Twenty years after it was founded by former Pantheon publisher Andre Schiffrin as a nonprofit publisher with a mission statement to publish “in the public interest,” the New Press is on something of a roll. The house has a new bestseller—Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow—spacious offices in SoHo, a $5 million annual budget, and a much-lauded intern program that continues to introduce a diverse selection of young people to careers in book publishing.

Launched in the wake of Schiffrin’s controversial departure from Pantheon in 1990, the New Press was conceived as an alternative to a conventional publishing model that Schiffrin believed could not or would not support serious books. Now settled into a 5,000sq.-ft. loft on Greene Street, the New Press has 16 employees (it started with three) and 1,000 titles on its backlist. Schiffrin no longer runs the company—Ellen Adler is publisher and New Press cofounder Diane Wachtell is now executive director. Schiffrin lives in his native France, acquires French-language works for the press, teaches, and meets with the New Press staff when he’s in the U.S.

“Andre and Diane were prescient about where corporate publishing was headed,” said Adler, seated at a large conference table full of New Press titles, along with Wachtell, editorial director Marc Favreau, and publicity director Julie McCarroll, during an interview at the publisher’s offices. The house generates about 80% of its revenue from book sales and the rest from grants from such institutions as the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Florence Gould Foundation. “One of our former interns told me that this was the least cynical place she’d ever worked. We publish books that our staff has real enthusiasm for and it makes a difference, maybe not in sales but in the publishing experience and to our authors,” Adler said.

New Press books win prizes—John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II won five major awards, the most by a NP title, including the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize—and backlist titles can sell very well. Among its bestselling titles are Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, which has sold more than 1.3 million copies since it was first released in 1995; and Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom by Lisa Delpit, which has sold 250,000 copies since 1996.

This year, Adler said, the New Press will publish about 40 new books. The house moved its distribution to Perseus in 2009, principally to take advantage of digital book distribution through Perseus’s Constellation e-distribution unit. While e-book editions are released simultaneously with print, New Press digital editions have benefited from the long tail. “E-book [sales] increased almost six-fold in 2011 and now represent well over 20% of our sales,” Adler said.

One book currently generating both revenue and discussion for the New Press is Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a critically acclaimed examination of how the American criminal justice system has turned millions of black men into a new form of second-class citizen. Published in fall 2011, the book was launched with a 3,000-copy first printing and, after 16 hardcover printings and seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it has sold 175,000 copies in digital and print editions combined. “I’m not sure who else would have seen the potential in this title,” Adler said.

Demand for the book grew after an event held at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Alexander “called out the congregation to address the book’s issues and got a standing ovation,” said Wachtell, who emphasized that it took the African-American community and word-of-mouth to get mainstream media—originally it was not reviewed by the New York Times—to write about the book.

Despite its size, New Press has been at the forefront on issues of diversity in book publishing, launching a diversity internship program from its earliest days in an effort to recruit minority candidates both to the press and to the industry. Since its launch, the New Press diversity intern program has graduated about 526 interns, according to New Press associate editor Tara Grove, who is a graduate of the program. Grove estimated that about half of the total number continue to work in book publishing.

Big books for 2012 include From Cairo to Wall Street: Voices from the Global Spring, edited by Anya Schiffrin and Eamon Kircher-Allen (May), an anthology of accounts of social protest from around the world; Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left by Martin Duberman (Oct.), a look at the “people’s historian;” Foodopoly: The Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America by Wenonah Hauter (Dec.); and Shadow Girls: A Novel by Swedish novelist Henning Mankell (Oct.), whose books have sold 40 million copies around the world.

After 20 years, Wachtell said the New Press’s core mission has evolved. It’s gone from filling a gap by publishing titles that other houses wouldn’t, to direct social change. “Now we’re more explicit about using books to leverage social change,” said Wachtell. “Books have a role to play. They give you a platform and allow you to create a new breed of public intellectual that can effect change.”