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Book publishing enjoys a certain social prestige—it can be both moderately profitable and extremely rewarding in psychological benefits. The odds that a publishing entrepreneur will succeed at this business seem to be related to the degree of care and thought given to planning and the sometimes-tricky balancing act of effective management.
Sustainability is a balance of economy and ecology. That is, how we satisfy human needs and still preserve what we have in nature. Examples of this are the forest industry and energy. We must find ways to harvest a forest without destroying the forest. Similarly, we must find practical alternatives to energy sources, such as solar and wind power, so that we don't harm the atmosphere and deplete natural resources.
The following is an account of Chelsea Green Publishing Company, a small publishing business that has successfully found its niche, while at the same time has made (and continues to make) the world a bit more sustainable.
In 1985, Ian Baldwin and his wife Margo founded Chelsea Green Publishing Company in their house located near Chelsea, Vermont's green. It was in the middle of the Reagan era—not an especially favorable time to start a publishing company that even remotely highlighted environmental issues. In fact, the books that the Baldwins published then didn't really have a unifying theme, they were simply "nice" books that were well written, finely edited and beautifully produced.
Earlier in his life, Ian spent five years as an editor at Holt, Rinehart, Winston before leaving to join the Institute for World Policy, a non-profit organization with a mission to organize intellectuals from around the world in a quest for world peace. He later worked as a consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund on a project to convince Pacific Gas and Electric Company that through conservation, co-generation, and the use of renewable resources, the utility could avoid building new nuclear or coal power plants.
In 1984 the Baldwins' neighbor, gardening writer Eliot Coleman, shared with them a story that Helen Nearing had given him years earlier. The author of the fictional piece was Jean Giono, and the title was The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness, which first appeared in Vogue in 1954. It was a tale of a shepherd who singlehandedly reforested thousands of acres in war-ravaged Europe.
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In 1989 Chelsea Green published The New Organic Grower and in 1992, Four-Season Harvest, both by Eliot Coleman. Also in 1992, the Baldwins published Loving and Leaving the Good Life by Helen Nearing, the late self-sufficiency pioneer. Helen, with husband Scott Nearing, has inspired an entire generation who are the current movers and shakers of the contemporary homesteading movement.
The Nearings took alternative paths in their long-lived lives (Scott died at age 100 and Helen passed away in 1995 at the age of 92). Originally from New York City, they spent 30 years in Vermont and then moved to a homestead at Forest Farm in Harbourside, Maine. Forest Farm is now preserved as The Good Life Center by the Trust for Public Land. Not only did they live self-sufficiently on their farm, but they also hosted stewards and taught visitors to learn more about practical, simple methods of living. Chelsea Green now publishes many of Scott and Helen Nearing's books. Homesteading is the concept from which sustainable living was spawned.
Producing an average of 10 to 14 new titles a year (although this year will see 24), Chelsea Green is a small player in a publishing industry dominated by New York-based firms that often release thousands of titles a year. Companies like Warner, Random House and Simon & Schuster can attract writers with huge advances and can push their books aggressively with huge marketing budgets. On the retail side, huge bookstore chains like Barnes and Nobles often determine the success of a book by deciding to sell it or where to position it in the store.
And yet, Chelsea Green appears to surviving, in fact thriving. This is because Chelsea Green Publishing has found a niche in the publishing world where other publishers have not gone as of yet. The Straw Bale House, for example, details the notion of building shelter with straw. The book, although first doubted by book sellers, is richly detailed and illustrated. It's sold a surprising 100,000 copies in three years, despite the fact there are fewer than 1,000 straw bale homes in the U.S. (some states have not as yet "approved" straw bale houses).
Other examples of Chelsea Green titles include A Patch of Eden, America's Inner-City Gardeners and Gaviotas, A Village to Reinvent the World. A Patch of Eden describes in detail successful community garden projects in places like Harlem, North Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. It tells the hopeful story of urban gardeners who transform rubble-strewn lots into neighborhood sanctuaries. Gaviotas was released just last spring (1998). After listening to journalist/author, Alan Weisman on public radio discussing his story about a remarkable Columbian village called Gaviotas, Chelsea Green's editor, Jim Schley realized the parallel between the story of Gaviotas and The Man Who Planted Trees. Jim contacted Mr. Weisman and convinced him to write a book about this special community that has grown like a flower among the weeds of guerilla warfare, harsh environment, and drug-corrupted society.
Established in 1971 by Paola Lugari, Gaviotas is located in the Ilanos, the vast, treeless equitorial savannah where the climate is harsh and the soils unproductive. Under Lugari's direction, the people of Gaviotas have invented devices to harnass the energy of sun and wind, making the village a model for sustainable development all over the world. What is most notable, however, is the reappearance of the Amazonian rain forest there. Over the years the villagers planted the plains with two million Caribbean pines. Where once only a dry, arid savannah spread for hectares, cool shade, forest plants and trees now exist.
Sustainable living, as a marketing niche can be pretty broad—encompassing exposes to guide books—and just because what lies between two book covers is a "hit" does not necessarily guarantee success for a publishing company. The other ingredients needed to produce publishing prosperity are the management and operations of each department—publishing, editorial, production, marketing, and business.
Aside from having a loose work environment that encourages employees to take responsibility for themselves and their departments, what's so unique about Chelsea Green's publishing departments?
In 1996, Stephen Morris joined Chelsea Green as full-time publisher. Under his leadership the company has steadily increased its publication of new titles, sales, and decreased its amount of returns. Stephen, named president of the firm in 1996 and named publisher in 1997, oversees a staff of eleven employees. He spent 12 years at Vermont Castings, a Randolph-based company whose wood stoves became popular in the years following the 1970's energy crisis. In an e-mail interview, Stephen writes, "I watched Vermont Castings evolve from an entrepreneurial success to corporate sell-out and thought I could help others avoid their mistakes."
In the early 1990's, Stephen consulted for a number of firms, including Chelsea Green and Real Goods Trading Company. Eventually, he went to work full time for Real Goods and helped form the publishing relationship with Chelsea Green. At that point Chelsea Green, (now based in White River Junction) was in financial crisis. Staff had been cut from 11 to four. The company needed a focus. Stephen helped the Baldwins by identifying three different areas of potential focus and said, "Pick one." It was a critical turning point for the Baldwins as they had to pick one and eliminate the other two.
Stephen uses the term "sustainable hedonism" to describe the company's theme and target audience. A Chelsea Green reader wants to garden without pesticides or build innovative houses; but they also want to have fun. In his introduction to The Hard Work of Simple Living, A Somewhat Blank Book for the Sustainable Hedonist, Stephen remarks, "We live simply at Chelsea Green, and we publish books that help folks live simply. We do not, however, publish "simple living" books, for the "simple" reason that our experience has taught us that real simple living is hard work."
Editor Jim Schley and assistant editor, Hannah Silverstein explained that to the author, Chelsea Green is attractive because it is a "backlist" publisher, that is, books are kept in print for 15 years. Jim maintains that a large part of his job is to attract and specialize in authors and books that explore contemporary environmental issues. He looks for books that are original, fresh, comprehensive, fluent, and practical.
More uniqueness. The manuscripts Jim selects have dual or even triple purpose (the long-lasting sustainable concept seems to rear its head in every aspect at CG). In the upper left corner of the back cover you'll find a description of the book, essentially to assist bookstores with categorical placement on the shelves. Typical examples of Chelsea Green book descriptions read: Current Affairs/Gardening, Gardening/Agribusiness, and Architecture/Energy. The how-to books are much more than just manuals on building, baking, recycling, and planting.
A book may give practical organic growing tips for the novice and at the same time sound business advice to a professional. Jim, a solar advocate and carpenter in his own right, knows his way around much of the material presented in manuscripts, but if a subject is out of his range, he consults environmental and specialty editors such as Donella Meadows (The Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits), Noel Perrin (First, Second and Third Person Rural), and Michael Potts (Independent Home).
From editing, books then move through the production phase. This is where the ink meets the paper and many decisions are made regarding physical appearance. Everything from cover design to what type of paper will be chosen is decided by production manager, Martha Twombley. What's exceptional in Martha's work is that she is intensively researching the use of chlorine-free paper to produce a fine book and at the same time adhere to sustainable living standards. She realizes the exorbitant amount of paper that is consumed within the publishing industry, and so is motivated to find the "sustainably correct" paper. One book became a test for a bamboo paper experiment, but Martha deemed that the paper was not up to "fine" standards, and moreover, she discovered bamboo crops are threatened. Another alternative may be paper made from hemp, but this cannot be seriously considered until Governor Dean legalizes this sister to the marijuana plant At present, the paper that is used at Chelsea Green is 30% post-consumer recycled, the maximum percentage allowance for long-lasting pages.
Writers clearly appreciate aggressive marketing of their books. Some authors claim that they've received more help from Chelsea Green's two-person marketing department—Tracy Blanchard (promotion) and Alice Blackmer (sales)—than they've ever received from major publishing houses. Tracy, in addition to hounding public radio, daily newspapers, and college universities, maintains relations with Chelsea Green's co-publishing partners. The publishing company has worked to develop these partnerships with companies outside the book trade that are committed to the idea, products, and lifestyle of sustainable living. One such partnership is with Real Goods Trading Company, a California-based catalog merchant that sells products for energy independence. A second marketing alliance has been developed with Burlington-based Gardener's Supply, located at the Intervale. Gardener's Supply is one of the leading mail-order suppliers of gardening products. There is also a third partnership in the midst called Co-Op America.
Not at all similar to these mission-driven mail-order businesses are the bookstores. According to Alice, they're much like warehouses or humanless manufacturers— "there is no regard or respect for the books themselves." The New York-based corporate headquarters of such bookstores are the decision makers of which books will be carried by their chains, so the local Vermont stores don't have a say in the book-carrying selection process and certainly won't feel any connection to even local publishers such as Chelsea Green.
Alice likes to give a personal touch to her part of the marketing department, though. She will sometimes go to local chain bookstores herself—areas where even usually reps don't go. Alice claims that the folks at Burlington's Border Books and Barnes & Nobles enthusiastically welcome her a few times a year. On yet another positive note for the company, Alice says that the reps have reported, "Chelsea Green is a 'favorite' because of the high quality books and trustworthy ethics. Most of the trade bookstores will order at east one of each book from the trade catalog—that's how it's happened for the last two years anyway."
Careful to keep relations between trade stores separate from those with the public (bookstores may feel "undermined"), Chelsea Green generates a newspaper, The Junction. It allows individuals to take advantage of discounts (not offered to bookstores), read the stories behind some of the writers' ideas, see the list and descriptions of Chelsea Green's titles, and even offers membership into the Invisible Universe Book Club. The "invisible universe," according to Ian Baldwin, is not bounded by geographical terms, but rather defined by the emerging concept of sustainable living, the notion that human needs—for shelter, food, energy, medicine and work— can and should be met in ways that allow future generations to flourish. This concept is the common denominator of The Junction subscribers, Chelsea Green readers, and sustainable living advocates alike.
Although Chelsea Green's marketing tactics are clever and specialized, publishing, especially for a small company, remains to be a difficult business. Booksellers may not pay their bills for 4 months and can collect credit for books they return. However, business is looking bright at Chelsea Green. The annual sales figure hit a record $2 million in 1998. And based on projected monthly sales, 1999 is already shaping up as though that figure may exceed $2.5 million. As far as returns are concerned, Sandi Eaton, customer service representative, reports that Chelsea Green's remain at the low rate of 13-16%—they usually budget for 15. The forecast for the company’s future looks bright. Stephen remarks, "I see continued growth, but organic, controllable growth. In ten years I expect us to be a $10-15 million dollar company, located in a physical headquarters that demonstrates techniques of sustainable living."
According to Stephen, the Internet has "leveled the field for smaller publishing houses." Amazon.com, the country's leading on-line bookseller, named four of Chelsea Green's volumes to its top 10 "how-to" list for 1997. Several Chelsea Green books were also featured on Amazon's top list of gardening and home-building books. Chelsea Green's website features Amazon.com. The website also informs visitors that "buying a book is a political act (see www.chelseagreen.com) so that book buyers may make an informed choice.
Concerning electronic publishing, the typical Chelsea Green contract reads, "electronic rights live with the author." The company shies away from that aspect of publishing for now. Alice remarks that the company still favors the idea of touching and holding a book in the hands; "it’s organic in nature."
Writers who are published through Chelsea Green can certainly appreciate the gentle, yet effective and focused editing that is offered and the creative marketing techniques that are employed. The books, in turn, provide information to those who want to live more sustainably, and just as importantly, are written and designed to appeal to the lover of good books—Chelsea Green seems to draw much of its strength from the books that it publishes.
In addition, this company draws strength from its foundation, management, and operations. Author Alan Weisman puts it very well: "In a world where vast corporations now rarely deign to engage with mere mortals directly—responding only to the clout of stockholders and relegating the rest of us to voice-mail prompts—a company devoted to quality and to what customers really want is a blessing." Chelsea Green is a company founded, managed, and operated by individuals who care about the future of the earth as well as the present quality of life and community.
This is a successful time for Chelsea Green as long as the company stays focused on sustainable living, a subject that remains to be unexplored by others. By focusing on this niche through books on the environment, alternative energy, innovative home construction and organic gardening, Chelsea Green has found its own sustainable future.
Blackmer, Alice. Personal interview. April 6, 1999
Blanchard, Tracy. Personal interview. April 6, 1999
Dillon, John. Chelsea’s Green. Vermont Sunday Magazine. April 5, 1998
Eaton, Sandi. Personal interview. April 6, 1999
Schley, Jim. Personal interview. March 31, 1999
Silverstein, Hannah. Personal interview. March 31, 1999
Twombley, Martha. ed. The Junction. V3 no1. Winter, 1999
Twombley, Martha. Personal interview. March 31, 1999
Morris, Stephen. E-Mail interview. April 15, 1999