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Transformative Literature for an Engaged Community
Specializing in literary fiction, Milkweed Editions was founded in 1980 as a nonprofit with a mission to “identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it,” explains Daniel Slager, Publisher and CEO at Milkweed. IP got the chance to speak with Slager on their success and upcoming plans.
IP: I’d like to start by asking you to tell me a bit about yourself and the origin of Milkweed Editions.
DS: I came to work at Milkweed Eleven years ago this month, but Milkweed has been around for 37 years. Milkweed was founded in Minneapolis in 1980 and has been located here since. Milkweed started as a very small press, as all literary presses do, publishing mostly poetry and it has evolved to where we can now publish 18-20 new titles each year and we have about 350-400 titles in print, and a lot of ebooks available. Now we’re one of the larger independent presses
As for me... I grew up in Michigan, I went to University of Michigan, [and] I moved to New York right out of college because I wanted to work in book publishing and I thought New York was where everything was, and it is where still, a lot is, but not everything. I first worked an entry-level job, I worked in that for a little while, then I went back to grad school in Comparative Literature, a PhD program. And then, as I was writing my dissertation, I kind-of found my way back into publishing, first as a translator; I started translating from German and published a bunch of books, and a couple smaller pieces. And then I was hired by one of the magazines I was working for as a translator as an editor and then that was kind-of my entrance into publishing…. Then I worked in commercial book publishing, always literary books. The place I was working when I was hired by milkweed was Harcourt and I was senior editor there. I had my own little list of books and was working with another editor, when I got a call out of the blue from Minneapolis… and here I am now, eleven years later.
IP: What is your vision for Milkweed Editions in five years?
DS: We have a clear mission as an organization, it’s one line: to identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature and build an engaged community around it. The first part of our mission statement, to identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, except for the word transformative, is really what book publishers have been doing for years now. That is, curating a list of books, developing manuscripts into beautiful books and then publishing them in creative inventive ways and connecting writers and readers by the ways of books. So, the first part of my vision, what we are always focused on is publishing a great list of books every year, which is a hard thing to do. We have other things going on, but we’re trying not to take our eyes off that ball, because it’s not easy. We invest a lot in developing books editorially. It’s a time intensive, labor intensive, resource intensive process, and I do a lot of the editing myself, so that’s a big part of our vision.
We also just opened a bookstore here in Minneapolis and we are a founding partner in a literary book arts center called Open Book. So another part of our vision is to make our bookstore a success over the next five years. And success for us would mean, in terms of revenue, that it’s revenue positive. We don’t expect to make buckets of money, but we do want it to not lose money and we want it to be a place where a really vibrant center for a community of readers interested in literary books, and there isn’t really a bookstore that specializes in that way, here in the Twin Cities at least, so it will be no small feat trying to accomplish that, but I think we’re well on our way, we’ve had a really good start.
We’re also launching a new website in the next few weeks and that’s been a big process almost two years in the making and we also, even while we’re kind-of working very hard to strengthen our position in our local community and to offer more to our local community, the Twin Cities, we’ve also become a more global publisher in the digital age. Our books are finding and the contacts we’re publishing are finding readers all over the world with our presence online, and I want to really continue to see that expand because it has been truly profoundly exciting to see the warm reception for our books all over the world…. We want to publish amazing, literary books that change the way people see the world and we want to continue to expand the audience for those books, both locally and internationally.
IP: What translations have you worked to produce in this increasingly global world?
DS: We have translations of our books available, just in the last five years, in Russian, Lithuanian, French, Korean, Chinese, in the UK, Canada, and in Spanish. English is the closest thing in the world to a lingua-franca today, so… we have people responding to our blog posts and newsletters from India, China who can read English. We don't translate all the content we publish online.… I was just last week at the Frankfurt book fair and I was meeting with a lot of international publishers, trying and in some cases, succeeding in interesting them in publishing foreign editions of our books.
IP: Congratulations on your Kickstarter success! What has the journey to local, independent bookseller been like thus far?
DS: That was the first time we worked with kickstarter. Over the past few years, we’ve really seen the number of people who are engaging with our social media and our online presence, we’ve seen those numbers really grow, but we really haven’t had a very active relationship with them. It’s kind-of like we didn’t actually know how much they care about what we’re doing. This is the first time we reached out to that community and said “this is what we’re doing, this is why it matters, would you please join us? Would you please support us?” And we were kind-of blown away by the response; it was really heartening. Those words, “community engagement,” well, first of all the word community is used in so many different ways now, and so is engagement, but if you’re just following an organization on Facebook, or you’re just following their tweets, how engaged is that really? So we wanted to see how engaged people are willing to get, and I think this was a really good start in that regard. It was really exciting for all of us on the staff.
IP: Please take a moment to brag. I know you are proud to publish every book, but what are some collections that you are particularly smitten with?
DS: One of the things I like about working at Milkweed, as opposed to working for a really big publishing house, is that we don’t really have a front list of books that really matter and another list of books that don’t matter as much, and then down-list that we just publish. We got, last year, close to 5,000 submissions and we published 17 new books, so we have more high quality material coming in than we could possibly take, which puts us in a position to really love everything we publish. That is our privilege in the world, is to only publish great works of art that we think are important.
IP: What are you looking for from new authors?
DS: Originality [makes them stand out]. A lot of pieces of writing sound like a lot of other pieces of writing and we’re looking for original voices. In non-fiction, we’re looking for books with ecological sensibility. I was visiting the New York Times Book Review and one of the editors there said to me: “One of the things that we really respect about your list, is that you don’t really have one sound on a poetry list. It’s really diverse and interesting and it is all at a certain level of quality, but it’s all different kinds of work.” And that is what I’m trying to do as we’re shaping the list.
IP: What has been the biggest challenge for your press since Milkweed Editions was launched?
DS: Because we, in the overall context of American book publishing, are a relatively small player, it’s hard to break through, even when you have books which are as good as ours. It’s hard to get the same level of attention, because we don’t have the same scale. Despite this, we have been finding our way onto the major international award lists in the last few years, which is a sign of progress, but it’s still hard. We feel like our books are as good as any publisher if not better, and though we’d like to see better attention for them, it’s hard to get that. Also, it’s hard to do what we do financially. We are investing in books sometimes, five, seven, eight years before they come to press and return any revenue, which means we have a lot of money outlaid, investing in projects.
IP: How you feel about what the future holds for your press?
DS: We are currently more innovative and entrepreneurial than we have ever been in terms of the way we’re publishing books, publishing content. We view this as a time, in the publishing world, of big change for a publisher of our size, and with our value. It’s a really exciting time. We’re in a good place right now and I’m really excited about the coming years.
Anais Mohr recently graduated from Central High School in Traverse City, Michigan. She is a member of Front Street Writers, a program where high school students are coached in a workshop setting by professional writers. She loves to read fractured fairytales and middle-grade fiction.