While the list of 25 National Book Award finalists has been praised for the number of emerging voices it includes, two books stand out for another reason—they’re the first NBA finalists from their respective publishers. West Virginia University Press’s September release The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, a collection of short stories by Deesha Philyaw, is a finalist in the fiction category, and How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker, set to be published November 2 by Ohio State University Press trade imprint Mad Creek Books, is a nonfiction finalist.
WVU Press director Derek Krissoff said he regards the NBA honor as a result of the publisher’s mission to release “funky, eclectic” books like The Secret Lives of Church Ladies alongside scholarly offerings. The press, which is well known for its Appalachian studies list, publishes 20–22 books each year; typically, six of those are creative works—fiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir.
Comparing its titles to small-batch bourbon, Krissoff noted that WVU Press’s four employees apply a “craft sensibility” to producing, marketing, and promoting its “highly curated” books. “We’re so small, we can do that uniformly. I want to make sure we’re always happy with what we’re working on.”
Krissoff said WVU Press often publishes books that are “in between,” appealing to both the academic and trade markets, citing its all-time bestseller, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. The book has sold more than 10,000 copies since its release in 2017 and has been adopted by many college and university courses. And it continues to sell in the trade, as Americans grapple with why Appalachians voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and may do so again in the upcoming election.
“We don’t want scholars just to talk to each other,” Krissoff said. “We want our books to build bridges. We want scholars engaging with authors, artists and activists.” He added that the press’s creative works undergo the same rigorous peer review by its WVU faculty editorial board as do its scholarly acquisitions.
Krissoff also noted that the WVU Press is committed to building a list that will draw attention to the school’s MFA program. “We want to push out the name and reputation of West Virginia University,” he said. “We want people to know that WVU is an incubator for creative talent.”
To that end, WVU Press is using the attention to Secret Lives to promote itself. In addition to increasing Philyaw’s author appearances, Krissoff said the publisher has reached out to regional media for coverage and took an ad in the New York Times Book Review. “It’s balancing global and close-to-home coverage, plus taking advantage of the organic networks of readers and friends that have coalesced around the book,” he added, “all to help tell a story about Deesha’s work, but also about who we are and what university presses can do.”
Ohio State University Press is best known for its literary criticism and cultural studies lists, which focus on gender and sexuality and race and ethnicity. The Mad Creek imprint was launched only three years ago with a mission to publish literary fiction and trade-oriented nonfiction. The imprint releases 12 titles each year, and OSU’s flagship imprint releases an additional 25–30.
“Our hope is to set Mad Creek books off separately from OSU’s scholarly monographs,” explained Mad Creek editor-in-chief Kristen Elias Rowley, who was hired in 2015. OSU began the separate imprint, she said, to make readers outside of academia feel “at ease picking up our books.” The imprint’s top title, with 7,000 copies sold, is 2017’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer, a graphic memoir of author Alberto Ledesma’s years as an undocumented immigrant. The book is part of Mad Creek’s Latinographix series of comic books by Latinx creators.
Rowley said that, in building the Mad Creek list, she looks for reads that are risky or that may be too experimental for other publishers. The imprint is, she insisted, a “place where writers are doing new and unique important work”—writers like Walker, whose collection of essays examines his life as the son of blind parents, as the parent of a disabled child, and as a Black man in academia. Walker teaches in Emerson College’s English department.
Like Krissoff, Rowley hopes the NBA nod can have broad ramifications for her press. “We’re using it as an opportunity to remind our parent institution of the excellent publisher they have right here on their own campus,” she said. “Hopefully it serves to remind everyone of the press’s mission and of our role within the university as we look toward a sustainable future. We’re also using it as an opportunity to more easily connect with editors and reviewers on a national level, with the goal in mind that it benefits not just Walker’s book, but the books that will follow.”