Valerie Weaver-Zercher has a wish list. She dreams of finding writers who engage the mind, stir the heart, rev up the muscle of social conscience, and maybe kick readers out of their comfort zone. “I like thinking about a book that should exist in the world,” she tells PW. So, a role as an acquiring editor seemed a perfect fit for her at one of 1517 Media’s newest imprints, Broadleaf Books, which launched in fall 2020.
“It can be a little hard for people to get their heads around our publishing vision at Broadleaf, which is rooted in progressive Christianity but expansive enough that some of our books don’t have religious themes or content at all,” says Weaver-Zercher, one of five acquiring editors. “That’s part of what I love about acquiring for Broadleaf, though: the opportunity to work with a broad swath of writers, serving a broad readership, writing on topics of social justice, culture, personal development, religion, and spirituality. I guess the ‘broad’ in our “Broadleaf” title does a lot of work.”
Weaver-Zercher, who works from her Mechanicsburg, Pa., home for the Minneapolis-based publisher, does more than wish. She reads constantly, on the hunt for authors. One of Broadleaf’s first releases in January 2021 was Ladder to the Light: An Indigenous Elder's Meditations on Hope and Courage by Choctaw elder and former Episcopal Bishop of Alaska Steven Charleston. “I lurk on social media and noticed a lot of my friends were sharing his posts – little meditations he writes every day that he says come to him during his prayer time. I looked him up and found he had already done an academic book for Fortress (1517 Media’s academic imprint), but he had not written for a trade audience. So, I reached out to him.”
In February 2021, she brought out In My Grandmother's House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit, by Yolanda Pierce, dean of Howard University School of Divinity and founding director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. She was also drawn to activist and life coach Karen Walrond, who often works with popular author and podcaster Brené Brown’s Education and Research Group, and last fall, Broadleaf released Walrond’s book, The Lightmaker's Manifesto: How to Work for Change without Losing Your Joy. “It’s a self-help book that connects to social justice and how to see yourself as an activist,” the editor says.
Weaver-Zercher, 48, didn’t originally see herself in publishing. She was born in Tanzania where her father was a physician in a Mennonite Mission hospital. Once they returned to the states, she studied to be a teacher. Then, realizing she is happiest “alone with a creative project," she left teaching to freelance— writing poetry, features, editorials, and reviews for national media, and editing and copyediting for publishers. She was persuaded by an editor to write a book herself, Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (Johns Hopkins, 2013). In the process, she says, “I learned to ask what do readers want? What are they longing for? What’s next? Where is this category going? In interviewing readers, editors, and marketers and seeing the publishing apparatus that goes into meeting this demand, introduced me to the industry.”
She started at Herald Press, a Mennonite publisher, in 2013 as a managing editor with some acquiring on the side. Weaver-Zercher says, “Over time it became a matter of where I was at in my own direction in progressive-leaning Christian faith, where I felt most drawn to and most home. In 2019, I saw a job opening at 1517 Media and thought, if I am going to make a change, maybe now is the time. Herald Press is more denominationally tied but I knew Broadleaf was in the works and that there I could acquire in a wider space. I enjoy being behind the scenes, supporting people who are thinking and writing on the urgent issues of our day. It’s an honor and a responsibility.”
One responsibility is central to Weaver-Zercher: The critical need to open the publishing industry doors to diversity. “As a white woman in the U.S. in this century, it is an imperative and it is a longing to journey toward understanding the depth of injustice that Black and Brown people have faced in this country. I’m aware of the historic inequities in publishing and doing my part to try to repair this." She reads widely from social media to mass media, books, manuscripts, and proposals by people from different demographics, she says, "so that my eyes are always being opened anew to the limitations of my own experiences and the ways I am enriched by learning of others’ experiences.” The books on her nightstand now are The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature by wildlife biologist J. Drew Lanham.
Her list of forthcoming Broadleaf books includes Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism—and What Comes Next (Jan.) by religious studies professor, author, and philosopher Bradley Onishi, who tracks the merger of white evangelicalism with grievance politics. A spring 2023 title, The Defiant Optimist: Daring to Fight Global Inequality, Reinvent Finance, and Invest in Women, is by Durreen Shahnaz, a Muslim woman from Bangladesh who defied gender expectations to become a leader in the global impact investment movement to lift up women without economic opportunities, the editor says. And she is working with award-winning children’s author Mitali Perkins on a book about how the Indian immigrant “finds promise and joy in the intergenerational Bengali-American culture in which she was raised and in the Bible.”
In a time of “intensifying social inequality, racism, and apocalyptic dread,” Weaver-Zercher says, "I still see proposals for books that delve into the soul and substance of faith.” While she still sees a responsibility to tell the story of believers acting badly, she says, “it is also our joy to tell stories and publish writers who are living out their faith commitments in families and communities, finding substance and motivation for action for good in the world.”