Little Creek Press creates a unique, innovative book publishing model

Kristin Mitchell built her own small business over the past 25 years — a little, eponymous design shop nestled creekside in the valley at her Mineral Point home.
Kristin Mitchell sitting next to the water with a stack of books
Photo by Magic Light Photography

​​Book lovers may not realize just how big and monolithic the traditional publishing industry has become in recent decades. Dozens of publishing houses and imprints have shuttered, merged or been absorbed into what has become New York’s “Big Five” — Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Macmillan, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster — at the expense, some critics say, of both authors and readers. In November, the federal government filed suit to stop the Big Five from becoming the Big Four after Penguin Random House made a bid to acquire Simon & Schuster. The suit claimed that the sale will give what is already the world’s largest publisher “outsized influence” over how much authors are paid and what the rest of us get to read.

Meanwhile, more and more authors have turned to smaller independent presses or self-publishing, both of which involve their own freedoms and limitations. It’s a trajectory Kristin Mitchell is aware of now but wasn’t really thinking about as she built her own small business over the past 25 years — a little, eponymous design shop nestled creekside in the valley at her Mineral Point home.

“I came at it really coincidentally at the perfect time,” says the Verona native about the decision to start Little Creek Press in 2011 as an extension of Kristin Mitchell Designs, which she’d founded in 1997 so she could work from home while raising her four kids. Although she’d designed numerous books over the years, publishing never entered her mind until Al Felly, founder of Felly’s Flowers and a famed woodcarver, hired her to design a children’s book he wrote in retirement — then asked her to help him figure out how to publish it himself. That launched Mitchell into a crash course that would change her career path.

In the 11 years since, Little Creek Press has published more than 150 books. Some have garnered regional, national or international awards, including a 2014 International Book Award for Coleman’s “Spoke” and five gold and silver Midwest Book Awards in 2021.

“I get a lot of people that have been burned,” Mitchell says. “I get people who’ve been rejected by big publishers, and then I have people who have started self-publishing and are like, ‘I can’t, there’s no way, I want a human being I can talk to, who I trust.’ And that’s how I get most of the books.”

It’s that relationship-building that has helped Mitchell’s model stand apart from the rest of the industry. Like online-only and so-called “vanity press” companies in which any author can pay to publish, authors also pay Mitchell to publish their books instead of the other way around. But unlike many of those other companies, Mitchell doesn’t take just any manuscript. The story has to be “really good” and the authors need to be as invested as she knows she will be — she knows it will become a close, collaborative relationship. Mitchell also offers significant support to authors, who would otherwise need to navigate things like obtaining an ISBN barcode, formatting pages, designing, and figuring out editing, printing and distribution. Mitchell subcontracts professional editors and works with printing companies and distributors like Ingram and Small Press United to handle all of those things, along with designing everything herself — all for a single, one-time fee that isn’t charged until the books are in hand.

“I feel like I kind of created my own model based on the best parts of everything,” says Mitchell, who also provides an online platform for authors to sell their books. Depending on whether books are sold through Little Creek’s website, local booksellers or online retailers like Amazon, authors earn 60-80% of the retail price of each book — compared to the 8-15% royalty rates with traditional publishers of all sizes. Other than HenschelHAUS Publishing, another woman-owned small press in Milwaukee (which opts to print fewer titles each year than Mitchell and so will send referrals her way), Mitchell isn’t aware of another publisher quite like Little Creek. As a result, word has spread.

“People call from all over the country,” Mitchell says. “But I don’t take every book — if I did, I’d probably publish 200 books a year.”

Little Creek authors include Trek founder John Burke, Manna Cafe’s Barb Pratzel, Jeff Nania (whose “Spider Lake” snagged 2021 honors from the Independent Publisher Book Awards, Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Midwest Book Awards),

Mary Lang Sollinger (whose memoir about working on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign won the Chicago Writers Association 2020 Book of the Year), and even Madison Magazine’s own back-page columnist, John Roach. “People know that I put out really good books,” Mitchell says.

Not bad for someone who never set out to publish books — but not that far from all she’s ever wanted, either.

“This might sound corny, but this is the way I view it: I get to make people’s dreams come true,” Mitchell says. “How many people can say that about their jobs?”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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