Once a month, editors of various imprints at Lerner Publishing Group, the biggest book company in the Twin Cities, gather to pitch their latest ideas to top executives and leaders of the legal, sales, marketing and production teams.
At one such meeting two years ago, an editor offered up a young adult novel about a 16-year-old girl struggling to understand love after a breakup. The book, called “What Girls are Made Of,” was more grown-up in theme, tone and language than nearly anything Lerner had ever published.
“I remember the editor bringing it and saying it was very mature,” said Adam Lerner, the company’s chief executive and publisher. “It was an important book but also risky in a way for us to publish. We decided to do it because we believed in the author.”
The book, by Elana K. Arnold, was named a finalist last month for a National Book Award, one of the most prestigious in publishing. It was a first for a Lerner book and a climactic moment in a watershed year for the Minneapolis company.
A new editor-in-chief and a new operations executive arrived early in the year. This summer, Lerner closed a bindery operation it has run since the 1960s. It also shifted some of its digital work to contractors, refining an approach to the digital delivery of content that, as in other media companies, was influenced by years of trial and error and an occasional financial loss.
With “What Girls are Made Of,” Lerner is the only independent publisher among the five finalists in the young people’s literature category of the National Book Awards. Another Minneapolis publisher, Graywolf Press, is a finalist for two books in poetry and one in fiction. The winners will be announced Wednesday in New York.
While Graywolf specializes in the type of literature that gathers awards, Lerner since its start in 1959 has concentrated on educational books for classrooms and libraries. About 80 percent of the more than 400 titles Lerner produces every year are aimed at schools and sold chiefly through catalogs or at education conventions.
But for the other 20 percent, Lerner’s editors and designers have been flexing their creative muscles in new ways. Last year, a biography it produced about a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb — “Sachiko” by Caren Stelson — was a semifinalist for a National Book Award.
For Adam Lerner, these changes mark the moment when his strategy for the company is at last starting to mesh with its culture.
“There’s a saying that culture eats strategy for lunch. I do really believe that,” he says. “You can’t change your company, no matter how good the strategy is, if the culture isn’t ready.”
Ten years ago, at the age of 41, he succeeded his father, company founder Harry Lerner, as its top executive. For much of the time since, he grappled with the effects that the 2008-2009 recession and digital technologies had on book consumption.
E-books and other digital platforms didn’t push aside printed books as some people worried. “Five years ago, I would have thought 70 percent of our sales by now would have been digital. It’s actually the reverse,” he said.
In the meantime, the two Lerners navigated the fraught process of changing their roles.
“You know family businesses are very tricky,” said Harry Lerner, who at 85 remains the company’s chairman and routinely goes to the office. “My son and I don’t always see eye to eye. He’s a very good businessman, and he’s done very well. I look at publishing more as an art than a business. Now, this is very much like a business.”
Harry, who grew up in Minneapolis, was an Army clerk in Germany when in 1955 he wrote and published his first book, a guide for GIs to buying cars in Europe and traveling around the continent. After returning home, he helped his sister-in-law publish three picture books that explained mumps, measles and other childhood diseases.
Lerner Publishing was born. Harry Lerner stuck to the education market in part because schools paid more reliably than the mom-and-pop stores that dominated book-selling at the time.
He worked from an office close to the downtown library, a block away from the two buildings that house Lerner Publishing today. “That was our resource center for a long time,” Harry Lerner says. “We still use [the library] a lot, but not nearly as much as we used to.”
In time, ideas for books started arriving at Lerner Publishing by the sackful and Lerner and his colleagues would devote one or two days a month to sort through them. They also routinely tapped local writers and artists to produce educational books.
“We have probably launched more authors and illustrators in the state of Minnesota than anybody,” Harry Lerner said.
When Adam Lerner was in high school, he wrote a sports book for the company. But after college, encouraged by his dad, he moved to New York to learn about book publishing from larger firms in the heart of the industry.
He spent most of his eight years in the city as a subsidiary rights manager for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a midsize publishing house like Lerner but with a greater presence in trade, or retail, books. There, he grew close to co-founder Roger Straus and made some high-profile deals, including selling the film rights to a children’s book called “Shrek” to DreamWorks.
After Harry Lerner had a heart attack in the late 1990s, Adam returned to help run the family business, which by then was producing hundreds of books a year. Their differences surfaced often enough.
One of the most recent came in this year’s decision to close Muscle Bound Bindery, which Harry built in the 1960s and 1970s into a sizable operation with a 70,000-square-foot plant in north Minneapolis. In recent years, the land it was on became more valuable than the business itself, and Adam believed the company could hire out the work.
“We still do the warehousing and distribution of our books, which is more core to our business,” he said. “Manufacturing and software development really aren’t.”
Harry wrote a personal note to the 30 people who lost their jobs in the closing. Nearly all found work at other local binderies, he said.
For Lerner’s new editor-in-chief, Andy Cummings, the dynamics of a family-run business are nothing new. He spent most of his career at John Wiley & Sons, now in its ninth generation of family leadership.
The bigger challenge at Lerner, he said, is the diversity of work. “With that comes a fair amount of complexity,” Cummings said.
New titles this fall range from “Why Do I Sleep?” for children just learning to read and “My Best Friend is a Viral Dancing Zombie” for third-graders to deeply researched graphic novels like “Smash! Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe with the Large Hadron Collider” for teens.
Lerner also just published for second- to fifth-graders a book called “Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion” by Chris Barton, a Texas-based author the company has worked with before, with illustrations by Victo Ngai, a fast-rising New York illustrator whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and New York Times. Barton and Lerner editorial director Carol Hinz came up with the idea a couple of years ago after hearing a podcast about how the British navy painted thousands of ships in World War I to confuse German attackers.
When Hinz took the idea into one of the monthly pitch meetings, she thought it would be an easy sell because it was a part of history that people had forgotten.
“The great thing was no one in the room had heard of dazzle ships, and they were really enchanted,” she said. “I had some pictures of them and people got on board with the idea pretty quickly.”
Ngai won a Society of Illustrators award for her work on it. Lerner put it on the cover of its fall trade catalog. And, helped by strong reviews and a boost from the Junior Library Guild, which recommends books to school librarians, orders for “Dazzle Ships” poured in.
“About two weeks after the book was published, we realized, ‘Oh, we need to reprint,’ ” Hinz said.