As I flack shamelessly for a publisher whose mission coincides with my own values (not everyone in public relations can say that), I often marvel at how little I used to think about the process that delivered a book into my hands.
But every inch of the way – as a book transmogrifies from an idea in someone’s head into, say, a 6,000-pound elephant on the New York Times best-seller list – decisions are being made: which manuscripts to accept, which to reject, how long this paragraph should be, whether this word would be better than that one, what type face to use, what the cover should look like, what to name the book, how you get the public to notice that it exists and get it into bookstores (or into the tender embrace of Amazon.com), etc.
Take an imaginary glance around the offices of Chelsea Green Publishing Co. – a compact, brightly lit hive of office space in one corner of a former bakery in White River Junction, Vt., where a dozen or so people strive to advance “the politics and practice of sustainable living,” and a couple of questions may come to mind:
Who are these people, and what exactly do they do, anyway?
Start with publisher Margo Baldwin, who co-founded the company 21 years ago with her husband, Ian. Blessed by ignorance of what they were getting into, they decided starting a publishing company would be fun, coaxed some capital out of family and friends, and hit the ground running, Baldwin says, “naively – with no idea of what it meant.”
Luck – and an eye for good material – were with them. Their third book, Jean Giono’s allegory The Man Who Planted Trees, touched a nerve among readers with an environmental and romantic bent and put Chelsea Green on the map.
At first, Chelsea Green was pretty eclectic – a little biography, a little nature. But “The Man Who Planted Trees in some sense set the agenda in a funny way,” Baldwin reflects. The industry and public saw the book’s environmental message, in a sense, as a statement of purpose – which, gradually, it became.
Growth came slowly, and was “up and down,” Baldwin remembers. “It took us 10 years to reach our first million (sales); and it took another 10 years to break the two-million mark.”
Several years ago Baldwin tried to hand day-to-day operations over to a surrogate. That didn’t work out; the company began to stumble, and Baldwin stepped back in.
For two decades; a successful book was usually one that sold 10,000 to 15,000 copies or more. (There were major exceptions: The Man Who Planted Trees has sold 250,000 copies overall; The Straw Bale House, by Athena Swentzell Steen, Bill Steen, David Bainbridge and David Eisenberg, 150,000 copies; and Eliot Coleman’s books on organic gardening, 200,000 copies.) Most every title had an environmental, how-to theme.
Then, early last year, Baldwin stumbled upon the manuscript that would turn Chelsea Green from a micro-publisher with a narrow niche into a national presence with a bold political profile: Don’t Think About an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, by cognitive scientist George Lakoff.
For America’s disenchanted political progressives, Moses had arrived to lead them out of the wilderness. Va-whoom: 250,000 copies in print, and counting. Chelsea Green recently published a sequel to Lakoff’s manifesto, Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 Into Winning Progressive Politics, an anthology of broadsides by leading political progressives. Acolytes are now feasting on a banquet of common sense and down-to-earth tactics for reclaiming American politics in the name of the true majority.
Making it all happen, Baldwin says, is a staff filled with “passion, creativity, commitment, humor, independence. Everyone needs to be thinking for themselves and jumping in.”
Where does she find these folks? Baldwin laughs heartily: “They seem to fall from the sky.” Indeed; if there is a common element to how each employee came to be here, it would be serendipity: Again and again, the right person popped up at the right time.
Baldwin’s long-term goal, she says boldly, is “to reinvent the publishing industry” by “showing the ability of Internet-dependent book publisher to survive and prosper in the corporate media times.”
The Internet, Baldwin says, opens a window on “innovative techniques and partnerships … and a lot of niches in the marketplaces. The publishers who find these niches seem to be better in the long term: a lot of books selling a few copies. You’re just quicker; you are agile.”
The antics of the Chelsea Greens of the publishing world – set against a backdrop of an industry whose general response to change is glacial by comparison – might be compared to an aerial dogfight between a Spitfire and a Boeing 747. The latter is a big sucker, all right, but the tiny combat plane can fly spirals around it.
And now comes the “blogosphere.” There were perhaps 500 blogs five years ago; today there are tens of thousands. Businesses are jumping aboard en masse, and with good reason. A blog, Baldwin says, is “a way of having a conversation with customers and authors, and supporting the content we have.” This is all uncharted territory, of course, and compared to conventional promotional methods, the number of potential customers reached is miniscule – so far. In 1879, there weren’t too many light bulbs in Menlo Park, N.J., either.
“So we don’t really know what we’re doing,” Baldwin says, “but we think that we should be doing it.” Reflecting on her own words, she laughs uproariously.
That’s the word from the corner office. The day-to-day tactics of reinventing the publishing industry fall to a small brigade of employees who couldn’t think inside the box if they tried. They’d be too busy clawing their way out.
As associate publisher, Lynne O’Hara might be described as grand overseer of loose ends.
“My responsibilities are basically operations, which includes everything from work flow to the physical plant to personnel, hiring, firing, and I manage and liaise with all of our distributed publishers,” O’Hara explains. A two-year veteran of the place, she also reviews contracts.
A long-time friend of Baldwin’s, O’Hara was a freelancer, having lunch one day at a downtown restaurant, when Baldwin walked in. “We said, ‘Hello,’ and then she said, ‘What are you doing these days?’ and I said I was doing some freelance work,” O’Hara recalls. “She said, ‘We should have lunch.’ And that’s how I came to be here.”
With prior experience in publishing, O’Hara had known of Chelsea Green through the Vermont Book Publishers Association since before the company sharpened its focus on “sustainability.” But she wasn’t interested in full-time work (a recurring theme at Chelsea Green, as you will learn).
“I said I would be happy to come to work part-time if she thought that would work,” she recalls. “We tried three days a week, and that lasted about a month.” She laughs. “So now I’m here four days a week, and that seems to work. It would be hard to come to work here and not be completely immersed in it immediately.”
A Thetford resident, she and her husband “enjoy the pleasures of dining with friends quite a lot. Obviously, I like to read and I like to walk. I love to sit by streams.”
Anything else? With a laugh, she replies, “I want you to portray as little as me of possible.”
Next: editors and publicists and marketers, oh my.