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VT Business Magazine: An Interview with Founders Margo and Ian Baldwin

Feb 2006

Chelsea Green Publishing was established by Ian and Margo Baldwin in 1984, with the publication of The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. 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 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.

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 anti-Witness 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, 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.