Authentic Green – An Interview with Chelsea Green Publishing’s Margo Baldwin

Chelsea Green Publishing was established by Ian and Margo Baldwin in 1984, and got launched in a big way with the publication of The Man Who Planted Treesby Jean Giano. Today, Chelsea Green is considered the major publisher of books on sustainable living.  Since then, Chelsea Green titles have received a number of 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. 

Margo Baldwin

Margo Baldwin

Margo Baldwin stepped in to run the company in 2002, and in 2003 refashioned the company’s mission statement to reflect and reinforce its commitment to the political – as well as the practical – aspects of sustainable living.  She has always been an activist – in publishing as well as politics; including taking on such venerable icons of the publishing world as the New York Times and Barnes  Noble.  

Margo took time recently, in the middle of launching Obama’s Challenge during the Democratic National Convention, to talk about Chelsea Green and share her views on the future of publishing.

FPP:  What motivated you to become a publisher?

MB:  My husband and I moved to Vermont from Brooklyn with consulting jobs. After a year we had to figure out how to stay and be employed. Almost on a lark, we decided to start a publishing company. He had been in publishing but not for a long time and I had never done anything before in publishing. I bought him a letterpress book of poetry published and illustrated by Michael McCurdy and we decided we’d like to “do that.” Also, we wanted to find something we could do together while raising a family that would produce a beautiful and important “product.” Publishing good books seemed to fit the bill. Little did we know what that would mean

FPP:  When you started Chelsea Green in 1984, was it difficult to find a market for books on sustainable living?

MB:  When we started the company we were not doing books on sustainable living. We just wanted to do “important” books and thought we could be a general trade publisher. We discovered that we couldn’t stay in business unless we got focused and niched. We both had a commitment to environmental issues and our third book was The Man Who Planted Trees, which is one of the most inspiring books we have ever done and also probably one of the most successfully published books in our entire history: beautifully designed and produced with illustrations by Michael McCurdy, the famous wood engraver, and written by Jean Giono, one of France’s great authors. It has sold over half a million copies in all formats and editions and speaks to people today as well as it did almost 25 years ago. So that set the tone for our future publishing program. Then we signed up an old classmate of Ian’s, Eliot Coleman, to do The New Organic Grower, followed by The Four-Season Harvest. Eliot’s two books, in two editions each, have sold well over 300,000 copies and are selling two or three times better today than they did five years ago! So once we began to put a real backlist in place we decided to focus on all aspects of sustainable living. it wasn’t that hard to find the books but it was hard to sell them in a culture that was not at all focused on green living issues.

FPP:  The mission statement on your company website indicates that Chelsea Green is a “publishing leader for books on the politics and practice of sustainable living.” How has the balance between the politics and the sustainable practices shifted over time?

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

MB:  I stepped back into run the company in late 2002. Both Ian and I had stepped out of the day to day running of things around 1998 and the company was not doing very well. It had become too narrowly niched in the practical part, the how-to, and was not publishing books with broad appeal. I felt an urgency about the world’s current situation, especially the environmental crises we were facing, that we needed to address in more political ways. After spending about a year kind of cleaning things up on the operational side, we began broadening our editorial mission to include political books. In the spring of 2004, when we heard that George Lakoff was looking for a publisher for his short handbook on framing, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, we jumped at the chance and told him we could get it out before the election, which we did. That time we went from manuscript to bound books in seven weeks and it immediately took off. We ended up selling over 300,000 copies and it’s still selling. At the same time, we deepened our commitment to the practice side and began signing up new books by key practitioners in the fields of renewable energy, organic gardening and sustainable agriculture, eco-cuisine, green building, as well as bringing out new editions of our best backlist books. So now it feels like a good balance.

FPP:  What do you look for in the titles you choose to publish?

MB:  Very high quality of content, good writing, timeliness, backlist potential, content that is at the leading edge of our key areas of interest. With lots of publishers jumping into the green arena, it’s really important that we are signing up the people on the leading edge of what’s coming next. We have developed a great reputation over the years that authors seek us out.

FPP:  What is the typical profile of a Chelsea Green author if there is such a thing?

MB:  Not sure there is such a thing except a strong commitment to changing the world for the better. Our authors are not writing books, nor are we publishing them, just to turn trees into paper for their own sake. We are publishing books to make a difference and to promote our sustainability mission. Often our backlist authors are not writers first, but practitioners. But even on the political side, writers like Naomi Wolf (The End of America) and Robert Kuttner (Obama’s Challenge), are writing these books to change the cultural dynamic, not just to have another book out.

FPP:  Can you identify 2 or 3 authors you admire and would like to publish?

MB:  Bill McKibben, Barbara Kingsolver, Paul Hawken, Michael Pollen. I’d love to do books with them some day!

FPP:  Given the concerns about global climate change and all of its effects on the planet, are you seeing more demand for your titles than in previous years and changes in the readership for your titles?

MB:  Absolutely. Our books are selling better now than they did a few years ago or even when they were first published. Eliot Coleman’s books have tripled in sales in the last 2 years.

FPP:  What role, if any, do you see technology playing in the way you will produce and market books in the future?

MB:  Well, with Obama’s Challenge, we just demonstrated that we could beat our own record and get a book from final manuscript to bound books in 4 weeks. We were able to do that because we used print-on-demand technology to make the book available immediately, thus filling the gap between when the files are uploaded to the offset printer and when they come into our warehouse. We did this to have the book available for the Democratic National Convention, which we felt we had to target for our core audience to get the book launched. We have also made it immediately available as an e-book through Amazon.com’s Kindle technology.

FPP:  There was some controversy recently about the plan for distributing copies of Obama’s Challenge to the channel. Could you tell us about that and your reaction to some of the criticism that it provided Amazon with an unfair advantage?

MB:  First of all, the idea that there is some kind of “level playing field” in this business is nonsense. Chelsea Green is a very small publisher trying to outcompete corporate giants. We were not trying to give Amazon any kind of advantage; we were trying to build demand for the book so it would sell through all channels. We put together an innovative promotion to launch the book via Amazon.com at the DNC, period. Secondly, I can’t remember a time when any bookseller cared whether they had a new book of ours in the first two weeks of its release and they often tell us to hold books and consolidate orders to reduce shipping costs, so this outrage seems kind of misplaced. Finally, the book business has lots of “traditions” that are set up so favor the big players, like national lay downs and embargos and having the national media all hit in the first few weeks. We don’t operate that way. Our books build over time, even the ones we rush out, so we never saw this as giving unfair advantage.

FPP:  What do you see as the biggest challenges for book publishers in the next few years?

MB:  One of the biggest challenges is going to be how to handle the digital content and distribution of books. I think we’re finally going to see a move to e-books and on-line database access. The increase in energy costs is helping to drive this as well. We are simply not going to be able to afford to ship printed books back and forth across the country or the world with such easy abandon. There is a new generation that has grown up reading on-line and will want to read books that way. We need to make our content available in all channels. The other challenge is the speed challenge. Publishers simply have to get books to market faster. Traditional lead times are going to be a thing of the past. We feel we are at the forefront of that change and have developed something of a specialty in that regard and really good authors are seeking us out for that reason.

FPP:  How do you see the sustainability movement evolving over the next few years and will that change the titles that you choose to publish?

MB:  I think the sustainability movement will become more broad-based and mainstream. It will also be co-opted by the big corporations who are greenwashing themselves like crazy. So it will be a challenge to know what is authentic and what is not. We just need to stay on the front lines and work with the people who are driving the real change forward.

FPP:  What would you like to change about book publishing?

MB:  I’d like to see it less dominated by the corporate conglomerates and I’d like to see authors less reliant on huge advances, which then excludes smaller publishers from getting their books when they can actually end up doing a better publishing job and earning the author more royalties in the end. I’d also like to see returns done away with. There is no reason anymore to buy books on a returnable basis when books can be ordered on demand. It’s actually criminal to be shipping books back and forth in terms of energy use and climate change. Finally, I’d like to see all publishers commit to using recycled paper and for authors to be insisting on this in their contracts.

FPP:  Have you considered trading your publishing career to become more directly involved in politics?

MB:  Good God no!


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