Q&A: Patrick Thomas, Milkweed Editions

May 20, 2014

2,780. That’s the approximate number of pages I’ve read this year in books. Not the web, not the newspaper, not magazines. Just books. That’s about 20 pages a day, give or take, since the start of 2014. I often have three or four books going at once, depending on my mood. To some, that may be a pittance; to others, a massive feat. But, to me, it’s how I relax, unwind, fall asleep, escape.

Patrick Thomas, managing director, Milkweed

Patrick Thomas, managing director, Milkweed

So when Fast Horse moved offices to Open Book, the home of Milkweed Editions – an independent nonprofit literary publisher – I was stoked. I stopped by Milkweed to get a little 411 on what they do and, of course, get some suggestions on which titles I should pick up next. Managing director Patrick Thomas was kind enough to take the time to answer these questions. You won’t get that kind of hands-on treatment at Random House!

Fast Horse: What do you look for in an author/story?

Patrick: Milkweed Editions has a mission statement that guides everything we do, especially the acquisition of books. Here it is in all its dense, meaningful glory: “To identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it.”

When it comes to how this plays out in the trenches, our hunt progresses as follows: First, we look for quality. Word by word and thought by thought, does the author create something of beauty? A close second is our desire for ambitious projects. Is the artist trying something entirely new or re-conceiving an old concept or form? (As a nonprofit publisher, it’s our job to create a space for literature that a for-profit press might find too risky or unwieldy to support in a traditional profit-and-loss statement.) Last, and possibly most important, is finding content that can live up to that rich but sometimes elusive adjective at the heart of our mission: “Transformative.” Is the content capable of fundamentally reorienting the way a reader sees the world? Do we exit a book with a greater sense of wonder for certain experiences, a deeper sensitivity for another culture or social group’s experience, the drive to create meaningful change? When a book meets all these criteria, we swiftly fall in love and begin to woo the author with all our might.

Taken together this feels like a mouthful, but if you really want to see what Milkweed is about, you should come to one of our cocktail parties. Hearing a number of the authors and poets we’ve published read together, our mission and our curatorial tendencies really come to life. If you want to get a flavor, check out some audio from the most recent soiree.

Fast Horse: How many new authors do you support/publish each year?

Patrick: Depending on the year and whether or not we release any anthologies, we’ve published everything from 15 to 100 new authors and poets in a given year. That said, we actually support a far larger group—between our backlist of hundreds of active titles, and the 20 to 30 writers whose books will not be released until 2015, 2016, and beyond. To be brief: There is a healthy amount of nurturing going on behind the scenes at Milkweed Editions.

Fast Horse: What do you do to ensure authors are getting the exposure they deserve?

Patrick: Everything we can. While there are a number of strategies we employ with almost every book we publish—author tours, advance reader’s copy mailings, etc.—the great blessing (because it’s fun) and frustration (because it’s hard) with promoting books is that every new title is an entirely new product, meaning that our pitch, packaging, and strategy is either slightly or entirely redeveloped for every release, 15 to 20 times a year. So, with each book, we’re always hunting for the special group of people that might not typically pick up one of our books that will find this specific book appealing. (Currently we’re trying to win over the readers of Cowboys & Indians and Ranch and Reata magazines. They’re not our typical readers, but we think we have a shot with this book.)

And then, of course, we are constantly hawking our wares to the amazingly talented booksellers at independent bookstores around the country. Along with librarians, indie booksellers are often the greatest and most successful advocates of groundbreaking literature. Without them, we’d be in trouble.

stilwater Fast Horse: Any recommendations in the various genres you publish? What new authors should we keep an eye on?

Patrick: There are the classics that made Milkweed what it is today: “Montana 1948” in fiction, “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” in nonfiction, “Perfect” on the young reader’s list, but of course we’re always pretty juiced about what’s coming up. Shawn Otto’s “Sins of Our Fathers” is coming out this November, and not only is it a gripping tale set on a reservation in northern Minnesota, it’s also an amazing publishing story: The author and our publisher essentially reverse engineered a screenplay into a novel. And then “Stilwater” is coming out next month by Rafael de Grenade (our author with cowboy appeal). For anyone interested in knowing how one musters 10,000 feral cows from an Australian cattle station the size of Rhode Island, this is the book for you. For those Twin Cities dwellers among us, don’t miss her trip to town June 11 at 7 p.m. in our very own Open Book building.

Fast Horse: Where can we purchase your books in the Twin Cities and online?

Patrick: If you’re looking for the best bookseller in your neighborhood, just plug your zip code into this site and you’ll be on your way. We, of course, love Magers & Quinn, Micawbers, Subtext, Common Good Books, Red Balloon and Wild Rumpus—all of which carry many Milkweed titles and have their own special vibes. And then, if you’d like to purchase directly from Milkweed, visit us at milkweed.org anytime, or Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Open Book, Suite 300, 1011 S. Washington Ave., Minneapolis, MN.