When Charles Savitt founded Island Press in 1984, he and his cofounders—Catherine Conover, Walter Sedgwick, and Barbara Dean—aimed to capture the ideas coming out of the world of environmental conservation, from noted thinkers within the movement as well as from research and policy organizations. Thirty years and 1,000 books later, Savitt stepped down as president of the company this spring, handing the torch to senior v-p and publisher David Miller.
In the past three decades, the publisher has grown to 25 full-time employees and has released notable titles, among them Pulitzer Prize–winner E.O. Wilson’s memoir, The Naturalist, published in 1994. In all, Island Press has sold more than 3.6 million books since its launch. “I am extremely proud of what our staff and board have built,” Savitt said. “The challenges facing the environment have only grown greater, but I am certain that Island Press will continue to play a critical role in helping to develop the next generation of thought leaders and new ways of translating their ideas into the change the world needs.”
Miller got his start in publishing in 1981 as an editorial assistant at Addison-Wesley (now Pearson Education). Over the course of 17 years, he worked his way up to become publisher of the general books group and then president of the international, general, and professional publishing group. He left the company in 1996 and went on to found the Garamond Agency with his wife, Lisa Adams, and Chalkfree, an educational technology company.
In 2011, Savitt hired Miller to ramp up Island Press’s publishing program and help usher it into the digital era. Miller said he felt that the company’s small, focused editorial program (about 40 titles annually) offered a unique opportunity within the industry, but that ultimately he was most attracted to its mission as a nonprofit publisher. “I’ve always cared deeply about the environment and, having long published in both trade and professional science, I felt that Island Press was a vitally important part of not just the publishing landscape, but the environmental movement,” Miller said.
In 2015, 36% of Island Press’s funding came from individuals and foundations, and the rest was generated by sales. It had a $4.6 million budget last year.
Miller said that he plans to amplify Island Press’s publishing program, both in title output and by releasing books with “more impact.” In recent years, the publisher has doubled the size of its built environment [man-made environment] list and is eyeing expansion for lists that focus on health and the natural world. To that end, in the fall Island Press is launching a free app focusing on the built environment work that also allows users to search the press’s full catalogue. “Careful, considered growth, built on success, is what we’re aiming for,” Miller said.
In 2015, Island Press began turning out nonbook content, including articles, webinars, and professional-educational courses. Last year, the company produced and placed roughly 40 articles and opinion pieces—in outlets such as Grist, the Guardian, and Governing magazine—as part of its Urban Resilience Project, which gathers and publishes ideas on the sustainability of cities. The articles were then aggregated into a Flipboard magazine. “Generally, we’re looking to experiment with new digital platforms not only for publishing and distributing important ideas, but also as ways of engaging our audiences more deeply,” Miller said.
On top of its traditional publicity efforts, the publisher also teams with environmental organizations to reach out to members with information about Island Press books and tangential products, and the company has brought on a full-time partnership marketing manager to oversee the initiative. “All of these activities serve to both support our publishing and to extend and enhance it,” Miller said.
Just as publishing has transformed in the years since Island Press was born, so has the conversation around environmental protection. “[Island Press] published some of the very first work on climate change years ago,” Miller said. “At the time, it was to raise the awareness of [the issue] and the legitimacy of... the science around it. Today, there’s hardly any part of what we do that isn’t in some way related to ways in which we must mitigate and adapt to [climate change]. It’s one of those cross-cutting subjects that we think about daily.”