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The Chronicle of Higher Education recently labeled WVU Press as a “new publishing heavyweight.” But the small university press hasn’t lost its focus on West Virginian and Appalachian stories.
Eric Douglas spoke with director Derek Krissoff to find out what makes the press tick.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me what WVU Press is.
Krissoff: That’s the question that I’m always hoping that people will ask. And the most important thing to stress about WVU Press, and I think about university presses in general, is that we’re book publishers. We’re fundamentally a book publisher in the same way that Random House or HarperCollins is a book publisher. We acquire and edit and design and produce and market and sell books. We sell them in the marketplace. You see them at bookstores and see them reviewed, hopefully, in newspapers and on public radio, and so forth.
The difference between what we do at WVU Press and what a large commercial for-profit publisher does is that we are not for profit. We’re part of WVU. So we’re part of the state of West Virginia. And we have mission reasons for what we do alongside the commercial reasons. Obviously, we want to see our books succeed. We want to have resources from the sale of books that we can invest in publishing more and better books. We want to see the books get attention alongside the books from HarperCollins. But we also want to reflect positively on WVU as a research institution. We are the largest publisher in the state of West Virginia. And that’s something that we take seriously. And we want to publish books that project outward the strength of WVU as an institution, but also the strength of West Virginia as a place.
Douglas: Granted you certainly want to sell books, but you have a different lens through which you look at books.
Krissoff: One of the pieces of confusion that people sometimes have about university presses is they think we only publish faculty at our own university. And that’s not true. We publish faculty from all around the world, although we certainly do publish WVU faculty. And we also publish people who aren’t faculty at all.
Douglas: How many books do you publish in a year?
Krissoff: We publish between 15 and 20 books a year. And we also have a small scholarly journals program. The number of books is actually going down a little bit. That’s deliberate, because we want to invest a little bit more in every book that we publish. For a while, we were up close to 25. Now we’re 20 or even a little bit less. But sales have gone up as we’ve gone down on title output, because I think we have been able to really focus the resources that we have on the books that seem most likely to reward that.
Douglas: You’re talking about representing West Virginia, and Appalachian literature, in general. But, there’s a misconception that Appalachian literature is coal mining memoirs, and grandma and pop all up in the hills. But that’s not all that you publish.
Krissoff: I’m glad that you noticed that. And that’s a deliberate effort on our part to reflect the full diversity of the state and the region. And I think Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Life of Church Ladies is an example. She is a Black author in Pittsburgh, so just up the road from Morgantown, so that felt like a regional acquisition for us. And certainly, having the opportunity to amplify the voice of a Black writer in our part of the world was attractive.
But from that success we’ve been able to invest the resources in something like Bill Turner’s book, The Harlan Renaissance, which is just out, which is sort of based on his experience growing up in primarily Black coal camps in Eastern Kentucky in the middle part of the 20th century. Not a typical Appalachian story, but an important Appalachian story.
And then our lead title for spring is a book called Another Appalachia by a woman named Neema Avashia. She grew up in West Virginia and is a writer and educator. She’s queer and she’s Indian American. Her parents immigrated to West Virginia from India, and she proudly claims the identity of an Appalachian. She’s got stuff in her book about Tudor’s Biscuits. I mean she’s into it. But she doesn’t reflect the sort of prevailing notions about what Appalachia is or about who Appalachians are. And that seems like an important thing we can do to help amplify those voices, and to maybe change perceptions about what Appalachia is culturally, politically and all the rest.
Douglas: So let’s talk about Deesha Philyaw. I interviewed her over the summer for The Secret Life Church Ladies. That book kind of blew up on you.
Krissoff: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which has only been out a little over a year, is far and away the most successful book commercially that we’ve ever published. And really a university press success story, I think, across our industry. That book was a finalist for the National Book Award, which is the biggest book award given in the United States. It won the PEN Faulkner Award and won The Story Prize and is being adapted for HBO. These are things that in many cases no university press book has ever done before. Obviously, we try to keep the spotlight on the books and the authors, but if there is kind of a narrative about the publishing house, too, then that’s great. And we can use that opportunity to raise awareness of what publishers do and what university presses do.
Douglas: What makes your ears perk up when you get a submission? What are you looking for the next book?
Krissoff: That’s a great question and it’s a tricky one to answer. Certainly, we are motivated by a commitment to social justice, by a commitment to reflecting the diversity of the region. So if there’s an opportunity to work with an author whose voice will be amplifying, who wouldn’t have that opportunity with a big house in New York, where they might not see the audience for the book, or kind of get what the author was trying to do, then that is immediately appealing, and a lot of our recent successes have come from working with members of those communities to tell their stories effectively.
But I think there are also stories about Appalachia that wouldn’t get told otherwise. An example along these lines would be something like our collection of responses to Hillbilly Elegy that we published a couple of years ago called Appalachian Reckoning. Before Deesha’s book, that was the most successful book commercially that we published. And this is one where the idea sort of came from in-house. Hillbilly Elegy was doing so well and dominating so much of the story about our region. And we thought, there are other stories here, too. What can we do to draw those voices into a single volume, and sort of present some sort of counterweight to balance out the story of Hillbilly Elegy? Get people talking about Appalachia in different ways than JD Vance was. That’s a case where instead of hanging back and seeing what came over the transom, we sort of went out and found people to do this book. And that was really successful, and I think helped position us as a press that was dedicated to the many different voices from this region.