Driving Growth with a Focus on Fundamentals

University Press Forum 2019

[Editor’s Note: This essay also appears as part of the annual University Press Forum in the May issue of Choice and on ChoiceReviews.org.]

Derek Krissoff, Director, West Virginia University Press.

With just four full-time staff members, West Virginia is among the smallest university presses. But we’re also the largest book publisher in our state, and we’re getting bigger: over the last four years we’ve grown significantly in both sales and reputation. While WVU’s size and relationship to Appalachia give it a particular and in certain respects unusual position within university press publishing (and while we haven’t, by any means, figured everything out), there may be elements of our approach that shed light on the wider state of our industry.

West Virginia’s growth has been driven by increased investment in acquisitions, marketing, and the relationship between the two. This last element—developing and communicating a distinctive sensibility for our publishing program that’s compelling to book buyers and prospective authors—has been particularly important. Acquisitions and marketing are, of course, among the more conventional functions at a publishing house, and I think it’s fair to say West Virginia’s success owes a lot to having kept our focus on the fundamentals.

My colleagues and I tend to think in terms of specific, individual books more than that slippery and abstract concept, the mono-graph. Working at a book-by-book scale means a lot of the old binaries fall away. We’re not particularly concerned with a hard-and-fast distinction between trade versus scholarly titles, for instance. These days more of our books than ever before are by scholars, but at the same time those books are getting more attention in major media and selling to a wider range of markets outside libraries. There’s not much talk at WVU about a regional list, either, since while we’re deeply invested in our place, we emphasize putting Appalachia in dialogue with global concerns. A creative engagement with extractive industry and race, a book that pushes back against the politics of the bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, a comparison between transitions from fossil fuels on both sides of the Atlantic—these hit the sweet spot for WVU, and may draw audiences to book signings in New York, Chicago, or Washington, DC, as well as our own region.

For us, this integrated approach to the publishing program comes back to the importance of crafting a sensibility for the list. It’s easier to convey a narrative about what you do and why people should care about it if the catalog doesn’t seem compartmentalized—if the whole feels like more than the sum of its parts. Ideally books with trade discounts or about regional topics are helping us attract authors of more specialized titles, and vice versa. With this goal in mind, we retired our trade imprint so that our books all go out with WVU on the spine, making it clear that they derive from a single source and are in conversation with one another. We’ve also committed to publishing most of our books in less expensive paperback editions so that they’re more accessible to activists, teachers, and other readers (a point sometimes lost amid the emphasis on OA, which treats access as an open/closed binary).

Definitions of service and community are also at stake in our approach. At some presses I sense a narrowing of the interpretation of service, so that publishing for your university community becomes the primary focus. While we’re proud to publish some of our own faculty, WVU Press’s biggest priority is exercising curatorial care to build a more compelling list that propels outward the reputation of our university and excites people on campus regardless of whether they publish their own work with us. That entrepreneurial orientation toward acquisitions can catalyze new communities and enhance our home institution’s connections to the wider world. Last fall, for example, we worked with WVU’s humanities center to invite a Dutch author of a WVU Press book about waste and culture to speak at our university. The strong network of environmental humanists on campus responded both to the event itself and to the way our book, and others like it, are helping place West Virginia University at the center of global conversations in this emerging field. In an added twist, the author noted that publishing with West Virginia inspired him to teach his students in the Netherlands about Appalachia. That’s all service too, and it’s a big part of how we communicate our value and establish support for our robust commitment to conventional list-building.

Back to the main University Press Forum 2019 page.