Chelsea Green's Challenge
White River Junction, Vt.-based independent publisher Chelsea Green received strong criticism from retailers, both large and small, last August after it made a deal with Amazon.com to exclusively sell one of its new titles, Robert Kuttner’s “Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency,” for the first few weeks of its release. In response, Barnes & Noble cut its initial order for the book, selling the title online, but not in its stores, while some independent booksellers vowed not to order from the publisher again.
Chelsea Green President and Publisher Margo Baldwin responded to the backlash with an open letter to booksellers posted on the company’s Web site. She wrote: “This is about a publisher’s commitment to its author to get one of a very few pro-Obama books out into the marketplace in the shortest amount of time.” Advance copies of the title, which the publisher turned around from manuscript to printed book in four weeks, were distributed at the Democratic National Convention, as were coupons for an early discount on the book. Those coupons were redeemable through Amazon.com and the books printed through Amazon’s BookSurge print-on-demand service.
“I think that we learned how volatile this issue is for the rest of the book business,” says Baldwin. “Given the information we had at the time and the choices we had to get the book out quickly, I think we made the right decision. … It did make … us more aware of the discussion around Amazon and the competition with the other booksellers.”
Today, Baldwin says Chelsea Green is focused on moving forward with what the company has done successfully for the past 25 years—publishing environmentally focused titles about sustainable living.
• How did you respond to the reaction to the Amazon deal?
Margo Baldwin: We were pretty taken aback by the reaction. We tried to explain our point of view by posting a letter on our Web site, but that just seemed to make booksellers angrier. It seems [that it is] sometimes hard for booksellers to understand that we are not in the same business as them and do not have the exact same priorities. Nor do they seem to understand the challenges of a small publisher competing against the corporate conglomerates. I think there is a lot of fear out in the marketplace that our [deal] tapped into. Everything is shifting, and the traditional ways of doing things are just not working anymore.