Much of my reporting these days has led me to books published by Chelsea Green, most recently this Time.com 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.
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