It’s been an eventful year for California’s publishers of illustrated books. They have been forced to figure out new ways of doing business during the pandemic while adapting to climate change, calls within the industry for more diversity and inclusiveness, and cultural shifts like the Black Lives Matter movement.
Chronicle Books president Tyrrell Mahoney says she has been “thinking about [Covid-19] all the time” while “mobilizing and stabilizing” employees to meet the challenges of working remotely, as well as responding to changes in consumer buying habits. “We’re making some real decisions without a crystal ball,” she notes, explaining that the San Francisco–based publisher is emphasizing its line of cookbooks and other culinary titles, as well as lifestyle and wellness books, journals, and games. “Luckily, these areas are our strength already; we’re trying to amplify what we have.”
Chronicle is engaging more often with booksellers via online meetings and developing digital visuals, Mahoney says, and it has been reaching out more aggressively to specialty online retailers that are “not known for selling books but [that] have a customer base that can appreciate” the publisher’s offerings.
Internally, Chronicle is implementing an action plan to both diversify the workplace and make it more inclusive. “Black Lives Matter was a real reckoning,” Mahoney says. “It accelerated a much-needed change for us.”
Ulysses Press publisher Keith Riegert notes that, since it has offices in both Berkeley and in Brooklyn, N.Y., the staff is “flexible and agile” and well-versed in video chat, so transitioning during the pandemic was not too onerous—although employees in both cities miss “spur-of-the-moment” meetings.
Sales initially dropped in April, but they’ve “improved dramatically since then,” Riegert says, though he admits to “holding our breath” as the indies continue to struggle. Ulysses is a “very research and market-driven enterprise,” specializing in travel, lifestyle, and cookbooks. It is aggressively searching out authors to write about the current cultural zeitgeist—although it will continue to refrain from political books, preferring “levity and light” to politics. Riegert anticipates that the press’s forthcoming (and still unnamed) children’s imprint will emphasize diversity and include BLM and #MeToo books.
This fall, Maine’s Cider Mill Press launched a San Diego–based imprint, Whalen Book Works, in large part due to the travel challenges of the pandemic. Noting the press’s commitment to maintaining relationships with its major retail accounts, many of which are headquartered in the Los Angeles area, publisher John Whalen emphasizes the importance of in-person meetings. “Looking forward to 2021 and 2022, the pandemic won’t slow us,” he says. “Our strategy is to be in [the ac-counts’] backyards.” Main-taining a California office also allows for a “longer, more productive work day” with the printers in China upon which Cider Mill relies.
Amy Barrett-Daffin, publisher of C&T Publishing, which produces creative quilting and sewing books, explains that operations were not disrupted this year, since it had shifted to cloud-based work in January. Though five employees work in its East Bay office, 25 work remotely and will continue to do so. She acknowledges that C&T contended with supply chain disruptions this past spring, but those have since been resolved.
“There was a decline in sales in March and April,” Barrett-Daffin says. “But everything has picked up, and it’s been steady for the year.”
It helps that C&T is making full use of technology. Its offerings simultaneously published in print and digital formats, with select images from releases posted on social media, and it recently launched an online learning component, so that its authors can teach their crafts virtually. “So many of our authors [typically] travel and teach,” Barrett-Daffin says. “We already do a tremendous amount of marketing; now we can add digital education on top of the book.”
C&T is cognizant of cultural shifts and “making its list more equitable to people of color.” This includes working with activist Sara Trail of the Social Justice Sewing Academy on Stitching Stolen Lives (fall 2021), a coffee table book about the history of the social justice movement, told through quilts and banners. Illustrations include quilts with the faces of victims of police brutality and racially motivated crimes, as well as fabric art created by young people expressing their pain at living in a racist society.
And C&T took a stand, pledging on its website and via email to support the goals of the BLM movement. “We want to be a good ally, and we’re doing what we can to be good allies in our community,” Barrett-Daffin says. “I got some supportive emails and some angry emails.”
Another East Bay publisher, Angela Engel of Collective Book Studio, says that the new company, which launched in January 2019, has been greatly affected by the pandemic and the BLM movement. “When Covid-19 hit, I knew I had to move forward,” Engel recalls, noting that she has been committed to hiring a diverse staff since the beginning. “I was invested in my business, but I also have to be part of my community. I can’t ignore Covid—or Black Lives Matter.”
Engel has dialed back on publishing books to instead focus on obtaining protective personal equipment for health workers. Her efforts include donating $6,000 from her own funds to purchase mylar to make face shields, some of which were sent to Twin Cities children’s hospitals after George Floyd’s death.
Engel contacted her clients in March to inform them that the press would publish only three titles this fall, on education and parenting. She also postponed her entire 2021 children’s list. “I don’t want to put pressure on myself,” she says. “It’s been a challenging time for my employees too. It’s not a time to push people. You have to be patient and kind.”
Further down the coast in Ventura, Patagonia Books, the publishing division of the outdoor clothing and gear company, was hard-hit when its parent company shut down its entire operation for five weeks starting in March. Originally scheduled to publish seven books in 2020, Patagonia released only two before postponing the rest. There will be seven releases in 2021 and in 2022.
“The shutdown dramatically affected our publishing program,” explains Patagonia publisher Karla Olson. She notes that 40% of the press’s sales are direct, through the company’s 42 stores and website, and 60% are through traditional channels.
Due to the “disastrous effects of climate change,” Olson notes, Patagonia Books has for the past eight years moved in a more topical direction, publishing books like Salmon by Mark Kurlansky, which addresses the impact of climate change on freshwater fish. In general, Patagonia’s books now look at the big environmental picture. “Our books focus on how we can communicate in a different way to inspire people to take action to save the planet,” Olson says.
In Los Angeles, art publisher Getty Publications, part of the Getty philanthropic and museum complex, is shifting its list around—particularly releases timed to coincide with exhibitions that have been postponed due to the pandemic. “We’ll have those books ready when the show does open,” says publisher Kara Kirk, although she anticipates continued delays due to difficulties obtaining image reproduction permissions from museums that are closed indefinitely.
There will be fewer releases in 2021, Kirk says, but this will be balanced out in subsequent years with more frontlist. The pandemic has already propelled Getty further in the digital direction: it joined Project Muse so that its releases will be more accessible.
And Getty, which had already been seeking to diversify its staff, is also “stepping back and really looking at everything we do” through the lens of inclusion, Kirk says. Recent initiatives to expand its audience include Off the Walls, a compilation of irreverent interpretations of iconic paintings created during the pandemic; the profits will be donated to artists affected by Covid-19.
There are also five books targeting a more diverse audience in the pipeline “that weren’t there six months ago,” Kirk says. “Black Lives Matter really galvanized things this spring, making things happen faster. It’s so different for us to be so responsive to the moment.”