Now in its 32nd year publishing literary fiction and nonfiction for both adults and children, Milkweed Editions recently underwent a major restructuring that publisher and CEO Daniel Slager expects will further establish the Minneapolis nonprofit as a major player in a rapidly changing industry.
“We’re determined and are becoming a better publisher of a stronger list,” Slager told PW in an interview at Milkweed’s offices in the Open Book literary center in Minneapolis. “We’re taking sales and marketing to a higher level.”
Disclosing that last year’s gross sales reached $1 million, 20% above the previous year’s gross, Slager projects that sales will reach $1.5 million–$2 million “within a few years.”
Milkweed’s eight-person staff includes two new positions created to ramp up sales and marketing. In December, Sue Ostfield was hired as sales and marketing director; she assumed her new responsibilities there in February. Ostfield, who began her publishing career as marketing, publicity, and sales director at Coffee House Press in 1989, served for nine years as associate director of national accounts at Henry Holt and for the past seven years was director of national accounts at PGW. Will Wlizlo, who most recently was Web editor at the Utne Reader, was hired in March as Milkweed’s content manager. Publicist Meredith Kessler, previously an associate publicist at FSG, also was hired in March, replacing publicity and marketing manager Ethan Rutherford.
“There’s a greater sales and marketing expertise,” Slager noted. “I think we’re the first independent literary press to hire a content manager.” Wlizlo has been charged with systematically “unifying and better establishing” Milkweed’s online presence. A new Web site has just been launched, search engines are being optimized, and there is a greater emphasis on using social networking.
“None of this is revolutionary,” Slager said, “but we plan on doing it more innovatively and more creatively.” Slager also emphasized that Milkweed is reaching out to independent booksellers, having exhibited for the first time last fall at regional trade shows as well as at Winter Institute.
Two staff positions—one in editorial, the other in sales and marketing—were eliminated in December to streamline operations. To compensate for the loss of the editorial position, Slager will undertake more acquisition and editing responsibilities; he’s already acquired 10 of the press’s 13 titles scheduled for release this year, and 12 of the 17 titles scheduled for release in 2013. All frontlist is being released simultaneously in print and digital, with 65 titles currently available in digital; 80 titles will be available in digital formats by the end of 2012. Last year, e-book sales grew by 350%; currently, e-books account for 10% of the company’s total sales.
While Milkweed moves into the digital realm, Slager says, the press also remains committed to packaging its print publications in creative ways. For instance, Things That Are, a July 2012 collection of essays, contains a QR code promoting both the book and its author, Chicago folk musician Amy Leach. Things That Are is also illustrated, with original artwork by Nate Christopherson.
“It is a book as art object, but we’re also taking advantage of new media to get attention for it,” Slager said.
“It used to be that Milkweed was a great place to publish your first book,” Slager noted of the press’s evolution since 1980. “We’re a more mature Milkweed. We’re retaining authors and building them.” And, in some cases, pulling back in authors like Larry Watson, whose novel Montana 1948 was published by Milkweed in 1993 and sold 40,000 copies in hardcover before the paperback rights were licensed to Washington Square Press, which sold another several hundred thousand copies. After publishing his next five novels with major New York publishers, Watson returned to Milkweed last year. His 2011 release, American Boy, has sold 10,000 copies in hardcover to date. Milkweed will release Watson’s next novel, which has not yet been titled, in 2013. Jewelweed, David Rhodes’s fifth release with Milkweed (three of them reissues originally published by major publishers in the 1970s), will be published in 2013 as well.
Slager, who was hired away from Harcourt in 2005 to become Milkweed’s editor-in-chief before being named publisher in 2007, describes himself as “fired up” about the press’s future. Previously, Slager remarks, one could “count on both hands the number of Milkweed titles that sold as many copies” as American Boy.
“Now we have sales like that every season.”