Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Meet Chelsea Green, Part 2: One Word at a Time

Editor-in-chief, managing editor, editor-at-large, contributing editor. Anybody confused yet?

“Editing” is a big umbrella, with all kinds of widely diverse stuff under it: poring over manuscripts, trolling for new books and authors, drawing up contracts, setting deadlines, etc.

Perched atop the editorial food chain at Chelsea Green is editor-in-chief John Barstow, a survivor of the New York City publishing-industry mosh pit. After 10 years of commuting from his Middlebury, Vt., home to W.W. Norton in New York, he was weary of the road. He was also being pressured to relocate to New York. He didn’t want to.

“So I put feelers out last October, and that was exactly the moment (Chelsea Green publisher) Margo (Baldwin) decided she needed an editor-in-chief. … It just shows how it was meant to happen,” he says. With a laugh, he adds, “I can’t be rational about it. I’m receptive to things happening in that way.”

His title, Barstow explains, “means a lot of things – acquiring new titles; I negotiate all contracts; I work closely with staff, particularly the other editors. In a growing company, part of my role is to pulling back to look with her at the bigger picture, and direction, development, how we’re going to do things.”

Barstow also makes sure the company’s “backlist” – books that have been in print for a while – isn’t neglected. Some older books need revising from time to time, so Barstow oversees that process as well. Michael Phillips’ The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist, for example – first published in 1998, and one of the anchors of the backlist – has just been revised for a third edition.

Barstow has learned that things are much less hierarchical at a small publisher than at a big one.

“Any one of us can get pulled into areas where we have important stuff to offer, but our primary areas need most of our attention,” he says. “That’s something for me to watch out for.”

Barstow relishes the constant interaction with his entire staff, an alien concept in the glass-and-steel monoliths of the Big Apple.

But ultimately, it comes down to the books: quality of content, quality of production, quality of promotion.

“It’s inception, gestation, birth – and that’s where a lot of houses fall down,” he observes. “After the baby’s born, it’s often left to fend for itself, and that doesn’t work very well. So the other important job is to get the word out about what we’re doing and who we are,” he adds. “There’s a lot of excitement here now because of the Lakoff success (Don’t Think About an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate); it creates a lot of opportunity for us.”

The flip side of success is the threat of being “seduced” away from one’s prime objectives by opportunity.

“It can be hazardous because you can get a little intoxicated,” Barstow notes. Chelsea Green, which sometimes went a long time between knocks on the doors by good writers peddling good books, now sees hordes gathering at the gate.

“We’re seeing so much more,” Barstow marvels. “We’ve been deluged with proposals – mostly from progressive writers and thinkers and doers. … So that’s really exciting.”

At the same time, an increased tilt away from compost and toward politics creates risks with respect to staying up to date. Political currents change much faster than compost does.

“But it’s great – the mission of publishing everything to effect the kind of changes that so many of us are desperate for,” Barstow adds. “People change their lives (reading these books), and it’s real – real, real, real.”

Barstow’s free-time enthusiasms include birding, sea kayaking, cross-country skiing and cooking. He likes to be “with a lot of people and cook and take a long time; sharing food, eating out.”

Barstow laments that most once-independent big publishers have been bought up by conglomerates whose only true commitment is to the bottom line.

“That’s what I call ‘cancerous capitalism,’ “he says. ”Unstable capitalism is what we’re suffering in this country. Media power can be very serious, especially with a government that’s fascistic.”


Rising fast up the Chelsea Green ladder is Marcy Brant, 25, who signed on as an editorial assistant 20 months ago and has morphed into managing editor. Early last year, Chelsea Green staffer and fellow Columbia School of Journalism alum Erin Hanrahan (we’ll get to her later) was spreading the word at Columbia of an entry-level job at Chelsea Green.

Brant had never heard of the company, but “I was one of the few people who thought moving to Vermont from New York City sounded like a fine idea,” she laughs.

Short story: applied, was hired.

The company’s mission, Brant says, “was something that really appealed to me. I’d also always wanted to work for a smaller, independent publisher and do the kinds of books that Chelsea Green is doing. That’s just a bonus for me; it’s really in line with what I believe.”

Her early duties were menial but important: wading through the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts and weeding out material worthy of a closer look. In less than two years, she was tagged to replace her departing boss.

“I enjoy corresponding with authors,” she says. “Once a book comes out of developmental editing, I schedule it, and I work with (the book’s designers) to make to make sure it stays on schedule.” She organizes art work; hires freelance copy editors, proofreaders and indexers; and monitors their activities “to make sure they are doing what we expect, and doing it on time.” Sometimes she writes cover copy, but “often I more like prompt people to write it.”

Brant is always juggling several books-in-preparation at once.

“There are times when I feel the time crunch,” she acknowledges. “But I do feel like we’re all in that crunch together – it’s really supportive in that way.”

Brant lives at Cobb Hill, a planned “co-housing” community in Hartland that began more than a decade ago as a vision by the late author Donella Meadows. Cobb Hill emphasizes interaction among residents and sharing common tasks.

“I spend quite a bit of time doing community things,” she explains. “We have dinners twice a week; there’s a lot of social energy around the community.”

Raised in a musical family (her mother is a piano teacher) she plays classical piano but is modest about her proficiency. She also knits. Like many lovers of words who work with words, she wishes she had more time to read for pleasure.

“I occasionally read for fun,” she says. “But sometimes it’s hard to come home and pick up a book when that’s what you’ve been doing all day.”


Not every Chelsea Green stalwart works at the head office, as we shall see. Developmental editor Ben Watson, telecommutes part-time from his home in Francistown, N.H.

An early admirer of Chelsea Green’s books who has consulted for the house since the early ‘90s, Watson devotes most of his attention these days to new acquisitions, particularly in the areas of “artisan food, sustainable agriculture and organic gardening.”

In touch with editor-in-chief John Barstow on a weekly basis, Watson says much of their work – acquisition, author relations – overlaps. Barstow’s arrival on the scene has allowed Watson to spend less time on contracts and budgeting, more time on “bird-dogging new projects” and follow-up. He also writes catalog copy, and supports promotion, marketing and publicity.

The start-to-finish time frame on a book can be two years or longer, “so it’s shepherding the book from concept to beyond the printed book into the realm of sales.”

Watson sounds a recurring theme among Chelsea Green employees: a synergy between his personal beliefs and the company’s mission.

“I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe in the kinds of books we’re doing, and the authors, and the importance of that message out there,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of publishing houses that are doing these sorts of books on a coordinated basis. … You could count them easily on one hand, and have fingers left over. It’s an important and significant long-term effort.”

Watson notes that Chelsea Green tries to keep its books in print for a long time, and he sees each as “one more brick in the wall – not a totally independent effort, but something that’s coordinated with what’s gone before and a stepping stone to what’s going to come afterward.”

He considers his involvement in Margo and Ian Baldwin’s greater focus over the past decade on “the practice and politics of sustainable living” as participating in “a conscious decision – it was an area that was underserved. … It’s a very forward-looking publishing agenda.”

The book industry, Watson observes dyspeptically, “is eating itself alive, and that’s not working.” He describes how big publishers once acquired small publishers, used them to artificially sweeten their own bottom lines, and then disposed of the little guys.

Then came the Internet.

“There has been Amazon, which some people said would be the death knell of independent publishers, or chain bookstores. … And you know what? Books aren’t dead. They still are relevant. People still need them.”

Chelsea Green, Watson notes, “has always been really adept at finding the core audience for books, and expanding outward from there.” Books that a cynical, corporate bean counter might dismiss as too expensive can exceed a bean counters expectations because counters of beans don’t share the passion and commitment of growers of beans.

“We’ve found that people who are really serious about doing things, or learning about things, appreciate the value of having a more thorough, in-depth and philosophical approach to a subject than the cheaper, less useful books. … Maybe on some of our books we don’t sell as many – but we don’t have to, because we’re on the cutting edge of the intellectual side of things.”

He cites the imminent publication of Edible Forest Gardens – “a huge, two-volume set” by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier that will be the first comprehensive book ever to focus on Eastern North America and temperate-climate permaculture.

“It took seven years to percolate out,” Watson recalls. “We just took a leap of faith and said, ‘It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be, and if it takes two volumes to do it, that’s going to be very expensive – but it’s going to be the most important book that’s ever been published on the subject.’ ”

Like many Chelsea Green folk, Watson finds himself outdoors a lot during his spare time: hiking, gardening, etc. To him, the synthesis seems natural.

“Much of what you do, if you’re doing your job, is related to what you’re interested in doing, too,” he says. “Because otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?”

□□□If Ben Watson’s telecommute from the New Hampshire woods to downtown White River Junction, Vt., seems like a stretch, consider editor-at-large Jennifer Nix, who operates out of San Francisco. About a year after Chelsea Green first appeared on her personal radar, she met Baldwin through a friend and took on a project to raise some money for a writer’s advance.

“I remember Margo sent me a box of books right before Christmas year before last,” Nix recalls. “And I remember thinking it was the best Christmas present – a box full of hope.”

Nix embodies another recurring Chelsea Green theme: people who signed on for just one project, “and then it turned into, ‘Hey, why don’t you work for us?’ and then it was just trying to figure out what I could do best for her.”

Nix has been geopolitically motivated ever since, fresh out of college, she co-founded a nonprofit called Building With Books.

“We built schools in developing countries, but we work with high school students here, too,” she says. “We get them excited about education by teaching them about these villages in developing countries, and showing them how much education is appreciated there. So these kids are raising money to build sister schoolhouses; a school in the Bronx has a sister schoolhouse in Nepal.”

That project led to work with other nonprofit organizations, and finally into journalism – first at a newspaper and radio stations in upstate New York. Hired by National Public Radio to produce a show called On the Media, she became interested in media reform. She has since written for The Nation, The Observer and such Web sites as Salon, Alternet and Media Channel.

Nix focuses on new acquisitions and “trying to generate new business partnerships and alliances – different ways of thinking about what’s possible in publishing. It’s not just books – multimedia stuff, blogging of course.”

Nix wrote the very first post on Chelsea Green’s nascent blog, The Flaming Grasshopper. Titled ”Sleeping With the Enemy,” it took progressive authors to task for signing with big publishers for big bucks instead of allying themselves with small publishers.

It caused quite a stir, pro and con, and is still in the Flaming Grasshopper archives.

Nix and her husband own a 20-acre farm on Beaver Island, off the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, where they have a 150-year-old home and grow apples.

“I’m really happy, because the goals for my personal life and my professional life each are really in line,” she says. “And that’s a nice feeling.”

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