The Daily spoke with Daniel Slager, CEO of Milkweed Editions. Milkweed is an independent, nonprofit literary publisher based in Minneapolis. Slager sat down with the Daily to discuss his journey into publishing, Milkweed’s commitment to sustainability, Amazon versus independent booksellers and more.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Natalie Bricker (NB): Can you please tell me your role in Milkweed Editions?
Daniel Slager (DS): My title is publisher and CEO at Milkweed Editions. I acquire and edit most of the books we publish and run our publishing house.
NB: How long have you been at Milkweed?
DS: Next month it will be 18 years.
NB: And how did you get into publishing?
DS: Well, I was really passionate about books when I was at your stage of life. But I didn’t know what to do about it. When I graduated from college, I just picked up and moved to New York City. I found an entry level job as an editorial assistant at William Morrow. I lasted in that job [for] maybe eight months or so. I hated it. I left and did a little bit of a lot of things. Traveling, waiting tables. Eventually, I went back to grad school [to study] comparative literature. And I started doing translations when I was in grad school. It was as a translator that I found my way back into paid work as an editor.
NB: What were you translating?
DS: I was translating literary texts from German.
NB: That sounds really interesting, to try to capture what the author is saying without changing too much.
DS: Exactly. It’s very creative [and] interesting, working with language. Actually, I tell people all the time, it is really good training for being an editor.
NB: How so?
DS: It’s such close work with text. Moving and carrying content across from one language to another really encourages a translator to work through all possibilities.
NB: Going back to Milkweed Editions, what is your goal or mission statement?
DS: Because we are incorporated as a nonprofit organization, we do have a mission statement. Our mission is to identify, nurture and publish transformative literature and build an engaged community around it.
NB: How did COVID-19 affect your sales?
DS: One of the things that’s really hard for publishers to know is the biggest contributing factors to good sales, because it’s some mix of great content, landing at the right time and [being] promoted really intelligently. All those things have to align in order for us to sell books.
DS: COVID was kind of a boom time for us at Milkweed. … It was a good time for publishers, in general, because people were at home reading books more. Also I think our sales surged both because of COVID and because we had been getting better and better as a publisher in the lead up to COVID. And so the timing was really good for us.
We were fortunate in that a growing number of readers during COVID wanted the kind of books we’re publishing.
NB: Do you have any idea why that is?
DS: Well, our best known books over the last five to ten years have been in the category of environmental literature. The most famous one is “Braiding Sweetgrass” (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer. We published another book that did land during the pandemic, called “World of Wonders” (2020) by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. They’re both books that explore our relationship as human beings to the more-than-human world. I think partly because of climate change, and partly because a lot of people feel alienated from the natural world, there’s a growing appetite for literary work exploring that whole related set of questions.
I would like to think the cultural conversation caught up with us. Ideally, we [at Milkweed] were playing a leadership role in that sense and the appetite for those kinds of voices has been growing.
NB: It makes a lot of sense to me; people had more time and capacity to think about these bigger questions because they were sitting at home.
Do you make an effort in the books you publish to talk about climate change?
DS: We’re looking for voices and books that are engaging with that set of issues … There’s growing interest in that.
NB: [Let’s talk about] the sustainability component of Milkweed. Your website states: “60% of our books are printed at manufacturers using renewable energy sources and vegetable-based inks, and 85% are printed on post-consumer recycled material.” Is sustainability a priority for you and for the authors that you’re publishing?
DS: Absolutely, it’s a priority. It’s the clearest example of how we live our values as an organization and as a publisher, in everything we do, including the partners we work with to make our books.
NB: Has that been in practice as long as you’ve worked [at Milkweed]?
DS: We’ve made a lot of progress in that regard. Increasingly, the readers of … environmental literature are looking for books from publishers that pay attention to [climate issues].
NB: I do remember us talking about what you [called] the ‘magic of books’ [when we spoke previously]. We had a discussion about whether e-books and buying books on Amazon … versus an independent bookstore takes away from this ‘magic.’
DS: I’ve come to think that I don’t really know of a more generous, more magical exchange than what happens between a writer and a reader when one reads a book. [Reading is] quiet, it’s solitary … It’s really incredibly magical and powerful. And for me, beautiful and profound.
If you walk into a great independent bookstore, and you talk to a bookseller, and you say, “I’m looking for a book, but I don’t really know what I’m looking for.” And they say something like, “Well, what’s the last book you fell in love with?” You tell them a book, and — best case scenario, and this is often the case — they’re going to say, “If you love that book, I have another book for you.” I don’t really think [Amazon’s] algorithms do that as well as human beings — especially really knowledgeable human beings.
Many indie bookstores are essentially little community centers. What better kind of community center [is there] than one that's focused on books and facilitating that magical exchange?
I know a lot of people buy all their books from Amazon. As long as [readers] are buying books, I’m happy.
NB: My last question is: what are you hoping for in the future of Milkweed?
DS: I want to become increasingly global in our digital engagement of audiences. I’d like to become, ideally, the world’s leading publisher of content exploring our relationship as human beings to the rest of the natural world. … Really, we’re doing what I think we should be doing right now. I don’t think we need to change massively.
NB: Well, it’s great that what you’re doing currently and [your] future plans are aligning right now.
DS: That’s right! We feel pretty good about the progress we’ve made and where we are right now.