Detroit's publishing company: WSU Press marks 75 years of excellence in esoterica

Fairy tales, Jewish studies, and regional history might seem to be rather disparate disciplines. But all three are a major part of Wayne State University Press' (WSU Press) catalogue.

WSU Press director Jane Ferreyra lists those topics among the nonprofit press' six current key focus areas, alongside film and media studies, citizenship studies, and African-American studies. Some focus areas have come and gone, like the press' now-defunct Latin American studies series. Others, like Jewish studies, date back to the press' inception.

"We're very specific in what we publish," Ferreyra says.

And that's by necessity. In a world populated by numerous university presses and ever-increasing options for reading material, the press seeks niches that it can truly own. After 75 years in business, that niche approach is Wayne State University Press' secret to success.

Esoteric excellence

Such was the case with what is perhaps WSU Press' most esoteric current focus area: fairy-tale studies. Don Haase, general editor of the press' fairy-tale studies series, says the press had published some books on the subject prior to his arrival at WSU as a German professor in 1981. He began working on fairy-tale studies for the press in the mid-'80s, spurred on by a renewed national interest in the field around the 200th anniversaries of the Grimm brothers' births in 1985 and 1986. 

"Up until around the 1960s fairy tales were infantilized and romanticized and seen as harmless, entertaining little stories for children," Haase says. "But thanks in big part to the women's movement and feminist criticism or scholarship, it really became evident that fairy tales played a role in the way gender roles in particular and other cultural values were promulgated and normalized in any given culture."

Don Haase, general editor of the press' fairy-tale studies series

Today, Haase notes that fairy tales are more pervasive than ever, with adaptations aimed at adult audiences in a variety of media. And as scholarly attention to fairy tales has risen, so has WSU Press' profile in the community. In addition to numerous books on the subject, WSU Press also publishes "Marvels and Tales," a prominent international scholarly journal on fairy-tale studies.

"Scholars working in fairy tales and folktales around the world see Wayne State and Wayne State Press as one of the core, central areas where work is being done and work is being published," Haase says. "I'm very happy about that."

Long road to publication

Cover of Desiree Cooper's book "Know the Mother"

The process of getting any one of the press' many specialty titles from proposal to publication is a lengthy one, thanks in part to a peer review process that's applied to both the press' scholarly titles and those intended for general readership. Ferreyra says the press has a pool of local scholars who review, revise, and potentially recommend manuscripts go before the press' editorial board.

In today's online-oriented age, web retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble require images and other book metadata eight to nine months in advance, so the design process starts as soon as possible after the editorial board approves a new title. Which is important—WSU Press is defined, in part, by its distinct covers and design. 

Ferreyra, who describes her team as a group of dedicated book lovers, says the visual design of a book is a key part of the reading experience and of great importance to her team. "There's just something about the look and feel of a title," she says. "When you are designing something, when a cover comes up that just really works, it's very satisfying."

The editing and design process can wind up taking well over a year, and authors are closely involved in it. Desiree Cooper, author of the 2016 WSU Press short-story collection "Know the Mother," expresses appreciation for the cooperative, communicative relationship the press maintained with her. "Know the Mother" was Cooper's first book; she was previously best known as a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

Desiree Cooper, author of "Know the Mother"

She first considered submitting to the press over a decade ago.

"I remember thinking, 'Maybe that could be me one day,'" Cooper says. "It made me feel like the publishing industry wasn't all in L.A. or New York. There was really an opportunity with a very good press, right in our backyard. It didn't seem like a pipedream at the time."

Responding to change

The past decade has brought major changes at WSU Press, as it has to everyone in the publishing industry. But Ferreyra says the news hasn't been all bad. One positive recent development for the press has been the advent of print-on-demand service. The press can now forego a more traditional minimum print run of 500 on titles that may only ever sell half that number.
Books from WSU Press' warehouse
"We're printing enough copies to fill orders, which is great as we try to reduce how many we might carry in our warehouse," Ferreyra says.

However, that can bring some trade-offs in the quality graphic design that WSU Press prizes so highly.

"It's probably not something your average reader is going to notice," Ferreyra says. "But it's really bothersome to us, because we know how something is supposed to look or feel, like the title being centered on the spine. So letting go of some of those is one of the agonizing things everyone is going through now."

Beyond that, the press faces the same challenges as any other publisher. Thanks to the increasing popularity and availability of self-publishing (which is itself due in part to the rise of print-on-demand technology), the market is increasingly saturated with competition. 

Meanwhile, the traditional outlets for WSU Press to get its publications out into the world are shrinking. In addition to major bookstore closures like the 2011 death of Borders, the press also took a hit this summer when the Holt, Mich.-based wholesaler Partners Book Distributing closed.

"It's just really tough for your books to be found and to be carried," she says.

The press has begun seeking out innovative ways of getting its catalog in front of new eyes. Last year, the press received a $94,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize 59 of its out-of-print titles.

Outside that special program, WSU Press certainly isn't resting on its laurels. Ferreyra says she and her team are "always in the process of examining" their publishing program, ensuring that their flagship series remain relevant and that the press is presenting exceptionally well-told stories.

"We're a nonprofit, but we operate like we have a product to sell," Ferreyra says. "And that helps us keep making more books."

All photos by Nick Hagen
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Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.