mosher served as an editor and enjoyed it so much he stayed.

The first books were on sale that fall.

Since then, new titles have been driven by faculty interest and potential savings. Instructors interested in developing a book can make proposals, and Mosher and other editors help guide them through the writing process.

They don’t have enough staff to make a book for every idea faculty have. Courses where the press can produce a significantly cheaper textbook, or courses with consistent high enrollment are their priorities, Mosher said.

A selection of current Chemeketa Press offerings on display in the press office in Building 9. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Their goal is to draw from an array of college departments and help faculty feel confident writing. Though many initial projects came out of the English department, current titles include math, U.S. history, a geology lab manual and more.

The books are printed offsite at a web-based publisher, then shipped to the Chemeketa bookstore, where students can buy them alongside their other textbooks for courses. Most books are still under development and only available at Chemeketa or to faculty elsewhere testing them out, but some finished books can be ordered directly off the press website.

“Art for Everyone” was one of the inaugural titles and has now been picked up by Oxford University Press, to be developed into a traditional textbook over the next few years. That will raise the price slightly, to about $60, Mosher said – still far less than the $200 book art instructors were using before.

For the press staff and instructors who worked on the book, it’s a significant accomplishment.

The press is working with faculty at several other colleges, both in Oregon and elsewhere, to test other Chemeketa books starting this school year.

Mosher said he finds skepticism from other academics that a $40 textbook written at a community college could be high quality.

“We’re not ashamed to be a community college,” he said. “When faculty pick up the book, they see the difference…but getting someone to pick up that book can be hard.”

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.