New Projects Fuel Sustainability at Chelsea Green
From the content of its books to the paper it prints on, Chelsea Green Publishing is known for its focus on sustainability. But if that word suggests that operations at the Vermont-based publishing house move at a modest pace, president and publisher Margo Baldwin quickly dispels it when she says, with no small amount of pleasure, “There’s just one more thing.”
“Just one more thing” includes a number of new projects that touch nearly every facet of the 34-year-old indie publisher. Sales are up 7% since 2016, and in one week in early March, Chelsea Green launched a redesigned website, completed moving 500,000 books to a new warehouse, and opened its first overseas office, in the U.K.
The U.K. venture is evidence of a content-driven focus that shapes Baldwin’s overall approach as a publisher. In 2014, Chelsea Green’s U.K. distributor, Green Books, was sold, leaving a void in the market for books on sustainability and the environment. To fill that gap, Baldwin found a new distribution partner, Publishers Group UK, and published a handful of titles with authors and topics geared specifically for the U.K. market.
Among them was Adam Federman’s Fasting and Feasting, a biography of English food writer Patience Gray, who was a contemporary of Julia Child. The book “got a lot of coverage in pretty much every major newspaper,” Baldwin said. “Nobody had ever done a biography of her.”
When Baldwin decided to release the book in the U.S. late last year, it received good reviews. Fasting and Feasting was Chelsea Green’s first New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times book award. To date, Baldwin said, the book has sold 2,000 copies in the U.K. and 8,000 in the U.S., affirming her belief that “we can creatively publish into the U.K. market and support our books with marketing and publicity.”
With sales in the U.K. were up 167% in 2017 compared to 2015, Baldwin decided it was time to up Chelsea Green’s overseas investment with the opening of the U.K. office, which will be staffed by a part-time publicist, a commissioning editor, and managing director Matt Haslum, who previously served as marketing director at Faber & Faber and has extensive digital-marketing experience. The office will produce one to two books in the U.K. this year, and two to three in 2019.
Improved digital reach is part of Baldwin’s overall strategy for the house, which has long relied on direct consumer sales through its website. Originally content driven, Chelsea Green’s site was repurposed three years ago to place a greater emphasis on e-commerce. It ended up downplaying creative content too much, according to Baldwin, who was dissatisfied with the results.
“It didn’t really work in terms of being creative,” Baldwin said. That led to the newly designed site, which marks a return to the publisher’s earlier content-driven approach.
Just as the web redesign was nearing completion, the last trucks carrying Chelsea Green’s inventory to a new warehouse in Virginia were departing from its Claremont, N.H., warehouse. The move signals the publisher’s new warehousing and distribution agreement with Books International, based in Sterling, Va. After warehousing its own books for most of its history, Baldwin said that the manufacturer of their inventory system is discontinuing its support for the software, which prompted the change. Books International met Chelsea Green’s standards for sustainability, including its print-on-demand options.
“It was a good solution all the way around,” Baldwin said. “They can do color print-on-demand, hardcovers, and our galleys, and they can set inventory levels for slow-moving titles.”
Having outsourced fulfillment, Baldwin is freed up to focus on additional author and content-focused initiatives. They include a growing number of audiobooks released each year—roughly 10 in 2018—and expanding a relatively new line of health and wellness titles. The first of the titles, The Heal Your Gut Cookbook, was published in 2014. With 10 health-related books slated for this year, and no increase in the publisher’s overall annual output of 20–25 books, the focus on health marks a substantial shift. Baldwin sees it as “a natural progression… a lot of the health books are based on nutrition. Nutrition was so well linked to our food and farming books,” she explained.
Backlist titles still form the foundation of the house, accounting for 75% of revenue. Of the five highest-selling books at the press last year, The Art of Fermentation (2012), was #1, and two others were updates of books from the aughts. Given the strong long-term sales numbers on backlist, Baldwin looks for ways to continue working with her authors, partly through a two year-old partnership with sustainability-focused Sterling College. Via a cosponsored program, Chelsea Green authors teach classes at the college that are open to the general public.
“It’s a way for our authors to become teachers,” Baldwin said. “It gets them out.” And, she added, the authors are paid by the college to do it.
Ensuring that authors and employees are properly remunerated is important to Baldwin. Later this year, the company will finalize its transition to complete employee ownership through its employee stock-ownership plan.
With so many projects coming to fruition, Baldwin could be forgiven for taking a moment to pause. Instead, she said, the Sterling College partnership already has her thinking of something else new. “What we’d like to do is create some online courses that are built out of this content,” she said, and so, for Chelsea Green, it’s on to just one more thing.
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