Billing itself as the oldest publisher in the state and the largest historical society press in the country, Minnesota Historical Society Press has been publishing regional titles since 1859, while Wisconsin Historical Society Press has been doing it since 1855.
Five years after eliminating four staff positions and cutting its book production by 30% after the state cut allocations, MHSP has rebounded. It hired a sales manager in August and an acquisitions editor in September. “It’s a healthy sign for us,” publicity manager Alison Aten says, noting that the press reported just under $1 million in net revenue in fiscal year 2014.
The press has, since the 2009 budget cuts, focused on its strengths: books about Native American and Scandinavian culture, and about Minnesota’s history and culture. This fall, MHSP is publishing eight books, ranging from My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks: Ojibwe Family Life and Labor on the Reservation, by Brenda J. Child, to Minnesota’s Own: Preserving Our Grand Homes, by Larry Millett and Matt Schmitt.
WHSP director Kathy Borkowski says that revenue has been steadily rising for the past few years; she credits that to publishing books appealing to a broad audience extending beyond Wisconsin, such as Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars & Breweries, which has sold 9,000 copies to date, and Michael Perry’s From the Top: Brief Transmissions from Tent Show Radio, which has sold 7,000 copies so far.
“We hold onto our roots,” Borkowski says. “We do things of historical significance, but there’s a nice mix every season; there’s something for everyone.” The seven titles being published this fall are no exception: the frontlist ranges from Blaze Orange: Whitetail Deer Hunting in Wisconsin by Travis Dewitz to a history of the Wisconsin Historical Society since 1846 by John Zimm.
“I don’t think we’ll sell many copies of the Wisconsin Historical Society, but it’s important for us to publish,” Borkowski notes.
University presses are also reaching out beyond the ivory tower to publish regional titles in addition to their scholarly tomes. The University of Minnesota Press has been reissuing regional nonfiction and fiction for years, but recently moved into publishing original fiction with a regional bent. This fall the press has 14 novels on its list of 61 releases, including Best to Laugh by Lorna Landvik. It is also publishing Landvik’s previously self-published novel, Mayor of the Universe, as well as Only the Dead, the second in Norwegian writer Vidar Sundstøl’s trilogy of mystery-thrillers set in Duluth. His first novel, Land of Dreams, has sold 10,000 copies to date, a “huge success,” publicist Heather Skinner says, adding, “There’s such demand for the series, we’re pushing up to spring 2015 the pub date for the third novel, The Ravens.”
Skinner says that the 2013 success of Sarah Stonich’s novel Vacationland, which sold 6,000 copies, inspired the press to build up its fiction list. “We started with regional fiction because we really know the market here,” she says. “We’re choosing our authors wisely. We want authors who’ve had
success before, and we look at subject matter. We knew Sundstøl’s being Scandinavian would serve us well.” Publishing fiction, Skinner says, also has opened up new media opportunities for the press. Sundstøl, for example, has received extensive national coverage, including a review in the Washington Post.
While the University of Wisconsin Press is adamant that it is, first and foremost, a scholarly press, it, too, targets the regional market with such releases as Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937–1946 by James Leary (Feb. 2015). This fall, of UWP’s 22 frontlist titles, six are regional nonfiction releases. Like UMP, UWP has moved into publishing fiction under its Terrace Books trade imprint; two novels are on this fall’s list: The Great Sand Fracas of Ames County, by Jerry Apps, and Assault with a Deadly Lie, by Lev Raphael.
“A lot of our fiction has connections to our nonfiction list,” notes UWP director Sheila Leary. “We’ve published books on land use and environment, such as the recent book Living a Land Ethic by Stephen Laubach, so Apps’s novel about frack sand mining made sense. Lev Raphael’s suspense novel takes on privacy and surveillance, and gay rights. We publish a lot of gay history and memoir, and also many books related to rights and repression.”