Since its launch in 1992, The New Press has been ahead of the publishing curve in a number of important ways, including in finding and publishing future award-winning authors early in their careers and in committing to building a diverse staff and publishing a wide range of voices. The nonprofit is also completing another strong sales year after having a record-breaking 2020. For helping to guide The New Press, publisher Ellen Adler is PW’s 2021 Person of the Year.
Adler first joined TNP as a board member in 2001, when she was heading up Berlitz Publishing’s trade business. She began her career as a production editor at Knopf before moving to the Dial Press and Doubleday, and she says, “I never imagined I would have the good fortune to end up at a place like The New Press.” She note that her previous jobs, which involved everything from editing manuscripts to overseeing production to having P&L responsibility, all came into play when she was named deputy director of TNP in 2003.
Being the publisher of a nonprofit requires a different skill set than heading a for-profit publisher, notes TNP executive director Diane Wachtell, who helped start the publisher with Andre Schiffrin in 1992. In addition to overseeing the business operations, one also has to work with a board, donors, and nonprofit organizations and manage grant applications. (Contributions account for about 20% of TNP’s annual revenue). “Ellen has lots of talents,” Wachtell says, adding that one of her great strengths is looking out for her colleagues. “The New Press wouldn’t be what it is today without Ellen.”
Jeff Deutsch, director of Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago and a TNP board member, says Adler has the right skills and temperament to be TNP’s publisher. “Ellen is an exemplar of a publisher whose conviction always supersedes external measures of success,” he explains. “Which is why, by external measures like sales, critical acclaim, and major contributions to the public discourse, Ellen has been tremendously successful. But she would persist in the work even if that weren’t the case. And readers the world over are better for her focus, her conviction, and her persistence.”
For her part, Adler credits the success of the press to two major factors: the TNP community, which in her view encompasses the press’s staff and authors, as well as independent booksellers and its distributor, Ingram’s Two Rivers division; and the culture that Schiffrin imbued the press with from its start. Wachtell and Adler like to say diversity is “baked into The New Press’s DNA.”
Part of Schiffrin’s objective in establishing TNP was to publish in areas that the existing houses were largely ignoring, including literary fiction and works in translation and by underrepresented authors. To do that, Wachtell explains, “we knew we needed to build a staff that could make the necessary connections.” As such, TNP’s staff has always been diverse. In 2016, TNP’s staff was 39% nonwhite; today, 59% of TNP’s staff of 27 is nonwhite, according to the press’s most recent statistics.
TNP’s internship program, which has long been considered the industry gold standard in terms of diversity, also started in the publisher’s early days. Wachtell says soon after it launched, the press received a sizable grant from the Kellogg Foundation to develop a program that would draw in young people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds to both the publishing and nonprofit worlds. More than 600 interns have gone through the program since it was created, and many have landed jobs in publishing and related fields. The goal, Wachtell explains, was to not only find talent for the press (TNP editor Ben Woodward got his start as an intern there a decade ago) but to help establish a pipeline to allow people of color to enter the industry.
In its own recruiting efforts, Adler says, TNP looks for people who have backgrounds that aren’t typical in the industry. One such hire was zakia henderson-brown, a 2021 PW Star Watch finalist, who had been a community organizer and was working to get her MFA when she joined TNP part-time; she is now editor and strategic partnerships coordinator. And many who join TNP stay for long periods, which Adler says is important to help keep the press’s mission front and center. Fran Forte started at TNP in 1997 and is now senior director of production; Marc Favreau began at TNP in 2000, rising to director of editorial programs; and Maury Botton, senior managing editor and art director, started in 2001.
TNP’s nontraditional approach to publishing has also helped it sign some of its most important authors. Schiffrin had lots of overseas contacts, and TNP has always had some fiction in translation on its list. In the 1990s, the press published three books by Abdulrazak Gurnah, this year’s Nobel Prize winner for literature—including what the Nobel committee called his “breakthrough” work, Paradise, which has sold more than 20,000 copies since the Nobel announcement (rights to the two other titles have reverted back to the author). Other TNP authors to win awards this year include Marjoleine Kars, who won the 2021 Cundill History Prize and was co-winner of the 2021 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for her Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast. TNP was also the publisher of The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of Straits by Tiya Miles, who won this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction for All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake (which was published by Random House).
Publishing important, groundbreaking work has been a hallmark of TNP’s history. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen was an early commercial and critical success for the press, as was Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, which was first published in 1996 yet continues to rack up sales, and controversy.
Adler acknowledges that a number of TNP’s titles have been banned by various authorities. “We’ve had so many books banned, I can’t count them all,” she says, noting that The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is currently on the list of books that Texas officials are trying to ban.
That isn’t a surprise, given TNP’s mission to publish books that serve the public good, either by adding underrepresented voices and critical perspectives to national conversations or by supporting cutting-edge ideas in such sensitive subjects as criminal justice, racial justice, education, LGBTQ issues, and economic inequality. And as proud as she is that TNP had record sales of $8.5 million in 2020, Adler says she never loses sight of the fact that financial success is not its ultimate objective, and that good publishing often leads to good sales.
As proof, Adler notes that TNP’s stellar 2020 was due in large measure to the deep backlist the press has built. The New Jim Crow, which was first published in 2010 and reissued in a 10th-anniversary edition last year, sold about 400,000 copies in 2020, while 40 other backlist titles had record sales, including Arlie Hochschild’s 2016 NBA finalist Strangers in Their Own Land.
Though 2021 revenue will be below 2020 levels, Adler says the year will be another financial success. As a result, TNP will make investments to upgrade its infrastructure and to “smooth out some edges,” Adler says.
“After all,” Wachtell adds, “with our 30th anniversary coming next year, we aren’t a startup anymore.”
Part of TNP’s success has always been due to its relationship with independent booksellers. “Independent booksellers appreciate what we publish,” Adler says. “They get us and are always very supportive. More than a few TNP books have worked almost entirely because independent booksellers got behind them.”
Adler also values her ties to the rest of the independent publishing community. TNP was an early supporter of the Independent Publishers Caucus, and Adler currently sits on IPC’s steering committee. Noting that indie presses have long shared tips and strategies, she says IPC became critically important during the pandemic. “I don’t know how some of us would have survived Covid without the IPC,” she adds. “It is nice to have people to worry with and to celebrate with.”
Adler believes that despite different challenges—including, she says, sometimes being overlooked by the mainstream media—indie publishing is healthy, and that the success of one publisher can help the entire community.
Adler’s efforts and TNP’s publishing program have not gone unnoticed in the indie publishing community. “Ellen’s tireless advocacy on behalf of independent publishing, her humor, and her great generosity make her an irreplaceable colleague and an invaluable friend,” says Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions. Noting that many of TNP’s social justice and progressive policy books have become “essential reading,” he adds, “I can think of no greater accolade than that for a publisher.”
Notables of the Year
In addition to naming Ellen Adler as our Person of the Year, PW selected six industry members who had notable achievements in 2021.