Greg Britton, director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press since April 1999, has taken the 154-year-old publisher in a new direction over the past five years. Under his tenure, the press has more than tripled its annual output from seven titles in 1999 to 25 this year, and sales have doubled, from $569,000 in fiscal year 2000 to $1.2 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2004.
Britton attributed the success of MHSP during a time when many other institutional presses are downsizing to several factors, most notably to a shift in how the press views its mission of publishing books about the Minnesota experience. "Cheri Register's book [Packinghouse Daughter] was a defining book for us," Britton declared about the press's fall 2000 lead title. Packinghouse Daughter was critically acclaimed and commercially successful. It was named a Book Sense 76 pick and was issued in paper by HarperPerennial in 2001.
"We consciously took a regional story and made it national by emphasizing the universal themes and downplaying the regional aspects. Our experiences with Packinghouse Daughter convinced us that it'd be easier to do this if we didn't have the hurdle of our name," Britton said. "There's prejudice against a name like Minnesota Historical Society Press. It has lots of connotations, like old-fashioned and antiquarian. We had to counter the prejudice by taking our name off the books and replacing it with a new name, a new logo."
To that end, the press launched its Borealis Books imprint in 2003 with the publication of Baghdad Express by Joel Turnipseed. Released on the eve of the Iraq War, the book received a great deal of attention from the media and from booksellers, and paperback rights were sold to Penguin. MHSP now releases its more general-interest titles under the Borealis imprint and regional titles under the MHSP imprint.
The launch of Borealis has gotten MHSP titles noticed by the national media; its books are now reviewed in Newsweek, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, Britton said, and its authors are also making more appearances in the media. "We haven't abandoned publishing the traditional, more scholarly books, but we've grown beyond this. We're still telling the story of Minnesota, per our mission, but we are doing it in the broadest possible way."