By George P. Matysek, Jr., Loyola University Maryland ’94
Karl Dehmelt, ’18, already had a 100,000-word novel well underway when he arrived at Loyola University Maryland as a first-year student in 2014.
A fictionalized account of events surrounding the trauma and loss that his family endured during his mother’s battle with terminal cancer, the manuscript had consumed more than a year of the young Pennsylvanian’s life. “I knew I had a story that I could try to run with,” remembered Dehmelt, a writing major who now teaches English in Spain. “I was hoping to get it published, but I was just 18 and didn’t know anything about publishers.”
After typing “Baltimore-area publishers” into a Google search, Dehmelt was stunned to discover that Loyola itself was home to Apprentice House Press, the nation’s first entirely student-managed book publisher. “I literally went running down to the communication department trying to find it,” Dehmelt said with a laugh.
Upon learning that the next deadline for submitting manuscripts was just three weeks away, the ambitious freshman shifted into high gear. “I just maniacally worked on the manuscript as I was taking my classes that first semester,” said Dehmelt.
He also received suggestions for strengthening his story from Loyola’s Writing Center. “I did a bunch of revisions, cut 21,000 words, and took the book from the past tense into the present,” he said. “Then I submitted it.”
An Author’s Debut
The novel, The Hard Way to Heaven, was accepted by fellow Loyola students who reviewed it along with dozens of other submissions in a manuscript acquisitions class. Loyola students in separate classes then shepherded Dehmelt’s manuscript through every stage of production—working with the debut author on the cover, page layout and design. The book was published in 2015; soon after, students helped Dehmelt coordinate marketing and promotion.
“The cool thing about Apprentice House is that they give authors a good amount of creative control,” said Dehmelt, who wrote and published two more books through the same press while still a student. “I think it was good to have people of [varying] ages working on it to see what appeals to different demographics.”
As its name makes clear, Apprentice House focuses on helping students interested in the publishing industry learn from professionals while doing hands-on work that culminates in the production of tangible books. Kevin Atticks, ’97, DCD, Apprentice House’s director, explained that works are published through student efforts in three classes: manuscript evaluation and development, book design, and book marketing and promotion. “The classes are set up like an office space,” said Atticks, who teaches all three courses. “There are some lectures, but, in general, we are engaging each student individually about the projects. There’s a lot of mentorship.”
Evolution of a Press
Apprentice House has its origins in a book publishing class first taught in 1987 by Barbara Holdridge, a former adjunct professor at Loyola and pioneer in audiobooks. Students produced seasonal catalogues with book titles that reflected their own interests. The course later evolved under Andrew Ciofalo, a communication professor who worked with students to develop mock Apprentice House books. As improvements in technology made book production more accessible, Apprentice House took its current form in the mid-2000s, with students overseeing the production of actual books through the various publishing courses.
Apprentice House has published more than 120 titles, with multiple formats of each. The top three sellers are Hale Storm, a biography of Baltimore businessman Ed Hale by former Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd; Flashes of War, a collection of short stories about the human faces of war by Katey Schultz; and Float Plan, a novel by Rob Hiaasen, a journalist at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, who was slain last year by a gunman in his publication’s newsroom.
“One of the highlights for students working at Apprentice House is that they get to take manuscripts based not on how many books they think they will sell, but on books they are excited about,” Atticks said, “We are one of the few presses I know of that is omni-genre. We love fiction and memoirs, and we have an affinity for poetry. We’ll take it if we love it.”
Sales of published books “more than cover” the activities and costs that go into the production of the books, Atticks said. Apprentice House uses the additional revenue for competition entries and complimentary review copies.
Partnering with Authors
Many Apprentice House books have earned reviews and commendations, with five winning national awards. Like any venture, though, this one comes with its challenges.
Writing rejection letters is the most difficult part of the experience for Carmen Machalek, a 21-year-old senior communication major from New Jersey. “You have to craft the letters in a way that says what’s really great about the book,” said Machalek, who works as Apprentice House’s managing editor, an intern position for which she earns academic credit. “We invite the authors to let us know if they want more feedback, whether it’s on writing style or clarity of characters.”
Dorothy Van Soest, a longtime Seattle-based professor and social justice advocate who has had three novels published through Apprentice House, said she was attracted to the press precisely because of its reliance on students. “They communicate very well,” said Van Soest. “I feel like I’m working with a team and not some anonymous editors at a big publishing company.”
Van Soest was humbled to learn how rigorously students evaluate manuscripts. Each year, Apprentice House receives between 50 and 75 submissions, and students select about 12 for publication.
Atticks said that Apprentice House gives students invaluable assets for their portfolios: published works they produce themselves. “It’s really helped our students get that leg up,” he said, “and we now have former students who are working in the publishing field at some of the major presses.”
Just Mercy, what Van Soest describes as a “social justice mystery,” was published by Apprentice House in 2014. The press has published two more of Van Soest’s social justice mysteries: At the Center, in 2015, and the award-winning Death, Uncharted, in 2018.
“I taught for many years at the undergraduate and graduate levels,” said Van Soest, a retired professor of social work. “I know how serious students are, especially when they’re doing real-life projects that come to fruition. I was drawn to [Apprentice House by] the fact that Loyola was apprenticing students and I could be helping with [that] education.”