Managing Director Patrick Thomas discusses publishing at Milkweed Editions, one of the Ebooks Minnesota publishing partners. Ebooks MN is an online collection covering a wide variety of subjects for readers of all ages, and features content from our state's independent publishers.
This interview (6/8/16) has been condensed and edited by Kristen Daily, Ebooks MN Project Intern.
Minitex: How would you describe yourself as a publisher?
Patrick Thomas: Milkweed Editions is just over 35 years old. We’re one of the only literary non-profit presses in town that was founded here, so we have deep roots in Minnesota … At this point, Milkweed publishes 18-20 books a year: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We are a non-profit so we can take risks on books that the for-profit publishing world may deem as too risky, too literary, or too experimental. When Minitex approached us about the project it seemed like a no-brainer. We want our content to be widely available in Minnesota, especially in places like libraries where people who might not be able to afford the full price for a book can access them otherwise.
M: What does it mean to you to be an independent publisher in Minnesota? What do you see your role as in the Minnesota publishing community?
PT: One of things people don’t really know about Minnesota is how uniquely strong the philanthropic community is here, specifically for literary publishing … We have a nexus of non-profit literary publishing based in the Twin Cities with Milkweed, Gray Wolf, and Coffee House. A big part of the reason why we exist is because Emilie Buchwald [co-founder of Milkweed Editions] saw how literary publishing was constricting in New York as corporate ownership was growing in that sector. But a bigger part of why we’ve we grown is a result of the strong literary community in Minnesota. Over time, our list has grown … We are as much a national and international publisher as we are a regional publisher. We’ve kept our feet rooted in the region because of our history, but also because of a sense for the support we receive; we want to give back to that.
M: What are you most proud of as a publisher? What publications are you most excited about?
PT: Books that change the way people see the world; that’s how we define transformative literature. I’m really proud we’re focused on publishing voices which haven’t been heard, and opening up experiences that haven’t been lived by the majority of readers. The title I’ve been most excited about recently is Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. One of the coolest things about the book is that she’s a debut nonfiction writer. She is Native American, a botanist, and a single mother, and she speaks from each of these perspectives so elegantly. It’s been incredibly powerful to hear how much the book has changed readers’ lives. Having a National Book Award finalist last year is also big for us. We’re the only independent publisher to be nominated for one, and we’re very proud and excited for Ada Limón and her book Bright Dead Things.
M: How would you describe your relationship with the Minnesota library community? What would you like to see in the future?
PT: We have great relationships with the Friends of the Hennepin County Library and Friends of the St. Paul Public Library … We’re extremely open to anyone reaching out to us, especially when it comes to books. We don’t always know the best way to help the library system--what they might need resource-wise, or what kind of authors they might be interested in hosting. We reach out when we can, but we’re a really small staff. We’d love to hear from people.
M: What changes do you think publishing will see in the future?
PT: Publishing is an industry that everyone always wants to change and believe is changing. It’s death has been announced about every ten years by whatever new technology is coming out, but it’s actually been one of the more reliable industries since the inception of movable type in the 1500s ... The experience of reading a story is a really profound one for humans, and there’s a reason we keep doing it. I think publishing will continue, and with the amount of content being created online, my expectation is that certain elements of the publishing industry that have been more commercial, like romance and scifi, will migrate into the digital sphere. I expect the literary segment of publishing to grow, or at least to strengthen.
Patrick goes on to voice his concerns about the defunding of public education and the possible repercussions that has on literacy and reading in schools and libraries. He then continues to discuss the need for more diversity in the publishing world:
We need to see people of more diverse backgrounds in the industry. Right now it’s 85% female and something like 92% white. And even though it’s 85% female, the highest paid executives are all male--there’s a terrible wage gap. I think if publishing focuses on how to support access to reading through literacy programs … the healthier it will be, and the better our chances of success will be.
Ebooks Minnesota is a two-year pilot project of Minitex and State Library Services, a division of the Minnesota Department of Education. The collection was made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Department of Education through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and by Minitex.