Publish or Perish

Courtesy of Milkweed Editions

On average, it takes between a year and 16 months to turn a manuscript into a printed book. And that's not counting the years it can take to cook an idea into a manuscript. But this spring Minneapolis-based publisher Milkweed Editions compressed the publication timetable for one title. Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony went from idea to print in a breathless three months.

Why the rush? There wasn't time to waste. President Bush and his appointees are itching to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, and the 32 contributors to the project--writers, biologists, Alaskan tribespeople, former oil workers, even former president Jimmy Carter--wanted to help Congress understand why a majority of Americans are opposed to drilling there. Using new print-on-demand technology, Milkweed whipped off a first run of 2,000 copies, and the day after the ink cooled on the pages, a delegation of the book's contributors flew to Washington to present a copy to each of the 535 members of Congress. That was in March.

As of press time, the fate of the Alaskan wilderness and its estimated six-month national supply of oil remains undecided. As soon as tomorrow, the book could be an elegy. But there's also a chance it could help win the refuge a reprieve. Five years ago Milkweed published Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness, in which 21 writers make a case for preserving a scenic and ecologically vital piece of Southwestern public land from strip mining and development. The book was presented to Congress and in 1996 President Clinton signed legislation protecting the land as the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument.

"Bill Bradley held the book up in Congress and said, 'If writing itself can be an act of public service, then this is it,'" says Milkweed publisher and editor Emilie Buchwald. "We hope Arctic Refuge will have the same impact, especially now. Since September 11, people who want to drill have the feeling that we should drill, and that is hogwash."

Closer to home, Milkweed's sleek new offices in Minneapolis's Open Book building mark the publisher's place in the local literary scene. An elevator ride to the press's third-floor offices takes visitors past its neighbors Ruminator Books and the Loft. Like these institutions, Milkweed has been encouraging Minnesota writers for decades and its lobby bookshelves hold plenty of homegrown works. But Buchwald's small empire has a decidedly global vision. Its best-selling title is Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India, and in recent years this small Minnesota book house has jumped into some of the most impassioned public battles over America's remaining wilderness.

Milkweed started as a literary journal in 1980 and quickly converted into a press for writers whose socially conscious titles wouldn't get a chance with the big New York publishing houses. Buchwald has issued books for children of color, a collection of Bulgarian poetry, academic treatises on rape and pornography, and essays from Japanese women about nuclear warfare--not sizzling stuff by current bestseller standards.

The Milkweed catalog features 115 titles, and 28 of these books (not counting related kids' and poetry books) belong to a specialized imprint Buchwald created in 1999 called The World As Home. These titles focus on nature and the environment and include The Book of the Tongass, a collection of essays about Alaska's temperate rainforests; Stories From Where We Live, a series of entertaining regional readers aimed at kids; and Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, an alternately humorous and heartbreaking memoir about growing up in a junkyard on the edge of the South's disappearing longleaf pine forests.

The seeds for The World As Home were sown in 1995 when Milkweed published Minnesotan Paul Gruchow's Grass Roots (a followup to his acclaimed The Necessity of Empty Places, which Milkweed has recently reissued). The release of the book came at the same time as a national debate was igniting over the impact unchecked development was having on America's small farms, landscapes, and the global environment. Gruchow's plain-talk plea for sustainable land use became a touchstone for the anti-sprawl movement, and his warm, approachable writing style became an example for other nature writers to follow. Gruchow's lesson: Bring these places and problems to life on the page, but don't blame or bum out the reader.

And that seems to be Milkweed's mission today. "We thought that if we could show people why they should care about these places--places they may never see--through the words of people who know and cherish them, then maybe that would make readers feel differently about how those places should be treated," says Buchwald. By addressing environmental issues through memoir, local history, outdoor adventure tales, and lyrical essays with a biology bent, Milkweed's titles have found a dedicated audience and drawn readers to new understandings through the act of storytelling.

"I didn't set out to write a memoir; I wanted to tell the story of this landscape that once covered 93 million acres of the southeastern coastal plains that by 1995 was 99 percent gone," says Ray with the ardor of an environmental evangelist. "But I knew that people weren't going to read a book about a pine tree. Because I had this interesting childhood, I thought I could use that as a vehicle to tell the other story."

Ray's book became a minor publishing phenomenon, selling 20,000 copies--respectable even for a big publishing house, quite rare for a puny Milkweed-size press. The book's success has helped publicize Ray's efforts to save remaining longleaf pine forest. Two Southern colleges have used the book as a common text, new conservation initiatives have started, and Ray regularly travels across the South speaking about these woods that no one cared much about before. And she's not the only writer in Milkweed's stable to have taken on an activist agenda after wrapping up the more solitary work of writing a book. Milkweed authors such as Gruchow, Rick Bass, William Kittredge, and Carolyn Servid regularly join biologists, naturalists, and environmentalists in events to draw attention to the places that have become their causes.

"I don't care about fame or money. I will know success when I see a change in how we're treating the landscape," says Ray. "I get letters from people who read the book and they show me how it's helped. They'll say, 'I planted 25 longleaf pines in my yard so my grandchildren know what they came from,' or, 'You inspired me to get to know my own landscape, so I'm taking more hikes.' A man whose family met to decide whether or not to log a piece of timberland they jointly owned photocopied a chapter from the book and handed it out at the family meeting, and they decided not to clear-cut that land."

In addition to publishing time-critical books--and eventually, reprinting backlist titles--using print-on-demand technology, Milkweed is employing the Internet as an alternative publishing and political tool. The press's activist mission becomes overtly apparent on its Web site, where the World As Home catalog is available online, with each title conveniently linked to Web sites for related organizations. Once the readers finish the books, they can, if so inspired, move directly to action. Milkweed has also issued an online call for writers to tackle the topics of sprawl, community, and livable cities for a future print and digital project.

Buchwald has always considered engaging society to be a part of publishing, and she has deliberately selected books that aim to make "a humane impact." But with the Testimony collections, the World As Home imprint, and nascent online activities, Milkweed seems to be intensifying its aim. Perhaps the sense of time running out is urging the press on.

"I think that if Marjorie Stoneman Douglas hadn't written River of Grass in the Forties, then we wouldn't be where we are right now with restoring the Everglades, and that's why I wrote Ecology," says Ray. And that's probably what impelled Milkweed to publish it--and all the rest.

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