03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Future of Publishing Isn't Rocket Science (It's Sustainability)

One year ago, I did what many New Yorkers only dream about. During the most historic presidential inauguration and election of my lifetime, in the throes of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, at the emotional precipice of my mid-twenties, from the mean streets of New York City -- a Greenwich Village apartment, a job in publishing, and mounting debt -- I left it all to become a farmer.

Am I crazy? Let's see: I had been working as an assistant to a literary agent who has defined the careers of the most important writers in modern history. My favorite writers. Writers who turn down Oprah (and I think only one of these exists.) My boss, as a matter of fact, turned down phone calls with the New York Times on a regular basis, held the careers of Pulitzer Prize winners in the palm of her hand, and probably secretly ran the world by the tick of her expensive watch. She was, I'll admit, funny as hell (unless it was at my expense, and then I was weeping quietly) and really smart, so hating my job felt ungracious and misguided. It is, after all, in the very veins of New York Publishing to suffer at the whim of your superior in the hopes that someday you might become someone else's superior, make them suffer, and thereby make your dent in Culture. Plus, I wanted to be an agent (maybe) or an editor (maybe) and also a writer, so this job was perfect, right?! Why the hell would I move to a town in rural Vermont only famous for its tragedies, with less than 1,500 people, and winter eight months out of the year? To farm, no less! I was leaving the world of possibility to shovel SHIT and get frost bite. And unlike the trend of certain people who do something crazy and blog about it for a book contract (which will then become a movie)...I came to Vermont with no notions of greatness or grandeur. I came to Vermont to work in a diner for tips, and raise some pigs. I came here, most importantly, with one certainty: That I would never, ever step foot near a publishing house or talent agency again. Not if someone paid me. Not even, perhaps, if I were entering it as a writer seeking publication. "Publishing sucks," I told everyone. "And I saw it from the top."

Upon actually moving to Vermont however, I found out that experience in the book world doesn't really translate to much (restaurants want references!) and I needed some cash. I got wind of a publishing house in an old converted warehouse an hour from the farm that specializes in books on the politics and practice of sustainable living. So I checked out their website, their books, and their mission statement, and sort of couldn't believe it. Chelsea Green Publishing's mission is what they call, "a perfect example of what is called a 'triple bottom line' practice, one that benefits people, planet, and profit, and the emerging new model for sustainable business in the 21st century." In this economic climate? In the middle of nowhere? Um, yeah. I figured it was a bunch of hippies wearing hemp and sharing tofu burritos over an indoor bonfire, with fingerless gloves. But I was sort of into it.

I emailed the President and Publisher, she asked me to lunch (to which I wore logging boots and a t-shirt), and over salad greens in White River Junction she asked me why I wanted a job in publishing. I told her -- flat out, balls to the wall -- that I had become disillusioned by the New York model, and was sick of being told "Makenna, it isn't rocket science," when forgetting to book an eyebrow waxing appointment. I told her, pretty much, I thought it sucked. I prepared to be handed the check, and maybe smacked with it. But she just laughed.

"Me, too!" She said. "But we're doing it differently."

Here's the deal: I'd been asked to leave the agency for being "too creative," and not "enough of a machine." For being too creative, in a creative industry. What I didn't tell my future sustainable books boss was this (not yet anyways): I was technically fired from the NYC agency, but HR had asked me to sign that I left voluntarily. I was told by my old boss not to tell anyone the truth -- that she had fired me behind my back in an email (which I read, of course, as part of my job), that I was not given severance because I turned down a substantial demotion to "floater", and that my boss ignored me as I left with only a little dignity, in the middle of the holiday party. We had friends in common, you see -- familial connections from my all-girls' school days. And so, I obliged (out of fear? Obligation? Social duty?) On my way out of the building, the President of this agency (a nice guy) took me aside and told me, wagging his guacamole'd chip: "Get out of publishing, Makenna. It's a dying business."

But turns out, those folks were wrong about several things.

  1. Publishing is not a dying business; it's a changing business. It's a business going through literary puberty, fiscal adolescence, and management hell. It's a business that needs to grow up, in other words.

  • It may be against the social code of the good old days, but smaller is now smarter. While all the big corporate houses are laying off and cutting back, Chelsea Green is doing better than we ever have. Ours is a mission-based business, whose employees respect the lives (and values) of the authors they're promoting. We put out books on fermentation, and make pickles at home, in other words. We don't do one season Howard Dean, one season Ann Coulter. We just don't.
  • Navigating a book in a digital world is almost, in fact, rocket science. It's not as simple as creating a Kindle, or an e-book, or offering it for purchase online, as is now common knowledge. Those things are parts to a more complicated whole. Which means focusing less on mass media, and more on social media. Less on making money, and more on creating a sustainable business model. Less on more, and more on...well, less!
  • The idea of produceproduceproduce may wind up being less important than establishing an active and profitable backlist. (Chelsea Green's number one bestseller, incidentally, has been out for ten years, and the author is a farmer!)
  • Unfortunately for the elite bunch out there, elitism is sort of a dated ideal, mainly because it's no longer based in talent of any kind. Would a writer today who is comparable to Raymond Carver make it past the slush pile if his father weren't connected to the biz, or if she didn't hold a degree from Iowa, or a recommendation from another of that agent's clients? Let's face it: the days of randomly publishing a genius are over...IF the corporate model of elitism persists.
  • There's too much of a focus on money. From the perspective of the agent (please tell me why a book about losing weight demands an advance upwards of 200k?), from the perspective of the publisher (why are you agreeing to this insane advance?), and from the perspective of the writer (who is just pillaging a bloated market, who can blame them, really?)
  • Some day I'd love to swap horror stories with my old boss at the agency when we're both serving flapjacks at IHOP because our 401ks have been deleted. I'm betting, however, that should the shit really hit the fan, she'll opt out of the business altogether and take to gardening. But I'm too young (and too broke!) to do that just yet; plus, I need a job. I'm glad I'm at a small-scale publishing house in Vermont, so I can farm alongside my career, not to mention I get to blog next to Madeleine Kunin, Naomi Wolf, and Joel Salatin. I'm thinking about iPhone applications and interactive media. I'm thinking about the politics surrounding paper. About the death of elitism. About Facebook, about YouTube, and about believing in the product I promote. The sustainable future of publishing, in other words.