Monday, September 21, 2009

On Sustainable Publishing, With Margo Baldwin of Chelsea Green

Much of my reporting these days has led me to books published by Chelsea Green, most recently this article on Slow Investing. Chelsea Green has been at the forefront of the politics and practice of sustainable living, in both the content of their books (landmark titles on social justice, organic agriculture, and renewable energy) and how they publish them; the company has been printing on recycled paper since 1985 and is a founding member of the Green Press Initiative. Since Chelsea Green is just up the road (okay, over several mountains and up a bunch of roads) in White River Junction, Vermont, I thought I’d toss a few questions over to President and Publisher Margo Baldwin.

JDS: It seems clear that the publishing industry faces some big changes. What are most publishers today not dealing with as we move toward new structures and models?

MB: They’re not dealing with the issue of outrageous advances, nor the inefficiencies and wastefulness in the entire system. In part because of the returns policy—where bookstores can return unsold books—we have an overproduction of books and additional shipping and books ending up in the landfill. This is a large part of why many publishers are not profitable.

JDS: Can Chelsea Green break this mold?

MB: We are to some extent held captive. But we go our own way. We have a Green Partner Program with independent bookstores that sets up a nonreturnable policy and the store gets a deeper discount. We have nearly 50 stores in the program and it’s been very well received. The chains will never do this. However, we do what we can on our end by trying to control what we ship out.

JDS: Where will the impetus for change come from?

MB: E-books will force change. This will certainly eliminate the returns question. Change will be coming to the industry no matter what. Just what this will mean, everyone is trying to figure out: what kind of devices will people use, what sales channels will dominate, etc.

JDS: Where do you see the Espresso Book Machine fitting into the mix?

MB: We used the Espresso Book Machine to get two books printed so that Howard Dean could have copies for the Colbert Report. But there’s waste there too. Every book gets trimmed down from the 8 1/2 X 11 size. The cost of goods is ten times higher than with a larger print run. It has a role in publishing in niche situations, but I don’t see it as making a big change.

JDS: Will a technological advance be the changemaker?

MB: The Ebook is more of a solution. Somehow we’ve got to grapple with the fact that paper production is one of the most environmentally-damaging processes out there in terms of toxic emissions, carbon production, and use of natural resources. We will always have some books. But I think some kinds of books will migrate to electronic format. Any kind of “consumable” book—you read it, throw it away. Genres like romances and thrillers. Some readers go through two, three, five a week.

JDS: I’ve read that despite industry troubles Chelsea Green is doing well.

MB: We’ve always been the leading edge of organic, rural living, a topic now coming into a wider audience. We’ve been toiling away on the frontier all by ourselves, and now, after 25 years, finally we’re being recognized. It’s the right content for the times. Also, as a company we’ve been conservative in how we run things. We’ve had slow, organic growth.

JDS: It sounds like the company’s path mirrors the content of some of your books. What do you think of the notion of “Slow Publishing” that I introduced?

MB: In terms of emphasizing personal relationships, as between publisher and author, I agree. Plus the notion of scale. There’s an appropriate scale for different books, and publishing “houses” thrived when they were on the scale of a household. But I’d say “slow” publishing with fast turnaround. Publishers are not grappling with the speed of information today. It takes a long time to get a book out, still a good six to twelve months. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Coming NOW to a Bookstore Near You!

The Therapist’s New Clothes is now being printed through Lightning Source as well as by my old standby, the Espresso Book Machine. This means it will carried by the major book distributors and you can order it through any bookstore—or suggest that a bookstore or library carry it! I am told it looks just the same but the cover is glossy rather than matte. I will check it out tomorrow when I give a reading at the Northshire.

This new distribution is all in the realm of the theoretical since I haven’t seen any links or actual sales; everything has to be handled through the store or library ordering. So if anyone sees the book on a store’s website or is able to order it successfully please let me know so I can start to make sense of how this works.

Here are various and sundry book-related posts that have surfaced in recent weeks:

--An interview in The Miami Health Examiner

--An interview on the blog My Faith Project

--A piece in the apparently controversial Self-Publishing Review

--A piece in the SPAN newsletter

Too much abstraction makes me crave something tangible. Here is an heirloom tomato ripening in our garden.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Small Is Beautiful

When people ask how The Therapist’s New Clothes is doing, the answer I give is that the numbers are small but reactions are big. I don’t have a commercial publisher, with its industrial-scale marketing and distribution behind me. People learn about the book through encountering my work on the web, through word of mouth, through my telling them about it personally. Of course I want to kick this up, and plan to. But the way readers are responding to the book makes up for the (predictably) modest sales so far. Acquaintances who picked up the book on a whim call me to say “wow”. An editor I admire told me it's "quite a tour de force”. The book has been accused several times of keeping folks up late, since they couldn’t stop reading. One friend wrote, “If there's anyone who could write a page-turning memoir about psychotherapy, it's you.”

Every time I hear from a reader, friend or stranger, I feel that kind of warm satisfaction that only comes from personal connection. While I know this alone doesn’t mean “success” in a traditional sense—and that I do have larger ambitions for the book—I also know that this matters to me. In my writing on local economies, I have encountered Jane Jacobs’ ideas on how the small, social exchanges around the buying and selling of goods lend vitality and meaning to daily life in our cities and towns. As this post’s title suggests, I’m in touch with the work of the E.F. Schumacher Society, which challenges the all-too-American notion that bigger is always better. In most industries, including publishing, in order to stay viable one often feels pressure to focus on volume to the point where other goals and intents get lost. With books, for example, an author must make back the advance or risk losing the publisher’s interest. Under such terms, it’s hard not to watch the numbers. I’m wondering if there’s room for different views of writerly success than what we tend to rely on, one where meaning holds as much weight as profit. What do you think?Here, from the woods below our house, is an example of the industry of squirrels.