Gifts are integral to everything Robin Wall Kimmerer writes and believes in. People all across the country are gifting each other her extraordinary book Braiding Sweetgrass, just as sweetgrass is traditionally distributed hand-to-hand, person-to-person. “The world is a gift,” Kimmerer said, “and gratitude matters. Gifting reflects a kinship in just the idea that ‘I think you’ll value this too.’ I’d like to take our worldview from this hyper-individualism to a sense of collective goodwill.”
This message was at the heart of a recent panel discussion co-hosted by the NYU SPS Center for Publishing and the NYU SPS Office of Alumni Relations. Entitled “From Backlist to Bestseller,” the conversation featured Kimmerer, whose Braiding Sweetgrass was chosen as the 2021-2022 NYU Reads selection. Joining Kimmerer on the panel was Stephen Sparks, owner of the independent bookstore Point Reyes Books in Northern California, and Daniel Slager, CEO of Milkweed Editions, the independent, nonprofit literary publisher of Braiding Sweetgrass. The discussion, deftly moderated by Andrew Albanese, Senior Writer for Publisher’s Weekly, focused on the amazing story of how an unknown author and an independent publisher launched an extraordinary bestseller in 2013, which has been published in 16 foreign territories and has received international acclaim. The paperback edition first appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List on January 31st, 2020 at #14. Since then, it’s been on the list for 97 weeks – and is currently #5 on the Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller List.
This trajectory surprised even the publisher. “No, we didn’t expect it to be a commercial runaway,” Slager said. “That’s never happened at Milkweed before.” But Slager knew there was something special about Kimmerer’s book. He could sense it. “There was definitely a moment of discovery early on.” Slager, along with editor Patrick Thomas, worked closely with Kimmerer throughout the development of the book and helped structure Kimmerer’s extensive discourse. “[Kimmerer] probably wrote a few books in terms of words and pages, but many chapters didn’t make it into the final draft,” explained Slager.
The writing process was intellectually and creatively taxing as Kimmerer needed to balance a tone that was approachable for the everyday reader, while also informed and scientifically astute. Yet it is precisely the dual-perspectives that gives Braiding Sweetgrass its striking simplicity. “And that feeling resonated in the marketplace,” Slager said. He was skeptical at first and thought an initial run of 10,000 books was ambitious, until it sold out.
“We had promoted the book normally and sent out advance copies,” Slager said. Then booksellers took note. “It was really author events, where Robin advocated herself that interested booksellers and made the difference.”
Stephen Sparks was one of these interested booksellers. “Independent bookstores are mission oriented,” Sparks said. “We care about things in the world, we notice things changing, and we champion books we believe in. Braiding Sweetgrass lives in our display and years later I am still having conversations about it.”
Kimmerer herself was not concerned with the book’s commercial success. She had a specific goal in mind of awakening people’s relationship with the earth. She wanted Braiding Sweetgrass to be “medicine, real healing for a relationship with the earth.” Stephen Sparks commented on how this healing manifests itself. “This book, through the conversations it starts, re-orients us. It is still probably our most gifted book.”
When asked about her next book, Robin Kimmerer said that the fundamental premises on how we organize ourselves are not making us happy, that we live in a country that recognizes the personhood of corporations by not the personhood of plants. She said every chapter will be anchored in a plant that has something to teach us. “When you close my next book,” Kimmerer said, “the notion of the rights of nature will make perfect sense.”
Christian Doyle is a member of the Center for Publishing team and holds an MA in Irish Literature from University College Dublin.