Morgantown, WV (HNN) —It could be called “The Biggest Book Signing in Morgantown.” But in reality, it’s much more: it’s one New York City literary agent helping to put West Virginia authors on the map.
Which just might happen, when more than a dozen authors from all over the state descend on the Barnes and Noble at University Town Centre the weekend of August 25-26. And Christine Witthohn is the agent for only two of them—but she’s organized the event to show support for a group of West Virginia writers who publishing industry pros often overlook or mistakenly believe lack talent.
“There’s a huge pool of talent in West Virginia and I think we’re underappreciated,” Witthohn, of Book Cents Literary Agency, said recently.
To show her own appreciation and to encourage other people to do the same, Witthohn will listen to book pitches from anyone who buys a signed book from one of the Barnes and Noble authors in attendance at the weekend event. Authors will be signing books from 1-4 p.m. both days; Witthohn will hear pitches between 2-3 p.m.
When it comes to selling books these days, it’s a brave new world out there. The publishing industry is changing at warp speed, as digital books and companies like Amazon and Barnes and Noble provide consumers with alternative choices to brick-and-mortar bookstores.
But Witthohn, like many of the authors she’s trying to support, said she loves the way it feels to hold a book in her hands. Thus, she says physical bookstores like Barnes and Noble serve an important purpose: they allow a community to meet local, home-grown authors—and have that same tactile experience, of feeling paper while turning a book’s pages.
From age seven, Witthohn’s family divided their time between Pinch, W.Va., just outside of Charleston, and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. When two of Witthohn’s authors, both from West Virginia, had books come out this year, she suggested the book signing event as a way to help not only her authors, but other West Virginia authors she doesn’t represent.
One of her clients, West Virginia author Marilyn Shank, said Witthohn negotiated a book deal for her with Random House under their Delacorte imprint. Shank describes her book as “a novel that is my love letter to West Virginia.”
“I contacted her and we signed a contract within a week. It’s been wonderful to have a West Virginia agent working with me on Child of the Mountains,” Shank said.
Huntington author S.G. Redling says the team she and Witthohn formed is “a good team to be on. Christine is not only my agent; she’s my advocate, critic, cheerleader, and sounding board. This is a tough business. The process of getting Flowertown and Braid: Three Twisted Stories out into the world could easily have overwhelmed me.”
Make no mistake about it: in spite of her nice demeanor and down-home ways, Witthohn is every bit the high-powered New York City literary type. She studied at George Mason University and the University of Charleston and began working in NYC in 2006. She spends one week a month there now, pitching her authors’ books to the publishing world. Her agency, which is currently closed to submissions, still receives over 1,200 queries a month.
In addition to her impressive list of clients, she is also a sponsor of the annual International Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy held in the fall, and teaches brainstorming classes for writers, both published and unpublished, in Italy every spring.
Witthohn first broke into the business by working in the film industry, but said it was “too cut throat.” So she moved to the literary side of the business. To get started, “I offered myself up as slave labor, but many agencies in New York slammed the door in my face. They said because I didn’t have any experience in publishing and being from West Virginia, I would never succeed. Now I’m selling far more than they do,” Witthohn said with a smile.
Her West Virginia upbringing gave her a particular sense of stubbornness. “Don’t tell me I can’t do it because now I have to show you I can,” Witthohn said.
That’s a quality many West Virginia writers have honed over time, because of the rejections they’ve faced. “West Virginia writers are at a disadvantage because we’re not in a location that gets noticed very often. As a result, it’s really hard to get industry pros to come here,” Witthohn said.
When Witthohn approached the Morgantown Barnes and Noble with this group signing idea, they were more than willing to help. Barnes and Noble has always been very supportive of local authors, she said.
Assistant Manager Amie Zinn said her store has had no more than three or four authors at one time in the seven years since it opened. “This is definitely the biggest multiple author event we’ve had,” Zinn said.
It was Witthohn who got the giant retailer to agree to the event. “She’s just very engaging and any opportunity that we have to help support local authors, we will,” Zinn said.
“We like to try to promote the local talent as much as we can,” she added.
And in turn, the local talent—even the authors who don’t have Witthohn for an agent—love having someone like her in their corner. Because, as Redling says, “knowing I can trust her, that she’s professional and ethical and can fight the fights, frees me to do what I love—tell stories.”
This article was written by Daleen Berry, one of the authors who will be present at the event. Berry is the author of “Sister of Silence”, a memoir about her life with a sexual predator and the four children she gave birth to by age 21.
Contact Christine Witthohn at 304-212-5988
Editor’s Note: On August 25-26, several local authors will join more than a dozen of their fellow West Virginians at what may be the largest book signing ever. Carter Taylor Seaton, S.G. Redling, Marie Manilla, and Laura Treacy Bentley are scheduled to appear. Link to David M. Kinchen’s review of Carter Taylor Seaton’s “Amo, amas, amat”:http://www.huntingtonnews.net/5276