An Interview with Margo Baldwin

Categories: Chelsea Green News
Posted on Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 at 9:31 am by jmccharen

Margo Baldwin, president and co-founder of Chelsea Green Publishing, is interviewed in Vermont Commons this month. Learn a little bit about the background of this small, visionary publishing house, nestled in the Green Mountains.

VC: Before we dive in, I’ve gotta ask a burning question. 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?

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.

The original interview is here.

Vermont Commons; Voices of Independence is a multimedia news journal dedicated to exploring the proposition that Vermonters might best govern themselves as a more sustainable independent republic once again.

If you’re interested in secession, be sure to check out our forthcoming book Bye Bye, Miss American Empire by Bill Kauffman. It explores the history of secessionist movements in America, who come from diverse political backgrounds but all agree that the Empire has overstretched its bounds.

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