By Claire Kirch
Minnesota license plates proclaim that the state is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It could just as well be called the land of 10,000 presses. Many consider the Twin Cities, with their concentration and variety of publishers, literary organizations, and related businesses, second only to New York City in literary activity.
“This is book country,” declares Adam Lerner, the president of Lerner Publishing Group, noting that the Minnesota Book Awards’ 26th annual ceremony last spring filled St. Paul’s Union Depot great hall with approximately 1,000 celebrants who paid $45 each to attend the sold-out event. “What other state would have such a gala for authors?”
The Minnesota Book Awards isn’t the only local literary event that draws hordes of book lovers willing to put their money down in support of literature: launched in 2004, the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library’s annual Opus & Olives fund-raiser brought in $300,000 this past year from 1,100 attendees, who each paid from $150–$350 for an evening of food, wine, and presentations by a slate of five authors, including both A-list writers and emerging voices. Common Good Books in St. Paul, which handles book sales at Opus & Olives, reported $30,000 in sales at last year’s event, which featured Wally Lamb, Dennis Lehane, Bill Bryson, John Searles, and J. Courtney Sullivan. This year’s event, on October 12, will include Jane Smiley, Louise Penney, and Hampton Sides; organizers expect 1,200 attendees.
Twin Cities publishers and local literary organizations are already collaborating to host an event welcoming attendees when the Association of Writing Programs brings its annual conference to Minneapolis April 8–11, 2015. “It’s going to be one big literary party all over Open Book,” declared Jocelyn Hale, the Loft Literary Center’s executive director. “People are working really hard to celebrate our vibrant literary community here; there’s nothing like it in the country.” Hale notes that the Loft is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015, yet another reason for celebration.
Minnesota Legacy Fund Boosts Literary Presses
Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach maintains that Minnesota’s publishing industry is analogous to California’s wine industry: just as related industries have further strengthened that state’s already-flourishing wine industry, a “literary infrastructure” has grown up around Minnesota publishers that nurtures them. It’s not just that companies like Bookmobile, which serves many of the presses in the region, and Consortium, which distributes more than 100 small and literary presses (including CHP), are located in Minneapolis: there’s also the Loft; highly respected M.F.A. programs at area universities; organizations bringing bestselling authors to town, such as the Hennepin County Library’s PenPals and Talk of the Stacks series; and Talking Volumes, a regional book club cosponsored by the Loft, Minnesota Public Radio, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune since 2000.
Of course, CHP’s managing director Caroline Casey notes, there’s also Minnesota’s Legacy Fund, an amendment to the state constitution implemented in 2009 that stipulates that a portion of, sales taxes raised for 25 years must support arts and cultural organizations, programs, and projects. “The Legacy Fund makes it all viable,” she says.
“I don’t know that there is a time that the three major literary presses have been doing so well at the same time,” says Daniel Slager, who left Harcourt nine years ago to head Milkweed Editions. Sales at Milkweed, he noted, were up 25% last year; e-book sales accounted for 15% of net sales. Submissions are up as well, and the 2015 list of 15–20 fiction and nonfiction titles for adults and children, Slager says, is the “best in the press’s history,” with novels by Daniel Rhodes and Faith Sullivan, poetry from Eric Pankey and Melissa Kwasny, and nonfiction by Joni Tevis and Chris Dombrowski.
Previously, Slager says, Milkweed, celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2015, discovered authors and then lost them to larger houses, or published books those larger presses didn’t want. “Now we’re competing with the New York houses,” and he attributes this also to a more decentralized book publishing industry, particularly in literary publishing.
Ever since Graywolf released Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses in the U.S. in 2007, it has been riding waves of critical acclaim that have translated into sales. Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, a collection of essays released this spring, is in its eighth print run, with 37,000 copies sold to date. Another collection of essays, On Immunity (September), by Eula Biss, was an Editor’s Buzz Book at BEA; the initial print run is 15,000. On June 22, three recent Graywolf releases were reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, including a front-page review for The Song of the Shank. The novel by Jeffrey Renard Allen has sold 8,000 copies to date.
While the press has always been known for its poetry, publisher Fiona McCrae explains that a strategy in recent years has been to include approximately equal numbers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry among the 30–32 titles it publishes each year. By all measures, this three-pronged approach is paying off. “All three genres are hitting,” she says, disclosing that sales at the end of August were 27% above sales the previous year to date. Graywolf netted more than $1 million in sales in 2013, down slightly from 2012.
McCrae notes that the strategy to diversify Graywolf’s list includes a commitment to commissioning more works in translation:. “It’s more expensive, but it makes the list deeper and more varied.” Graywolf commissioned translation from the German of In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (Oct.), and from the Serbian of Tesla: A Portrait with Masks by Vladimir Pistalo (Jan.), one of five winter 2014/spring 2015 releases that are works in translation.
CHP, which publishes about 18 titles each year, has seen a 10%–15% increase in sales since 2011, when Fischbach became publisher. It has sold 5,000 copies to date of Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (September), which won the prestigious Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize in the U.K. In 2015, the press is publishing its first commissioned translation from Spanish: Valeria Luiselli’s Story of My Teeth.
“We started with books that had already been translated,” Casey notes. “Now we’re exploring ways in which we can find books we can translate.” Like the other literary presses, CHP also is publishing more essay collections—two or three each year.
CHP, however, differentiates itself from other literary presses by defining itself as a literary arts organization as well as a press. “We’re adapting to the changing ways readers want to experience our books,” Fischbach says. “We’re putting writing and literature in front of people in different ways and beyond the book.”
CHP’s new Books in Action program reflects this shift. It includes a library “writers and readers in residence,” in which writers use libraries as creative spaces and the resources they find there as tools to create new work.
CHP’s Books in Action series complements the program. The Artists Library: A Field Guide by Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer was published this spring, and My Little Free Library by Margret Aldrich, which explores how free circulating libraries can build communities, will be released in spring 2015.
Publishers Filling a Niche
It’s not just the literary presses that make Minnesota a vibrant publishing hub. Boston-based Quarto Publishing Group USA maintains an office in Minneapolis, with 75 employees responsible for its five Midwest imprints: Cool Springs Press (home improvement, cooking, canning, and gardening); Creative Publishing International (how-to books on home improvement and decorating); Motorbooks (transportation); Voyageur Press (American heritage, country lifestyle); and Zenith Press (military history, aviation, and current events). Together, company officials say, these five imprints generate more than a third of the company’s releases and a third of its net U.S. revenue.
“The 2014 front list from the Minneapolis imprints is one of our strongest to date,” says president and CEO Ken Fund, noting that, in honor of Motorbooks’ 50th anniversary next year, the imprint will release Shelby Mustang Fifty Years, Chevy Chevelle Fifty Years, and GTO 50 Years this fall. Quarto also launched its Motorbooksmobile last summer, a mobile bookstore that has become a presence at car shows and auctions across the U.S.
Llewellyn Worldwide in suburban St. Paul, which includes Llewellyn Publishing, has specialized in mind/body/spirit books and products since it was founded in 1901; it added mystery fiction under its Midnight Ink imprint in 2005 and YA fiction under its Flux imprint in 2006.
“We’re very proactive in finding out what people are looking for,” publicist Kat Sanborn says, noting that while Llewellyn has remained much the same in the past 113 years, it has expanded well beyond astrology and metaphysical titles; health and wellness—what publicist Kat Sanborn calls “conscious living”—titles are prominent on the list. Llewellyn publishes 180 titles across its three imprints each year; of those, 24 are YA Flux titles and 36 are Midnight Ink mysteries.
“What sets Llewellyn apart is the depth of instruction—the ‘how-to’—given to complete the reader’s experience,” Sanborn says. For instance, Yoga and Body Image, edited by Melanie Klein and Anna Guest-Jelley, one of this fall’s 60 releases, is “more about the mind-set of yoga” than simply the practice. “It’s yoga for real people,” Sanborn says, describing the list as “tools to be the best person we can be, and to have the best quality of life we can have.”
An hour’s drive north of Minneapolis, Hazelden Publishing is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The press, a part of the Hazelden Foundation, has a lot to celebrate. Interim publisher Kris Vanhoof says that the combination of the 1996 Mental Health Parity Act and the more recent Affordable Care Act have resulted in higher revenues, including a 10%–15% increase this past year.
“Obamacare has been the game changer,” Vanhoof notes. “We’re starting to break through the stigma over chemical illness. It’s a whole new world, and we’re focusing on early intervention rather than acute treatment.”
The press publishes, in partnership with Harvard Medical School, the Almost Effect series of five titles, about the gray area where a problem exists but hasn’t been diagnosed yet. This fall, seven trade releases target the company’s new focus, with such titles as My Thinning Years: Starving the Gay Within by Jon Derek Croteau, which Vanhoof says, reflects a new commitment to reaching “special populations that may have a different experience” with addiction and recovery.
Also celebrating an anniversary—its fifth—Ice Cold Crime publishes Finnish crime fiction in translation. The small press has published 11 novels since 2009, including some that have topped Finland’s bestseller lists; its 12th release, The Sheriff by Reijo Maki, will be out in October with a 3,000-copy print run. “The enthusiasm for all things Finnish here has helped us a lot,” publisher Jouko Sipila says, referring to the sizeable number of Finnish immigrants who settled in Minnesota. “It’s one of the reasons for setting up shop here.”
While other presses in the region found their niches immediately, it’s taken 12 years for Tristan Publishing to find its place. The company has put out since 2002 short inspirational books that have always done well in the gift market. But, Sheila Waldman, president of relationships, says, Tristan is redefining itself: it is a Christian publisher “going forward,” she says, and is further changing its business model by releasing books in spring and fall, instead of only in the fall.
“It’s a leap of faith, but we have joy in doing this,” Waldman says, describing 2014 as “kind of a rebuilding year.” As Tristan rebrands, it is releasing only one title this fall, down from its typical six to 10 releases: My Boy, Ben: A Story of Love, Loss, and Grace by David Wheaton. Waldman compares the company’s first full-length book to Marley & Me, “but with a faith-based message.”
“We’re totally changing it up,” Waldman says. “We’re becoming more of a traditional publisher. We’re no longer shying away from publishing that [My Boy, Ben] kind of book.”