While others in the industry scramble to get a grip on e-books and lament lackluster sales in a bad economy, Cleis Press reports sales up 50% over last year, and the company is looking for new offices to accommodate its growth. Although Cleis was founded in 1980 with a mission to publish women's books that documented the resilience and resistance of women rather than victimhood, over the years the house expanded to publish what cofounder Felice Newman calls “sex positive” books for people of all sexual orientations. Newman and her cofounder, Frederique Delacoste, are known for taking risks with Cleis, as in the 1980s when it published I Am My Own Wife: The True Story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, about a transvestite man, which drew lots of criticism from feminists and other allies.
But that did not stop Cleis from exploring new topics and genres. It launched its newest imprint, Viva Editions, in January. Dedicated to “books for vivacious lives,” aka healthy lifestyle titles, the first Viva book, Feisty First Ladies and Other Unforgettable White House Women (which has Michelle Obama on the cover), was released on Inauguration Day.
The press has broadened its publishing program as the interests of its staff has expanded. Newman said she isn't surprised to see Viva Editions off to a good start, since readers who are interested in gay, lesbian, and other sex titles are also looking for information about healthy living. One title that has done well is Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Gratitude by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons, which now has 20,000 copies in print after three printings.
Part of the key to Cleis's success is having no debt, not even a line of credit. “That's why Cleis is a healthy 29-year-old turning 30,” said Brenda Knight, who joined the press last October as acquiring editor and associate publisher. There are many reasons for Cleis's 50% sales increase—not least of which is how people tend to stay in more during recessions and might actually be having more sex—but Newman credits bringing in Knight, a publishing veteran who has worked for HarperCollins, Red Wheel/Weiser/Conari, with her marketing know-how as putting the press on its current success.
Support from longtime distributor Publishers Group West, Newman added, is another factor. In fact, PGW president Susan Reich (who was Cleis's account executive when the press signed with PGW 15 years ago) recommended Knight for the associate publisher job. Since Knight joined Cleis, the press has not only added the Viva Editions imprint but also started paying closer attention to foreign rights. Violet Blue's The Smart Girl's Guide to Porn garnered much attention at Frankfurt.
Blue also landed a prominent place on Oprah recently, and the media has taken note of other Cleis authors. Recently, Tristan Taormino and Jon Ginoli appeared in Newsweek, and sex blogger and anthology editor Rachel Kramer Bussel has been in the New York Times. Last month at Litquake, an annual literary festival in San Francisco, an event done in coordination with Cleis Press called “Readings in Bed” turned many heads.
All of this attention is more evidence of the mainstreaming of sex, something that has helped Cleis grow. Still, some people remain wary about buying sex-related books, and that is why Cleis sees huge potential in e-books. The company released its first e-books last year, and now has about 167 e-book editions with sales steadily increasing.
While Cleis will continue to expand, its “sex positive” books will remain its core. Newman said what makes Cleis so good at publishing sexually related titles is that unlike others, its books are not judgmental. “They are not titillating or coy—which is based on shame,” said Newman. “People have better sex lives when they have information and when they feel good about who they are themselves.”