From her offices in White River Junction, Vt., Chelsea Green president and publisher Margo Baldwin says she has every reason to be pleased. To date, sales are up 40% this year over the same time last year. The company did more than $1 million in sales in April and again in May. Nor is one category thriving more than others. Every genre, from health books to cooking, gardening, health, and politics, is up.
But as the publisher prepares to release a highly controversial title later this week, it’s the politics of American publishing that worries Baldwin, and are driving a radical edge at the 36-year-old publishing house. The title in question is Naomi Wolf’s Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love (Oct. 9), which was previously acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and canceled amid a firestorm of allegations about inaccuracies in 2019.
At the time, Wolf was challenged for mistakenly describing the sentences of two Britons tried for sodomy in the 19th century as having been executed when they were not. In fact, while gay men were put to death for charges of sodomy, her critics pointed out that the term Wolf had misinterpreted meant that death sentences for those two individuals had not been carried out.
Baldwin, who published Wolf’s The End of America in 2007, said the book’s cancellation was an overreaction by HMH to a relatively small number of errors, all of which have been addressed in the forthcoming edition, and none of which have altered the premise of the book.
“She made a few errors and I don’t know of a single historical book that doesn’t have a few errors,” Baldwin said. More worrisome is what the cancellation represents to the veteran publisher.
“There’s no more real debate about the important things,” Baldwin said. “Publishers have a duty to champion the ideas they believe in even if they are very unpopular. What are you in business for if you’re not going to do that? Are you going to engage in intellectual debate or say, ‘shut up’?”
She points to Chelsea Green’s recently published book on the health dangers of electric power, The Invisible Rainbow, as well as Coronavirus: False Alarm? as examples of the types of questioning and skepticism-driven books that publishers should be publishing. For instance, Coronavirus sits outside of the mainstream, challenging fundamental facts about the virus as well as the medical community’s recommended responses to it. Baldwin said the title has sold well, in part because there are so few books like it being published in an industry that she sees as increasingly intellectually brittle.
“The publishing industry is part of the liberal establishment,” she said, “and the liberal establishment thinks that any debate about that is in support of Trump. But that’s nonsense, I’m not a Trump supporter but I question the narrative of what we’re doing [in response to the virus].”
Her decisions have not been without controversy, including within the employee-owned company. One staff member recently resigned in disagreement with the publishing program. But Baldwin is buoyed by past success in beating other publishers to major issues with books like George Lakoff’s 2004 politics book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the climate collapse classic The Limits of Growth, dozens of books on organic farming, and Wolf’s End of America in 2007.
For that reason, Baldwin is eager to release Outrages. “I feel like we’re on the cutting edge of many things, and we challenge orthodoxy,” she said. She is also confident in what she believes is right. “My main thing is, you don’t have to agree with everything we do. You can disagree with me."
This article has been updated to clarify the errors identified by Wolf's critics, which led to the cancellation of her book contract with HMH.