2016 was one of our most successful years ever—awards, sales, reviews, and support were all in great abundance—and yet for many of us on staff, it was a handful of dog-eared, note-covered copies of a poetry collection in the hands of a group of young readers that signaled one of our greatest achievements. The readers, in this case, were a class of mostly Latina teenagers at El Colegio, a bilingual school in South Minneapolis, who had gathered together to discuss Bright Dead Things with its author, Ada Limón.
Ada had been on tour almost nonstop since Bright Dead Things was named a National Book Award finalist, reading to packed houses in New York, California, and everywhere between. But as this shy group of girls opened up to her, sharing their vision boards—posters that illustrated how they felt about the book and how they see themselves as women in the future—the importance of the quality of engagement, rather than quantity, became brilliantly clear.
Over the past thirty years the popularity of author tours has waned consistently, for all the usual reasons: They often incur great expenses while only realizing a small amount of revenue or publicity. If anything, however, we’ve only increased our commitment to creating dynamic engagement between authors and readers, especially those readers you don’t often find at a bookstore. Whether it’s Ada speaking to this group of women, J. Drew Lanham—the author of The Home Place—teaching a group of East African immigrant teenagers about working in the natural world, or Robin Wall Kimmerer—the author of Braiding Sweetgrass—travelling across the country to speak to different Native American communities about reclaiming language and their relationship with plants, it’s clear to us that investing in these conversations is the clearest path to ensuring a vibrant, diverse, and empowered future for all cultures.
As Robin herself noted, “scarcely a day goes by when I do not receive a letter, email or package from readers, expressing how this book has changed them and helped them imagine sustainable ways of being. If these effects are the ripples of just one book, then imagine the tidal wave of influence represented by Milkweed's entire book-shelf!” With more than four million copies of titles published by Milkweed Editions in circulation, we know that our books have had a profound impact on the world.
And yet, we also know that many communities don’t have access to bookstores or well-stocked libraries. For the last twenty years our Reaching Readers Fund has enabled the donation of tens of thousands of books to prisons, underfunded libraries and schools, and other worthy recipients. And yet, simply delivering books is not always sufficient to open new doors and opportunities. And so in 2016 we launched Authors Across America, a fund dedicated to bringing our authors into the ever-widening conversation, and we’re committed to using these funds to take every opportunity to make sure the world-changing nature of our books is realized everywhere.
Though the authors we work with are often the first to hear from readers, we know the impact of their work. After reading Things That Are, by Amy Leach, one reader commented, “Amy Leach made me want to believe that nature does have a heart. That perhaps there is a way that we could live in nature and not on it.” Transforming a Rape Culture led another reader to comment, “Read this on a whim and ended up pulled in to an understanding that changed my fundamental views.”
Every year we sell hundreds of thousands of books, some of which inevitably receive awards, and we take great pride in these achievements and are always driven to best the previous years’ results. But at Milkweed, gauging how well we put books in readers’ hands is only the first step for us. Just as important is the impact each book has in readers’ minds, because we believe reading should be life-changing.