Statewide to Worldwide: A South Dakota Not-for-Profit Reaches Out

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December 2013
by Linda Carlson

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A press that got its start serving pioneers is celebrating its greatest coup: the right to publish the autobiography of one of the most beloved pioneers, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The South Dakota State Historical Society Press already has hundreds of orders for Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, scheduled for a summer 2014 launch with previously unpublished photographs, maps, and information about Little House on the Prairie author Wilder, her life, family, and writings. Handwritten by Wilder starting in 1929, Pioneer Girl was never published, and the rights to it are held by the heirs of Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who authorized publication of the autobiography in 2012.

If you’re one of the many who loved the Little House books (or the 1970s television series inspired by the books), you may want to follow the progress of the autobiography at The Pioneer Girl Project blog, pioneergirlproject.org. If you have a similar project in mind, see the blog’s material about the challenges of separating legend from facts, and accurately documenting those facts.

The South Dakota State Historical Society, which began publishing in 1902 and established the press in 1997, believes that work by Pamela Smith Hill [as the author] on a 2007 publication, Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, helped the press acquire the rights to the autobiography. Today, with 12,000 copies in print, it is the press’s bestselling title, and it’s in libraries as far-flung as Denmark, Scotland, and New Zealand. Hill, who has also written four young adult novels, is editing Pioneer Girl.

The Expansion Imperative

Press director Nancy Tystad Koupal calls the Wilder project exciting, and notes that it also meets one of the publisher’s challenges: to develop an audience beyond the sparsely populated state for titles that showcase the region. This is “imperative,” she says, given that all of South Dakota has approximately the same number of people as the city of San Francisco.

“Due to the mission of the South Dakota State Historical Society, we mainly publish works that share the rich heritage of South Dakota. For the past few years, we have been working to expand the press’s mission to include the history of the Northern Great Plains region as a whole,” she explains.

And with the Wilder autobiography, the press has the opportunity to satisfy a national—in fact, an international—market. As the Washington Post wrote a few years back, “For three-quarters of a century the ‘Little House’ books have been wildly popular, and have penetrated the popular imagination as have few other books for readers of any age. They have remained in print without interruption. . . . There are biographies of Wilder, collections of her other writings and ephemera of various sorts. . . . A half-century after her death, Laura Ingalls Wilder is an industry.”

Given the annual LauraPalooza conference, an Ingalls home in South Dakota, a Wilder home in Missouri, a museum in Minnesota, and the Frontier Girl Mercantile and DVDs, CDs, and picture books inspired by the Little House era, it’s easy to see the wide appeal of Wilder’s life story.

Of course, the press has other outstanding publications. It received its first Benjamin Franklin Gold Award in Cover Design this year for Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota by Fraser Harrison, and a silver Ben Franklin award in 2008 for Cowboy Life: The Letters of George Philip, edited by Cathie Draine. By year’s end, it will have issued 66 titles, 57 of which are still available in print. It also has 22 active e-books, three of which are original “shorts.”

Neither of the first two titles the press published is still in print, but both of them—Building South Dakota: A Historical Survey of the State’s Architecture to 1945 by David Erpestad and David Wood, and Sunset to Sunset: A Lifetime with My Brothers, the Dakotas by Thomas Lawrence Riggs—may be relaunched in digital format along with other backlist titles as that conversion process continues through the next few years.

The press does all this and maintains its Website and telephone sales operations with a staff of two part-timers and five full-time employees, one of whom works on its quarterly rather than on books. It was as editor of the quarterly journal South Dakota History that Koupal came to the society in 1979. What she didn’t expect when she helped found the press almost 20 years later was “how radically the publishing industry was about to change!” But, Koupal adds, “I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, and knowing of the coming transformation might have made me too cautious.”

Commitments to Quality

Publishers, especially those that are not-for-profit, must be cautious with finances. Since “publishing takes a lot of money up front and may not pay off for a few years,” Koupal advises making sure “that your funding sources are stable and that everyone understands the mission and goals of the operation.”

For example, she explains, one of the press’s goals is to provide well-researched, scholarly books on the history of the Northern Great Plains, “which does not always translate into regional or national bestsellers.” Instead, she says, “The payoff is often better-documented history for an underserved population and, as a secondary benefit, respect from the historical community for attention to historical accuracy and production values.”

As someone who has spent most of her career writing and editing for the South Dakota State Historical Society, the publisher adds, “I believed that South Dakota deserved a press that produced books equal in quality to those published in New York. It has been an unexpected joy to see that people in the state have appreciated our commitment to high publishing standards.”

No operation is without at least minor nightmares, of course, and in recent years the press has experienced two bumps in its road to publishing excellence. One was losing a third of the staff and a combined 17 years of experience when the associate editor/production manager left after 10 years to be closer to family and, two months later, the veteran marketing director accepted an offer from a larger press. The other occurred just this year, when copies of a new title were delivered with a slightly pixilated cover because a file got corrupted in the transfer between designer and printer.

“Discovered when the books arrived three weeks before the big release!” Koupal exclaims. “After considering options, we decided to depend on feedback at the event before determining if it’s necessary to return the bulk of the books for stripping and reprinting of covers.” It’s possible, she said as this was being written, that “we are the only ones who even notice.” But the lesson for all publishers: “Careful attention to proofs at every step is essential!”

What’s ahead for the press? Given the Laura Ingalls Wilder fans around the world, it’s no surprise that “larger national audience” is among Koupal’s goals for 2014. Another 2014 title—Love Letters from Mount Rushmore—is expected to have coast-to-coast appeal. For both, and for its titles with a regional audience, the press may add sales reps to its marketing campaign, and it is continuing to expand its relationships with wholesalers.


Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle. A Laura Ingalls Wilder enthusiast, she too awaits the publication of Pioneer Girl.

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