In the first article of a monthlong series by PW looking at how independent publishers fared in 2020, five Midwest presses reported that sales fell this past spring but then rebounded to varying degrees in the remainder of the year. They attributed the improved results to the relevance of their lists and to some creative marketing pivots.
Sales tumbled in March and April, said Daniel Slager, publisher and CEO of Milkweed Editions, making him “really nervous,” but they bounced back dramatically. The Minneapolis press ended the year with sales up 100% over 2019.
Slager attributed Milkweed’s showing to a strong backlist: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl supplemented frontlist sellers like World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, which Barnes & Noble named its 2020 book of the year. “People are inside reading, and there’s an appetite for the environmental literature we’re publishing,” Slager noted. “We’re trying to publish meaningful books that speak to the moment and are beautiful as objects.”
Milkweed pivoted quickly to online events last year. To launch World of Wonders, it teamed with the Asian American Writers Workshop for a program that featured Nezhukumatathil and five other Asian American authors in conversation. “This was an event we could not have pulled off in one location,” Slager said. “Some events are better on Zoom.”
Milkweed’s annual Booklover’s Ball, which usually attracts 300 supporters to a Minneapolis venue, drew 1,000 viewers to a virtual fund-raiser in October. The press is also partnering with indie booksellers on preorder campaigns.
At Graywolf Press, also in Minneapolis, publicity director Caroline Nitz said sales were up “somewhat” over 2019, due to the combination of a “strong early start for late 2019 frontlist,” such as Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine, which has sold 50,000 copies to date, and sales of backlist by Rankine, Danez Smith, and other Black authors in the wake of the increase in interest in the Black Lives Matter movement that began in spring. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize; National Book Award–finalist Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem; and the release in paperback of Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House also boosted sales.
In terms of acquisitions, Graywolf “tries not to respond to news cycles,” Nitz said, noting one exception: it recently acquired Virus and Revolution by Paul Preciado (slated for 2022), which “tries to make sense of this transformational moment from a philosophical perspective.” This fall, Graywolf has high hopes for Maggie Nelson’s latest ruminations, On Freedom, and The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber, the first winner of the press’s Africa Prize.
The success of Temporary by Hilary Leichter, a humorous take on millennial life that is selling well to mass market retailers, helped Coffee House Press, which is also based in Minneapolis, keep sales flat with 2019. “We didn’t necessarily make the growth that we’d planned for pre-Covid,” said marketing manager Marit Swanson. “But we didn’t lose any of the ground we’ve gained the last few years either.”
CHP worked to beef up online sales—including selling merchandise through Bonfire—while promoting sales at indie bookstores. “One small thing we were proud of,” Swanson said, “was that, early in the pandemic, there was a push on our blog and social media to promote the stores where our authors had been scheduled for events before they got canceled or moved online.”
Publicity manager Daley Farr noted that CHP’s fall 2021 list includes several books addressing state violence and racial justice—areas that have drawn lots of interest in recent months. Those titles include Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018 by Daniel Borzutzky; Echo Tree, a collection of short fiction by Henry Dumas, a leader of the Black Arts Movement killed by police in 1968; and The Breaks by Julietta Singh, an epistolary memoir about motherhood and race.
In Cleveland, though Belt Publishing’s 2020 sales through retail channels were flat with 2019, sales overall spiked 25%. “Direct sales were way up,” said senior editor Martha Bayne, noting that the press ramped up online promotions through email newsletters and Instagram. Belt intends to maintain aggressive online efforts after the pandemic while keeping up strong relationships with indie booksellers, such as White Whale Bookstore in Pittsburgh, which is hosting two Belt book launches this spring.
Though sales were up across Belt’s list, a spring release and a fall title especially resonated with readers: The Last Children of Mill Creek, Vivian Gibson’s account of her childhood in segregated St. Louis, and Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest, edited by Terrion L. Williamson. Bayne anticipates that the just-published Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Virginia by Elizabeth Catte, as well as Thomas Geoghegan’s forthcoming take on how to unite a polarized country, The History of Democracy Has Yet to Be Written, will contribute to another good year. Belt has also recently begun organizing virtual salons, during which a group of authors discuss a topic, such as what it means to be a public intellectual. “They’re going really well—and they sell out quickly, as they’re different from standard author events,” Bayne said.
Last year was up and down for Two Dollar Radio in Columbus, Ohio. “We were fortunate in publishing the books we published this summer—they address the current moment,” said publisher Eric Obenauf, noting that 2020 revenue was down 5% from 2019, despite a 67% drop in sales between March and May. Hanif Abdurraqib’s 2017 essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us gave the press a boost, selling 12,000 copies last year. A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt, a collection of essays about finding joy as a queer Indigenous person, was also an important contributor to TDR’s revenue after its July release; it’s now in its third printing.
Praising indie booksellers for championing TDR releases, Obenauf said the publisher is trying to support them in return by partnering with them on preorder campaigns. TDR partnered with Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis to offer signed copies of A History of My Brief Body. And while ramping up its online marketing efforts, the press is emphasizing bundled backlist titles so as not to compete with bookstores.
“We’re always going to do what we’re going to do,” Obenauf said, referring to the impact of the pandemic on TDR’s future. But limiting the hours of TDR’s bookstore and café has allowed him to devote more time and attention to the press, reading submissions and “making stronger” upcoming releases, like Night Rooms by Gina Nutt (Mar.).
This fall, TDR is publishing its first poetry collection, 808s and Otherworlds by Sean Avery Medlin. Originally submitted to the press’s Sator New Works Award, the collection did not meet the press’s guidelines for the prize, but, Obenauf said, the poems “leapt off the page.”