Independent Publisher Combines Progressive Politics, Commercial Success

At Book Expo America, I interviewed Alice Blackmer, Publicity Director, Chelsea Green, which enjoyed runaway success with George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant.

How the book came about: “Jennifer Nix was in California and got the word that George Lakoff was thinking of pulling together some sort of manual to try to help Democrats ahead of the election, in the beginning of July. Margo Baldwin [Chelsea’s publisher] and Jen approached George about doing a book, so we could get it out to a broader audience. We lined up help via Alternet and a lot of progressive political websites. We rushed it through and were able to get it out about two months before the election.

“A lot of the information had been written, from the courses he taught, but he did have to do a lot of pulling together and extra writing, and then we got the foreword by Howard Dean; he understood the value of what Lakoff had to say. [Vermont Democratic Senator] Pat Leahy, Bernie Sanders [Vermont’s lone member of the House of Representatives, and the only Independent in Congress], Howard Dean have always been very supportive.”

The book title is taken from the name of one of Lakoff’s lectures

Five weeks from manuscript until the presses rolled almost (unheard of in the book industry). Everybody pitched in. Initial print run of 20,000 (up from the 15,000 originally planned, after ordered 10,000 in advance). As of June, 2005, they’d sold over 200,000, about 40,000 of them before the election.

Chelsea’s previous biggest seller, The Straw Bale House, has sold 125,000 over ten years, so Elephant was a quantum leap for the company. “This was so gratifying, to have been working away, publishing such timely and useful information, all the while knowing we were way ahead of the curve. Attached to the thrill of having a best seller move that way, starting to see the culture catch up to so many of the topics we publish on the backlist. We have backlist titles that are selling more than twice as much per month now as they did when they were first published. And of course the Lakoff book has helped to bring a lot of attention to the company in general, and really energized the entire staff.”