Emulating the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which seven years ago implemented an ambitious new business model emphasizing personal narratives with universal themes, Kathy Borkowski, director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, has taken the 152-year-old press in new directions in the past three years. While not getting the same dramatic 280% jump in sales as MHS Press, which has released bestselling memoirs like Packinghouse Daughter by Cheri Register and Baghdad Express by Joel Turnipseed, WHS Press's new business model has already affected its bottom line. Under Borkowski's tenure (she came aboard in 2004), sales have increased 50% in the past four years, from $210,000 in fiscal year 2004 to an anticipated $310,000 in fiscal year 2008. Meanwhile, the press's annual output remains steady—about 10 titles a year.
“We're trying to make our books work a little harder and reach a broader audience,” Borkowski explained. “That's where the increase in sales is coming from.”
Instead of publishing the antiquarian books and academic monographs on important people and events in Wisconsin's past, Borkowski has brought out personal narratives of ordinary Wisconsinites in extraordinary circumstances, beginning with the fall 2005 release, Third Down and a War to Go: The 1942 All-American Wisconsin Badgers by Terry Frei.
This account of the phenomenal season of the University of Wisconsin's football team before Pearl Harbor, and its players' subsequent actions fighting in World War II, sold 7,000 copies in hardcover. The book was reviewed in consumer media nationwide, including the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Post. A revised edition of Third Down, with a new foreword by Pulitzer Prize—winning journalist David Maraniss (author of a bestselling bio of Vince Lombardi), was released in paper this past summer.
“Everything starts with Wisconsin,” Borkowski said. “We've really turned our attention to things that will be of interest to the average person with an interest in their state's heritage. But we have some things we feel go beyond Wisconsin for a national audience.”
The press has continued to focus on personal narratives with universal themes by releasing such books as Voices from Viet Nam and Women Remember the War, 1941—1945.
This past fall, WHS Press expanded beyond first-person accounts of past events by releasing Private Soldiers: A Year in Iraq with a Wisconsin National Guard Unit by Benjamin Buchholz, an illustrated chronicle of the unit's deployment, with interviews of American soldiers as well as Iraqi nationals.
“This takes us in a new direction,” Borkowski said. “This is history in the making, history happening right now. To do something so current reaches a new audience for us.”
Since its late September release, Private Soldiers has sold 2,800 copies of a 5,000-copy first print run.
Besides publishing the personal accounts of Wisconsinites in wartime, WHS Press intends to focus on them engaged in agriculture and in sports, two pursuits very important to residents of a state that not only produces much of this nation's dairy products but is home to the resurgent Green Bay Packers. WHS Press will release Old Farm by Jerry Apps in 2008 and a history of the Milwaukee Braves in 2009. A new series, Places Along the Way, is also planned, with the first title in the series, Fill 'Er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations by Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz, scheduled for release in 2008.
“This series illustrates how we display our heritage through the places we build,” Borkowski explained. Future titles will include volumes on opera houses, movie theaters, breweries and barns throughout the state. Wisconsin Public Television is producing documentaries in conjunction with the volumes in the series.
While publishing trade titles for a broader market has pumped up sales at WHS Press, the switch two years ago from having the press's books distributed by University of Wisconsin Press to the Chicago Distribution Center at the University of Chicago has also improved sales.
“Our books were so buried in their catalogue,” Borkowski said of the eight-year distribution arrangement with University of Wisconsin Press, “it was not a good fit.”
MHS Press director Greg Britton, who has just been hired by the Getty Trust to oversee its publishing program, is confident that WHS Press is headed in the right direction.
“They have many pieces in place to make a viable regional publishing program,” Britton said. “Institutional backing, a strong collection, a region that values literacy, and its history and culture.
“Personal narratives, like, for example, Steven R. Kinsella's 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier, speak to a region that's underserved by the publishing world,” Britton added, referring to a 2006 MHS release, which has sold almost 10,000 copies in hardcover.
“National publishing happens on the coasts, and regional publishing in the Midwest, with historical society presses and university presses,” he remarked. “The most exciting books are coming from those presses.”