What we acquire: A conversation between WVU Press’s acquisitions editors

As the team at West Virginia University Press starts a new year, we wanted to share a quick sense of our acquisitions priorities for 2023 and beyond. The people who sign new books at WVU are Sarah Munroe (acquisitions editor and marketing manager) and Derek Krissoff (director). Here they talk a little about what they’re looking for. You can find contact info for both on the press’s website.

Derek: One of the things I like about working at a small press is the degree of back-and-forth, which includes our collaboration in acquisitions work. In fact some of our most successful titles in recent years have involved editorial contributions from both of us. How would you describe the distinctions in our areas and roles?

Sarah: A tricky question to start! It’s often fairly fluid between us, which I really enjoy and appreciate—we don’t have guarded territories and we talk about most projects together.

Generally I handle fiction and creative nonfiction (CNF) acquisitions, including our In Place series. You’ve given me a lot of freedom in those areas, particularly fiction (an initially alarming amount: “You’re really going to let me take a novel about a bigfoot PI?”), but when I like something or am unsure about a project, I’ll share it with you so we can discuss. Sometimes though, fiction or CNF submissions are emailed straight to you, and either because you have an established rapport with the author or because of workload, you’ve taken the lead on those.

I also work with the series editors on both the Borderless and Gender, Feminism, and Geography series. We both work on Appalachian studies projects, but you definitely bring in the majority of those. The Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series is one that I leave entirely to you. History is your wheelhouse, along with most of the social sciences projects, but I’ll take one occasionally. Part of the work I do is developmental editing, so I’ll tag in on projects you’ve acquired—creative or otherwise—to work directly with the author on editorial feedback when it’s helpful.

Does this line up with how you think of our work? (I probably should have asked you this before we blogged about it!)

Derek: Definitely! I love how uncompartmentalized things are here. It’s always struck me, for instance, that good marketing work is good acquisitions work and vice-versa. You want prospective authors to know about (and approach) you because they’ve seen your published books get traction out in the world. At West Virginia you and I both wear acquisitions and marketing hats simultaneously, and our integrated acquisitions and marketing roles let us accomplish so much. It feels like both sides of the house are working in unison to cultivate a sensibility for the publishing program that sells books to readers while also selling our press to writers.

You’re getting ready (amazingly) to start your fourth year as a full-time staffer at WVU Press. How would you say your acquisitions priorities have shifted in that span?

Sarah: I came in wanting to refine our fiction list, looking for ways to build on existing cohorts or to create new ones so we can try to carve out niches within the broader literary fiction and CNF genres that complement our existing scholarly areas of study.

With the success of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, we’ve been able to place more emphasis on our general-interest titles. The number of fiction submissions I receive has probably tripled in the past couple years, and among them are more BIPOC and AIPI authors who would not have even thought of us a few years ago. Some of these titles feature LGBTQ+ characters; some are authored by people who identify as BIPOC, AIPI, or Jewish; some have an undercurrent of social justice; many have a strong sense of place, and some are set in Appalachia. We have always wanted to showcase diverse voices, and we have more opportunity to do that now.

In October this officially became the job I’ve had the longest, and I’m very grateful to have landed a career in publishing, particularly with this group of people, and especially during this exciting time for the press.

What about you—have your priorities shifted? Have you seen new trends to follow (or avoid)?

Derek: One of my mentors once said that you sign authors as much as books, and that feels more and more right. I’m excited about partnerships—about authors who are enmeshed in networks that will help champion their books. That doesn’t mean our press is outsourcing marketing to authors, or that authors have to arrive with some enormous platform. But it does mean that I want to work with folks who look forward to collaborating on the community-based work of rolling out a book. (This work can happen a lot of ways, and it’s telling that one of our best-networked authors wrote a book about being an introvert.)

I realized recently that a lot of my recent acquisitions trace their origins back to conversations at bookstores, one way or another. So if you’re an author thinking about pitching a book, hang out at bookstores! Social media (despite the recent controversies) remains a big part of the toolkit as well, I think. We’ve seen how we can connect outside expensive, cumbersome settings like conference exhibits, and I think those comparatively transparent and inexpensive ways of networking via social media will persist. For what it’s worth, I sometimes tweet about specific projects I’d like to acquire. If you follow me over there I’ll happily follow back.

Let’s home in on fiction, which is handled a little differently from other books at WVU, just as far as when we’re considering new work. Can you explain?

Sarah: We receive many queries about fiction projects. And while my favorite part of my job is to read (and really, what a privilege it is to dip into all these manuscripts that have been so painstakingly crafted!), reading, unfortunately, is usually the last thing I’m able to get to in a day or a week. The submissions start to pile up, and then it starts taking a month—or two or even three depending on how busy other parts of my job are—before I’m able to spend time with what’s come in. Even though our response time is often faster than much of publishing—literary journals and books—I don’t like to keep people waiting. I’ve found it’s best to close the reading submission period once or twice a year, for a couple months or so, so I can get caught up.

We always have to think about balance across the board in a season or a year, but with fiction, because we publish only a small handful, it’s important to share voices and stories that are different from each other, and maybe also different from what’s out there.

Here are the kind of broad categories that our recent fiction has fallen into:

“Strong female leads” (as one online streaming service would label them): The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me, Mama Said [forthcoming] (older titles: St. Christopher on Pluto)

Noirish: Hungry Town, Foote (older titles: Hillbilly Hustle, To the Bones)

Magical realism—and cryptids: Foote, In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me, Roxy and Coco [forthcoming] (older titles: Like Light, Like Music)

Climate fiction: Lioness (older titles: Mountains Piled upon Mountains)

Labor: Bratwurst Haven, Slime Line [forthcoming] (older titles: Working it off in Labor County)

Artistic/somewhat experimental: Ghosts of New York, How to Make Your Mother Cry [forthcoming]

Some of our books would be considered crossover titles, meaning they have appeal to both an academic and a broader audience. How do you think of them? Are you hoping for more crossover titles? In any particular areas?

Derek: I’ve been doing this work 25 years, and in all that time it’s never really been possible to rely on library sales. So yeah, I’m always looking for stuff that finds other audiences, whether activist or classroom or (elusive but not imaginary) general readership. A book like Capitalist Pigs hit that crossover sweet spot for us, and Appalachian Reckoning (“newsy,” with a mix of scholars, activists, and creative writers) for sure. Neema Avashia’s book Another Appalachia and our edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead are finding so many readers and getting picked up for course adoption use, campus reads, etc., all while being championed by independent bookstores.

Short books, multi-authored books (when actively curated), books that combine visuals and text (like So Much to Be Angry About and American Vaudeville)—all that stuff’s a little outside the publishing norm that centers the 300-page single-authored book. But I think these quirks, even if they look risky to a big commercial house, can help make our titles attractive.

I come back to groundedness in place, a strong point of view, and willingness to engage or catalyze a community. You can certainly approach my acquisitions through conventional subject areas like environment, studies of social movements / social justice, and higher education. But as the program has grown at West Virginia, I find it’s those broader attitudes and orientations that make me most enthusiastic about working with authors to publish books.

Sarah: Can you share a little bit about a few of the forthcoming books that you’re most excited about?

Derek: There are too many to name! In Appalachian studies, we have some broad, ambitious work under contract, including Jessie Wilkerson’s history of Appalachian women and Jody DiPerna’s travelogue/memoir/appreciation of Appalachian writers. We’re doing a book with the Appalachian Prison Book Project, too.

For more generally grounded, place- or nature-based work across literary categories, we’ve managed to attract established authors like Julija Šukys, Sejal Shah, Erik Reece, and Sarah Einstein, alongside exciting debuts by authors like Jessie Sage and Isaac Yuen. In higher education (still one of the real engines of our list) we have Chavella Pittman, Cate Denial, Bryan Dewsbury, and more. Some of these books are still a couple of years off, so watch this space. And if you’re interested in the possibility of joining this community of writers, email Sarah or me!

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