Joanna (Yanna) Demkiewicz Q&A

June 29, 2020
Joanna Demkiewicz brings gorgeous books into the world.

“It’s difficult for nonprofit independent presses to get books on bestseller lists in the first year of publication because it requires a massive print quantity, which costs money. This said, we were and weren’t surprised when Braiding Sweetgrass landed on those lists five years after publication. We keep reprinting it! Because people keep reading it! Because booksellers keep selling it, sometimes pressing it into the hands of customers, saying, ‘Just trust me.'”

You work in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the Open Book building. Does it give you a thrill to climb that spiral staircase?

One hundred percent, yes. To seal this interview forever in the “Covid times” canon, I distinctly remember coming back into Open Book after a few weeks in quarantine and feeling like I was entering an empty museum. I literally gawked, and then remembered that I could climb that baby—there is a useful purpose for this beautiful staircase. I realized I had taken my time working in Open Book—before Covid—for granted. It’s a gorgeous building that is normally teeming with the buzz of writers and creatives swapping edits over coffee; kids learning the magic of printmaking from the folks at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts; and readers attending an event hosted by the Loft Literary Center, or us. The Milkweed Editions offices are on the top floor and we are lucky enough to bask in the natural light that comes through the solar tubes on sunny days (I think they are called solar tubes?). This is also a dog-friendly building and we catch a few cuddles from our neighbors’ pooches when they accompany their humans to work. Also—there is a deck! I don’t know if many people know about the deck. It’s one of my favorite spots. I’m responding to these questions sitting in my office now, though Open Book is closed to the public. I do not shy from nostalgia, and I will say that even entering this empty building feels like coming home. 

How important is social media to the lift of a book and an author’s career?

Social media as a machine itself—not so much. Social media used as authentically as is possible in our digital world—indeed, it works. But it’s not the only strategy. Social media is more impactful in creating a voice or building a community. If you’re running a social media channel—publisher or author—there should be a reason for your followers to engage. At Milkweed, we post regularly on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and while our team works off a loose schedule (award announcement, cover reveal, major review, etc.), we divide responsibilities among our three marketing/publicity team members partly because all channels are too much for one person to handle for our size of shop, and also to ensure there is slight variance in the voice, energy, and approach to each post. Facebook is more about action—attend this event, participate in this giveaway. Twitter is obsessed with information and turns over more rapidly than the other two platforms. Instagram, obviously, is about aesthetics. It’s important that we approach social media conversationally, and that the language we use invites followers to engage with us. We are not an authority; we are a member of this book community, just like so many others. As for writers, World of Wonders author Aimee Nezhukumatathil is an amazing example of an author who has found kinship and created community in social media. And you can see why. She is authentic, she is vulnerable, she celebrates others, and she has fun. She is an activist, an educator, a poet, a naturalist, and an incredibly savvy advocate for her work.

Milkweed has such a profound legacy in publishing books that celebrate the natural world. Why is this such an important focus for the organization?

Our mission is to publish transformative books, and the natural world is deeply entrenched in our identities, our experiences, our livelihoods, and our imaginations. Yet, books that celebrate the natural world are often relegated to a lower shelf, or regarded as a singular genre: “nature writing” or “nature essay.” We’ve published so many books that center the astonishment and teachings of the natural world across genres, including Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, Rebecca Dunham’s Cold Pastoral, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising, Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, and Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky. I hope our list shows readers the breadth of possibility when it comes to exploring our social, political, scientific, artistic, historical, and spiritual relationship to land, climate, flora and fauna. I hope, too, that our list shows how damn good books about the natural world can be—poetic, powerful, profoundly moving.

Earlier in your career at Milkweed you served as the organization’s publicist, developing publicity campaigns, working with the media and coordinating author tours. What’s the first thing you tell first-time authors on what they need to do to prepare for a successful launch?

One of the first publicity conversations we have with authors is about communication. We are a team, and we are here to collaborate with you. That level of collaboration looks different author to author—some are totally hands off, others prefer to be involved in almost every step of the process. A successful launch looks different for each author, too. It’s incredibly important for the marketing/publicity team and author to be on the same page about expectations, hopes and dreams. Sure, there is a publicity “formula,” but it’s kind of like vanilla ice cream. Success comes from what you add and how you add it. We also ask authors to talk to us about their book the way they would to a friend or loved one; we want to make sure we are using language that comes directly from the writer and that we are representing their work with integrity. After that, if you want some nitty-gritty stuff: we talk about their communities—who is likely to preorder their book? Who is likely to write or assign a review? Who will teach it? Who might host them for a launch? Then, we set deadlines/goals for ourselves and get to work.

It would seem that most authors are introverts. Do you have to gently coax some of them out of their shells to do publicity?

In my experience, it’s more like half-and-half. Or, authors—like most people—are a combo platter of introvert-extrovert. That said, indeed we have conversations with some authors who say, “I’m hands off” and we do very little coaxing. (Most coaxing is more like affirmation—“Yes, that person would love to hear from you!” “It’s OK to follow up!” “This review is awesome, congratulations!”) If they are interested to hear about the benefits of being on social media, we will pitch them that, yes. But if they are happy to let us take the lead, that’s OK, too.

Braiding Sweetgrass has been such a powerhouse book for Milkweed. Why do you think it took off the way it did?

Braiding Sweetgrass is an example of grassroots promotion in the book community—particularly in the independent bookseller community. When Milkweed published this book in hardcover in 2014, it received a couple reviews, but mostly it landed quietly. Just this year—five years after we released it in paperback—it landed on the New York Times bestseller list, as well as the Washington Post bestseller list. I’m not sure if everyone knows this, but the only way a book can land on major bestseller lists is if there is a certain quantity of books in circulation. That’s why, when you parse those lists, you’ll notice most of the books are published by for-profit or corporate publishers. It’s difficult for nonprofit independent presses to get books on bestseller lists in the first year of publication because it requires a massive print quantity, which costs money. This said, we were and weren’t surprised when Braiding Sweetgrass landed on those lists five years after publication. We keep reprinting it! Because people keep reading it! Because booksellers keep selling it, sometimes pressing it into the hands of customers, saying, “Just trust me.” Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays written by an Indigenous botanist—Robin Wall Kimmerer—who cares deeply about reimagining our relationship to the natural world and inviting readers deeper into ecological consciousness. We have heard the same feedback from a beautiful variety of readers—gardeners, scientists, activists, teachers, writers, musicians, politicians, spiritual leaders, visual artists, etc.—that this book changed the way they see the world. I really resist this idea of “now more than ever,” but I do think there are readers today—and from the past five years—who deeply desire works of art that transform them and teach reciprocity. This book does that to such an extent that readers finish reading and then buy five copies for their friends.

Milkweed now runs its own store and has a subscription service. How have these extensions helped the organization further its mission?

One part of our mission is to build community, and the bookstore has been an exciting way for us to do that. It’s a privilege for us—as bookmakers—to get to interact with booksellers, and to invite booksellers into the book-making process. In fact, our bookseller Bailey Hutchinson recently got a title update: she’s now editorial assistant, too. She writes copy for our poetry books, copy edits manuscripts, writes for our blog, and handsells books to customers. This publishing machine does not run without the collaboration of publishers and booksellers, and we love doing both. When Covid hit, we closed our bookstore doors to the community, and that was sad, but necessary. When we’re able to reopen, we look forward to inviting our neighbors back inside to browse our selection of books—curated mostly to include and promote books from independent publishers, debut authors, poetry, translations—as well as attend the intimate readings hosted in our store. We can’t wait to see y’all again soon!

What did your time editing the beloved Riveter magazine teach you about audiences and engagement with readers?

Woof, I learned a lot working with my co-editor Kaylen Ralph and all our fantastic contributors and staff members on The Riveter. We launched The Riveter with zero business experience and a lot of verve. The catalyst for us launching this magazine was the disgusting reality that a major reading audience—women—were being ignored as storytellers. VIDA was our resource, and they were quite loud back then (in 2013), publishing their annual Count, where they released data around the gender breakdown in magazine bylines. This data revealed a major discrepancy in work published by women, also revealing a major inequity in the magazine industry. If women aren’t being published, they aren’t getting paid. If women aren’t asking the questions, pitching stories directly from their communities, then those stories are left buried. We saw it as a major problem then, and it pervades today, too. VIDA has since expanded their Count to ensure their data is intersectional, particularly in breaking down bylines by race. When we launched the magazine, we knew we had an audience—and that we were the audience, which made the work that much more impactful—but we weren’t thinking of it as an “audience” in the way that marketing outfits, the media, and publishers think of it now. You know what I mean: as metrics. We were extremely grassroots. We made money via an initial crowdfunding campaign, and then by subscriptions and magazine sales. Our print issues were ad-free save for a couple we made to promote subscriptions and website content. My time collaborating on The Riveter taught me that our media financial model is broken, and that we value profits over stories. We were two twenty-somethings with (*ahem*, as mentioned) zero business experience, but we stretched The Riveter’s life to five years with very little money, and I’m really proud of that. Our readers became our collaborators—designers, photographers, artists, venue hosts, writers. Our audience attended our events, shared stories on social media, joined our Minneapolis book club, bought magazines as gifts for friends and family, and helped us build this modest and mighty community.

— Portrait photo by Rita Kovtun