For a university press to make it to its 75th anniversary, it must possess the ability to adapt to changing business realities. And adapting to changing trends is just what Wayne State University Press has done since it was launched in 1941.
The press began with its mission firmly grounded in academic publishing: its first book was A Workbook for Reading German, and its all-time bestseller, Latin via Ovid: A First Course, has sold 60,000 copies since its 1982 release. But over the last decade, WSUP has made significant inroads into the trade market. Currently, 35%–40% of its annual output of approximately 40 frontlist releases is trade titles, and 25% of net revenues so far in 2016 are sales to the trade. The two-pronged publishing strategy also seeks to contribute to Michigan’s growing literary scene by spotlighting authors identified with the region and their work.
WSUP’s Made in Michigan Writers series, which was launched in 2006, has been driving the press’s expanding list of trade titles. The series features poetry, creative nonfiction, short fiction, and essays by writers who identify as Michigan born and/or who are current residents. While the content is not necessarily regional, jacket covers in the series are always designed by Michigan artists, and the books are printed in state as well. The series is “genius,” declared Annmarie Borucki, the projects manager of an inner-city-Detroit community-development organization, in a recent university alumni magazine profile of the press. She added, “If ever there was a pure Michigan campaign for our state’s literary life, this is it. This creative series provides a platform for the state’s writers and the writing is damn good.”
A highlight for Made in Michigan Writers came in 2009, when Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for fiction. American Salvage has sold 8,500 copies to date. With books in the series typically selling in the range of 2,000–10,000 copies, the press has expanded the line from two titles annually to between five and eight per year. WSUP’s bestselling title this year is Know the Mother, a collection of short stories by Desiree Cooper, one of six Made in Michigan Writers 2016 releases; it has sold 2,000 copies since March.
WSUP is using another initiative, An Author at Your Table, to give a spark to sales. The literary speed-dating program launched three years ago and currently takes place twice a year. At an Author at Your Table event, four or five authors rove about the venue (usually a restaurant or a pub) for 50 minutes, spending time at each table conversing with its occupants. At the end of the evening, each author gives a complimentary copy of his or her book to his or her favorite table. The winning table “has to fight it out over who gets to take it home,” according to materials promoting the event—although books are also available for sale from a local bookseller. Attendance varies at the events, and currently ranges from 35 to 55 people. With the resurgence of Detroit’s housing market, however, the press hopes to schedule such events more often.
“We’re in the city of Detroit itself, so we’re really entrenched in the community,” Jane Ferreyra, the press’s director since 2002, noted of the press’s various outreach efforts. For example, in late October, in collaboration with Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, a nonprofit writers’ organization, WSUP held a Made in Michigan Writers evening with three authors. WSUP staff was also there to field questions about the press.
In an age when scholarly books are increasingly digitized and made available in print only as POD releases, Ferreyra said that the WSUP staff enjoys producing trade books through a traditional publishing process that allows for high production values. After all, Ferreyra noted, “the touch and feel of books is important,” even as WSUP tweaks its mission to accommodate shifts in the academic marketplace.