The publisher of Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiography was expecting the book to appeal mostly to hardcore fans of the "Little House on the Prairie" series. Just 15,000 copies of "Pioneer Girl" were printed for a November release — a substantial quantity for an academic press.
Instead, demand for the book spread like a prairie fire. Shelves across the country were cleared of the books by mid-December.
Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, said her organization realized that the book was going to not meet the initial demand by the the week of its release so they placed an order for an additional printing of 15,000 books, which arrived last week.
It turns out that those too may not be enough to meet the pent-up demand for Wilder's writings more than 50 years after her death.
"For us, we didn't ever really take into consideration the audience that the television show created for Laura Ingalls Wilder," Koupal said. "It's still growing."
For fans of Wilder, the drought will soon be over. The publisher has placed an order for approximately 45,000 additional books. That shipment is expected in February.
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Part of the reason for the demand may be that there isn't an electronic option for the autobiography. Koupal said the book's 800 detailed notes and annotations by editor Pamela Smith Hill make creating an electronic version difficult.
"It's simply not going to be Kindle friendly, to say the least," Koupal said. "We delayed that version until we can figure out the best way to do it."
"We knew there was no more fiction out there from the pen of Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I think everybody was excited to find that there was another book and that it was non-fiction and it was a true story, or truer, than the fictionalized books about her life," Koupal said.
The book shortage is putting some pressure on usually quiet venues that sell historical books. Amy Ankrum, director of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, said she assumed that mostly hardcore fans would seek out the book. Instead, it's been lots of moms and local fans who may have grown up with the series.
"I figured I wouldn't be selling that many, especially in the off season like this, so I only ordered 24 copies to give us a winter start," Ankrum said. "We were wiped out right away."
Some fans seeking the book have been frustrated, but most have been understanding.
"Most of them are 'Minnesota nice,'" Ankrum said. "Some just say put me down on a list and give me a call when they get in again."
Erin Blakemore, spokesperson for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association, said the book's popularity isn't that surprising considering that Wilder's books have sold tens of millions of copies.
"Right now, it really fits into the zeitgeist of a lot of interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder, the woman," Blakemore said. "There are so many people coming at it from so many different disciplines — as fans, as academics, as people interested in genealogy, people interested in representations of native cultures and the West — I think it just hits on a lot of different spots that interest a broad group of people."
The group is planning a conference for academics and fans called LauraPalooza 2015 on July 16 and 17, which will be held at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota.
Even the prospect of more books in the near future isn't satisfying modern fans of this old-fashioned author. Multiple copies of the book are currently going for more than $100 on eBay.