Despite the omicron variant’s spread during last year’s holiday season, independent presses across the Midwest reported a strong finish to 2021. Most that PW spoke with said good nonfiction and backlist sales drove gains. At the same time, publishers anticipate that the supply chain disruptions that bedeviled the industry last year will continue well into 2022.
Daniel Slager, publisher of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, reported that though the press had a “breakout year” in 2020, last year’s sales exceeded that. “We’re up roughly 50% year over year,” he said, with growth in all formats and across all sales channels. He attributed Milkweed’s success to a strong list, including two books examining the natural world that have drawn huge audiences since their release: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, published in 2013 and still the press’s top seller, and 2020’s World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
Slager described supply chain disruptions as being “a real factor for us,” with delays in printing, reprinting, and shipping books, but he added that Milkweed’s staff is “learning to manage” the situation as it prepares to publish and promote such titles as Ada Limón’s poetry collection The Hurting Kind and Ken Kalfus’s novel 2 a.m. in Little America.
Milkweed will soon resume attending in-person conferences, Slager was happy to report, beginning with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in late March. He expects that customers will return to bookstores for in-person readings and signings this year, but said that hybrid author tours are here to stay. Hybrid tours, he noted, provide authors and readers with opportunities “to celebrate books with their local communities while also ‘traveling’ far and wide via virtual event options.”
Also in Minneapolis, children’s publisher Lerner Publishing Group finished 2021 with sales up 25% over the previous year. Marketing manager Lindsay Matvick attributed this strong showing to a demand for nonfiction, from picture books to YA, “that relates to social change movements and highlights diversity.” One of the year’s top sellers for the company was Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, which received a Caldecott Honor, Sibert Honor, and two Coretta Scott King Awards, for author and illustrator.
Though supply chain disruptions have affected Lerner, the impact has been mitigated by the fact that the company prints and binds its releases in the Midwest. “We have lots of great local connections that have made our supply chain issues easier to manage,” Matvick pointed out.
Lerner anticipates that industry conferences will soon resume, and the press is eager to show off its forthcoming releases to booksellers, including a fall title, the YA edition of Milkweed’s bestselling Braiding Sweetgrass, adapted by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt. Publisher Adam Lerner said the deal was negotiated with Milkweed’s Slager while the two sat around a backyard fire pit.
Steve Semken, publisher of Iowa City’s Ice Cube Press, said that, though comparing 2021 sales to 2020’s “all-time low isn’t saying much,” the upswing was due to “a good run” with the first graphic novel the press has released in its 30-plus years. Moon of the Snow Blind: Spirit Lake by Gary Kelley appeals to historians of the Midwest as well as to graphic novel fans.
Another factor in last year’s sales gain, Semken said, was that he “figured out how to sell more directly to customers, since bookstores became less predictable.” He added, “Bookstores are confusing to authors, readers, and publishers right now. None of us is sure which are and which aren’t back to normal. Tourist shops and online sales have made all the difference.”
Though Ice Cube is already “running behind on supplies” in 2022, Semken said, he is generally optimistic, as he expects things to “open up” this year—namely in-person book fairs and festivals, as well as the Heartland Fall Forum. In May, Ice Cube will release Kelley’s second history book in a graphic format, Bach and the Blues: Pablo Casals & Robert Johnson.
Cleveland’s Belt Publishing said that 2021 sales were up 25% over the previous year, with publisher Anne Trubek attributing this to two cookbooks being “surprise hits”: Sara Bir’s The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook and Rust Belt Vegan Kitchen, edited by Margaret Pangrace. “Our direct-to-consumer sales continue to provide huge net revenues that keep us growing,” she added.
However, Trubek said, “the big news of 2022 is the paper supply and printer backup situations—two different but related issues, both of which are causing havoc.” As a result, Belt has had to change formats and push back pub dates for some new releases.
“We are actively looking into creative alternatives to what are clearly long-term problems with paper mills, the health of regional printers, and printer conglomeration,” Trubek noted. Despite these challenges, Belt is venturing into fiction for the first time this spring with the release of Boys Come First by Aaron Foley.
Roger Jänecke, publisher of Visible Ink in suburban Detroit, reported that after what he described as “a very strong” 2020, sales rose only 3% in 2021, though “online sales continue to impress.” Sales to schools rebounded, and to a lesser degree, sales to bookstores and libraries.
Sales of The Dream Interpretation Dictionary by J.M. DeBord “surged,” Jänecke said; the book performed better in each of the past two years than it did when it was released in 2017. “A few hits can shape a year,” he noted, adding that The Bigfoot Book and Black Firsts also contributed greatly to the press’s success.
Paper shortages and printing delays “have caused their share of havoc,” Jänecke admitted, forcing schedules to be revised and pub dates to be pushed back. Visible Ink had planned to publish and market Originals! Black Women Breaking Barriers by Jessie C. Smith in January, ahead of Black History Month in February, but then had to postpone its release, resulting in the press promoting it for Women’s History Month in March instead. “Going forward, I don’t anticipate the same problems,” Jänecke noted. “We’ve built extra time into our schedules.”
At Evanston, Ill.'s Agate Publishing, sales rose “modestly” in 2020 over 2019, publisher Doug Seibold said, then dipped—again, “modestly”—in 2021. “We’ve been pretty level the past three years,” he explained, noting that Agate had incremental growth in both e-book and subrights sales last year. Backlist sales have pumped up revenue, and Seibold cited the success of two culinary titles: Craft Coffee: A Manual by Jessica Easto and Wisconsin Supper Clubs by Ron Faiola.
Supply chain disruptions have taken their toll on Agate, with staff working hard to better manage it, Seibold said. First-quarter releases are “all being affected, despite our having scheduled extra time for printing and shipping for every project.”
Even with the challenges, Seibold remains confident that 2022 will be a good year, especially with the release of two food-related titles produced in partnership with Good LFE, which, Seibold said, “explore the importance of ‘low-fermentation eating’ to gut health.”
Sourcebooks, another Chicagoland publisher, said that sales in 2021 were up 28% from 2020, with frontlist and backlist in all categories doing well in all channels—especially YA (up 70%) and adult fiction (up 47%). “This year has been amazing,” publisher Dominique Raccah declared.“We’ve taken this time that has been so challenging for all of us and dug deep into each of the business units, and the ways that we talk about our authors, and the work we do on their behalf. We’re making real changes to reaching our audiences more, to developing projects in new ways, and that’s really showing up across the list in the numbers.”
Raccah anticipates that the upward spike in sales will continue, due to such fall releases as Black Hollywood by Carell Augustus, a photography book that reimagines classic films with iconic Black entertainers.
While Sourcebooks, too, has contended with disruptions and delays, it is confident in the effectiveness of its new multipronged strategy: forecasting print needs six months in advance, using multiple vendors to print the same book, and shipping directly to retailers.
After pushing back to May the tour for Eliza Reid, wife of the president of Iceland and author of Secrets of the Sprakkar, Sourcebooks is moving forward with a March tour for comedian Danny Pellegrino (How Do I Un-remember This?). It also intends to attend the Public Library Association trade show in late March and subsequent industry gatherings, but with caveats. “We will move and shift depending on what happens with variants or with the world,” said marketing director Valerie Pierce. “That’s who we are as a company: we’re agile.”