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.
• Do you think this deal ultimately damaged your relationship with retailers?
Baldwin: We did damage our relationships with independents and [the retailers participating in] our Green Partners [program], but for the most part, we have repaired the damage and moved forward with them.
• Did retailers live up to their promises of not ordering any more books from Chelsea Green?
Baldwin: I think we only lost one partner store and have added a few others since then. Not many followed through on their threats, and some just ordered [“Obama’s Challenge”] through wholesalers. We finally got an order from Barnes & Noble [for “Obama’s Challenge”] in November right after the election, and I think the book has sold well for them.
• Would you do this type of deal again?
Baldwin: I think there is a place [for] exclusive deals. … I think you have to calculate the pros and cons first. I don’t think we’d do an exclusive product that was only sold through one retailer. Would we do an exclusive launch again? Not anytime soon.
I think one of the things that gets lost is that … we’re a small publisher. There isn’t an appreciation for what it means for a small publisher to survive when we’re up against the Random Houses and the Simon & Schusters. Their orders are of a different magnitude. There are things you have to do [as a small publisher]. It’s not easy. …
• How is Chelsea Green faring in the current economic climate?
Baldwin: We actually think we’re pretty well-positioned … because we have books that are going to be particularly valuable as we head into a recession. … Our local newspaper [just] did a feature story on us; the headline was “Tips for Tough Times.” It featured some of our new titles and our backlist [titles], too—[books about] money, how to make yourself mortgage-free, how to build your own house and garden. I feel like if we’re smart, and we’re aggressive about promoting our backlist and letting people see how [these titles] will help people survive, we’ll be OK.
• How is the economy affecting your plans for this year?
Baldwin: We’ll budget for zero growth [in 2009]. … I think we’re feeling fairly optimistic. We have our own sales force, [and] they have been increasingly reaching out to speciality retailers and mail-order companies—retailers outside [the] regular book trades. We’re more diversified now than ever.
• How have you prepared your staff for a challenging economy?
Baldwin: The focus is mainly to keep employees’ eyes on the important product focus that we have and not have people get worried or anxious. ...
We’re going to be focused on the how-to side of things, as opposed to grabbing the next political title. I’ve said, “Let’s focus on what we’ve been doing for the past 25 years.” … Even if people are struggling, they buy how-tos. … Our backlist is selling two to three times more than it was. … We’re definitely not laying off anybody. …
In terms of budgeting for [this] year, I’ve been ratcheting down expectations. We’ve been tightening up credit, in terms of accounts, [and] getting everyone to focus on being conservative ….
• Chelsea Green is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned in that time?
Baldwin: My husband and I started the company 25 years ago, and the main thing we’ve learned about success and staying alive is that you remain focused—niched—and that you remain true to your mission. … There are lots of other publishers that are niched. They’re all doing relatively better than others who are more general interest.
Another thing I’ve learned … is [how] to publish books really quickly …. We’ve had these three national best-sellers because we brought them out very quickly. I think that we should continue to exploit those opportunities. The slowness of the traditional book industry for a book publisher that’s doing nonfiction, current-events books, by the time you get around to it, it’s out of date. The industry as a whole, if they’re going to survive, has to rethink the traditional lead times. We try to do that. … There’s no magic here. It’s just getting something through production quickly. I think that in this world of bloggers and the death of newspapers, book publishers are going to have to become more publishers for the moment.
Peter Beisser is a regular contributor to Book Business. He previously was the managing editor of several North American Publishing Co. titles and has written extensively about the publishing industry.