As I began to formulate my thoughts on how midsize publishers are navigating the current trade publishing landscape, the song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” jumped into my mind. Where have all the midsize publishers gone? Gone to the Big Five, every one.
The midsize publishing community has greatly contracted and, as I think about the businesses that still make up this community, I am struck by the fact that they all share two important attributes. First, they have a clearly defined vision around what they choose to publish and, just as important, how they bring that publishing to market. They understand that commercial and critical success are dependent on the distinctiveness and differentiation of their work. The second attribute is ownership that is completely aligned with that vision and is on board for the long term. With this preamble in mind, I will share some of the important benchmarks along Chronicle Books’ successful journey from small to medium-size trade book publisher—recognizing along the way that success for publishers of all sizes is also wholly dependent on instinct, whimsy, risk taking, and just plain luck. This last bit is what keeps the whole deal interesting and fun.
I joined Chronicle Books in 1977, when E.M. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful was the de facto “little red book” of West Coast publishing. At the time, there were more than 100 active trade publishers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Granted, many of these houses issued one or two titles and then vanished; nevertheless, in those days the only barrier to entry was how energetic you were and having a garage large enough to store the books. The proprietors of these publishing endeavors preferred to be identified as independent, rather than small. Independent was the code word for “not of New York,” even though the 1977 New York publishing community was rich with any number of nonconglomerate independent book publishers. Fast-forward to today, and the number of Bay Area publishers of any size can be counted on two hands, and when we turn to New York the number of independent trade publishers has witnessed an even steeper decline. Over the past 25 years the transformation of small and midsize publishers has been seismic, and while the meteoric growth of print-on-demand has created thousands of new businesses, it is common knowledge that the independent trade book publishing landscape has permanently changed.
Chronicle Books’ progress from small to midsize publisher occurred over a brief period. The early years of publishing regional guidebooks and repurposed content from the San Francisco Chronicle gave way to a list of full-color titles in the areas of food, nature, art, design, and popular culture. The West Coast had a rich vein of creative talent, and we quickly began to take advantage of it. Our first breakout book was a full-color celebration of sushi, a title that was more an homage to a then explosive California cuisine trend rather than a traditional cookbook. Sushi was cleverly designed, beautifully photographed, and, most important, production enhanced these features. We originated our illustrated titles in affordable trade paperbacks with flaps, rather than in hardcover. Trade paperbacks were the format of choice among young book buyers, and our growing list of high-quality, whimsical titles quickly established our reputation as an independent publisher who saw things differently.
Our geographic location provided another benefit in our path from small to midsize. San Francisco’s proximity to Japan opened the door to exceptional low-cost four-color printing, and along with that, printers also provided introductions to a wide array of Japanese publishers whose illustrated lists were perfectly suited to our growing program. For three years running in the early 1990s, Chronicle Books was the largest U.S. importer of Japanese copyrights.
What made our work exciting and fulfilling was that we all wore multiple hats. For example, when I joined the company as the Western states sales representative, it quickly became clear that my actual territory was the known world, and I soon found myself attending international book fairs selling foreign rights and acquiring titles for our own list. During this period, we published our first bona fide bestseller, Griffin & Sabine, an epistolary love story that eventually spanned six volumes and sold more than three million copies. In addition to generating commercial success, Griffin & Sabine also helped us establish a key precept for our future publishing. The enduring magic of books lies not only in the rich content they can provide but also in the object itself; hence, we all agreed, our publishing should offer a high degree of bookmaking craftsmanship, and our titles should look and feel as distinct as the content inside.
Having succeeded in expanding our adult list, we entered the world of children’s books, focusing primarily on picture books. That was an extremely wise decision, as today children’s books are our fastest-growing category.
Firmly ensconced as a midsize publisher, we began to experience the churn that can occur when growth has been rapid and title count has ballooned. In addition, the amazing fortunes writers and content packagers could command in the explosive Bay Area dot-com boom of the late ’90s began luring away key employees. Setting a new path, we decreased title count and founded a new division devoted to creating gift and stationery product derived from the considerable illustrated assets in our existing list. We also entered the distribution business, taking on the newly revitalized U.K. fine arts publisher Phaidon. We have since gone on to distribute five additional publishers whose lists are complementary to the Chronicle Books program. These two initiatives—the gift and stationery division, and distribution—has helped situate Chronicle Books as a company that brings to market a wide array of information and entertainment products, rather than solely being a trade book publisher.
We have long believed that books deserve broader representation in the vast consumer landscape, and an increasing number of retailers realize that books can be an alluring addition to their merchandise mix. Distributing our titles to new market channels has become a core principle for Chronicle; it is an undertaking that we pursue with passion. We celebrate the acquisition of a significant new customer with the same enthusiasm as when we make a significant new title acquisition. Our ever expanding list of products featuring distinct content in a wide array of formats continues to enable our success at further market penetration. Today we have more than 10,000 active retail accounts worldwide, and while the pandemic caused a sizable percentage of these accounts to be commercially constrained, these customers continue to provide a solid revenue base that is a soothing balance to the ambiguities of the algorithmic buying and selling at the world’s largest online platform.
On our 50th anniversary our owner and chairman, Nion McEvoy, summed up our current path perfectly when he said: “Chronicle Books exists in the heart of innovative San Francisco, and thrives there. Mindful of all the blessings and opportunities that technology brings, we believe people will continue to cherish books—for their children, for themselves, and as gifts for those they love and esteem—for generations. Our plan is to continue to create those books for them.”
We remain intrigued with our ever-increasing opportunities for growth. As I think back over the years, Chronicle Books has had the good fortune of moving from strength to strength. When authors, artists, designers, and customers describe our publishing program, two sentences regularly emerge: “I see your books everywhere” and “I knew it was a Chronicle title the moment I picked it up!”
The ongoing goal is to make sure that those observations continue to be true.
Jack Jensen is president of the McEvoy Group, which owns Chronicle Books, with whom Jensen has been affiliated since 1977.