Booksellers have the industry connections to publish their books just about anywhere, and some do, like fiction writers Emma Straub at BookCourt in New York City (Other People We Married), Ellen Meeropol at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass. (House Arrest), or Joan Drury at Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais, Minn. (Silent Words). But for some bookstore owners, self-publishing is preferable to going the traditional route, whether it's a single title like Chuck Robinson of Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., or an entire series like that from Dr. John Hutton of Blue Manatee Children's Bookstore and Decafé in Cincinnati.
Poet Laura Hansen of Bookin' It in Little Falls, Minn., likes the control over the entire book, from writing to production and design, that self-publishing offers, although she is considering going with a traditional press for a gift book that she recently completed. Chris Livingston of the Book Shelf in Winona, Minn., turned to self-publishing to fill a need for a coffee-table book about his community, and is now considering publishing other books rooted in the area.
While Robinson chose to print his book himself through his print-on-demand book machine to reduce costs and cut down on storage, it may take some time for Hutton, who printed 1,750 copies of each of three books, to keep his inventory down. And Livingston has already scheduled a second printing two months after publication, to bring the in-print total of Winona to 2,000 copies.
Chris Livingston, The Book Shelf, Winona, Minn.
Chris Livingston, owner of the Book Shelf in Winona, Minn., and president of the board of the Midwest Booksellers Association, says he never wanted to become a publisher or author: he's always been content to sell books written and published by others. Repeated requests for a book that didn't exist, however, inspired Livingston to launch a publishing imprint from his store last fall, Book Shelf Editions.
"For years, tourists, local college professors visiting their sister university in China, and others would come into the store and ask for a quality book of photographs of Winona that they could give as gifts," Livingston says. After he complained to a longtime customer about the lack of a coffee-table book showcasing the picturesque college town situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the customer responded, "Why don't you publish this book?"
The customer and a retired publisher, who once headed St. Mary's Press, volunteered to assist Livingston in producing Winona: Minnesota on the Mississippi, a 96-page book with 261 full-color photographs taken by 63 photographers. The images were selected from 2,500 submissions received in response to the store's call for photographs. Livingston wrote a one-page foreword, the only text in the book, which he compares to "a bound postcard."
Winona, which was released in hardcover on April 29, retails for $35, and is available in the store and on the store's Web site (www.bookshelfwinona.com), which offers free shipping. The book sold out of its 1,000-copy first print run within six weeks. Livingston says that customers came to the store and purchased as many as 10 copies at a time; online orders came from all over the country.
"We haven't even gotten to tourist season yet," says Livingston, who is going back to press for an additional 1,000 copies. More than half of the book's initial printing was presold, which enabled him to finance the printing costs. Three local organizations—Winona State University, St. Mary's University, and Winona National Bank—prepaid for a total of 400 books with customized title pages. Another 140 copies were sold to store customers who received a three-page sample via e-mail.
Livingston is considering publishing more Book Shelf Editions titles, including a poetry anthology by local poets and other projects. He's reluctant to embark on another large-scale project like Winona, however. "It put a lot of stress on me, financially and organizationally," says Livingston. "And I don't have a [production] staff, only volunteers."
Laura Hansen, Bookin' It, Little Falls, Minn.
The Book Shelf isn't the only Minnesota bookstore that's become a de facto publishing company. Over the past five years, Laura Hansen, the owner of Bookin' It, in Little Falls, has published two poetry chapbooks under her store's eponymous imprint: Diving the Drop-off (2006) and Why I Keep Rabbits (2010). Both are sold at Bookin' It, as well as at several MBA member stores and at the Little Falls arts center. Diving the Drop-off is also available at a New Age store in neighboring St. Cloud. Hansen estimates that the novel has sold about 150 copies in three print runs, while Why I Keep Rabbits has sold at least half of its initial 100-copy printing.