Do the Write Thing
How a small, leftist publisher in Vermont is having a national impact
Mighty Mouse -- that's the cartoon character on Beau Friedlander's black T-shirt. Friedlander is the marketing director at Chelsea Green, a small book-publishing company based in White River Junction. "This is what all small press people should wear," he quips one snowy March morning. In a publishing market dominated by giant multinational media conglomerates, Chelsea Green does resemble a kind of diminutive rodent. The company employs just 16 people full-time -- 13 of them at its HQ, three more at a warehouse in Brattleboro. It also relies on an array of freelance marketers, designers and editors scattered throughout the country.
But Chelsea Green packs a potent political punch. Its 2006 titles include Mission Rejected, Peter Laufer's book about U.S. soldiers who've deserted to avoid serving in Iraq, and Serve God, Save the Planet by J. Matthew Sleeth, an evangelical Christian calling on his brethren to join the environmental movement.
This year's biggest release is Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics by liberal bloggers Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga. Its official pub date is March 27, but it already merited an op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times, and a mention in Matt Bai's NYT Sunday Magazine cover story about Democratic presidential hopeful Mark Warner.
Chelsea Green hopes that Crashing the Gate repeats the success of the company's 2004 political bestseller, George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, which has sold over 250,000 copies. Friedlander promises that if sales of Crashing the Gate don't hit 100,000, he will eat one of the books.
But Chelsea Green publisher and president Margo Baldwin notes that moving product isn't her only goal. "We want to change the world, "she says, "to be sort of trite about it."
Activism has always been central to the mission of the company Baldwin founded with her husband Ian in 1984, though for most of its 22-year history, Chelsea Green was known for books on "sustainable living." Its early catalogue includes green building tomes like The Straw Bale House and The Complete Yurt Handbook, as well as Eliot Coleman's organic agriculture classics.
The Baldwins, who moved to Vermont from New York City, left Chelsea Green in the 1990s to spend more time with family. When Margo returned to steer the ship in 2002, she took the company in a new direction. "I came back in with a mission to expand," she says, "to take in all aspects of sustainable living, including politics."
Today the publishing house is overtly political. Its website, for example, includes a constantly updating "Cost of the war in Iraq" counter, and a strident blog dubbed "Flaming Grasshoppper"; the grasshopper has long been the company's mascot, but now, apparently, it's on fire.
There's also a "Message from the Publisher" that reads: "George W. and his greedy band of corporate-enabled neo-con thugs have been unleashed upon the world, and it increasingly feels like an apocalypse may be at hand. Not their fundamentalist Hollywood version, but the real thing: the approaching collapse of the basic life support systems of earth."
Sounds like they're all on fire at Chelsea Green.
The company's catalogue has expanded to include books such as Guantanamo: What the World Should Know and Troubled Water, a book about the global water crisis. In 2005, Chelsea Green published Unembedded, a book of images from four photojournalists working in Iraq. "It's expensive and very risky to do a photography book," notes Baldwin, "but it was an attempt to raise awareness about this war, and to try to bring it to an end."
This new approach, coupled with a growing nationwide acceptance of sustainable living practices, has fueled sales growth. In its March 6 issue, Publisher's Weekly named Chelsea Green the second-fastest-growing small publisher in the country, with a sales growth of 89 percent between 2003 and 2005.
Much of that can be attributed to the success of Lakoff's "framing" manifesto. Chelsea Green lucked out when they scored it; he approached them when mainstream publishers turned him away. The book took off during the 2004 presidential election, and only got hotter after Kerry's defeat. Consultants glommed onto Lakoff's theory that the Republicans won by using linguistic trickery. The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a cover story on Lakoff in July 2005.
Baldwin has a copy of the magazine tacked to a bulletin board in her book-filled corner office in the Tip Top Building on North Main Street. Her windows offer a splendid view of the railroad tracks. A blue and yellow New England Central engine rumbles by, close enough to rattle the windows, as she explains how Lakoff's book really got traction. It was the bloggers, she says.
On September 20, 2004, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, creator of Daily Kos, the world's most highly trafficked political blog, praised Lakoff's work in a post entitled "The Best Book This Cycle." "I'm not one to recommend books lightly," Moulitsas writes. "In fact, I don't think I've ever said 'You HAVE to get this book.' But there's always a first time for everything . . . if there's one book you read this year, it should be this one . . . I'm absolutely smitten by it."
After that post appeared, Baldwin recalls, "We watched the ranking on Amazon go up -- it went all the way to number five. Our jaws were just dropping. We saw the power of that kind of marketing."
It was Friedlander, actually, who figured it out. He had sent Moulitsas a review copy of the book. And it was Friedlander who passed along the tip that Moulitsas and Armstrong were working on a manuscript of their own. He urged Baldwin to get it.
It wasn't easy, she says. The bloggers are more or less celebrities in progressive Democratic circles. They're both veterans of Wesley Clark's and Howard Dean's Internet-savvy 2004 presidential campaigns; Armstrong even moved his family to Burlington to work for Dean before relocating last year to Virginia.
The two bloggers have developed quite a following. Their combined daily readership at http://www.dailiykos.com and http://www.mydd.com handily tops half a million hits a day -- higher in the run-up to an election. That reach drew representatives from major publishers, who offered access to their distribution networks, and big advances.
Baldwin courted the bloggers, too, and eventually agreed to fly to California to meet with Moulitsas. She'd also scheduled a face-to-face with Don't Think Like an Elephant author Lakoff on that trip, and by chance the three of them ended up lunching together.
The date nearly killed the blogger deal, says Baldwin. Lakoff chose that moment to tell the publisher that he would be doing his next book with a mainstream press. "I'm trying to pitch Markos to sign with us," she remembers, "and our biggest author is saying he's going to sign with a big New York house."
Baldwin was so outraged that she and Chelsea Green editor-at-large Jennifer Nix collaborated on an essay called "Sleeping With the Enemy," which they posted on AlterNet. In it, Nix chastises progressive authors for signing with corporate publishers such as Disney-owned Hyperion and Viacom's Simon and Schuster. "Why not work with independent book publishers to share with the public your thoughts about progressive politics, social justice, sustainability and media reform," she writes, "instead of lining the pockets of the corporate publishers (and ultimately the five or 10 rich white men who control nearly every media message we read and hear in the U.S. today)."
Nix names names. She takes aim at authors like Amy Good- man, Michael Moore and Jim Hightower.
Baldwin never got any feedback from them directly, but she recalls receiving an email from one of Goodman's assistants. "It said something like, 'You shouldn't be attacking her, she's off-limits,'" the publisher remembers. "Pssssh, no way."
Moulitsas blogged about the essay shortly after it appeared. He explained that he wanted to sign with Chelsea Green but needed some significant money up front to be able to work on the manuscript. He asked if his readers would be willing to buy the book at full price in advance, which would enable Chelsea Green to sweeten the deal.
That's how the Progressive Partner Special Limited Edition of Crashing the Gate was born. The bloggers and their friends hawked the book relentlessly on their websites to drum up sales, and Chelsea Green sold 5100 copies of the book in advance, shipping them three weeks before the others.
Progressive long-distance company Working Assets handled the orders, and took a cut. The rest the publishers split with the authors -- a higher than average royalty. In the end, all of the money for the early edition lined the coffers of people and institutions in the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. And the arrangement allowed Chelsea Green to give the bloggers a six-figure advance, the highest in the company's history.
And that's not their only unconventional marketing tactic. Instead of hiring a book promoter for the book, Baldwin chose a campaign manager from Texas. The authors' book tour will look more like a campaign swing, complete with buttons reading: "Mom, baseball, apple pie and a unified Democratic juggernaut."
The bloggers will write about their appearances online, and anyone who blogs about the book is encouraged to submit a review to the Chelsea Green website. There, readers can find links to reviews on sites such as Slashdot and BuzzFlash alongside entries from more traditional sites like The Nation and MSNBC.
Baldwin says linking to blog book reviews is just another way Chelsea Green gets around the disadvantage of being a small operation. They may not be able to buy displays for their titles in every chain bookstore, but they can connect interested readers to their books online, and give them a reason to shell out some cash.
Baldwin hopes that tactics like this will prove to readers and writers that a small press like hers can compete with the bigger companies when it comes to drumming up attention and sales.
Of the bloggers, she observes, "I admire the fact that they took a chance on us. It was a risky proposition." Ultimately though, it just made sense, she says, because "We're on their side."