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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Fair
The Paper
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Wisconsin Historical Society Press takes a fresh approach to telling Badger State stories
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Credit:Juliet Darken

By now, you've probably gotten used to hearing bad news from the world of publishing. Mergers, layoffs and declining sales have been in the headlines for more than a decade. But not all the recent developments have been negative. Many independent booksellers are seeing sturdier bottom lines, according to industry publication Publishers Weekly, and total book readership has held steady, according to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In fact, an industry success story has been unfolding right here in Madison, at Wisconsin's oldest publisher, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

Ten years ago, when many state institutions were facing potentially devastating funding cuts, the press learned that it would need to become mainly self-supporting. In reframing the press as an entrepreneurial project within a state agency, staff decided to broaden the appeal of the catalog, the bulk of which was scholarly and antiquarian books. At the same time, they needed to remain true to the Historical Society's larger mission of historic preservation. The list of nonacademic, Wisconsin-themed books has been growing ever since.

From canoes to cocktails

Today, according to director Kathy Borkowski, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press operates with a $1 million annual budget, publishing 15 titles a year and selling roughly 50,000 units. A good 70% of its revenue comes from sales, with only 15% derived from state funding. The rest comes from grants and partnerships on specific book projects.

Press publications have been ubiquitous at the Wisconsin Book Festival over the last few years. Events featuring Ron McCrea's Building Taliesin, Jerry Apps' Garden Wisdom, Ed Janus' Creating Dairyland and John Zimm's remarkable compilation This Wicked Rebellion: Wisconsin Civil War Soldiers Write Home have been well attended.

Some recent press titles have even garnered national attention. NPR host Jacki Lyden canoed down the Bark River with Milton Bates, author of The Bark River Chronicles. In December, The New York Times interviewed Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz, authors of Bottoms Up: Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries, about the history of the Tom & Jerry cocktail. Marnie O. Mamminga's memoir Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts was the subject of a Parade magazine feature last summer. And Books & Company, an independent bookseller in Oconomowoc, credited Bark River Chronicles and Bottoms Up with boosting its bottom line in a Publishers Weekly article about this past holiday season's book sales.

Bringing history to life

"It has been an exciting ride," Borkowski says of her nine years as director, adding that she has been surprised at times by the success of a marketing strategy she calls "bringing history to the people."

Part of that strategy has involved marketing in a more proactive way. This includes partnering with Wisconsin Public Television and the Wisconsin Historical Museum to create documentaries on books with strong statewide appeal, such as Bottoms Up and Fill 'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin's Gas Stations. Hosting events outside the usual bookstore milieu has also paid off. The press has visited historic gas stations for Fill 'er Up, taverns for Bottoms Up and venues around Lake Winnebago for People of the Sturgeon, a history of the lake sturgeon in Wisconsin.

"We try to be very thoughtful about who the audience will be for any manuscript we're considering," Borkowski says.

While Borkowski stresses that publishing is a team effort, she praises acquisitions editor Kate Thompson's vision of finding books that have the right mix of good storytelling, sound research and popular appeal, and also connect readers with the Historical Society's collections.

Thompson came to the press after working in trade publishing in the 1990s, when the industry was still going strong. Her experience centered on the more entrepreneurial side of publishing, which has proven helpful in her current role.

"We look for good stories about Wisconsin's past," Thompson says. This involves developing a less academic, more accessible interpretation of the Historical Society mission to "help people connect to the past by collecting, preserving and sharing stories."

Well-told stories can be important resources for future scholars, she says, especially in "preserving the historical record without being dry."

Thompson says the press helps expand the boundaries of what is considered history.

"We're responsive to books that will bring people out. People want to see themselves on the pages."

Nostalgia, most of all, seems to engage people "when times feel uncertain," she adds.

A quick perusal of the press' catalog reveals more depth and diversity than its best-selling titles might suggest. In addition to nostalgia-driven works about Wisconsin's landmark places, there are memoirs like Jerry Apps' upcoming Limping Through Life: A Farm Boy's Polio Memoir, written and photographic histories of Wisconsin's native people, books for young readers about important Wisconsin events like the Great Peshtigo Fire and journeys on the Underground Railroad, and stories about Wisconsin's European settlers. There are audiobooks, textbooks on Wisconsin history, and the 22-book Badger Biography series for readers ages 7 to 12, which highlights influential Wisconsinites like Les Paul, Mary Nohl and Father Groppi. And the press continues to produce The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, which historian Leonard Levy once called "the most important documentary record being published today."

The press also publishes Wisconsin Magazine of History, one of the country's most respected journals of state and local history. A benefit of Historical Society membership, this quarterly publication contains articles and image essays on Wisconsin history.

Challenging conventions

The Wisconsin Historical Society Press distinguishes itself from other publishers in many ways, the most important of which might be the amount of time and attention it spends crafting its publications.

"We're very concerned with getting the right look for the story," Borkowski says.

Editors collaborate with authors on decisions about typefaces, illustration and cover design, a labor-intensive endeavor that's no longer a common practice at most publishing houses.

"We sort of agonize over covers," Borkowski admits, "even to how the spine of the book will look on the shelf."

Another point of pride is that most of the press' printing is done in the Midwest - right here in Wisconsin, whenever possible - and by competitive bid. Borkowski adds that the press' books are printed on Wisconsin paper, whereas most books are printed in China, on nonlocal materials.

All that time and attention has been a boon for the press in more ways than units sold. Fifteen of its publications have received national or regional honors for their design and content.

Thompson says it is gratifying to recognize that the press is "doing something that works at a time when publishers all over the country are struggling."

The lesson for publishers may be similar to the lesson some independent booksellers have learned recently: Success can be found by catering more strategically to the interests of local and regional customers. This knowledge - plus an emphasis on well-researched, readable history and thoughtful design - has helped the Wisconsin Historical Society Press make the best of publishing's worst of times.

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