University of Pittsburgh Press cashes in on popular poet


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Early on the morning of Jan. 9, Lowell Britson at the University of Pittsburgh Press got a call from a buyer at Barnes & Noble in New York.

"How much stock do you have?" asked the buyer. "I want to get all you have."

The urgency was in reference to "Looking for the Gulf Motel," the most recent book from poet Richard Blanco, who had just been named the poet for President Barack Obama's inauguration.

In 1998, Pitt also published Mr. Blanco's first volume of poetry, "City of a Hundred Fires," after he won the university's Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.

Since Mr. Blanco was announced as the inauguration poet, "it's been intense," said Mr. Britson, director of marketing for the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Mr. Blanco's sweeping poem for Monday's public inauguration ceremony, "One Today," described moments of hope and tragedy in the American landscape and touched on the experience of his mother and father laboring to pay for his education. Mr. Blanco is the fifth poet to deliver an address at a presidential inauguration.

Pitt has contracted with a digital printer to print about 500 copies of each of Mr. Blanco's books every night, which is as much as the printer can handle.

On Wednesday, Mr. Britson was checking the orders coming every half hour, making sure that the press was keeping up with demand.

The University of Pittsburgh Press is also going to publish a new book of Mr. Blanco's work that will include "One Today" and two other poems that were submitted as possible inauguration poems, both in English and Spanish.

The initial print run for last year's "Looking for the Gulf Motel" was 2,000 copies, said Mr. Britson, about 1,400 of which had been sold before the inauguration announcement.

"The next day, they were gone," he said.

Since then, at least 3,000 more copies have been printed. Mr. Britson estimates that 10,000 might eventually be sold, though he said that the final total is hard to predict. Because Mr. Blanco is both gay and Latino, there might be additional interest from those audiences, he said. He is also hoping to eventually secure the rights to publish the books electronically.

It also has helped sales that the books are fairly inexpensive, with a list price of $15.95 for "Looking for the Gulf Motel" and $14 for "City of Hundred Fires."

"You see him read and you connect with him, you see what the cost is and you say, 'Why not?' " Mr. Britson said.

"Looking for the Gulf Motel" is currently the No. 1 best-seller in American poetry on Amazon.com, where it is discounted to $9.57.

The University of Pittsburgh Press has had previous situations where there was high demand for poets -- namely when Billy Collins and Ted Kooser were named U.S. poet laureates. But in those situations there was more lead time, said Mr. Britson, and the spike in demand wasn't so sudden.

All the hectic work is for a good cause, said Mr. Britson, because it gets America reading -- and reading poetry. He found Mr. Blanco's poem inspiring, and well-matched to the tone of Mr. Obama's inauguration.

"I thought it touched us all," he said.

education - nation

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published January 25, 2013 5:00 AM


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