During the last presidential election cycle, right-wing imprints flourished, churning out highly partisan bestsellers like Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry (Regnery, 2004), a book that very well may have cost the Democrats the 2004 election. This year, with Obama Nation (Threshold Editions, Aug.) topping the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks since its August 1 laydown, it's clear that juicy “exposés” bashing political figures still appeal to some readers.

But change is in the air. As the 2008 presidential election looms, books either critiquing the new world order that has emerged in the past decade or else advocating a more sustainable lifestyle in a world of dwindling natural resources are striking a chord like never before with readers more interested in issues than in personalities.

While recent releases from the larger houses like The Post-American World (Norton) by Fareed Zakaria and The Dark Side by Jane Mayer (Doubleday) currently ride the bestseller lists, books from small presses with clearly defined progressive agendas also have made it onto the bestseller lists this past year. Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Army by Jeremy Scahill (Nation, 2007) sold more than 200,000 copies in hardcover, and The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot by Naomi Wolf (Chelsea Green, 2007) sold 120,000 copies.

“We filled the gap that the New York City publishers weren't filling,” declared Carl Bromley, editorial director of Nation Books. Now a Basic Books imprint, Nation was launched in 2000 to publish nonfiction books on politics, current events and popular culture from a left-wing perspective. This month, Nation is releasing its first fiction title, Salvation Boulevard by Larry Beinhart, a legal thriller exploring religious faith in America.

With a list featuring renewable energy, ecocuisine and green building titles as well as books on politics, Vermont-based Chelsea Green reports that its sales have tripled since 2002, with returns currently at 18%. The 25-year-old independent press continues its solid growth this fiscal year, with net sales up 42% over last year to date, and the company 28% over budget.

“It's the whole green lifestyle trend,” Margo Baldwin, Chelsea Green's publisher, explains, using as an example a recent spike in sales of a 1999 release, Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman, from 5,000 copies sold last year to a projected 15,000 this year. “The culture is catching up to us.”

While Chelsea Green recently made waves among booksellers when it crashed Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency by Robert Kuttner, its 17 other releases this season reflect the press's continuing emphasis on social justice and environmental sustainability—and how the two issues are inextricably linked. Titles include How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth by Hervé Kempf (Sept.), Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World by Alan Weisman (Oct.) and Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power by Mark Scha—piro (Jan.), along with The Green Living Handbook by David Gershon (Sept.) and The Transition Handbook from Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins (Sept.).

Seven Stories, publisher of Kurt Vonnegut's Man Without a Country in 2005, which climbed to #5 on the New York Times bestseller list, reports that its lead title just out, Obamanomics: How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics by John R. Talbott (Aug.), is going to be “really big,” in publisher Dan Simon's words, with Bookscan showing between 2,000 and 3,000 copies being sold each week since initial pub date.

“This year [2008] is looking to be the biggest year in sales since 2005,” Simon says, with this fiscal year's projected net revenues ranging between $3 million and $4 million. “That's the thing with being mission-driven, not market-driven: sometimes the market comes to us.”

While Nation Books, Chelsea Green and Seven Stories releases have received much attention in the mainstream media with their high-profile bestsellers, they're not alone among activist presses finding success in the marketplace. More than a dozen publishers considering themselves part of a progressive social movement have flourished in recent years. Half of them are headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, and only two in New York City. Counterpoint is bicoastal: its headquarters are in Berkeley, its newly acquired Soft Skull imprint in Manhattan.

Six are distributed by Consortium: Seven Stories, New Society Publishers (recently acquired by Douglas & McIntyre), Haymarket Books, City Lights Publishers, South End Press and AK Press. Four are distributed by PGW: Nation, Counterpoint/Soft Skull, McSweeney's Books and Alternet Books. While Chelsea Green handles its own distribution with an in-house sales force, PoliPoint is distributed by Ingram Publishers Services and Lantern Books by Steiner Books.

AK Press reports doubling the size of its staff, output and sales in the last eight years, growing from five to 10 employees, producing 18—21 titles per year, up from 9—10 releases, and grossing more than $1.4 million in revenues in 2007, up from $650,000 in 2000. Soft Skull has grown from $250,000 in sales in 2001 to $1 million this past fiscal year, and from producing seven to eight titles in 2001 to 35 releases in 2008. Haymarket, founded in 2000, has doubled its list in the past three years, from five to six releases each season, to 11—12, with a 70% increase in revenues. And City Lights, which increased its nonfiction offerings in the past two years from 10%—20% of its frontlist to 50%, grew 30% in 2006 and another 30% in 2007, before leveling off in 2008. Publisher Elaine Katzenberg anticipates that two nonfiction fall releases, Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life, and Resistance Under the Gun by Wafaa Bilal (Sept.) and Voices of the Chicago Eight by Tom Hayden, Ron Sossi, and Frank Condon (Sept.), will pump up this past year's flat sales.

One new progressive press, Alternet Books, was launched in April largely in response to what marketing coordinator Patrick Hughes describes as the “hope and momentum across the spectrum” that have emerged during this past “watershed year,” and another, PoliPoint, was established in 2004 to “bring new ideas and perspectives into the body politic, to ignite dialogue,” according to publisher Scott Jordan, whose The Real McCain, by Cliff Shecter, published in the spring, was ahead of the curve, mounting an assault on McCain's status as a political maverick. Others, like New Society, have specialized in publishing books for progressive readers for decades.

Without a single title ever making it onto mainstream media bestseller lists since its founding in Philadelphia in 1977, New Society, currently headquartered on an island in British Columbia, has become Consortium's top-selling publisher, with a backlist that moves, in Consortium president Julie Schaper's words, “slow and steady.” For instance, Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon has sold 16,000 copies through Consortium since its 2006 pub, with sales double this year over last year's.

“There's an incredible interest in sustainability, the environment and peak oil,” Schaper says. “New Society's at the forefront, because they walk the talk. This is how they live, they've done it for a very long time. The rest of the world has caught up to them.”

The numbers confirm Schaper's point. New Society's total sales have risen 15% each year in the past four years, with 80% of its books sold to the U.S. market. While the annual returns rate currently averages 15%, Judith Plant, New Society's publisher since 1989, reports that July's returns dropped down to 6%.

“There are no stunning sales numbers, just good, reliable, steady sales that don't come back,” Plant says of a list that's rarely topped 100,000 in sales of a single title, with some selling as few as 2,500 and many averaging 10,000—20,000 copies. “That's what we're aiming for,” she says.

New Society's 15 fall/winter releases lead off with Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto (Oct.), The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age by John Michael Greer (Sept.) and Better World Shopping Guide, revised edition, by Ellis Jones (Oct.), which has sold 40,000 copies since 2006 in its first edition. But almost half of this season's releases are about renewable energy—a hot topic in these days of soaring fossil fuel prices. Titles include Power from the Wind: Achieving Energy Independence by Dan Chiras and Alcohol Fuel: A Guide to Making and Using Ethanol as a Renewable Fuel by Richard Freudenberger (both Feb.).

“We're keen on developing tools for communities to thrive in a postcarbon world,” Plant explains. “We see ourselves as a solutions-oriented publisher, our books as tools and strategies. We don't want to leave our readers in despair.”

While independent bookstores and Amazon account for a significant percentage of the sales of these presses' publications, nonbookstore retail outlets also move books. Chains appealing to hip young customers, like Urban Outfitters, Hot Topix and even Costco, sell huge numbers of these books, as do health food and record stores, and what Alternet's Hughes calls “info stores,” offshoots of the zine culture that carry alternative literature and music.

Tapping directly into progressive activist communities is key to the endurance of these publishers, some of which are more interested in booking authors on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman than on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

“People buy these books because of word of mouth, because of what people tell them,” Soft Skull editor Richard Nash explains. He insists that street cred is what's propelling 7,000 preorders for Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections from an Angry White Male by Tim Wise (Sept.), whose previous book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (2005) has sold 35,000 copies and is in its 13th print run, “with no sign of it stopping.”

“Our books have a longer life, with sales building over time,” Kara Davis, Lantern's managing director, explains. “We're not even reviewed in the trade magazines.”

While Alternet Books, which to date has published three books, reaches potential readers through Alternet.org, an online portal of progressive writings from which the press also draws its authors, two other publishers—Nation and McSweeney's—can rely on companion print magazines—The Nation and McSweeney's Quarterly, respectively—to attract their base readership.

“We work from our community outward,” Hughes explains of Alternet's marketing strategy. “It's attraction, not promotion.”

Many of the authors who publish with these activist presses are activists themselves, often speaking before community groups and at universities, further fueling book sales. Dahr Jamail, whose book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, was released in hardcover by Haymarket in 2007 and will be released in trade paper in October, gave 30 public talks in six weeks last year before audiences ranging between 75 and 200 persons. Beyond the Green Zone has sold 10,000 copies to date; the paper edition will be released with a 12,500-copy initial print run.

“We love Bookscan, and we use it, but we feel that their figures are not accurate for us,” notes Anthony Arcove, a member of Haymarket's eight-person editorial collective. “A good 50% of our sales don't go through bookstores, but direct, via the authors.”

While some presses, like City Lights, Haymarket and Lantern, emphasize direct mail marketing, and others, like Soft Skull and PoliPoint, focus on Internet marketing, many also reach out the old-fashioned grassroots way—by setting up tables of books at conventions and festivals where progressive activists gather, ranging from anarchist book fairs to renewable energy shows and the five Green Festival environmental expos held around the country each year, which altogether attract more than 175,000 attendees.

“It's hard work, but it's exhilarating,” Plant says. “You meet your market there.” New Society and Lantern report they each attend 10—15 fairs and festivals each year, while AK “tables” about 50 events annually, selling its own books as well as publications from other left-wing presses, including South End and Haymarket.

“We also provide books to 'rogue tablers,' people who want to set up tables at their local [events],” explains Charles Weigl, a representative of AK's nonhierarchical, worker-run collective. “We offer them the same discount we'd give a bookstore.”

Reflecting on the “shocking” fact that New Society's releases have “gone mainstream overnight,” and confident that her company will retain market share even in the face of increased competition from larger houses chasing popular trends, Plant recalls the difficulties New Society went through less than a decade ago in promoting Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile by Katie Alvord (2000) and Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change by Guy Dauncey (2001).

“It was a hard sell. It wouldn't be today,” she says. “But then, we don't pick books because they'll sell, but because they'll make a difference.”