Woodworking again: On self-publishing

By Dave Wood
Posted 1/17/24

I recently received a welcome reprint of a wonderful book written 40 years ago by an old friend and colleague in the days when self-publishing was a new concept and doomed to failure by those darned …

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Woodworking again: On self-publishing


I recently received a welcome reprint of a wonderful book written 40 years ago by an old friend and colleague in the days when self-publishing was a new concept and doomed to failure by those darned pundits. 

The friend and colleague is Peg Meier, Star Tribune feature writer, and her book is “Bring Warm Clothes,” a massive collection of Peg’s research into Minnesota immigration history from the point of view of ordinary folks. Sounds like a loser, right?

Wrong! In Peg’s introduction to the beautiful revised and reformatted edition, she tells us that so far the original version has sold more than 200,000 copies and prompted the Minnesota Historical Society Press to issue this handsome new edition ($29.95), in case you missed in the first several printings by Neighbors Press.

Forty years ago, when I first worked with Peg, I felt apprehensive about her new venture because I had recently suffered through the doomed appearance of my first self-publishing effort, which I called “Wisconsin Life Trip,” an answer to Michael Lesy’s best-selling “Wisconsin Death Trip.” My effort was to provide a feel-good answer to Lesy’s fairly outrageous portraits of 19th century western Wisconsin, which focused on dead babies, starving and mad unhappy settlers. Of course, it never rivaled the Lesy book, and I well remember the troubles I’d seen once it was published by my own invention, Dan Camp Press. Would Peg’s new Neighbors Press suffer the same fate? Thank God, no. 

When my book first appeared on the magazine racks in supermarkets, countertops in many taverns and one bookstore of Trempealeau County, I was greeted with jeers. My posters around the area were vandalized by graffiti artists who renamed my book “Wisconsin EGO Trip.” Worse, an old geezer in Whitehall collared me on Main Street and said “You call this history? The old lady on the cover is most certainly not your great-great-grandmother which you claim on the jacket. That, for God’s sake, is Old Lady Benson!” 

I raced to Kenny Swenson’s barber shop where old timers sit around and dispense wisdom. Was the old geezer right?

“’Fraid so, Davey,” replied retired constable Ben Mahle, a local font of wisdom. “Old Lady Benson was a spinster, the town’s baker then, and the picture  you used was made when she celebrated her 100th birthday. Everyone in town over 70 has a copy!”

And at that moment my credibility as a west central Wisconsin historian went to hell in a handbasket, while Lesy’s book about the horrors of my home area stayed on the best seller list for MONTHS.

In the end, I managed to sell 5,000 copies; respectable, I guess, although I wanted to jump into the Trempealeau River when, B. Dalton Booksellers, the only act in the upper Midwest in those days, promised me a shot in its bookstore chain, but then turned me down because I was only a “One Unit Vendor.”

But I needn’t have worried about Peg Meier’s project, now a beloved landmark of Minnesota history—factual history with validly identified photographs! Ironically, the same day I received her new copy, I received my hometown newspaper. In Memories of 125 Years Ago, the following story appeared:

“A benefit supper was given at Scott’s Hall Saturday evening for Miss Martha Benson, the proceeds amounting to $52, besides several sacks of flour and a few cords of wood. This act of charity is one most worthily bestowed, as the recipient is one who never tires of well-doing, and she and her blind mother are respected people in the community.”

Self -publishing is not for the faint-hearted, which Peg Meier is definitely not. And furthermore, she has since successfully self-published several additional bestsellers.

Woodworking again, Dave Wood, self-publishing, books, column