Over the past decade, Chelsea Green Publishing Company in White River Junction, Vt., has appeared frequently on PW’s list of fast-growing small presses. After growing by more than $1 million in 2011, it held on to the increase in 2012 and hit the list again based on its 2013 results. But, as president and publisher Margo Baldwin pointed out, “Growth is not the end-all evaluation. We’re not looking for growth at any cost. There’s always this pressure to grow. I like the size we are: we’re still only a $5 million company.”
Keeping the press small but viable, with a strong list of books each season, has been Baldwin’s goal since she returned to Chelsea Green in 2002 to helm the company that she cofounded with her husband, Ian Baldwin, in 1984. Today, Chelsea Green’s lists hew closely to the press’s tagline: “bringing the politics and practice of sustainable living to the world.”
When the press first launched 30 years ago, it published novels and art books, and whatever else appealed to the owners. “It’s only by dint of economic forces that you become wised up and niched,” said Baldwin. “When we published The Man Who Planted Trees [in 1985], we had no idea that it was going to set our course.” The eco-fable about a man who plants 100 acorns a day, with woodcut illustrations by Michael McCurdy, continues to be popular among readers and is still one of the press’s top sellers.
Perhaps the book that did the most to change Chelsea Green’s course, though, was The Straw Bale House (1994), by Athena Swentzell Steen, Bill Steen, David Bainbridge, and David Eisenberg, which Baldwin said kept the house from going under. “The timing was right and we sold a couple hundred thousand copies” at a relatively high price point, noted Baldwin. Other Chelsea Green authors have built an audience over time. Eliot Coleman’s titles, for example—The Winter Harvest Handbook, Four-Season Harvest, and The New Organic Grower—did well when they were first published beginning in 1989, but sales started growing substantially in 2008, when the local-food movement began to take off. “It’s odd that you can be so far ahead of the culture,” Baldwin observed.
Politics became a more prominent part of the company’s mix in 2004, when it released George Lakoff’s bestselling Don’t Think of an Elephant!, about how Democrats need to frame the political conversation if they want to win elections. This past September, Chelsea Green published an updated 10th-anniversary edition, which has become especially relevant in the wake of the Democrats’ loss in the Senate last month. The book also has a lot to say about other hot-button issues, such as climate change and immigration.
Sustainability extends to the company’s organizational structure, which is flexible enough to allow for across-the-board bonuses in good years. In 2012, when Random House gave out $5,000 to each staffer for helping make Fifty Shades of Grey a success, Chelsea Green gave out smaller checks to the team behind Sandor Ellix Katz’s New York Times bestseller The Art of Fermentation. Two years ago, Baldwin and her husband began transitioning Chelsea Green to employee ownership through an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). Currently, the company is 78% owned by the ESOP. “We did that specifically to cash out all our investors, some of whom had never gotten anything but free books,” Baldwin said. “We have four more years of paying the shareholders off, then the ESOP can be 100% [vested],” said Baldwin, who considers that point to be the natural time for her and her husband to step back some. “It’s not happening right now,” she said. “I’m here. Employees are happy. We’re doing good books. We have this obligation to keep a good cash flow.”
Though 2014 will not necessarily be a record-breaking year, Baldwin is pleased. “We hit a little bit of a plateau,” she said, “which doesn’t bother us.”
One of the marketing initiatives that worked well for the company in recent years is expanding its presence—and that of its authors—at conferences and workshops. Attending events gives exposure to Chelsea Green’s authors, but also helps the company connect with readers, Baldwin said. At most events, the publisher also sells books.
For independent booksellers, Chelsea Green has had its biggest success with 24 stores around the country that have signed on to participate in consignment programs with dedicated shelf space. As for e-books, “the whole conversation bores me,” said Baldwin. “We’re selling them. For us that accounts for 7% or 8% of sales. The print books keep us going.”