Milkweed Editions is celebrating its 35th anniversary by completing a highly successful fund-raising effort. Last Friday evening, during its annual Book Lovers’ Ball, held at Minneapolis’ Mill City Museum, publisher and CEO Daniel Slager announced that the literary nonprofit publisher has raised almost $1.5 million to date, in two phases of a yearlong major capital campaign. After initially raising $1 million in its Metamorphosis Campaign to invest in Milkweed’s digital infrastructure, its 16-member board of directors aimed to raise another $500,000, dedicated to funding author advances.
The additional funds are “totally game changing,” Slager said during a recent interview, adding, “We can do more exciting things now.” Milkweed publishes 17 to 18 frontlist titles each year, and four to six reprints. Total output is 50% higher than it was in 2005, when Slager left Harcourt to take the helm of Milkweed from former publisher H. Emerson Blake.
Besides offering advances that are more competitive with larger houses, Slager said that new funds will allow Milkweed to ramp up publishing works in translation in all genres, as well as seek out more non-European writers. In 2013, Milkweed published Black Stars by the Vietnamese poet Ngo Tu Lap and the American poet Martha Collins. In December, it will publish Sea Summit by Chinese author Yi Lu, translated from Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain, in a bilingual format. “This is the first time we have had someone typesetting Chinese characters,” Slager noted of the production.
Milkweed also marked another first this fall: Ada Limón’s second collection of poems, Bright Dead Things (Sept.), is a finalist this year for a National Book Award in poetry. It is the first time Milkweed has had an NBA finalist.
While Milkweed is expecting to be more competitive in acquiring and retaining authors, it is also intensifying its efforts to become an artisanal publisher, creating books in a sustainable way (its paper stock is 100% post-consumer waste) and making them works of art. “The majority of our readers care very much about beautiful books,” Slager said, noting that the press works hard with designers to create distinctive books and broadsides. For instance, Josh Birdsall, a Twin Cities architect and artist, was commissioned to create the cover and two-color interiors for In Winter’s Kitchen by Beth Dooley (Dec.), resulting, Slager says, in a “crafty-looking package” for a book about the Midwestern organic food movement; the title had booksellers at Heartland Fall Forum this fall buzzing.
In addition to focusing on the production values of the books it publishes in print format, Milkweed continues to increase its digital offerings. The press now makes 100 books available in digital formats from its 350 books in print, and last year it completely revamped its website. The press’s efforts on the digital front have had an impact: online book sales made directly to consumers have doubled in the past two years, and the number of subscribers to its digital newsletter has tripled in the past year. E-books currently account for 15% of overall book sales, which have held steady in recent years after a 20% increase in 2013.
Slager pointed to two titles that exemplify how the range of its list has expanded: in 2013 it released Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Kimmerer, and in April 2016 it will publish the anthology Literary Publishing in the 21st Century, edited by Wayne Miller, Kevin Prufer, and Travis Kurowski. What has not changed, Slager said, is Milkweed’s commitment to “high-quality transformative publishing” and to adapting to an evolving industry. “It’s just a really good time to be an independent literary press in the overall publishing world,” Slager said.
Update: As of the official conclusion of the Metamorphosis fundraising campaign, Milkweed raised $1,538,000.