BUILDING THE BUSINESS
North Star’s Three Pillars of Success
by Linda Carlson
Now in its 42nd year, central Minnesota’s North Star Press claims it sticks to traditional marketing, but it’s redefining “traditional” in terms that pay off for publishers, authors, and booksellers.
“Without the significant advertising dollars of the big publishers, we face an uphill battle getting every one of our titles into big stores,” says Seal Dwyer, business manager of the St. Cloud publisher, which expects to issue its 400th title in 2010. One way it has responded is with a new author contract which requires that each author buy at least 100 copies of his or her new book for resale.
“We don’t want it to be a burden on authors,” Dwyer says, explaining that authors receive a 50 percent discount, “but we have to have our authors out there promoting their books, and we wanted them to have books in inventory. Now, if an author goes to a meeting and mentions she’s just published a book and someone wants a copy, she can go out to her car and get one.”
Some authors have gotten very creative about promotion, including one who did a craft-show circuit. “We get a lot more publicity now because our authors are so active,” says Dwyer, “and that means the bookstores are more willing to schedule appearances and inventory the books.”
Local authors have been assisted by an increase in the Minnesota state sales tax that helps fund libraries and requires that libraries bring in authors for presentations. So North Star’s authors now often receive honoraria and travel expenses for their appearances, as well as the opportunity to sell books.
An unexpected bonus from the increased visibility of current authors: they talk up North Star to other writers, and that has already brought new titles to the publisher. Better yet, these newly signed authors know exactly what kind of promotion will be expected of them.
The Finnish Line
North Star is also distinguished by its emphasis on books set in the state and written by Minnesota authors. Like the firm’s other niche line, books by or about Finns or Finland, these books have been popular with libraries, sometimes accounting for as much as 20 percent of sales. As the economy has slowed and library budgets have been slashed, that market has declined, but Dwyer says Minnesota residents are extremely supportive of their own writers, with some titles selling as many as 5,000 copies annually.
The Finnish specialty came about by accident. In 1986, North Star published 1,500 copies of Finns in Minnesota Midwinter, poetry by Jim Johnson. The publisher’s distributor sold the inventory in two days. North Star then did other books of poems by Johnson, along with his memoir, and as each quickly sold out, the company continued to add titles to the line.
Today it includes about 50 books, which makes North Star the largest American publisher of Finnish and Finnish-American books. Many are snapped up by enclaves of Finns. Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is due east of North Star, have strong Finnish communities. One Minnesota village is even named Finland. And in Michigan, Hancock has Finlandia University, established by Finns almost 115 years ago.
North Star also markets to such distant pockets of Finns as Astoria, OR, where 25 percent of the population still considers itself Finnish; and southern Florida, which claims to have the second-largest expatriate Finn community in the United States. Established during peak years of emigration to America, these Finnish groups were reinforced following World War II, when Finns emigrated to the United States in large numbers after Russia occupied Finland. Highly literate, they brought with them both the tradition of literacy and their support of authors, Dwyer explains.
The company promotes the titles to Finnish booksellers, to colleges and universities with Finnish language programs, and at Finnish-language festivals. One major event each year is FinnFest, which attracts as many as 7,000 and in some years has been attended by such officials as the president of Finland.
All in the Family
North Star Press was founded in 1969 by John Dwyer, then business manager of Liturgical Press in Collegeville, about 25 miles northwest of the press’s current offices. His goal was to publish books that might be too regional in orientation for major publishers, but he died shortly after retiring from Liturgical. His widow, Rita, and daughter-in-law, Corinne Dwyer, kept the business running. Granddaughter Seal Dwyer joined the firm in 1997; Rita Dwyer retired in 2001, and Brandon Paumen joined a few years ago, when he married Seal. (Getting the job required an involved background check, he told me, chuckling.)
Despite the volume of titles issued each year and the significant backlist, North Star has to manage with this small staff: it’s located in a farmhouse, and zoning laws prohibit the employment of anyone other than a family member. Corrine Dwyer, the editor, estimates she puts in 60 or 70 hours a week, although she can work remotely because her nearby home is wired into the office’s network. Seal Dwyer and her husband, who handles marketing and packing, try to stick to 40-hour weeks. This year, for the first time, North Star is using a freelance editor to accommodate the increased production.
Unlike similarly small firms with equally impressive output, North Star gives each title a distinctive cover and interior design. Seal Dwyer, who handles design along with her financial responsibilities, says turnaround on nonfiction regional titles can be as short as two or three months. Major titles can take as much as nine months, she says, and much of the fiction that North Star publishes requires more editing work than the nonfiction.
Relying on Relationships
North Star’s success is due to its focus on relationships as well as its emphasis on proactive authors and its niche lines, Seal Dwyer observes. “We believe in being moral, ethical, helpful in our relationships with our authors, our booksellers—with everyone we work with,” she says, noting that the company can trace some 200 projects to a 30-year-old relationship with one person.
A more recent example: its work with bestselling thriller author Steve Thayer, who lives near Minneapolis. He sought out North Star in 2008, saying that his New York City publisher was not interested in a new manuscript. That novel, The Leper, received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, was reviewed in USA Today, and brought Thayer some local television publicity. The book sold 5,000 copies in its first three months alone; it brought North Star three high-quality submissions from other authors that will be published this year, and North Star is reissuing three of Thayer’s previously published novels.
With this in mind, you won’t be surprised to hear what Seal Dwyer said when I asked what advice she’d give other publishers: “Be careful of relationships; they last.”
Given the way that North Star operates, Dwyer’s second recommendation is also no surprise: “Do as much in-house as you can do well; freelance fees really add up.” She follows up this “do well” advice with, “If you’re doing it in-house, make sure you know what you’re doing,” and if you send work out, “know what you’re paying for.”
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle, where those claiming Norwegian ancestry on census forms outnumber those of Finnish heritage eight to one.