California embodies the spirit of the West, a place where reinvention is possible, so it is no surprise that many independent publishers call the Bay Area home. In that same spirit, as the publishing landscape changes, companies have adopted a variety of techniques to keep up with the shifting scene.
One major factor that allows many independent publishers to remain in business in the Bay Area is nonprofit status. For example, being a nonprofit allows Parallax Press to keep “compassion” as its bottom line. “We are a very financially successful publisher and we do this while ensuring that we are amplifying new and often marginalized voices, that all our books are available free to people who are incarcerated, and available in all formats to those who need them,” says publisher Rachel Neumann. To keep costs under control, Parallax has its offices in the East Bay instead of waging war with San Francisco’s sky-high rents.
In October 2014, the iconic San Francisco–based indie publisher McSweeney’s, founded by author Dave Eggers, announced that it is becoming a nonprofit. According to the publisher’s website, the move will allow McSweeney’s to “sustain itself for many years to come, with the help of an expanded community of donors, writers, and readers.”
Executive editor Jordan Bass says McSweeney’s wants to be “a great home for writers, and a place for readers to come to for new and ambitious and hard-to-pigeonhole work—the business model, and the move toward nonprofit operation, are a means toward that end.” In addition to the nonprofit shift, McSweeney’s launched a successful Kickstarter campaign in May to help support the press.
Crowdfunding has also helped San Francisco’s Last Gasp, a publisher and distributor of comics and art books. Colin Turner, associate publisher and son of Last Gasp founder Ron Turner, says that crowdfunding is a “great way to connect with fans.” Last Gasp’s Kickstarter campaign, which ended in October, exceeded its goal of $75,000, with 1,229 backers pledging $83,762. While Last Gasp says it’s scaling down slightly, publishing a few less titles this year, the successful Kickstarter has helped to keep it in the publishing game.
Last Gasp is one of a number of indie presses that have been in the Bay Area for quite some time. Take Berkeley-based Heyday Books, founded by Malcolm Margolin in 1974, during part of what he calls “an explosion of small press activity in the Bay Area.” Heyday celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014, and Margolin says sales in the first five months of 2015 increased substantially over the same period in 2014, adding that “for the first time in our entire history we seem to be getting through the spring without a major, sleep-disrupting cash-flow crisis.” One change that has helped boost sales is a more aggressive use of consignment sales arrangements, which Margolin believes provides booksellers and other outlets a low-risk option to stock Heyday titles. Heyday has also recently opened an office in Los Angeles, Heyday South. With Heyday in a good financial spot, Margolin says he’ll be stepping back from—but not out of—Heyday’s day-to-day operations by the end of the year, and the press is currently searching for a successor.
Another mainstay is City Lights Publishers, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Executive director and publisher Elaine Katzenberger says the company owes its longevity to the lasting political ideals that founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti put in place when opening the bookstore and launching its publishing arm. “It was a utopian and democratizing project, grounded in a firm belief in the power of creativity to inspire and influence social change,” Katzenberger says.
In its 60th year, City Lights has published its first-ever children’s title, Rad American Women A–Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History... and Our Future!, written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. The feminist book highlights 26 women who have helped shape contemporary American culture. City Lights v-p Stacey Lewis calls the book “an immediate success,” hitting the #5 spot on the New York Times bestseller list within two months of first going to print—and revealing that the old publisher is full of fresh ideas.
Following the Trends
Because the Bay Area is also home to Silicon Valley and its digital ways, publishers are trying out innovations to stay on top of changing consumer needs. Seal Press, a Berkeley-based imprint of the Perseus Books Group, is “interested in cultural trends and how they affect the lives of women,” says associate publisher Donna Galassi. She cites the movement surrounding body acceptance, highlighting the title Gorge: My Journey up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, a memoir that “challenges the limits women place on themselves.” When the press spotted a trend in the hashtag #wycwyc, they decided to publish What You Can When You Can, a book to accompany the online fitness and health movement. Currently the press is focused on building the “Seal community” with a new mobile-friendly website and increased social media presence.
Viz Media, which specializes in manga novels, animation, and licensing Japanese entertainment content for English-language audiences, has held steady in terms of product releases and staffing while watching revenue increase, according to Leyla Aker, senior v-p of publishing at Viz. Viz’s major properties include Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, and Naruto. “In the past year we’ve launched several new digital publishing initiatives,” Aker says, “including exclusive manga serials in our Weekly Shonen Jump online magazine, and digital-first and/or digital-only graphic novel releases via our own apps and all major e-book retailers.”
Berrett-Koehler, publisher of progressive books and other resources on current affairs, personal growth, and business and management, is launching three new initiatives this year, according to president and publisher Steven Piersanti. The first is BKpedia, a new digital subscription service that offers curated collections of digital content. The second is BK Expert Directory, a service that helps people find and engage experts and consultants with expertise in a variety of fields. And, lastly, BK will bring about its first digital audiobook program, where all BK books will be simultaneously published in audiobook format.
Piersanti says the proximity to Silicon Valley has “facilitated our having connections to many tech companies and having many of their executives visit our offices.” He notes that when Apple launched the iPad and iBooks Store, BK was one of seven publishers in the world whose books were available on those platforms on day one.
As mindfulness goes mainstream, spirituality is no longer a marginal category. Publishers across the country both big and small are taking spirituality seriously. The increased expansion into various alternative categories, spirituality among them, has long been a staple of several Bay Area publishers.
Psychologist Matthew McKay and writer Patrick Fanning founded Oakland-based New Harbinger Publications in 1973 with the idea of pioneering a new kind of self-help book. McKay describes the self-help books at the time as “ain’t it awful books” that focused on the problems without offering solutions. Fanning’s love of the magazine Popular Mechanics sparked the idea for a new kind of book that focused on finding answers.
That idea helped them change the self-help market with titles like The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, which has more than one million copies in print in six editions since 1990. Therapists were hungry for adjunctive materials they could give to their clients, and started using and recommending our titles, which became a big source of marketing for us,” McKay says.
Long known as a niche publisher tackling self-help and psychology, in the last several years New Harbinger has gotten into other categories, including professional books, textbooks, and the social sciences. McKay says the press is going to aggressively “double down” in the spirituality category. Other areas of growth include self-help books for children and adolescents, a category McKay describes as “untapped.” Since entering that market in 2008, sales have doubled in that category.
New Harbinger’s staff have started to think of themselves not as book publishers, but as “information providers.” To that end, in 2014, New Harbinger launched Praxis, which offers in-person and online workshops that accompany the press’s titles. “It gives our authors platforms to tell people about their work, and we are selling a lot of books through these workshops,” McKay says. “It is substantially increasing our sales.”
San Francisco’s HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins, focuses on health, wellness, and spirituality. Senior v-p and publisher Mark Tauber says when HarperOne first published books on topics such as alternative health and spirituality, “it was bold and forward-thinking. Now every single publisher is doing these alternative titles. In the early ’90s, no one had heard of the Dalai Lama—now you’ve got Arianna Huffington talking about mindfulness at work. It’s been great for us.”
Last year, HarperOne announced the new imprint HarperElixir, focused on physical, mental, and spiritual themes. “I firmly believe that to grow, particularly as a major house, you have to invest in your strengths, the things you think you can do better and quicker than the market can,” Tauber says. HarperElixir, set to release its first title in the fall of 2015, capitalizes on the interest in this category. “We certainly have plenty of body, mind, spirit titles in our backlist,” Tauber says, “but we weren’t focused on it exclusively, especially on the frontlist.”
HarperOne inked a new deal with Learn It Live, a company that will create a course to accompany each title on the HarperElixir imprint. “We identified that readers in the body, mind, spirit category are quite involved in digital conferences courses both physical and online,” says Tauber, adding that every HarperElixir title will come with a Learn It Live course.
The nonprofit Parallax, which began in 1986 with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace, continues to publish books on mindfulness. Neumann, the publisher, says Parallax has seen “explosive success” with a new line of small illustrated pocket-size books. Priced at under $10 each, books in the Mindful Essentials series—which includes titles such as How to Sit, How to Eat, How to Love, How to Walk, and How to Relax—have sold a combined 90,000 copies in the past 12 months.
“These books, are designed almost like an app that you can open anytime and get a little dose of clarity and centering in the midst of daily craziness,” Neumann says. She adds that Parallax had its best year ever in 2014, with $1.5 million in net sales, and is on track to double that this year. “We’re just ramping up,” she says, adding that the house is focusing on “smart and sustainable expansion, doubling our list in 2016, and looking at other ways, outside of our print and e-books, that we can reach our readers.” One of those ways is through accompanying video assets, and Parallax is also planning webinars and audiobooks.
A Global View
The Bay Area’s proximity to Asia brings advantages for some publishers. For China Books, one of the largest and oldest U.S. publisher of books from and about China, that proximity has helped from a printing and shipping perspective, senior managing editor Chris Robyn says.
China Books has released more than two dozen new titles in the last three years, including new editions of literary classics and philosophical texts. In addition to expanding the publishing imprint, Robyn says the press is moving into Latin America, where there is much demand for materials about China that is not being met. “We are in a state of slow expansion, by increasing the number of titles, looking into different disciplines, and converting backlist to digital format or POD within the next two years” Robyn says.
Aker, the Viz Media v-p, says that conversations about relocating the company to New York or Los Angeles “never went very far. As a media company specializing in Asian pop culture content, and increasingly specializing in the digital delivery of said content, the Bay Area is a great location for us both geographically and culturally.”
At Chronicle Books in San Francisco, president Jack Jensen says the past three years have been among the most successful in terms of revenue and earnings in the history of the company, which publishes a mix of art, children’s, culture, food and drink, and lifestyle titles. Jensen says that early on Chronicle “looked to Japan and Australia for trading partners rather than the U.K. and Europe and that has had a rich influence on our publishing that makes us distinctive even today.”
In 2011, Chronicle formed a joint distribution venture with Abrams and opened offices in London to gain wider market share in the U.K. and Europe and continues to expand international distribution. Chronicle will be opening new retail boutiques in Japan, including Chronicle-branded boutiques in Tsutaya Mega Bookstores and a standalone microstore in central Tokyo this year through a partnership with Top Partners Inc. “This exciting new expansion will help us reach an ever wider international audience,” Jensen says.
Avalon Travel publisher Bill Newlin says that there is “an appetite for travel among Bay Area residents, and the Bay Area is one of the top tourism destinations worldwide.” Newlin reports that Avalon’s travel guide sales have increased 10% in the past two years, driven by strong results in core series and augmented by the introduction of new lines, including the Pocket guides to European cities by Rick Steves, which will soon publish its 10th title, and is selling more than 150,000 print units per year. Avalon’s market share was 9% in 2008 but was 19% last year, Newlin says, citing Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book.
Many publishers remain focused on titles closer to home. Linden Publishing, for example, offers how-to and crafts books, as well as regional titles such as When San Francisco Burned, a photograph book about the 1906 earthquake and fire. Owners Kent and Richard Sorsky say they are both “avid readers of history, so it’s a joy for us to publish in the California history category.” Richard, Linden’s founder, is Kent’s uncle. They add, “We aim to continue to have a strong presence in the space.”
Counterpoint Press, founded by Charlie Winton and Jack Shoemaker, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Publisher Rolph Blythe says the “tradition of strong environmental writing continues to inform and sustain Counterpoint,” citing two 2015 titles, Wendell Berry’s essay collection Our Only World and Gary Snyder’s first new book of poetry in a decade, This Present Moment. At 75 originals a year and about 120 titles in its paperback program, Blythe says Counterpoint has reached the “operational high point in terms of the volume of titles we can publish at current staff levels. It’s a robust clip, but we’re able to give every book significant time and attention at this level.”
Staying True to Roots
While some presses are experimenting, others are focusing on maintaining their mission. The worker-owned and collectively run AK Press, which began in the U.K. but has also operated in the Bay Area since the 1990s, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. With its U.S. headquarters in Oakland, the press focuses on “anarchist and anti-authoritarian titles,” but publishes a full “range of radical material, even when it’s fiction or poetry.”
Collective member Charles Weigl says the Bay Area is “a vibrant place politically, often contentious, and therefore fertile ground for new ideas and strategies for social change”—in other words: a good place for the press to call home. When AK Press had a fire in its warehouse in March, supporters came out to help with cleanup and donations.
Weigl says the press “tries to understand what tools and information people want and need in their struggles.” He cites the forthcoming Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America as a timely example.
Weigl says AK is taking a moment to “rethink the press’s future direction before expanding.” The collective is currently made of five people who have been working there for 10–15 years. While he acknowledges that an “anarchist business” might seem oxymoronic, Weigl celebrates the benefit of collectively “deciding what sort of business and, more importantly, environment we want to exist within.”
Known for titles on spirituality, alternative health, and martial arts, the Berkeley publisher North Atlantic Books marked its 40th anniversary last year. North Atlantic’s range of books includes the Sacred Activism series, a partnership with the global mystic Andrew Harvey. Titles in the 2015 series include Thanissara’s Time to Stand Up, described as “the Buddha’s life and message through feminine eyes,” and Empty Hands, a Memoir: One Woman’s Journey to Save Children Orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, by the nurse Sister Abegail Ntleko. “I do think there is a shared understanding and appreciation that our bottom line at North Atlantic is always the storyline, and not profit. We look at books inherently less as products and more as outlets of information,” director of publishing Tim McKee says.
Being far from New York has allowed the local publishing industry to create a unique character. Experimental, diverse, and a little less cutthroat than their East Coast cousins, the Bay Area’s indie presses have found the freedom to find their own way. Heyday’s Margolin speaks for many local publishers when he expresses doubts that his operation could have found a home in New York. “The publishing scene in the Bay Area was less developed, leaving space for experimentation and self-invention,” Margolin says. “There’s something about not being in the center stage that allows more freedom.”
Neumann says Parallax is a Bay Area publisher “through and through. We are at our core committed to racial and economic justice, deep and engaged mindfulness, and to having a very good time in the process. What could be more Bay Area than that?”
Chronicle Books was founded in 1967, “coincidentally the Summer of Love,” says Jensen, the president. “The whimsical spirit of that era is still reflected in our publishing today.” He adds that the press doesn’t adhere to the traditional New York–centric view of publishing, which has “allowed us to offer more diversity in both what we publish and how we publish.” He sums it up neatly: “The Bay Area is the home of independent publishing.”Bay Area Spotlight 2015: All Our Coverage