Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Small Is the New Big Thing

A large charge. A whopper. Big Sky Country. Big Oil. Walking Tall. The Great Plains. Great Caesar’s Ghost. Bring out the big guns.

For better or worse, hugeness has always been a big (get it?) part of the American spirit.

I suppose it has something to do with the spirit in which the pioneers had busted out of the claustrophobic broom closet of Europe and spilled onto a sprawling continent that must have seemed as big as the moon.

And nobody lived there. Nobody of consequence, anyway. One might consider the taming of this continent, and the substantial annihilation of (yawn) Native-American culture, to have been America’s first hostile takeover.

Where business is concerned, it has been an article of Darwinian faith for at least a couple of decades that bigness was an accelerating engine powered by Manifest Destiny: chain stores, box stores, megamergers (any culture in which such a term as “hostile takeover” even exists should be taking a long, hard look at itself) — the large inexorably consuming or displacing the small.

How many airlines were there a generation ago? How many are there now? Companies that once were towering monoliths of industry are now subsidiaries of Brobdingnagian conglomerates that morph and merge so rapidly and continuously that it’s hard to keep track.

Big deal.

In the book industry, it’s not quite that simple. Oh, it’s quite true that many if not most of the once-powerful publishing firms that had a taste for adventure and risk have largely been absorbed by faceless entities obsessed with the bottom line — entities to which art and literature are commodities, and nothing more.

But look closer, and something else is going on, too. Something that, if the big-league bean counters are paying any attention at all, should make them at least a little nervous. (Or a big nervous, if you will.)

Statistics from the Association of American Publishers indicate that the top 50 publishers last year earned at least $20 billion from a total market of $28 billion. But according to “Under the Radar,” a study published in April by the Book Industry Study Group, there are thousands of small book publishers out there, earning between $1 million and $10 apiece in a total market estimated at $11 billion.

An Associated Press story on the study, posted on the Web by MSNBC, listed such publishers as Chelsea Green Publishing Co. (2004 sales: $3.7 million); Boys Town Press (2004 sales: $1.7 million), and even Burt Levy, a race-car driver who has cleared over $1 million by self-publishing a series of novels about his motorized subculture.

Don’t put away your irony detector just yet. The key to the success of all this smallness is — well, bigness: the Internet, to be exact, and the flourishing of the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

According to Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin and her counterparts, Internet book sellers — in contrast to the traditional neighborhood bookstore — offer an infinite amount of electronic “shelf space.” Chelsea Green’s improbable best-seller Don’t Think of an Elephant, a self-rescue manual for political progressives by George Lakoff, wouldn’t have had a prayer of elbowing Danielle Steel and John Grisham off the shelves of the bookshop on the corner.

On the Internet, there’s room for everybody, no matter how small, and a little fortuitous and well-timed publicity can go a long way. A Publishers Weekly review of Lakoff’s manifesto last October, for example, generated nationwide word of mouth before last year’s presidential election that put Don’t Think of an Elephanton book buyers’ radar and The New York Times‘ best-seller list — spurring sales of more than 150,000 copies.

This from a company that operates out of one corner of one floor of a former Tip Top Bread bakery in the struggling railroad town of White River Junction, Vt., and considers a book that sells 5,000 copies a success.

The rules that have ruled the publishing industry for centuries are rapidly unraveling, all right.

And that’s big news.

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