Three Decades in Print: Chelsea Green Publishing Revels in Its Independence

Friday, January 02, 2015
Thirty years ago, Ian and Margo Baldwin, transplants from Brooklyn, started a small publishing company on Chelsea’s South Green. Very small, as in the two of them.

Like other publishers who go into business waving an idealistic flag, they wanted to put out books that were of high quality, books that would find their audience, and books that would delve into such significant topics as the environment, politics, natural history and agriculture.

Falling in love with a book is easy; knowing how to market it and making enough of a profit so that it earns its way is another story. But Chelsea Green Publishing, now based in offices in the Tip Top Building in White River Junction, has not only survived, but thrived.

A recent article in Publishers Weekly, the industry bible, reported that Chelsea Green has frequently appeared on the magazine’s list of fast-growing small presses, growing by more than $1 million in 2011 and again in 2012 to an overall value of around $5 million. The company has published some 400 books since it was founded, and now releases 25 to 30 titles each year, president and publisher Margo Baldwin said in an interview in the Chelsea Green offices.

To mark its anniversary, Chelsea Green has released The Chelsea Green Reader: Selections from 30 Years of Independent Publishing, 1984-2014, an anthology of wide-ranging excerpts from the books that put them on the map, and the books they published just because they thought they should. The Reader includes excerpts of fiction and poetry, nature and travel writing, memoir and biography, food and food culture, science and environmental and economic policy, among others.

“It’s nice for our authors, to see what we’ve done over the years,” said Baldwin. She has been a director since 1984, left the day-to-day operations in 1992, and returned as president of the company in 2002. Ian Baldwin left as CEO in 1998, but is still a director.

Early on, Baldwin said, “the question was, are we going to stay in business? Once we had this niche, we became more focused and were able to build up our backlist. And being in Vermont helped. It kept costs low, it’s just easier” than being in New York or Boston.

The learning curve was steep, Baldwin said. “It’s not very pleasant learning to run a business.”

Publishing is also unpredictable. There’s always an element of the unknowable: The books that publishers expect will sell modestly turn out to be the backbone of the backlist, while books publishers anticipate will fly off the shelves don’t always.

An early, unexpected best-seller that gave expression to Chelsea Green’s interest in environmental issues was The Man Who Planted Trees, a short story by French novelist and pacifist Jean Giono, who’d fought in World War I, about a man who plants oaks, acorn by acorn, in the South of France, and brings a barren landscape to life.

Another anchor of the Chelsea Green list is The Straw Bale House, a how-to that led builders through step-by-step instructions on how to construct a house made from and insulated by straw bales. It’s sold more than 100,000 copies; manna from heaven for an independent publisher.

“Who knew that would be so successful? It kept the company afloat,” Baldwin said.

Chelsea Green also anticipated and capitalized on the wave of interest in local food systems and agriculture that has taken off in the past 15 years. The company has published three books by Maine organic gardening guru Eliot Coleman, who helped bring about the revival of interest in growing food, and in October it released An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir by Deirdre Heekin.

An Unlikely Vineyard is the third book that Heekin, a writer, vintner and restaurateur who lives in Barnard and runs Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock with her husband, Caleb Barber, has published with Chelsea Green. It was recently named by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov as one of his favorite books of the year. (Libation: A Bitter Alchemy and In Late Winter We Ate Pears , co-written with Barber, were both published in 2009.)

“One of the things that’s really great about Chelsea Green is that they want to continue working with their authors,” rather than hoping for a one-hit wonder and moving on if that doesn’t happen, Heekin said. “I believe a lot in the kinds of material they’re producing and their ethos, so it’s a good fit.”

Baldwin said the books about gardening and health have done well for the company because they speak to the increased awareness of what people can do for themselves, independent of governmental or medical bureaucracies.

“The idea that you can publish books that are solutions: there’s a hunger to take that aspect of (our) lives in hand,” she said.

Over three decades, Chelsea Green has tried its hand at different subjects. They published poetry and novels (the novels didn’t sell well), and they continue to publish the occasional work of literary non-fiction, with books by noted essayist Edward Hoagland, shrimp boat captain Diane Wilson and Helen Nearing, who, with her husband Scott Nearing, wrote in the 1950s the book Living the Good Life , perhaps the most influential primer to espouse the back-to-the-land movement. (Excerpts from these writers are included in T he Chelsea Green Reader . ) But its concentration on environmental and agricultural how-to books solidified the company’s position.

“I think we had good instincts of what’s coming next,” said Baldwin. That can have its downside, she said. “If you’re too far ahead, you really don’t do well. The challenge is staying on the leading edge and remaining important.”

The ability to get behind a book, even if it doesn’t take off right away, is one of the company’s strengths, said Ben Watson, a senior editor with Chelsea Green.

“We want to actively promote our backlist books. We rely on having a strong backlist and one we keep up to date. If a book doesn’t immediately take off, it doesn’t mean, ‘Oh forget it, let’s move on,’ ” Watson said. “Sometimes it takes six months to a year for a book to catch on.”

A case in point is Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, published by Chelsea Green in 2003, and The Art of Fermentation, published in 2012.

A self-described “fermentation fetishist” who grew up in New York City and now lives in an off-the-grid commune in Tennessee, Katz, known also as Sandorkraut, began preaching in the 1990s the culinary virtues and health benefits of such fermented foods as sauerkraut, beer, yogurt, cheese and wine. Now he’s a rock star: His books, videos and workshops on fermentation draw an avid, faithful audience who view him as a Buddha of fermentation.

That subject might not be an area that springs to mind when you envision books that both sell well and put a writer’s stamp on a subject, but the ability to nose out what might become a trend is part of the Chelsea Green profile. Watson recalled meeting Katz early on, and being struck by his smarts and charisma, and his ability to interest people in a relatively arcane subject.

After the company published his first book, i t took about 10 years for a larger audience to catch up to Katz. So when Katz said he “wanted to do the definitive book on wild fermentation,” Watson said, Chelsea Green was eager to publish it. That it turned into a New York Times best-seller and a James Beard Foundation award winner was due to Katz’ expertise, his reputation and some good fortune, Watson said.

But its best-selling status is “not completely independent of our good judgment. We’re making decisions based on what we think are going to be trends,” Watson added.

“You have to know what’s going on,” Baldwin said. “We’ve developed a brand and a reputation.”

The company’s success has been such that three years ago it instituted an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), Baldwin said. About 80 percent of Chelsea Green is now owned by its employees. Traditionally the way for investors to recoup their investment has been to sell a company, Baldwin said, but by making a shift to an ESOP, it gives the company editorial and financial stability.

“Remaining independent and not selling out is important,” Baldwin said.

And despite continued dire predictions of the end of the book as a physical object, Watson demurs.

“The book is a vehicle. It’s something that’s still important to people. ... It gives (authors) a forum and stature. They don’t necessarily have to sell millions of copies to have an impact on people.”

Chelsea Green has to make money to survive, of course, Watson said. But money isn’t what drives the company, or its writers. “It’s about influencing people and changing things.” Watson said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.