How to Publish in a Recession: Chelsea Green’s Margo Baldwin

(This is Part 4 (Part 3, Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I’m interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

Margo Baldwin is the president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing.

Scott Esposito: Chelsea Green is a little different than the presses that most readers of this blog will be familiar with. To give us an idea of what you do, what are some of your strongest backlist titles and what are your lead titles for 2009?

Margo Baldwin: We’ve had 3 New York Times bestsellers in the last 4 years, Don’t Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff (2004), The End of America by Naomi Wolf (2007), and Obama’s Challenge by Robert Kuttner (2008). Those titles represent the politics part of “The politics and practice of sustainable living.” The practice part includes backlist bestsellers such as The Four Season Harvest and New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman (over 100k copies sold of all editions), The Straw Bale House (over 150k copies sold), The Man Who Planted Trees (300k copies sold), Wind Power, The Passive Solar House, Natural Beekeeping, Wild Fermentations, Gaia’s Garden, Limits to Growth. For 2009, our lead titles will be Eliot Coleman’s new book Winter Harvest Handbook, Tom Greco’s The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, Deirdre Heekin’s Libation, a Bitter Alchemy, and Living above the Store, a sustainable business book about triple bottom line business practices.

SE: In the past couple months we’ve seen reports of a sharp decline in book sales and a sharp increase in literary reading (although not of books in general). And this has taken place against the rise of Amazon/decline of books-and-mortar stores, Jeff Bezos’s championing of the Kindle, and a definite trend toward ebooks on the part of publishers big and small. As someone who has been publishing for quite some time, do you think the industry is at a crossroads?

MB: Indeed I do. It needs to reinvent itself: get rid of returns and huge advances and all the waste inherent in the system. Amazon has perfected the ordering to demand systems and other booksellers need to do the same. It’s no longer feasible to push lots of books out and then take them all back; way too wasteful. E-books and digital content will continue to grow, but will remain relatively small compared to printed books for awhile. Bricks and mortar stores will need to reinvent themselves into community activist centers with a mission in order to keep their customers. Chains will become less important except for the megahits and brand name authors. Backlist will continue to migrate to the internet.

SE: What parts of the publishing industry do you think will look different in a few years?

MB: Everything! Publishers will be more niched and using POD and e-books for penetration into certain markets. Bookstores will be transformed as above. General trade stores will stay afloat by being linked to Amazon and other Internet sites to gain commissions on backlist sales from their customers, while concentrating on frontlist titles. Many general trade publishers will have gone out of business or drastically reduced in size. More content will be published online and by subscription. More user-generated content will be sold. As the industrial culture crashes, how-to survive and thrive self-sufficiently will gain in importance.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like for you–better, worse, or about the same? What do you attribute this to?

MB: We’ve just finished our best year ever and continue to grow. I attribute it to a growing interest in sustainability and green living and figuring out how to be more self-sufficient. When you don’t have a job, growing your own food become more critical. We’ve been ahead of the cultural curve for the past 25 years and now finally the culture is catching up to us.

SE: What’s your outlook for 2009? Have you made any significant changes to your plans for 2009 in response to the shifting economy?

MB: 2009 is going to be brutal, from an economic point of view; I think we’re headed into a depression. We are projecting a 5% decline in sales, but feel cautiously optimistic that we will be in good shape and may exceed projections. We will be extremely careful on the collections front, as we are most vulnerable to a big supplier going out of business. We will concentrate on publishing into our core backlist areas, with fewer political and general trade titles. We’re considering shifting to nonreturnable terms for all retail accounts.

SE: The preceding publishers I’ve interviewed for this series have published almost exclusively literary titles. Chelsea Green has a much different focus, as it primarily publishes nonfiction focused on sustainable living issues. How does your business model differ from a literary press?

MB: We can count on our backlist to provide the engine for our growth and profitability year after year, which is different from literary publishers. They have a much harder time. We know who are market is and how to get to them. In hard times, our content is much more essential and is relatively price resistant.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a more independent press) that allows you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

MB: Yes, just because we have less overhead, less sunk into huge advances, less waste, more ability to move quickly and adjust and we’re more niched and relevant to the times.

SE: You co-founded Chelsea Green in 1984, and thus have survived two previous declared recessions, as well as a variety of economic environments. How well have your books help up in previous recessions/economies?

MB: Our books do very well in recessionary times. If you want to eat, you learn how to grow your own food. If you want a house, you can learn how to build it yourself. If you want to reduce your energy use, you can figure out how to harvest your own power. Survival is a wake up call and we have the books to educate people on that front.

SE: Is there anything about this current environment that you think distinguishes it from previous economic contractions?

MB: Yes, I think this is more of a permanent contraction. We are at the intersection of peak oil and climate change as well as deeply mired in the collapse of the bubble economic system. Basically it doesn’t work anymore and it’s not coming back because it’s not connected to the real economy of essential goods and services. One of our newest and strongest books is The Transition Handbook about how communities can prepare themselves for the coming decline and “power down” off their use of fossil fuels. It’s rapidly growing movement that started in the UK and is now spreading across the US.

SE: And lastly, what about bookstores? With lots of them going out of business, and with large chains cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy, what kinds of effects are you noticing as a publisher?

MB: We have our own in-house sales team that has been growing our non bookstore retail base so we are more diversified. We are moving towards going nonreturnable with our retail accounts, which may mean doing a lot less business with the national chains. Our Green Partnership program with independent bookstores, started in mid-2007, has been a huge success, with net sales up over 100%, based on a nonreturnable sales model and deeper discounts. Internet sales have been growing by double digits and so that will continue, we think. We have redone our website to make it into a sustainable living news and blog site and our traffic is up over 50% using all the social media tools we can employ. We are no longer doing print galleys and will move to digital galleys this year. Much of our marketing efforts will be Internet based.

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