Fifty years ago, Chronicle Books opened in San Francisco with a two-room office and a handful of employees. Since then, the company has survived bookstore booms and busts, publishing fads, and multiple digital revolutions. The publisher, one of the largest in the West, now counts more than 7,000 titles, with 250 million units sold around the globe.
Originally owned by the San Francisco Chronicle, in its first 10 years Chronicle Books focused on publishing books by its reporters as well as titles of regional interest. When Jack Jensen arrived 40 years ago, the company was publishing 12 titles a year. “We all wore a great many hats,” he said, remembering his first job as a sales rep. “You had a soup-to-nuts understanding of the book publishing endeavor.” Jensen now serves as president of the McEvoy Group, the holding company that acquired Chronicle Books in 2000. He started alongside five employees and now oversees 160.
To this day, “interdisciplinary teams” of designers, editors, and production managers still tackle every project together and trade roles as needed—just like in those early years at Chronicle. “We have tremendous respect for the expertise each team member brings, but are also skilled at wearing each others’ hats,” added Sara Schneider, Chronicle Books’ executive publishing design director.
Jensen fondly recalls working on signature titles during his first years at the company, books like Kinsey Photographer, a trade paperback edition that made the work of Darius Kinsey, a landscape photographer dubbed “the Ansel Adams of the logging industry,” available to a mainstream audience. The odds weren’t great for the scrappy press in those early years. Indie publishers were popping up all over the Bay Area, but most were just one-book wonders.
By the 1980s, shopping mall book chains B. Dalton Bookseller and Waldenbooks dominated the marketplace. The chains didn’t know how to categorize books from the indie press, and Jensen returned to his office with terrible news after one fall season sales meeting: both booksellers had “passed on the entire list.” That could have sunk the press, but Jensen and his team made the fateful decision to “sell outside the bookstores,” taking Chronicle’s first single-subject cookbook Sushi to cookware stores. These specialty shops kept coming back for more copies of the photograph-heavy trade paperback. “It started a phenomenon of single-subject cookbooks which we enjoyed for many years,” Jensen recalls. “[That] is one of the key assets the company has today. Our market reach beyond the bookstores is really second to none.”
Waldenbooks and Dalton have both gone out of business, but Chronicle has built a long-lasting business on the foundation of its gift division, selling its signature literary creations in thousands of retail locations, both bookstores and beyond. Now, the publisher releases 300 titles every year, and the gift book format makes up one-third of the sales.
“[Chronicle] changed the way people find books,” said publisher Christine Carswell, who joined the company in 1994 as an executive editor. “[Jensen] appreciated that our publishing could reach people who might never choose to look for a gift, the gift of reading, in a bookstore.” The company’s key categories expanded for these new audiences, broadening to include children’s books, pop culture, lifestyle, and stationery.
The publisher has survived a number of technological revolutions as well. Chronicle invested in everything from CD-ROMs to apps when these digital tools were touted as print book killers. “[We’ve] enjoyed our fair share of digital fads,” Carswell said. “I’m proud of the apps we produced [and] the innovative spirit they represent. I’d have been a lot happier if they’d made us a bit more money.”
Jensen never worried that the digital revolution would topple his business. “The digital opportunity is not one where readers are replaced,” he said. “It’s one where you are able to add readers. It’s not either-or. It’s both. Whenever we were told the books were toast, I never believed that.”
Chronicle’s bestselling book is 1999’s The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, whose text and practical black-and-white illustrations taught readers how to escape quicksand and handle sword fights. The book was stocked everywhere from bookstores to hip clothing stores. Given its 50 years of resilience in the tumultuous business of publishing, perhaps it’s no coincidence that the publisher was able to sell three million copies of a survival manual.