Transforming Chelsea Green into a socially active company was really just returning to our roots,” says president and publisher Margo Baldwin, who has given the press a distinct political edge since she took the helm seven years ago. With $115,000 in seed money, she and her husband, Ian, founded the press in White River Junction, Vt., in 1984 and began by publishing small, eclectic lists encompassing art, food, nature and travel. But it was their very first book, Jean Giono's ecological fable, The Man Who Planted Trees, illustrated by Michael McCurdy, that ended up providing a compass for Chelsea Green's direction over the next quarter century—sustainability and green living.
Baldwin attributes Chelsea Green's strong figures for the first half of '09—it is 20% ahead of last year at this time; 24% ahead of her original projections—to having “spent the last 25 years creating content that is completely attuned to the times we live in. I don't know if sustainability is recession-proof, but people are waking up to the fact that they need to be self-sufficient, and that self-sufficiency better be sustainable.”
Early books like The Straw Bale House (1994) continue to provide a strong financial base for Chelsea Green's social activism. However, overt political titles are responsible for fueling its growth in recent years. They gave the press its first three New York Times bestsellers and moved it onto PW's list of fast-growing small presses for four of the past five years, all under Baldwin's watch. Her 2002 decision to take an active role in the company after an eight-year hiatus as a full-time mom was motivated by her desire to make the press more engaged in the political process. “I was inspired by reading Derrick Jensen's A Language Older Than Words, originally published by Context Books and later acquired by us,” says Baldwin. “The company needed to get a lot more political and sharper-edged about what was going on. It also needed to reach out to a younger, more activist readership.”
Baldwin is also willing to work fast to get out timely titles she believes in, like George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant!, which Baldwin moved from final manuscript to bound book in six weeks for the 2004 election. It went on to become the press's first bestseller. “We realized we could compete with the big guys by being nimble and creative. We also found out that having this combination of solid backlist in sustainability and fast-moving political frontlist was dynamic and well-balanced,” Baldwin says.
Chelsea Green continues to crash books that add to the national conversation, like this July's contribution to the health-care debate from former Vermont governor and DNC chairman emeritus Howard Dean, Howard Dean's Prescription for Healthcare Reform. And it has gone beyond the social networking it used so effectively for its other bestsellers like Naomi Wolf's The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot and Robert Kuttner's Obama's Challenge by creating its first iPhone app, which, when approved by Apple, will offer additional material not found in either the print or digital editions. An activist tool kit enables users to jump directly from the app to signing a petition calling on Congress to ensure that a public health insurance option is included in health-care reform. They can also call their congressional representatives and post their thoughts about health care directly to their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Chelsea Green publishes 25 to 30 books a year, which is where Baldwin would like to see it stay. To broaden its list and improve cash flow, the press also distributes books for micro presses. Distribution accounts for roughly 30% of the press's sales, according to Baldwin, and gives Chelsea Green a bigger presence in subject areas like children's. For her, the next big hurdle as a green publisher is returns; two years ago Chelsea Green launched its Green Partnership initiative, which offers a higher discount for buying nonreturnable and free freight. Baldwin says she is contemplating “throwing down the gauntlet” and going nonreturnable for all accounts.