Since 1984, Chelsea Green has been the publishing leader for books on the politics and practice of sustainable living. We are a founding member of the Green Press Initiative and have been printing books on recycled paper since 1985, when our first list of books appeared. We lead the industry both in terms of content—foundational books on renewable energy, green building, organic agriculture, eco-cuisine, and ethical business—and in terms of environmental practice, printing 95 percent of our books on recycled paper with a minimum 30 percent post-consumer waste and aiming for 100 percent whenever possible. This approach is a perfect example of what is called a ”triple bottom line“ practice, one that benefits people, planet, and profit, and the emerging new model for sustainable business in the 21st century.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARGO BALDWIN, PRESIDENT AND PUBLISHER
Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin.
Vermont Commons: Your publishing house, Chelsea Green, is publishing Bill Kauffman's book on secession movements in the United States this fall. Was there much "in house" discussion about Chelsea Green publishing a book on this topic? What do you want our readers to know about Kauffman's book?
Margo Baldwin: Yes, there was some discussion about it. His book will interest a different audience than our normal progressive politics book. I think that’s fine, as we don’t necessarily have to adhere to any kind of strict party line. Also, there is a lot to be said about scale, which Kauffman understands. He’s a “small is beautiful” advocate and so are we. The left tends not to get this. They see big government as the solution.
Kauffman’s book is provocative and, by examining the various secession movements around the country, shows us that this is not a traditional left/right issue. It’s a big/small issue; a national/local issue; an unsustainable-empire issue.
And in the end, it’s not going to matter what we think about it when collapse kicks into high gear; things (like the US of A) will just start breaking apart. It happened very quickly in the Soviet Union, so I’m not sure why that can’t happen here. Already we’re seeing local governments unable to provide essential services. What’s happening in the Gulf with the oil spill is catastrophic. California is bankrupt; so is New York State. So what’s going to happen if we have a few more of these events, an earthquake in L.A., a hurricane in the Gulf, a Euro collapse, escalating home foreclosures and bank failures? READ MORE
As the authors of Limits to Growth always said, it’s not one thing that sends us into overshoot, its multiple crises and our inability to cope with them all at the same time. We’re starting to see that happen now so we’d better start preparing the lifeboats, as Michael Ruppert calls them.
VC: And he identified the entire state of Vermont as the biggest “lifeboat” he is aware of. Let’s talk about Michael Ruppert’s tour, which your publishing company, Chelsea Green, co-sponsored, because you publish his new COLLAPSE book and distribute the acclaimed documentary of the same name. What were your impressions of Vermonters' responses to Ruppert’s COLLAPSE tour this past May? Do Vermonters seem to be waking up to the reality of an imploding U.S. Empire?
MB: I thought he got a great reception. Yes, Vermonters seem to be ahead of the curve on the coming collapse and unsustainable empire. Not sure they are ready for secession, but they understand peak oil and the necessity for creating a sustainable alternative.
VC: So being a Vermont-based book publisher must be an interesting gig right now. What kinds of changes in the publishing world are you seeing, and how is that impacting your work at Chelsea Green?
MB: The entire book business (the entire media business) is being turned upside down right now. Brick-and-mortar stores (both independent and chains) are going out of business and there is a rapid shift to digital books. Amazon and Apple and Google are shooting it out for dominance, and most smaller players are watching with horrified amazement on the sidelines.
Basically, the shift to digital books impacts everything we do, including editorial acquisitions, production processes, marketing and sales, and distribution. We are trying to figure out how to maneuver in this environment. In many ways we are better positioned than many other publishers because we are niched and because our content is so well-suited to living in these times.
But it’s unnerving, to say the least. I’m not sure what kinds of people I should be hiring, and find that any new hire should be technologically adept. It feels like we’ve become a technology company instead of, or in addition to, being a book publisher. It’s also extremely challenging to keep the old business going at the same time as we try to invent the new one, which will be much more of a b-to-c (business to consumer) vs. a b-to-b (business to business) one.
VC: Can you speak to Google's attempts to digitize the world's books? What do you make of this, as an independent book publisher?
MB: I think that Google, like Apple and Amazon, is out to try to monopolize content for their own purposes. What they did and are doing is illegal, and the proposed settlement is their attempt to rewrite copyright law so that they have a monopoly over all the “orphaned” works.
VC: You’ve seen a lot of changes in the past few decades. How did you come to book publishing?
MB: When Ian and I left New York City and moved to Vermont 28 years ago we quickly understood that we would have to create our own livelihoods up here. Ian had been an editor in a prior incarnation, but I had never done anything in publishing. We thought it sounded fun and interesting to start a publishing company (little did we know what we would be up against!) and plunged in, raising the original capital from friends and family. We started the company while living on the south green in Chelsea, hence the name.
We thought we could be generalists, but also quickly found out that we would need to specialize to stay in business. The environment and sustainability were key areas of interest for both of us, and we gradually became focused on that. Our very first book was The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono and illustrated by Michael McCurdy, a perennial bestseller and a book that is still selling after 26 years. It is that book that set the tone for our mission and editorial focus.
VC: Speak to that. Chelsea Green has a very distinctive mission and approach; why is this important?
MB: We are not in the publishing business to turn trees into paper for its own sake; we’re in the business to change the world. Our mission, expressed by our tag line – The Politics and Practice of Sustainable Living – seeks to combine the practical aspects of sustainable living, the green know-how of green building, renewable energy, organic agriculture, eco-cuisine, and simple living, with the more political and inspiring narratives of people out to change the world. We are able to attract people who believe in our mission, and able to be part of the community, not just trying to sell books. We consider ourselves to be a social enterprise that is focused on a triple-bottom-line approach to business, where people, place, and profit are all taken into consideration.
VC: Vermont has the highest literacy rate, per capita, of any state in the U.S. Are Vermonters reading more books these days? What's your sense?
MB: I have no idea, but I doubt it. In general, people everywhere are reading fewer books. They are doing a lot of reading but it’s often on-line. I don’t know where Vermonters are on this continuum.
VC: What of digital media? How are new media tools like Facebook and Twitter interfacing with your work as a publishing house?
MB: We are considered a leader in using social media and have one of the largest twitter followings of any publisher. Still, it’s hard to know exactly how to measure the effects of all this. I’m sure it works to help get the word out about our books and authors, but does it lead to book sales? That’s a lot harder to measure.
VC: What about e-books? Are you feeling any squeeze or pressure from Amazon's Kindle and other e-book readers, in terms of price-point per book, etc.?
MB: Not directly, but there is a lot of uncertainty about how to price e-books. We know that we need to experiment with books at different price points to see what happens. It could be that lower prices will lead to greater sales, or not. E-book sales do seem to be impacting printed book sales, but so far it’s a small percentage.
VC: What books are you reading these days?
MB: I do a lot of my reading these days by listening to audio books in the car. The current book is Matterhorn, a novel about the Vietnam war. I’m also working my way through all of John Irving’s novels. In terms of nonfiction, I mainly read our books in early draft -manuscript form and don’t have time to read much else. I scan a lot online.
VC: I have to ask: Are you in support of Vermont's nonviolent secession from the United States as Empire, and its reinvention as an independent republic?
MB: Yes, although I prefer to talk about it as getting the United States out of Vermont, not Vermont leaving the United States. Just like the Native Americans were here first and have a claim to their territory, I feel like Vermonters have a claim to their own home ground and should not “go” anywhere. The Empire needs to just leave us alone and stop demanding that we pay for endless unjustified wars and oppression of other peoples.
VC: Thanks for all of the remarkable books you’ve given us these past many years, and good luck with the changes ahead.
This interview was originally published in Vermont Commons: http://www.vtcommons.org/journal/2010/06/rob-williams-vermont-vox-pop-politics-and-practice-sustainable-living-interview-chel
AN INTERVIEW WITH FOUNDERS MARGO AND IAN BALDWIN
VERMONT BUSINESS MAGAZINE
, FEBRUARY 2006
Chelsea Green Publishing was established by Ian and Margo Baldwin in 1984, with the publication of The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giano. Today, Chelsea Green is considered the major publisher of books on sustainable living.
Ian, 67, served as CEO from the company's beginning until the mid-1990s, when Stephen Morris was hired to eventually take over the day-to-day business operations, while Ian moved on to focus on other publishing ventures and his art. Morri's left in 2002 when Margo, 55, stepped back in to run the company and redefine its mission.
The new mission statement in 2003 says of the company's redefined sense of direction, in part: "...Is it enough to focus on the how-to of 'green living' in the face of such overwhelming force, the 'shock and awe' of forest and ecosystem destruction, the rampant plundering of the world's oceans, the terror of GMO-contaminated-food, and the unintended consequences of biotechnology? We wish to move the company forward boldly and with a new sense of urgency. While continuing our commitment to remain at the forefront of information about green building, organic growing, and renewable energy - the practical aspects of sustainability - we will also publish for a new politics of sustainability, for the cultural resistance that living demands of us now."
Ian is a co-founder of the Marion Institute which sponsors the www.metahistory.org website. He is also part of Vermont Commons, an organization dedicated to the proposition that Vermonters should peaceably secede from the United States and govern themselves as an independent republic.
The Straw Bale House, Gaviotas, The Four Season Harvest and the recent Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff Chelsea Green's first New York Times bestseller - are some of the company's better known titles.
Chelsea Green titles have received numerous awards over the years, including ALA and Booklist Notable Books of the Year, the John Burroughs Medal, James Beard Award finalist and the Garden Globe Award.
The Baldwins live in Chelsea and have two children. Ian also has two children from a previous marriage.
VBM: I'd like to begin with your background. How did you come to Vermont, how did the two of you meet, and how did you a become involved in this business?
Ian: We met in 1978, and married in 1980. We moved to Vermont in 1982. I had a background in publishing, but neither one of us had any intention of going into publishing. We got to Vermont, we slowed down and took it easy. We had a lot of fun, we met neighbors. And we did some haying. We landed here where Margo's mother and stepfather had a place. That's how it started.
Margo bought me a book by what you would call a fine press, that Michael McCurdy illustrated. She was obviously struck by it cause she bought it and gave it to me for Christmas. I was struck by it because it reminded me of why I was drawn to publishing 15 years back. He was a Spanish poet who had just won the Nobel Prize, Vicente Aleixandre, and we were impressed that a Nobel Prize writer could be published, privately almost. It was beautifully illustrated because McCurdy is an illustrator primarily. Right about that time, one of our neighbors, an old high school classmate of mine, give us a story that was printed as almost a mimeographed pamphlet called, The Man Who Planted Trees.
Margo: No. It was called The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness.
Ian: That's right! It was written by the French writer, Jean Giono. It was supposedly commissioned for Reader's Digest and then they found out that the story wasn't true, and it was for their Unforgettable Characters column. Giono had a blowup with them but then it ended up in the French edition of Vogue magazine.
We had a long, torturous process, but out of that came the company. We persuaded McCurdy, who lived in the Berkshires, and still does, to get out of the publishing business, which is not making you happy, and do what you like to do, which is to design and illustrate books. So his career shifted and ours got started. We persuaded him to do the illustrations for The Man Who Planted Trees, which is the book that got us launched.
Margo: We didn't think we were going to do publishing, and then we got to Vermont and we thought, this is great for a year, but how do we stay here? So we thought, we guess we'd better start our own business.
VBM: So you weren't independently wealthy?
Margo: No, and had we known what we know now we might never have gotten into publishing.
Ian: No, we wouldn't have.
Margo: We said, "God, it sounds so romantic, and it's so stimulating, you meet lots of interesting people..."
Ian: We like ideas and we like people who have ideas. Neither one of us had a marketing background. I'd done some fundraising work, so I was able to raise a little money getting started. Neither of us had a business background, so we had some serious learning to do. My background was as an editor in publishing.
Personal computers had just started coming in. Margo designed a distribution and order processing system for us.
Margo: I was working in the healthcare industry, and I knew I didn't want to keep doing that.
Ian: We had, I would say, extremely good editorial judgment, and we published quality books, so we built a brand name of a quality publisher that was interested primarily in non-fiction, but what we didn't have was a sense of who are audience was - you've got to pick out your audience and you've got to be extremely precise. So we had difficult times. We had to keep going back and attempting to raise money - but never enough money.
Margo: We were trying to be eclectic, but it became clear that in order to survive you had to be a niche. We were already headed in that direction. Eliot Coleman was an early author of ours, and the organic gardening movement. The other thing we realized was that you really needed to have a backlist of books that sell year after year. That just takes plain old time to build up. That can't be fiction, or temporary non-fiction.
VBM: You need books that people are going to go back to because the information is going to be as good 20 years from now as it is today.
And those early Eliot Coleman books are still in the top 10 of our list.
I remember reading his stuff decades ago.
Eliot worked at The Mountain School farm, so he was putting into practice a lot of his stuff, up until the mid-90s and then he and his third wife moved to Maine where they continue this work.
He was an old high school classmate of Ian's.
And the irony is that we moved him out of the building he was renting with his then wife, in Margo's mother's house. He had to get out so that we could move in. It was a very odd coincidence.
How did it progress, your trying to find your niche? It seems like there are four or five areas that you focus on. The books are attractive and have a real eye appeal. Did those areas and that look come quickly?
It wasn't immediate. But the first book, The Man Who Planted Trees
, was probably the best publishing job we've ever done, in some sense, so that esthetic was from the beginning. It's sold 250,000 copies in all its editions, which until the Lakoff book it was our best selling book. That's the ideal, but it never works perfectly. There are a lot of bumps in the road trying to figure out what the niche was.
The niche turned out to be a really interesting problem because we were both environmentalists. I had actually worked in the environmental movement. We called the company Chelsea Green that's the old name of Chelsea but, the Green was not incidental. The problem was that those were in the early, Reagan years, and anything green was being flushed down the toilet.
Green had lost its appeal in those years.
The same three letters applied GRE - but you needed to change the last two - from EN to ED. We weren't hip to that. But we decided that we couldn't just do green stuff, so we were eclectic. We did a little bit of travel, guide books, some art books - we did actually a pretty significant art book. But we realized that that is a whole new capital intensive game and we can't do that again, but we had a lot of fin in doing it. We did natural history. But natural history - even though we won some prizes in doing it - we realized it was not niched enough. It's mainly a literary genre.
At that point Margo recommended that we talk with Stephen Morris, a marketing consultant. Stephen came in and was a very effective consultant. He's written a couple of books, worked with Vermont Castings, and he's lived in Randolph for quite a while. He's a marketing person and one of his clients was the Real Goods Trading Company. As Margo said, we had already in 1992 or 1993, started to really go even more into the energy/building/growing food niche. We'd started there, but we weren't going there full bore with total discipline. Stephen came along and said, "You just can't mess around, you've got to be extremely disciplined. Your market is the Real Goods reader or customer. This is pre-Internet, so offered to be a liaison gobetween between Chelsea Green and Real Goods, and we struck a deal. The Real Goods customer was also a reader. In a way this was a marriage between Vermont and Northern California, where a lot of the same kinds of thinking people exist in parallel but similar universes. 'nat took us into something like 7 million households. We struck a deal with Real Goods where they could pre-buy at steep discounts when we committed to the kind of tide they wanted.
And they would sell the books through their catalogs.?
Yes, through their catalogs. But then along came Amazon, and knocked off the mail order catalogs.
Margo really saw the Amazon revolution. The rest of us weren't sure. Stephen actually said it isn't going to last.
I'll never forget the day he said, "Nothing will ever be sold on, the Internet." I'd stepped out of the day-to-day management because we had two little kids, so Stephen was playing more of a role and Ian was easing himself out as well. Stephen saw Amazon as the enemy, and it was a fatal mistake he made, because Amazon was not the enemy, in fact it has been tremendously good for a company like us because it means people can find our books. They don't exist in bookstores. Backlists are not carried in bookstores. Not anymore. The idea that you can go to Amazon and find these reader reviews of the best gardening books, well if you've got the best book out there, it's going to be recognized as such. It was just a very, very good development. As for as the rest of the book industry, they were kind of choking.
I was intending to ask you what the effect of the Internet has been on publishing.
Margo: It's been tremendous. It's not that it doesn't have challenges, it's just meant that a niched publisher can be found. This isn't very good necessarily for the regular, general publisher. There's so much fiction and stuff Eke that, and they still rely on the chain stores. But for the niche publisher and the nonfiction publisher who have backlists like we do, it's great.
VBM: So if I've just seen a show on straw bale houses, and I go on Google and type in "straw bale houses," I'm going to find Chelsea Green Publishing.
Ian: Yes. Or if you type in slow food or slow cooking. Same thing.
Margo: I don't know if you read the article about The Long Tail. Have you seen that? It appeared originally in Wired magazine, written by Chris Anderson. It talks about the curve of, lets say books. You have very few that sell huge amounts - your bestsellers say may total 100 books, and their sales are way up here, then it quickly drops off into this much lower tail, but that goes on and on, including thousands and thousands of titles that sell few copies. His point was that with so many people on the Internet, and the online, searchable system that we have now, the growth in the future will be in this long tail.
Ian: And the players who are providing the product there are going to benefit from it.
Margo: The bestseller, and I think you're seeing this happen in the marketplace now, is not what's really carrying the industry forward. You do have the Harry Potters but...
Ian: You've got a very small group out of this mass that are big sellers.
Margo: I think that there are fewer and fewer. The Harry Potter phenomenon, with the fourth book having something like 9 million books shipped - but guess the other interesting thing about that is that most retailers lost money on it. What does that say about the health of the industry when most retailers are losing money on your big hits?
Ian: If you're losing money on Harry Potter!
Margo: If the only thing that matters is your costs, if that's the only thing that you're concerned about, then it's a never ending morass, it just keeps going down and down.
VBM: I think that one of the things to your advantage is that you have a catalog of books of ideas. That's how I found myself drawn to your cooking books and your building books over the years.
Margo: They're not just another cooking book - we approach it with another kind of voice and weigh-in - it's about something. It's not just another cooking book or another building book - it actually has a social mission built in to it.
VBM: The way I find out about a lot of your books is that I'm the coeditor of The Message for the Week, a weekly newspaper in southern Vermont, and we cover three independent bookstores, Northshire Books in Manchester, Misty Valley Books in Chester and Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls, and we get all their press releases and booksignings. Writer John Abrams (author of The Company We Keep) is coming to Northshire for a discussion sponsored by The Orton Foundation, and that story made me think of doing this interview with you for our media issue.
Margo: One of the interesting things about that books is that, as a company, we're exploring employee ownership, and we're talking with John about that. We've hired some consultants to help us on our next strategic plan.
VBM: What are you looking at for the future of your company?
Margo: We had a national bestseller last year in Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. We've never had a New York Times bestseller until that book. The way that book came in to us is that we heard about this book last summer, and George Lakoff, who is a very well regarded linguist and who's been published by the University of Chicago. He was that he wanted to get a short reader out and get it out fast before the election because he thought it would really help the Democrats think about these issues, about framing. He's got a very big agent, who tried to sell it to the New York houses, and they said "no way. First of all, we're not very interested in this, and second of all, we'll never get it out in time and there are plenty of political books out there." So, through a connection out on the West Coast, a woman that was working for us at the time told us about it. We said we were interested and George sent me the manuscript. I said, "Okay, George, cut it by about 40 percent." A lot of it had been done previously, and it was sort of put together pretty quickly. I told him you have about a week to turn this around and get it back to us, sign the contract, etc., and we got it out in about six weeks, right at the time of the Republican Convention. It just took off.
Ian: It took off in part because you had the Internet, the bloggers were all hip to it and they all talked about it. When it came out a huge universe of bloggers knew about it.
Margo: The Progressive group Move On had a chapter to download at their website. The blog Daily Kos, started by Markos Moulitsas, just raved about it.
Ian: It's the largest Progressive blog out there. It has about a million visitors a day. He said, "I never say you have to go out and buy this book, but I'm saying it now. Go out and get this book!" We watched sales go from wherever it was in sales to the top of the list.
VBM: So here is another way that the Internet has really impacted your business.
Ian: Oh yes. So we've shifted under Margo's leadership from doing back list, how-to, practical, sustainable living and growing, sheltering and energy. We continue to publish there, but we've shifted also into the political realm.
Margo: Since I came back in 2003, there's been quite a bit of reorganizing and restructuring.
VBM: How many employees do you have?
Margo: We're now up to 16. We have a warehouse in Brattleboro and we have three people down there. We've worked to get all that inhouse, and we've also had a reinvigorating of the editorial mission. The company was just getting narrower and narrower into these fringe areas instead of reaching out to a bigger audience. It's really shifted our perspective when you go from selling five to 10,000 copies of a book a year to selling 150,000 copies in 2004' and 100,000 in 2005 of Don't Think of an Elephant. It also raised the profile of the company, so we're getting better submissions. We definitely have this very exciting front list going on. I don't know if You read the New York Times, but Tom Friedman two days ago wrote an editorial on The New Red, White and Blue It's Green. I was really amazed that he was throwing down the gauntlet. You feel like, wow, we're well positioned for the future because finally this stuff is going to start to be embraced. I think the public is so far ahead of the politicians on this.
Ian: I can remember for years in the 1990s, because I tuned in to the peak oil idea before most people were aware of it, and I thought our list will get such a boost when people understand that concept, and they just now, since late 2005 I'd say, are beginning to grapple with it, including Congress. At least the House of Representatives. When it hits, and we don't know if it has hit yet, but when it truly hits and the oil supply curve crosses the demand curve, the kinds of backlist books that we still publish are going to do very well.
VBM: I interviewed Dave Bonta of the Solar Store, which sells alternative energy systems in Vermont, and he was saying that the technology has now caught up with the times and with the economy. I did some articles for my paper about it, and when you go see these houses that are off line and energy efficient and self-sufficient, well they're not hippie houses anymore. It's a world ahead as far as quality.
Ian: Vermont has already been a little ahead of the rest of the country.
Margo: Vermont has the highest per capita amount of solar energy in the country, even though we have no sun.
Ian: The Department of Energy bluelisted us as not feasible for solar electric generation.
VBM: It's very interesting that a lot of ideas that were sort of percolating around 20 or 25 years ago, it seems their time has come.
Margo: Too bad no one says, "Hey, those guys were right! Maybe we should pay attention to them."
VBM: Do you see anything else unusual coming down the road that people will want to find out about through your books?
Margo: Interestingly enough, we're doing a book called Serve God, Save the Planet by an evangelical Christian, who is part of a whole evangelical movement to stop global warming. This could potentially be a very big thing. Do I really believe that the evangelical community is really going to step up? I don't know. It's hard to believe. But there are some very big players in this and they have huge churches and they are preaching about it.
VBM: Some of the evangelical churches have 5,000 or 10,000 people attending every Sunday.
Margo: Yes. Religion is a whole new area for us, but we tend to come at these things from a couple of different directions. So if it turns out to be a movement that comes at global warming from that perspective, we're open to it.
VBM: I hadn't really heard much about that, though I follow religion pretty closely. I was a Jehovah's Witness for over 30 year years.
Ian: You were?
VBM: I was. I left about 10 years ago.
Ian: So you're a reformed Witness?
VBM: Yes, I'm definitely no longer a Christian. I left that all behind.
Ian: That makes two of us.
VBM: I've actually been very active in the ex-Witness and antiWitness movement, which has a huge presence on the Internet. I'm concerned with some of the dangers associated with some of the Witness teachings, and with other fundamentalist/literalist religions as well. As you've said with your books and with politics, the Internet is an unbelievably effective tool for getting ideas out there.
Ian: We're also publishing what I would say is the major critique of monotheistic religion that's been done since Nietsche. We haven't even titled the book yet, but it's in and we'll publish it next fall. It's written by a mythologist, and it's very powerful.
VBM: I found that when you step back from a literalist or fundamentalist view of the Bible, something that you may truly have believed, and you examine that belief, you can really see where all of that came from. Those ideas just didn't spring out of thin air. When you start reading someone like Joseph Campbell and a few other writers, you see that all those things in the Bible weren't all that original or new. It's all part of a greater mythology.
Ian: You'll like this book. We'll send you a review copy.
VBM: So how is the company organized at this point? Ian, you've got some other things going and are not so involved at this point with Chelsea Green, right?
Margo: He's a director of the company, but he's not running the company. I'm the one who runs the company now. I stepped back in a few years ago after raising our kids.
VBM: And you stepped out at that time Ian?
Ian: No I moved out and Stephen Morris stepped in between me and Margo, so the company has had three CEOs. Stephen came aboard as an employee around 1996, then he took the reins as CEO in 1998 and he left in 2002 when Margo came back, and it's been very much under her visionary control since then.
Margo: Ian has become an artist, and he's publishing Vermont Commons.
VBM: What kind of art do you do?
Ian: I'm a painter. I did the cover on our latest catalog. I founded the Two Rivers printmaking studio here in this building.
VBM: Does your staff do the design work on your books?
Margo: We work with Peter Holm up in Waterbury and his company Sterling Hill Productions. He does all our production, nearly all of our interior design and some of our covers. He's great, and has saved us from having to have all of that in-house.
Ian: He maintains the care and design that we've put into the books from day one. That's one thing that hasn't changed.
Margo: We've maintained the design quality, and we've always used recycled paper, even though it costs more.
VBM: What does a typical book sell for you. A book that would do well for you would sell how many copies?
Margo: The backlist books, like Eliot Coleman's gardening books, still sell 5000 a year, and if you add up all the new editions over the years, they've sold a couple of hundred thousand. We hope to sell 30,000 to 40,000 in that first edition, which could be over five or six years, selling maybe 5000 or 6000 each year. As there is more interest in these subjects, those initial sales will go up.
Ian: We do a lot of books that sell 4000 to 8000 that first year, and then taper off from that.
Margo: The other thing is that you can keep books in print now with print, on demand. So when a book gets down to under a thousand copies a year you can just do print on demand as the orders come in. Traditionally you would have let those books go out of print. In fact we're getting some older out-of-print books back into print.
Ian: Fifteen years ago we did The Vermont Paper, and that had petered out, but because of this movement around Vermont independence, now people can order it, and even though we don't have it in inventory we can have it printed on demand and make it available.
VBM: How large is your backlist?
Margo: I'd say 230 titles.
VBM: And your current list?
Margo: You have two seasons a year, and we're doing nine or 10 new books this season. We do about 20 a year, which is about double what we used to do. We've doubled our sales in the last four years, so we're on a pretty steep growth curve.
Ian: We closed out at pretty close to $3 million in sales in 2005, and I would guess that with the trajectory we're on we'll be at around $5 million in another three years.
Margo: The book business is like that, when you get a bestseller like "Don't Think of an Elephant." I think the future is digital. Google and Amazon, everyone's trying to get in line to control that content, and it's kind of treacherous territory out there. But once again, you know they're fixing their sights on the big guys so that helps. In terms of publishing, we're doing something that most other publishers are not. The approach is more of a partnership with the authors and a commitment to quality and environmental values. Social and progressive values. So I feel like that's the future, that whole socially responsible business and mission driven approach. Vermont's a wonderful place to be for that, because there is so much of that going on here.