It has been a remarkable 12 months for South Dakota Historical Society Press. On Nov. 17, 2014, the 18-year-old publisher of regional titles about the Coyote State released Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. It immediately shot up bestseller charts and, within days, sold out of its initial 15,000-copy print run. One year later, it has sold 140,000 copies, gone through eight print runs, and has transformed a small press whose previous top-selling title, Tatanka and the Lakota People, had sold 15,000 copies.
“It’s an academic tome with the dimensions of a pizza box,” Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of SDHSP, said of Pioneer Girl, which clocks in at 472 pages in hardcover and retails for $39.95. “I didn’t think it would sail off into the stratosphere.”
After PW ran a story in August 2014 about the long road to publication for Wilder’s autobiography, followed by an AP story on Wilder’s life in fact and fiction, SDHSP was inundated with preorders. Koupal said the press struggled throughout the 2014 holiday season to keep retailers stocked and some holiday orders not filled until February and March of this year.
“We’re just now catching our breath,” Koupal said. To speed up production and reduce costs, the press hired a second printing company, Maple Press, to supplement the output of its primary printer, Friesens Corp.; the second printer enabled the press to get completely caught up with orders by midsummer.
In response to the demands placed by Pioneer Girl’s success on its employees and resources, SDHSP reduced its output in 2015 and will do so in 2016 as well. The press, which prior to releasing Pioneer Girl published five to seven titles each year, published three titles this year and will publish four in 2016. It hopes to get back to five titles by 2017.
Among the tasks the publisher’s seven staff members have been performing since Pioneer Girl hit has been ramping up its marketing efforts. For instance, SDHSP had never gone to BookExpo America and to the fall regional shows, but in 2014 they exhibited at BEA for the first time and went back in 2015. This fall was the first time they exhibited at the Heartland Fall Forum.
The success of Pioneer Girl also expanded the press’s distribution reach. “We’re on the map all of a sudden, [and] we’re talking with some people who normally wouldn’t talk to a small press,” Koupal said. The publisher previously had only sold its titles into the only Barnes & Noble store in the state, but now the chain is buying nationally, though selectively, according to Jennifer McIntyre, SDHSP marketing director. Amazon, which had only bought through a distributor before Pioneer Girl, now buys directly.
With its higher profile, SDHSP is receiving better manuscripts, which has allowed it to make some adjustments to its list. The press is adding a line of YA nonfiction with its first title, a biography of Madelyn Joslyn Gage, a 19th-century suffragette, planned for 2018. “We’re getting some good manuscripts [in YA], so it seemed like a good thing to try,” Koupal said. The press, in general, has been receiving a broader range of queries and manuscripts this past year, which allows it to “think more adventurously,” Koupal said, adding, however, that the press has no plans to move beyond its regional focus. One new area of books, for example, may be about the impact of the oil boom on the region.
Though larger houses have approached SDHSP about buying paperback rights and SHSP was initially receptive, no serious offers were made. Explaining that she regards Pioneer Girl as a “legacy book,” Koupal said that SDHSP will not sell the rights “at a disadvantage. We put so much time, effort, and money into doing it right.”
Noting that there was interest in Pioneer Girl early on in the U.K. media, Koupal said that the press also has been discussing foreign rights, but that many of those publishers want to publish the biography without its 800 annotations, which is a deal breaker for SDHSP. But Koupal said that negotiations are ongoing, and that she is fairly confident SDHSP will make a foreign-rights deal. Koupal acknowledged that nobody on staff has much expertise in negotiating foreign rights, so SDHSP is in the process of hiring an employee with that skill set.
Though much of the media’s attention has remained focused on Pioneer Girl, Koupal said that sales are up across the board this past year; net revenues that don’t include sales of Pioneer Girl up more than 30%. Hill’s 2007 biography of Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, is the press’ second top seller, with 20,000 copies sold—almost half that number sold in the past year. “It’s been quite an adventure for a small press on the prairie,” Koupal said.