North Atlantic Books History 2

by Richard Grossinger on March 2, 2010

Chapter Three
North Atlantic Books History 2:
1992-2000

For many years we had been working toward a paradigm shift in North Atlantic Books. The business had been maturing and complexifying while most of its elements remained “small press” in a time warp. The transition from a $50,000-a-year small press to a $750,000-a-year publishing operation had occurred within a homemade, amateur structure, and I operated as though that same matrix would be suitable and last forever.  In fact, I didn’t even think about it.

When big paradigm shifts occur, first there is cognitive dissonance, then static or dialectic tension, then recognition, then a change in response. A number of converging vectors sets in motion not just a single change but a cascade of changes.[1] That is what happened here.

When I think back to 1992, I see that many of the transformative factors were blatant and obvious, whereas others were like Whitehead’s background that influences everything while being all but imperceptible itself. Simple aging was a huge factor. If we take 1978 as roughly the year in which I committed to North Atlantic Books as a job, Lindy and I became 34 that year; our son Robin became 9 and our daughter Miranda turned 4.

In 1992 Lindy and I became 48, Robin 23, and Miranda 18. We had all crossed major thresholds. At 34 Lindy and I were just emerging from our youth with our own little kids; at 48 we were deep into middle age with grown kids about to leave the nest. My role of doing North Atlantic Books at home in order to be there for our children had become obsolete, but I kept playing the part as though there were still children coming home from school.

Some of the simplest and most obvious changes were impressed on us by my uncle Paul Rothkrug, my mother’s older brother, a retired life-insurance executive who moved to San Francisco from Connecticut at about the time that we moved to Berkeley. Given his corporate pedigree, he tended to advise us to conduct ourselves more professionally and run North Atlantic Books more like a business, but we mostly ignored him as a voice of Main Street style conventional authority. We downplayed our success as incidental and fluky given the nature of our books and insisted that it wasn’t a real business in the ways that he was asserting.

Yet he routinely commended North Atlantic and proclaimed that success like ours was a rare commodity in the business world. He said that we should take ourselves more seriously, plan maturely, and even—his most consistent gripe, especially for me—dress better. I always thought that he was overplaying the tribal role of “mother’s brother,” so his comments were a running joke that I humored rather than something that I either fought or paid attention to as a real thing to be considered.

In retrospect I agree with many of the pragmatic aspects if not the tone of his critique, but back then it would have been embarrassing to me even to think of North Atlantic, my old Io offshoot, as a common business and, in some ways, it would have been a betrayal of its philosophy as well as the anti-establishment mind-set of many of our authors. I didn’t intend to make money or create a mainstream business out of their labor, out of shamanic and metaphysical practices, and I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that I was. But he was correct in his own way—it was time to give up our innocence and the intellectual purity of pretending to ourselves (and our colleagues) that we weren’t really in business. There was too much money passing through our North Atlantic account and too many thorny issues at hand to continue ignoring.

The two main items that Uncle Paul felt most strongly about were our taking real salaries and having the press purchase medical and life-insurance policies for us (me at the scale of my full-time employment and Lindy for her part-time work). For fifteen years up to 1992 my salary had been based solely on how much money I needed at the time, not on the hours I worked or even what was there in the kitty to pay me a decent wage. I might work full-time for a year and take only five or six thousand dollars. In the year of the Avon advance for Embryogenesis, I took nothing at all despite near full-time labor five days a week.

What my uncle conveyed to us was that we were giving away our own money. We were kidding ourselves if we thought that the savings in the nonprofit bank account were ours—they weren’t; they were public money. If we worked without emolument or insurance, we didn’t ultimately save the money and avoid taxes as we thought; instead, we forfeited our actual wages and benefits in a way that was not easily recoverable.

In other words I was making the same category of mistake as those small-press editors a decade earlier who bought their groceries and household items with NEA funds. I was confusing Government money with my own wages in a hippie/welfare sort of way. I was being belligerently naive, preferring patronage and good luck to sound business because business was an anathema.   I didn’t want to grow up, even if North Atlantic Books did.

Furthermore, we were taking no steps at all towards retirement, making no provisions for illness. At 48, our heads were still in the mindset of 34; we were kids to ourselves. But the reality was that we like everyone else faced life passages.

In 1992 the “splash of cold water” hit; we woke up and elected to face reality and make the appropriate adjustments. We set regular salaries and purchased both life and health insurance policies through the business.

Additionally, in concert with the Society Board, Paul insisted that I take some portion of my back salary as a one-time bonus. Our accountant agreed. Despite salary forfeited in the probable range of $250,000 by then, he recommended a modest $20,000 reparation as below the IRS alarm-bell threshold. But he couldn’t have been more wrong. The bonus turned out to be a very bad idea, a very loud alarm, but I will get back to that.

The other retro arena was the general domain of office, staffing, and warehouse. We had outgrown our situation on the ground in every functional way, but we had a big incentive not to address it as, with North Atlantic Books as our leasee of half our house, Lindy and I earned significant monthly rent. In essence, it was like no rent, since we were our own landlords—it was “salary” that we could write off through expenses. But it trapped the business in an unprofessional household environment, conceptually as well as physically.

With four part-time workers (two of them close to full-time) in 1992, we were in violation of State labor laws as well as City zoning regulations. To continue to operate our business in a residential neighborhood (and have our staff grab parking spaces) depended entirely on our neighbors’ forbearance and good will.

Not to have a real payroll with withholding taxes required operating under the State and Federal radar, where of course we had always been, back into the halcyon days of Io when such a concern would have been as pretentious as ridiculous.

Then there was this landscape shift: With our kids less present and more workers on site, our household was turning into an office and Lindy wanted that brought to an end. It seemed as though the business had no hours and no limits. Employees used our kitchen and bathrooms and even the living room—and they didn’t always work just 9-5. Lindy had gone back to graduate school, in Cultural Studies at UC/Berkeley, and needed a more conducive environment in which to study, “some peace and quiet,” she used to say—but I heard her complaint only as a cliché—I was so used to the home office that I took it for granted and couldn’t imagine an alternative.

As if that wasn’t enough of a cascading set of dilemmas, our 1000-square-foot pool-room warehouse was nowhere near spacious enough to accommodate all our stock. We warehoused most of the overflow at PGW’s Emeryville site, but it was there completely gratis on their good will—until they decided to move their warehouse to Hayward. In fact, even leaning on their generosity, I was forced to find another location for cartons of our slowest-moving titles. Almost superstitiously determined not to pay storage or rent, I would haul a carload of cartons (with wooden pallets when necessary) each week to my somatics class at Deer Run House in Corte Madera where Randy Cherner allowed me to store them in the huge unused dirt portion of his basement, mostly a crawl-space. It was at least a big empty zone in which overstock could be dumped and forgotten without costing fees or having to be thought about.

Initially the best warehousing plan on the horizon was to co-buy a building with Feldenkrais Resources, which was also looking for space. They needed studios and a big practice room, and we needed lots of unfinished, unheated square footage, so we were a match. However, the raw cost of everything we looked at was in the range of $600,000-$700,000, and that before before clean-up and remodeling. After searching for a month with an agent, we finally decided to let Feldenkrais buy their own building and instead to rent a space—a 5000-square-foot warehouse with a small attached set of offices on Eighth Street between Grayson and Pardee in a dilapidated sector of the warehouse district of South Berkeley. We also hired five full-time employees on the clock, three of whom had already been working for us part-time. More on that part of the situation in Chapter Twelve.

The bonus I received, which we duly entered into our minutes and submitted to the State with our tax forms that year, turned out to be—short and sweet—illegal: nonprofits could not use public funds to recompense officers for nonobligations. It was the California bulldog that we woke up, not the Feds.

The precedent was nuns in a hospital somewhere around Sacramento. They had worked for the better part of a lifetime as nurses’ aides and then became too old to continue or otherwise support themselves—the ruling was that the hospital could not grant them a pension after the fact.

If the poor nuns were excluded, certainly I was.

Our accountant’s uninformed advice triggered a very scary letter from the Attorney General’s office informing us that we were in violation of the law and threatening penalties, including the dissolution of the nonprofit and a whopping fine. We had to immediately hire the San Francisco law firm of Silk, Adler, and Colvin which specialized in nonprofit/for-profit relations.

As it turned out, the situation vis a vis the bonus was ultimately solved, though not without much grief, many sleepless nights, a thorough education in nonprofit law, and three trips to a Montgomery Street high-rise on the BART. We had to rewrite our minutes and change the basis of the “bonus” such that it was for something other than back pay. The lengthy correspondence between people at the law firm and their law-school buddies in the Attorney General’s office cost us more in legal fees than I had been paid in bonus. No objection then or now: that’s how such things work, thank goodness.

What I learned was that it was a game more than a crime. We were expected to hire lawyers and work with the AG’s office on a solution. The threat was only words, an option of last resort. No one expected to go there. They just offered to “do business” with us. Our mistake, to them, was merely a “product”—the sort of product that allowed them and the lawyers to do their business together. It wasn’t unfair or mean-spirited or punitive; it was just the way their world worked. In the absence of such customs, you would have either anarchy with no rules and two alien cultures clashing adversarially with the client the shuttlecock, or a totalitarian state.

The more significant crisis emerging from this brouhaha was that Tom Silk and Greg Colvin also looked carefully at our entire nonprofit situation—the anthropological shell with the subsequent donation of the presses—and found us in jeopardy of much more serious problems down the road. As nonprofit lawyers who worked with IRS guidelines, precedents, and statutes everyday, they flagged for us the nonexistence of any clear and consistent rules for nonprofit publishing. Far from being ho-hum, as it seemed to us, our nonprofit status and its maintenance held a very real peril in the context of potential year-to-year reinterpretations by either the State of California or the Internal Revenue Service (or both) vis a vis how nonprofit publishing was done and whether publishing could even be nonprofit. In other words, we were conducting business blithely and heedlessly in a bubble that could be popped at any moment. Until the AG’s office woke us up, we considered the whole nonprofit thing in effect a meaningless and empty rubric, especially since we were no longer receiving grants.

Just as the Thor Amendment changed the basic nature of publishing books a decade earlier, the appointees of some future Administration could declare the sort of quasi-literary, quasi-educational publishing done by anyone with 501(c)3 nonprofit status—that is, by most university presses, Sierra Club Books, a number of literarily oriented nonprofit publishers, and yours truly—unsuitable for tax protection henceforth, or they could redefine nonprofit publishing so narrowly as to exclude many of our main topics and basic distribution channels.

In fact, the lawyers informed us, in a little over a decade since the Society had gained nonprofit status and we had donated Io and NAB to it, that status had already been placed in legal limbo by multiple contradictory IRS rulings, some of which seemed to imply that the very act of publishing (with books as the product) was inherently commercial and in unfair competition with ordinary for-profit presses like Random House and Henry Holt. Nonprofit publishing might turn out to be an oxymoron. At the same time though, and seemingly unjustly, other arts organizations like theaters, dance companies, symphonies were sheltered because they had no inventory to account for. The fact that they were equally in “unfair” competition with their “for-profit” competitors was treated as moot.

Silk and Colvin did not imply that we were in imminent danger. They looked further ahead and saw that we were annually accruing and adding capital to our potential problem. Every year that we operated in legal limbo was another year that might have to be legally redone and perhaps retroactively filed someday, and all the assets that we were accumulating—inventory and cash—might get taxed down the road. We might not be able to afford the cost, and then the whole house of cards would come toppling down on us. They were quite convincing that this peril was real and not just a way to extend our business with them.

Their single preemptive solution was for us to convert to a for-profit. That is, the most elegant solution would be for a start-up, a regular commercial imprint to buy all trade titles out of the Society, freeing it to do publishing that was not only just educational and literary in premise but trenchantly noncommercial; e.g., not needing or making use of any distribution in retail outlets. The Society would then have to develop other programs to use not only its existing assets but the massive influx of capital from the sale of North Atlantic. The new company, if bootstrapped by us and investors, obviously with bank loans, would be heavily in the red from the get-go because of the cost of buying the books and contracts out of the nonprofit. In essence, we would be trading a savings account for a bank loan and turning assets into debt. It wasn’t a concept that we were comfortable with or willing to entertain.

Seeing our reluctance, Silk and Colvin requested a couple of weeks to brainstorm, and then they hit us with their second-best idea: start a small for-profit publishing company, run it out of the same office as the nonprofit, allocating resources and expenses to each with scrupulous care so as not to wave any red flags about nonprofit funds supporting a for-profit capital venture. If fortune was with us, we could gradually build up the for-profit’s assets until it had enough capital for an outright purchase of the for-profit. If nonprofit publishing were disallowed or overly restricted at some time in the future, then the for-profit company might have grown large enough by then to leverage a buyout of the assets from the nonprofit.

They didn’t like their own backup idea nearly as much as the first plan; in fact they didn’t like it that much at all because of the inelegance of running a nonprofit and for-profit out of the same office with the same staff and all the attendant pitfalls of potential conflicts of interest (e.g. board members of the nonprofit being shareholders in the for-profit), but they threw it out as a kind of safety valve. Lindy and I, on the other hand, loved it.

That was what we went for: a for-profit corporation which, although it was a separate company, would be run by the same people as North Atlantic Books (their hours and other expenses, we promised, rigorously apportioned). Tom Silk also pointed out that the books published by the for-profit had to adhere to North Atlantic’s nonprofit mission statement. That way it could publish out of the same office without implicating North Atlantic in for-profit activity or generating complex legal and accounting procedures for nonqualifying income.

We named the new venture Frog, Ltd., after the endangered genus. Many publishing companies (Penguin, Pelican, Zebra, Bear) have been named for animals. Frogs are a “canary in the coal mine” for an ecologically threatened planet. Their epidermal tissue makes them more quickly vulnerable than many other species to changes in environment and atmosphere. In addition, frogs are amphibian, atavistic, ancient, and fragilely beautiful. They are sources of medicines and shamanic wisdom. Among Native American peoples they are totems and guardians of sacred societies, especially sodalities of women.

Meanwhile there was a whole other storyline percolating on a different track, for Lindy and I had already been working on a for-profit venture before the AG’s letter arrived. Newly enlightened by my Uncle Paul about the real world, we had been trying to conceptualize how to build personal value into our publishing. We had begun looking toward retirement, unimaginable as that was in the present. Seymour Zises, the youngest brother among three venture-capital cousins of mine, had appeared suddenly in our lives and wanted to work with us in creating a publishing S-Corp. I did not know Seymour as an adult because he was just a tot when I was a teenager, at the time that our two families feuded, fought each other in court over Grossinger’s Hotel, and dropped out of touch. But he was far more in empathy philosophically with North Atlantic Books than either of his older brothers whom I had known well and with whom I had gone to summer camp through much of my childhood. As I will discuss in Chapter Five, Lindy and I tried a few years earlier to invent a business with Jay, the brother my own age who was my former Camp Chipinaw bunkmate. But he was too big-time venture-oriented to work at our scale.

Seymour truly wanted to support us and make a little money while learning about our psychospiritual topics, whereas Jay and Siggy were the founders of the notorious mega-corp Integrated Resources, which was about to go belly-up and almost send them to jail with Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and the junk-bond crew. They only saw us as possible investment targets in what they called “the entertainment sector”—and they were patronizing in even that characterization because so little money from their perspective was involved.  Jay laughed down my protests at being quartered in Entertainment—there were no esoteric or literary categories in his world. For him the potential collaboration was mainly for renewing family ties and indulging Chipinaw nostalgia.  They still called me “little Richie” and were patting him on the head (he and Sig had always been physically huge guys).

For Seymour it was an opportunity to dance with the ancestors and leave our children something to own together as a means of reuniting the family.

After months of discussion and planning with lawyers, our various crises and opportunities syergized. Seymour put up about one-third of Frog’s modest $120,000 start-up capital; thus he owned about that portion of it. Lindy and I owned fifty-five percent. Other investors for a few shares each included George Plimpton, Charlie Winton of PGW, and our long-time designer Paula Morrison.

In ways that we hadn’t fully reckoned, Frog, Ltd. proved of almost immediate benefit to North Atlantic Books. We had created a situation as elegantly fortuitous, in its own right, as the house rental on Woolsey Street. Newly capitalized, Frog provided, at no cost to the old publishing company, additional books under the Society mission statement, and North Atlantic additionally got a distribution fee for managing Frog’s sales. Frog also covered a significant portion of North Atlantic’s increased overhead for staff, rent, supplies, phone, etc. And any commercially unsuccessful Frog titles could always be donated down the road to North Atlantic, if desired, for additional tax savings while the nonprofit got free books. It was a very elegant set-up that we didn’t consciously concoct or plan.

There are many other levels to this part of the story, but I will save them for the Staffing discussion of Chapter Twelve.

Some of 1992’s publishing:

After a Stroke: A Support Book for Patients, Caregivers, Families, and Friends by Geoffrey Burton and Carol Burton; Aikido in Everyday Life by Terry Dobson and Victor Miller; Beyond Antibiotics by Michael A. Schmidt, Lendon H. Smith, and Keith W. Sehnert; The Aromatherapy Book by Jeanne Rose; Carpal Tunnel Injury Syndrome and Overuse Injuries by Tammy Crouch and Michael Madden; The Anatomy of Change: A Way to Move Through Life’s Transitions by Richard Strozzi Heckler; Forbidden Science by Jacques Vallee (the autobiography of an astrophysicist who was also the world’s leading UFO investigator); T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Internal Tradition by Ron Sieh; Ecology and Consciousness: Traditional Writings on the Environment (an issue of Io combining work from the previous two ecology issues and adding new material); Women in the Martial Arts, edited by Carol A. Wiley (another Io anthology); Homeopathic Medicines for Pregnancy and Childbirth by Richard Moskowitz and Homeopathic Emergency Guide by Thomas Kruzel (both copublished with HES); and Talking Feet: Buck, Flatfoot, and Tap Solo Southern Dance of the Appalachian, Piedmont, and Blue Ridge Mountain Regions by Mike Seeger (copublished with Flower Films).

During the next ten years North Atlantic Books and Frog, Ltd., grew at a faster rate than before but still gradually and incrementally. By 2000, together they effectively formed a $2 million twin company. Although moving the business out of the house into an office, establishing a formal staff, and adding Frog to NAB all played key roles in the growth curve, none of them were the major factor. What I would guess in retrospect is that diffuse elements added up to force a tipping point: a more professional approach generated more books that were, on the whole, spiffier looking. By parallel to the famous city-planning “tipping point” example, we removed graffiti and remodeled the buildings, so the neighborhood improved; civic-minded families and more successful businesses moved in.

I think the main causes of our growth over these years were a combination of other factors: 1) A continued shift of the world’s demographic bell curve in our direction such that, although our topics were still “fringe” by mainstream standards, they were falling under a slightly fatter section of the bulge (though, god knows, not its People Magazine belly); 2) The aggressive growth of PGW, adding more and more sales-people and commercial presses and becoming an increasing force in the book trade, synergistically improved their sales-and-marketing capacity; 3) Word of mouth about us spread exponentially and brought new customers and authors which, in turn, brought more new customers and more authors—I believe we tripped over the tipping point somewhere in the mid nineties such that the press was being pulled along by its own activity rather than having to directly cultivate each new customer and author contact; 4) The increasing economic support of a steadily growing backlist meant that, with many solid titles selling year after year, we had a base level of revenue on which we could count.

Charlie Winton at PGW also made us his offer that could not be refused. That is, he proposed improving his terms to North Atlantic/Frog on all accounts in exchange for us giving them the biggies and strays that we still had, along with any obscure ones that they didn’t know about. He argued (successfully) that we would make more money overall because we would be getting a few more percentage points on everything else, while we would only be giving PGW a modest additional cut on sales that we currently did on our own—and not even as much as we might think because PGW tended to negotiate better terms by their volume with our own accounts.

Charlie provided the template for a vintage argument that I myself have come to use in recent years in trying to convince much smaller publishers to copublish their list or top titles with us under our imprint: economy of scale. I propose to these presses that we could win them back whatever they are paying us as an additional middleman by getting them better discounts across the range of the market, from printing bids to wholesaler rates, while adding many new accounts.

Once in effect, the new exclusive meant that PGW provided our books to all of the book trade de jure and most of the book trade de facto. The only accounts that we were allowed continue to sell were ones that (1) PGW did not service, (2) were not in the usual book trade, (3) were out of their territory (which was solely North America), or (4) represented some quirky combination of these factors.  PGW by contract sold exclusively to everyone else.

In practice the PGW exclusive was always a “soft” one, and we (like most of their presses in that era) still filled almost all of the orders that came our way, whether they originated from the book trade or not and whether they were sanctioned by the contract or not. The whole shebang settled into roughly a 70/30 split such that 70% of our revenue came directly from PGW in their one monthly check, while we garnered the other 30% by selling to the market ourselves, sometimes with unimpugnable legality and sometimes from territories which we were almost certainly excluded from by distributor exclusivity.

What we clearly and cleanly gave up were the big wholesalers, but those were what PGW wanted and pretty much already had anyway, so everyone was happy, more or less. I mean, every now and then a sales rep griped that our books were already in some store in Wyoming without their getting a commission and how? So if we got such a phone call, we agreed to stop selling to that account, and that was that. But it had no effect on our behavior with a hundred others.

Even seventy-percent reliance on one company was, to our minds, inherently risky because there were things about PGW’s way of doing business that stood against our beliefs, values, innate cautiousness, and frugality. They were as high-flying, heedless, aggressive, and money-driven as we were conservative and philosophy-driven—and they ran on bank loans. They were from the Jay and Siggy Zises Integreted Resources school of doing business, though not nearly in the Z-boys’ stratosphere.

Still Charlie and crew earned our trust until December 27, 2006, when PGW filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Till that day of infamy our statements and checks could always be picked up at the PGW receptionist’s desk on the first weekday of each month, one for North Atlantic and one for Frog. These checks had been on time for roughly 300 months before the denouement.

During the nineties we became a PGW press. That was our identity in the book trade—one of a spiffy, changing group that included at various times Grove/Atlantic Monthly, Taunton, Seven Stories, New World Library, Amber Allen, Berrett Kohler, Ulysses, Audio Partners, Marvel Comics, New York Review of Books, Ronin, Conari, Feral House, Cleis, and well over 150 others. As some left, new ones always came, as PGW continued to expand and maintain its status as the Cadillac of distributors.

Whereas once Lindy and I visited Bookpeople for its funky home-cooked community lunches and countercultural atmosphere among staff who were mostly older than us, now we attended PGW’s glitzy, catered parties with the young folk, often amidst loud live music of the fashionable sort that didn’t sound like music. We were Bay Area publishing oldtimers.

The consistency of our growth, such that our sales increased by roughly the same small percentage every year for more than a decade, was remarkable in itself as a statistical phenomenon in that there is virtually no carryover of business from one year to the next, as there might be with groceries or, to a less degree, clothing, or textbooks. If you calculate sales on an annual basis, you go back to absolute zero on January 1 each new year and then you have to sell some combination of the same books to different customers, or different books to the same customers, or new books to new customers in order to attain the same volume and revenue, let alone greater; yet we did that every year by within a few percentage points. Yes, one does develop successful books and loyal customers, and these yield a modicum of stability, but for the most part, a list has to grow and diversify (the latter, so that you are not constantly competing with yourself) and the customer base also has to expand at the same time to achieve steady growth.

Not competing with yourself is a tricky thing. If you are uniquely strong in a given area (as we were by then in niches like t’ai chi ch’uan, capoeira, and craniosacral therapy), you have to pioneer new territories, so we expanded into more diverse martial arts and nutrition books as well as untapped New Age subjects. But you also have to defend your home turf: if a new viable capoeira or craniosacral title comes along, you can’t just reject it because you have enough of them, even if it is not as well-done as some of your existing books. If it is publishable at all and has some merit, another press will grab it and you’ll have an unwelcome competitor. It may even surpass your own titles, whether it is as good an entry or not.

As we learned many times in the eighties, notably with baseball literature and homeopathy, the best book isn’t always the one that captures the main market—no one can explain why sometimes a weaker book or one derivative of another becomes the bellwether. I cite Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) and Don Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements) as examples of New Age authors that far outsell very similar authors, many of them far more original and substantial, for subtle and inexplicable reasons.

By the same token baseball anthologies modeled after ours sprang up like dandelions after our success, many of them borrowing the identical pieces (like Updike on Ted Williams or Donald Hall on Dock Ellis) because all you had to do was re-buy the essays for one-time serial use. Ours vanished from the stores and were replaced by imitations soon after the Doubleday edition appeared. Later we were just as readily surpassed in homeopathy sales by others’ knock-off books.

So you had better publish your niches exhaustively in order to keep them “private” as long as possible, to overwhelm and reduce competition.[2]

In internal martial arts and bodywork we gradually developed large enough lists that we became the major publishers of these topics in the world and thus not only discouraged competition but drew the sorts of major authors that mainstream New York houses generally attract ahead of presses like us. In that light it was interesting that the agent for Russian president Vladimir Putin brought his judo book to us in 2002 because he heard we were the premiere martial arts publisher in America. (Forget, for a moment, Bush looking into Putin’s eyes or murdered journalists or Georgia and Chechnya—this project was one for Russian-American friendship.)

Our initial upswing in sales was, with a few key exceptions, not bestseller-driven. The Monuments of Mars gave us our first big-game player. Almost a decade later Healing with Whole Foods played a huge role in boosting our sales, and soon thereafter Nothing in This Book is True, But It’s Exactly How Things Are established itself Frog’s leading title. Yet these three stalwarts never produced more than twenty-five percent of either list’s total annual sales. The larger component of our sales was a fluctuating combination of dozens to hundreds of different titles in a backlist that grew by an average of about fifty new ones a year during the nineties, graduating from around thirty per year when we moved out of the house in 1992 to around sixty a year by 2000 (and then ninety a year by 2008). At the heart of the list was a mosaic of holistic health, science fiction, martial arts, bodywork, sports, Buddhism, Western occult, psychology, and anthropology, and literature.

I used to eyeball PGW’s monthly-sales cover sheets and, as a game, try to guess how much dollar volume might be on it from the hundreds of columns on two or three oversize pages of computer printout before allowing myself to peek at the bottom line. Every month I feared from just the snapshot peer that the cumulative outcome might represent at most $15,000 worth of sales. The majority of titles were usually below twenty units for the month. Yet, despite the low individual numbers, the cumulative total was usually at least $75,000 for North Atlantic and $25,000 for Frog in the earlier years of the decade and approaching twice that by the early 2000s.

I was concerned that the accounting department at PGW must have made a mistake, so I better keep my mouth shut and hope they didn’t catch it. But they kept making this “mistake” month after month. I finally added up one month’s report painstakingly item by item on a calculator—and my number came out the same as theirs. After that I stopped worrying about an error.

Look at it this way: something like 200 titles selling an average of 500 copies per year is 100,000 sales units. Or if you have 300 titles that average only 200 books sold per year, that’s 60,000 books. If the average net return per sale (revenue above cost) on those is $4, that’s $240,000 per year from titles that would be considered subcommercial by most presses and certainly by all mainstream New York houses. It takes only about fifty additional strongly commercial titles averaging 5000 units a year to make up a reliable revenue stream in the millions of dollars.

Thus, the single driving force behind the economic breakthrough of North Atlantic/Frog was gravitational: an accumulation of books that continued to sell year after year, even if in modest quantities for most of the individual books. That is why our tipping point was not one or two bestsellers but a matrix ascending through the aggregate interrelationship of its components.

When Goddard was going through one of its many financial crises, faculty were asked at the time to think up summer courses to attract new students. I painstakingly constructed, organized, and then ran an Earth Mythology seminar. It was nixed after its first summer because it didn’t bring in a large enough number—about half a dozen attended. When I proposed a different, hopefully more popular version of it, Jim Nolfi, the acting dean, snapped at me, “If you’re going to bring in, like five more students, forget it.”

Two years later Goddard was laying off half its faculty. One reason was that it was always interested in getting a hundred students before it got ten. The powers-that-be were forever looking for the magic bullet. In my last year there, I was on a committee that almost hired a new admissions director, clearly the greasiest candidate, solely because he said that he had 125 live transfers from three other colleges and could guarantee delivery. I didn’t even know there were such commodities like cattle futures in the education game.

That’s one reason why I was no longer teaching at Goddard and was even inappropriate for the reborn Goddard of the eighties. At North Atlantic, no one was telling me I couldn’t do something because it brought in only five students.  If they stayed and brought in five more who brought in five more, that was how things were meant to work—real people, real experiences, real loyalties and commitments, not cattle and cash cows and head counts. So it was with building the North Atlantic base over fifteen, twenty, twenty-five  years.  Bird by unique bird.

The executives of the failing Grossinger’s Resort of the 1970s also only wanted the big conventions plus floods of what they scornfully called “yarmulkes” for the orthodox holidays. They eschewed the small fries, the single families—but a lot of small adds up to big.  When they were in their prime, it was a hotel full of individual families.

You can’t mock and diss your own clientele; you can’t cynically try to fill your coffers with the cash from groups that you despise but want to milk. It is a guaranteed downward spiral unless you’re selling Twinkies or soft drinks. So it is too if you try to make a successful publishing company only through fabricated bestsellers.  You may have some hits, but it probably won’t be stable or last.  I know plenty of one-hit-wonder publishing companies that vanished.

It takes patience to build a list book by book by book, month by month, and year by year—but once the list is built, it is a working library and the true cash cow. As long as most of the titles stay active to some degree, you have an alive business.

North Atlantic/Frog was built upon exactly that sort of foundation, not intentionally but subliminally and incrementally…because publishing individual books were what we were doing always and anyway, and we didn’t have other occupations or business ambitions. The overall intelligence and agency of the press drove itself—and us—not vice versa. That is why it is so affirming that it worked and outgrow all fantasies.

The exception to the rule came in 2001: Walter the Farting Dog. Published just after 9/11, it sold in incredible numbers right out the gate, going from 5000 a month to 10,000 a month within a year and then peaking at 50,000 a month. This single children’s book from a publisher that did not otherwise publish children’s books accelerated our overall growth by more than a million dollars in 2002 and, though the book has been on the downswing for several years, it continues to this day to add six figures to the bottom line.

But Walter was not a gift horse without significant, even cataclysmic, drawbacks and grief, as I shall explain in Chapters Eighteen and Nineteen. In almost syllogistic proof of the homily that money attracts greed and trouble, The Farting Dog brought both in spades—and much of the revenue produced by this goofy novelty item was squandered in the karma that came with it.

In any case, Walter aside, my point is that, as the North Atlantic list grew by sixty or so titles a year up to 2001, the role of particular new titles was not as important as the overall list, even including its meagerly selling paupers.

Ideally I would continue to document book by book roughly how this cumulative list elapsed. But if the lists published during the eighties established our general direction, the lists that appeared in the nineties came close to recapitulating our whole history each year; we were publishing so many books that there is no way to adequately represent our editorial direction from 1993 without producing an unwieldy and tedious read. Nonetheless what follows is an attempt at recapturing some of our key titles (without regard for purely commercial success) for the years from 1993-2000. My comments will put the books into economic context:[3]

1993: Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford; Children and the Martial Arts by Gaku Homma; The Case Against Free Trade by Ralph Nader et al. (copublished with Earth Island Institute); Women in Aikido, edited by Andrea Siegel; Protecting Children from Danger: Learning Self-Reliance and Emergency Skills Without Fear by Bob Bishop and Matt Thomas; Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body by Bruce Kumar Frantzis; Body Awareness as Healing Therapy by Moshe Feldenkrais and Body, Spirit, and Democracy by Don Hanlon Johnson (the latter a history of contemporary somatics—both copublished with Feldenkrais Resources); Aikido Student Handbook by Greg O’Connor; The Guru Papers by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad; and Dark Matter, Missing Planets, and New Comets by retired Naval Observatory astronomer Tom Van Flandern (radical cosmology and celestial mechanics).

Comments: This year was made commercially by Healing with Whole Foods, our all-time most successful title. Ironically PGW deemed that it wouldn’t sell because it was too large and recommended that we withdraw it and break it into littler books. The author refused and he turned out to know his market better than the pros.

HWWF took a little while to catch on, so Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body was the more immediate bestseller out the gate, as the author appeared on The Donahue Show with Deepak Chopra and sold a quick 15,000 books. Every time the episode re-ran we logged at least 5,000 more sales.

Protecting Children from Danger, our supposed hot title of the season, turned out to be one of our biggest money losers ever.

One can note also the steady increase and diversity of martial-arts books.

1994: The Anarchist AIDS Medical Formulary: A Guide to Guerrilla Immunology by Charles Caufield and Billi Goldberg; Dharma Family Treasures: Sharing Buddhism with Children, edited by Sandy Eastoak; Hidden Casualties: Environmental, Health, and Political Consequences of the Gulf War, edited by Saul Bloom, John M. Miller, James Warner, and Philippa Winkler, foreword by Nancy Pelosi (copublished with Arms Control Research Center); Instant Zen by Thomas Cleary; The T’ai Chi Boxing Chronicle by Kuo Lien-Ying; The Ultimate Egoist (first in a projected ten-volume series of the complete short works of Theodore Sturgeon); The McDaniel Report: On the Failure of Executive, Congressional, and Scientific Responsibility in Investigating Possible Evidence of Artificial Structures on the Surface of Mars by Stanley V. McDaniel; The Intuitive Body: Aikido as a Clairsentient Practice by Wendy Palmer; Ancient Wisdom, New Spirit by Peter Ralston; The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi by Andrew Harvey; Nothing in This Book is True, But It’s Exactly How Things Are by Bob Frissell; Body in Recovery: Somatic Psychotherapy and Self by John P. Conger; Mind over Matter: Higher Martial Arts by Shi Ming and Siao Weija, translated by Thomas Cleary.

Comments: The two big titles this year were both Frog: Nothing In this Book Is True… and The Way of Passion, the latter expected (because the lectures on which the book was based had been hugely popular in San Francisco, and word had spread), the former a total surprise.

Mind over Matter was authored by the t’ai chi master who had starred for Bill Moyers on his PBS holistic-health special, ; Mind and Healing; the book was translated by the renowned Orientalist Thomas Cleary. We kept Cleary for a while as a regular NAB author/translator before he returned to his home at Shambhala Publications.

1995: The Heart of Listening: A Visionary Approach to Craniosacral Therapy by Hugh Milne (copublished with The Milne Institute); Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence by Ruth Zaporah; Bone, Breath and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment, edited by Don Hanlon Johnson (copublished with CIIS, a gathering of the writings of pioneers in the field of somatics); Essential Teachings by the Dalai Lama, Foreword by Andrew Harvey; The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology, edited by Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue; Homeopathic Psychology: Personality Profiles of the Major Constitutional Remedies by Philip M. Bailey; The Little Capoeira Manual by Nestor Capoeira; Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon; Mindful Spontaneity: Lessons in the Feldenkrais Method by Ruthy Alon; Infectious AIDS: Have We Been Misled? By Peter Duesberg; The Return of the Mother by Andrew Harvey; Shadow Strategies of an American Ninja Master by Glenn Morris; Indonesian Flavors by Susan Anderson; Mahatma Gandhi in a Cadillac by Gerald Rosen; Pink Tanks and Velvet Revolutions: An American in Prague by Douglas Lytle (Lindy and I found this author on our first trip to Europe in 1993); Flashing Steel: Mastering Eishin-Ryu Swordsmanship by Leonard Pellman and Shihan Masayuki Shimabukuro; Akhunaton: The Extraterrestrial King by Daniel Blair Stewart; Book of Theanna: In the Lands that Follow Death by Ellias and Theanna Lonsdale; The Eye of the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (a new translation of lesser-known work of the renowned Lebanese poet); Free Yourself from Headaches: The Natural Drug-Free Program for Prevention and Relief by Jan Stromfeld and Anita Weil (copublished with the Upledger Institute).

Comments: The big books for the year turned out to be The Heart of Listening, Homeopathic Psychology, The Little Capoeira Manual, and Flashing Steel—all niche titles. They were hits at the time and they remain strong backlist sellers almost fifteen years later.

Infectious AIDS: Have We Been Misled?, a radical scientific document in the form of Duesberg’s collected papers, was undermined by Regnery Publishing’s seizure of our original title, Inventing the AIDS Virus, for their sudden publication of a competing Duesberg book, essentially an unethical theft by a right-wing, anti-Clinton press looking for another Libertarian public controversy. They forced us to change our title at the last minute and forfeit our advance sales to them (they went on to have a huge hit with their book). This bait and switch of course couldn’t have occurred without the collaboration of the author himself who capitulated in favor of the larger, more moneyed operation.

The Gibran and Shadow Strategies were surprise scores, the former developed by Souvenir Books in London, a press with which we had a longstanding relationship; they offered us the North American rights to Gibran in reciprocity after we shared our Dalai Lama translations with them. We sold a Books-on-Tape edition to Audio Literature, with Johnny Cash reading Gibran, an arrangement and deal made possible by the fact that my long-time friend and associate, John Hunt, head of the audiobook company, had gone into business with legendary producer Rick Rubin, Cash’s manager at the time.

The Dalai Lama book turned out to be a star in an overcrowded Dalai Lama/Tibetan Buddhist market.

1996: Buddhist Women on the Edge, edited by Marianne Dresser; Homeopathy: A Frontier in Medical Science: Experimental Studies and Theoretical Foundations by Paolo Bellavite and Andrea Signorini; Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women by Thomas Cleary; A Brain is Born: Exploring the Birth and Development of the Central Nervous System by John Upledger; The Beauty of Gesture: The Invisible Keyboard of Piano and T’ai Chi by Catherine David; Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses by the Dalai Lama; Art of Acupuncture Techniques by Robert Johns; The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality by R. Louis Schultz and Rosemary Feitas; The Vaccine Guide: Making an Informed Choice by Randall J. Neustaedter; Running with the Whole Body by Jack Heggie (copublished with Feldenkrais Resources); Homeopathy for Musculoskeletal Healing by Asa Hershoff; Light Upon Light: Inspirations of Rumi by Andrew Harvey; Killdozer! by Theodore Sturgeon; Earthwalking Skydancers: Women’s Pilgrimages to Sacred Places, edited by Leila Castle; Natural Skin Care: Alternative and Traditional Treatments by Joni Loughran; Zen and the Art of Street Fighting by Jack Sabat; Architects of the Underworld: Unriddling Atlantis, Anomalies of Mars, and the Mystery of the Sphinx by Bruce Rux; Paradigm Wars: Consciousness Shifts on the Road to the Millennium Pby Mark B. Woodhouse.

Comments: The most successful books from 1996 were niche again: The Endless Web (every massage therapist needed to know about fascia, still does) and The Vaccine Guide (updating our earlier book on immunization by the same author).

Many initially promising titles from this season did not stick: Architects, Frontier in Medical Science, Street Fighting, Paradigm Wars, and Piano/T’ai Chi.

1997: Unlocking the Zen Koan by Thomas Cleary; Menopause and Homeopathy: A Guide for Women at Midlife by Ifeoma Ikenze; Power of Internal Martial Arts: Combat Secrets of Ba Gua, Tai Chi, and Hsing-I by Bruce Kumar Frantzis (copublished with Energy Arts); Relearning to See by Thomas Quackenbush (a Bates method book); The Supreme Way: Inner Teachings of the Southern Mountain Tao by Loy Ching-Yuen, translated by Trevor Carolan and Ann Frederick; Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine; Inside Degrees by Ellias Lonsdale; Groundworks: Narratives of Embodiment, edited by Don Hanlon Johnson; Smart Fats: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical, and Emotional Intelligence by Michael A. Schmidt; Something in This Book is True….by Bob Frissell; Holding the Center: Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion by Richard Strozzi Heckler; Mars: The Living Planet by Barry DiGregorio; Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines by Matthew Wood; The Structure of Aikido: Kenjutsu and Taijutsu Movement Relationships by Gaku Homma; Thunder and Roses by Theodore Sturgeon.

Comments: One title from this season achieved immediate mega-status: Waking the Tiger. It became one of our top five all-time books. But it was also a great backlist season, birthing other major books, top forty lifetime-to-date titles; Relearning to See, Book of Herbal Wisdom, The Power of Internal Martial Arts, and Something in this Book Is True….

The Structure of Aikido and Smart Fats (later republished as Brain-Building Nutrition) were successful books at a lesser scale.

1998: Biology Revisioned by Willis W. Harman and Elisabet Sahtouris (copublished with the Institute of Noetic Sciences); Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources by John Klimo; Esoteric Anatomy: The Body as Consciousness by Bruce Burger (copublished with Heartwood Institute); The Body in Psychotherapy: Inquiries in Somatic Psychology, edited by Don Hanlon Johnson and Ian J. Grand; The Chakra System of Mount Desert Island by P. Chris Kaiser; Martial Arts Are Not Just for Kicking Butt, edited by Antonio Cuevas and Jennifer Lee (an in-house Io put together by two staff members); The Perfect Host by Theodore Sturgeon; The Mind of Your Newborn Baby by David Chamberlain; The Labyrinth in Culture and Society by Jacques Attali, translated by Joseph H. Rowe, preface by The Reverend Lauren Artress; The Tibetan Book of the Dead for Reading Aloud by Jean-Claude van Itallie; Sex, Orgasm, and the Mind of Clear Light: The Sixty-four Arts of Gay Male Love by Jeffery Hopkins; Integrated Manual Therapy for the Autonomic Nervous System and Related Disorders by Thomas Giammatteo and Sharon Weiselfish (copublished with Dialogues in Contemporary Rehabilitation); Sabaki Method: Karate in the Inner Circle by Kancho Joko Ninomiya and Ed Zorensky; Breaking the Death Habit by Leonard Orr; A Child’s Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner; Hollywood Versus the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry’s Participation in UFO Dis-information by Bruce Rux; Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts by Bob Orlando (originally mistyped as Martian Arts, an ideal title for us if anyone ever writes it).

Comments: The major book this season was a surprise: a selection of radical underground comix by Phoebe Gloeckner, a local artist whom I discovered as a medical illustrator when I was looking for drawings for a new edition of Planet Medicine. After I found her work in back issues of Gnosis magazine, I phoned her and she sent her portfolio. She turned out to be radical, brilliant, original, funny, and spooky. Her book was a nightmare to get printed because it was so utterly transgressive, plunging over the acceptable edge of edginess with its Terry Toons/Little Lulu portrayals of sex and child molestation (see Chapter Twenty-Two). She gave us an early taste of what our daughter Miranda July would later create in performance art, cinema, and literature.

Esoteric Anatomy became a solid backlist title. Integrated Manual Therapy marked our entry into the osteopathic textbook arena, a business in which we continue to participate but will always be overshadowed by specialty houses like Williams and Wilkens, Elsevier, Churchill Livingstone, Eastland Press.

A sidelight to this year: when J. P. Tarcher was sold to Putnam, they let a lot of good books go, and we picked up two classics when the authors came to us: Channeling and Babies Remember Birth (which we retitled).

1999: Out in the Open: The Complete Male Pelvis by R. Louis Schultz; The Hepatitis C. Handbook by Matthew Dolan; Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan by Fu Zhongwen, translated by Louis Swaim; Multidimensional Mind: Remote Viewing in Hyperspace by Jean Millay (copublished with Independent Scholars of Asia); Paracelsus: Essential Readings, edited by Oxford/Exeter professor Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (first book in Goodrick-Clarke’s Esoteric Masters series picked up when the British press Thoresens went out of business); The Soul in Grief: Love, Death, and Transformation by Robert Romanyshyn; The Undivided Self: Alexander Technique and the Control of Stress by Theodore Dimon; Wind in the Blood: Mayan Healing and Tradition Chinese Medicine by Hernán Garcia, Antonio Cierra, and Hiberto Bal, translated by Jeff Conant; Quantum Touch: The Power to Heal by Richard Gordon; A Guide to Polarity Therapy: The Gentle Art of Hands-On Healing by Maruti Seidman; A Ghost at Heart’s Edge: Stories and Poems on Adoption, edited by Susan Ito; Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun by Thubten Chodron; Chi Nei Tsang: Healing from Within by Giles Marin; Baby Is Three by Theodore Sturgeon; Ba Gua: Advanced and Hidden Knowledge in the Taoist Internal Martial Arts by John Bracy and Liu Xing-Han; Aikido Exercises for Teaching and Training by Carol M. Shifflet; The Woman From Mossad: The Story of Mordecai Vanunu and the Israeli Nuclear Program by Peter Hounan (copublished with Vision Press of London); Portals and Corridors: A Visionary Guide to Hyperspace by Gary Whitney and Monica Szu-Whitney; 2sexE: Urban Tales on Love, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Gettin’ it On, edited by Antonio Cuevas and Jennifer Lee (an atypically-themed in-house Io about sex and gender, thought up and executed by the two same staffers who did the Martial Arts…Kicking Butt issue—they wanted something funkier and more part of their Gen-X world); Tesla: The Modern Sorcerer by Daniel Blair Stewart; 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols by Jeanne Rose.

Comments: Once again it was a niches-oriented season with many long-term successes hatched, including one top-five book, Quantum Touch. Other biggies: Aikido Exercises, Ba Gua, Chi Nei Tsang, 375 Essential Oils, Mastering Yang Style, and Out in the Open, a candid book on the anatomy and somatic psychology of the male pelvis and genitals.

Books that started great and died were Hep C, Tesla, Portals, and The Soul in Grief. Some never got off the ground: Sex Orgasm, Ghost, Blossoms, 2sexE, and Mossad.

2000: Conscious Eating by Gabriel Cousins (copublished with Tree of Life); Vedantic Medtiation: Lighting the Flame of Awareness by David Frawley; A Saucer of Loneliness by Theodore Sturgeon; Zero Balancing: Touching the Energy Body by John Hamwee, foreword by system founder Fritz Smith; Inside Star Vision by Ellias and Theanna Lonsdale; Homeopathy: Science or Myth? By Bill Grey; Jacob Boehme, edited by Robin Waterfield (Esoteric Masters series); Better Eyesight: The Complete Magazines of William Bates, compiled and edited by Thomas Quackenbush; Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful by Donna Bryant Goertz; Taiji Sword and Other Writings by Chen Weiming, translated by Barbara Davis; Spinal Manipulation Made Simple: A Manual of Soft Tissue Techniques by Jeffrey Maitland; Tales of Old Earth by Michael Swanwick (copublished with Tachyon Publications); Televisionary Oracle by Rob Brezsny; The Magic of Chia Seed: The Revival of an Ancient Wonder Food by James Scher; The Art of Breathing by Nancy Zi; Spiritual Medicine by Laurie Leah Levine; Aromatherapy and Subtle Energy Techniques: Compassionate Healing With Essential Oils by Joni Keim Loughran and Ruah Bull; Vibrational Healing: The Essence of Nature Through Aromatherapy and Essential Oils by Deborah Eidson.

Comments: I first noticed Gabriel Cousens’s book when it was paired so often in bookstortes with Healing with Whole Foods. Both were spiritual, esoteric food books, Paul’s is more Chinese and zen; Gabriel’s is more Ayurvedic. Paul’s reflected his Buddhist training, Gabriel’s his medical-school background and Hindu initiations. Both drew on the application of modern nutrition to ancient healing principles in their own ways.

Since Conscious Eating, like Your Inner Physician, was clearly self-published in a manner that was more desktop than trade, I decided to explore the possibility of partnering with the author on it and then was astonished to discover—by coincidence or synchronicity depending on your belief—that Gabriel was actually my old Amherst friend and dining buddy Ken Cousins, co-captain of the undefeated Amherst football team of my era and an all-New England defensive lineman. He had submitted a poem about his sorrow in setting aside his helmet and pads for other tools after his last game to Io and it appeared in the second issue. So we had already published him! After Amherst, Ken went on to medical school and then studied under guru Muktananda in India before he formally became Gabriel (more in humorous on these matters in Chapter Twenty-Two).

Gabriel and I reconnected, threw in together, and step by step over a number of years launched a multi-book copublishing venture on nutrition, live food, energy metaphysics, Hindu philosophy, and kabala under his Institute, Tree of Life.

Spinal Manipulation, Vibrational Healing, Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful, Taiji Sword, and Televisionary Oracle all became solid backlist books.

Magic of Chia Seed lay dormant for years, along with the crop itself, after we competed with Keats Publishing for this definitive work on a nutritious and neglected super-grain and paid a $10,000 advance to the author and the Chia Seed Foundation—but eight years later it found its market or, more accurately, the burgeoning live-food market grew to embrace chia.

In 2000 we began what would become a failed copublishing venture with Tachyon Publications, a small San Francisco science-fiction publisher whose head, Jacob Weisman, was intrigued by our Sturgeon series. Michael Swanwick, a prominent sci fi author from well before he went with us, was proof that we shouldn’t be publishing science fiction. Even with the Sturgeon volumes finding a decent a decent market, our bookstore return rate on science fiction (e.g. books sold to stores and then sent back for credit) hovered around 75% as compared to 15% for the rest of our list.  And the Sturgeon market was mostly collectors.

2000 was also the year in which we made a major nonpublishing move via the nonprofit, buying property for an organic farm in Gustine in Merced County. The land was purchased under the aegis and guidance of Richard Firme, a third-generation farmer of Mexican and Filipino descent, and then leased to him for $1 a year. Firme was a founding merchant and mainstay of Berkeley’s Ecology Center and its thrice-weekly Farmer’s Market.  His family’s organic farm had been seized by the bank a few years earlier because a relative had borrowed against it to buy, I believe, it was a sports car, and then not repaid the loan. Since that debacle, Firme had leased land for his crops.

It seemed a tragic waste to have this guy converting top-grade agricultural soil into farms, getting them certified “organic,” and then having them carved up for shopping malls and housing developments. At the time of our land purchase, Firme’s most recent organic farm was being sold out from under him in order to allow construction of a tire warehouse!

At the same time that Firme had been operating his farms, he had also been the primary teacher and land-provider for Berkeley Youth Alternatives by way of a training program for young men and women so-called “at risk” on how to raise healthy vegetables, while paying them (through a Government grant) for their work. So he had not only been filling the produce gaps in BYA’s food boxes for the poor but providing agricultural experience for the neophyte urban farmers.

The Society’s purchase of the Gustine land served immediately to forestall destruction of a small plot of primo soil while addressing a number of other long-term issues: biodiversity, ecological agriculture (in lieu of corporate monoculture), organic technology, a wide range of crops on very small acreage as a model (and source of vegetables) for the farm’s neighbors, most of which had thousands of acres of the same thing, and the education of young people in organic methods of farming.

The 27 acres were planted immediately as a transitional-to-organic farm with fruit trees, root crops, leaf crops, melons, squashes, herbs, grains for organic dairies, and an apiary. Once the farm was operating, young men and women sponsored by BYA worked on it in the daytime and returned to their city homes at night, bearing valuable information about nutrition and organic foods to their communities.

This farm and its outreach programs flourished for almost seven yers, but gradually obstacles drowned the original energy and intentions. First, BYA lost its funding for the program.  Then Paul Newman’s Foundation never responded to a grant application that Lindy wrote to them to replace it.  Then Firme encountered equipment problems and was victimized by an epidemic of rural theft and vandalism.  Then he hired people who did him wrong.  Then he got pneumonia. Ultimately the project collapsed under the weight of economy-of-scale (it was just too small: a few acres and one strong guy). When PGW declared bankruptcy, we had to sell the land.

The farm was never an operating part of North Atlantic Books, but the publishing made Firme Farm possible, and the collaboration with Berkeley Ecology Center, Richard, and BYA represented a dramatic convergence of nonprofit Society themes with philanthropy funded by book sales.  Would that we could have done more such projects but, as we learned from Firme Farm, managing more than a publishing company is beyond our means, either economically or in terms of staffing.  It was not just a matter of buying land and forgetting about it.  There were taxes, insurance, liability.  We never visited the farm after the second year and, when we went to sell it in 2007, the agent, the same one who oversaw its sale to us, encountered (and photographed) a very different situation on the ground from what we thought was there—proof that absentee management had been a bad idea.

Richard Firme did the best that he could under the circumstances, but he was a bit of an idealist and a “glass half full” reporter.  The empty half of the glass was really empty!

Before the organic farm in Gustine we explored many other possible nonprofit land projects: the healing-center land used by the Evergreen Foundation in Idaho, an educational ecology center and school on the Marin Coast, an environmentally sensitive plot in southeastern Oregon (with the Seven Generations land trust), a New Age ranch and futurist institute in Wyoming, ninety-nine acres of coastal land in Maine with a Vietnam vet wanting to preserve it and depart, various small islands and other coastal land and old inns in Maine (all with a group wanting to organize a community project), and a few others whose specifics elude my memory.  A seven-year search culminated with the purchase in Gustine, a search initiated by the same AG office investigation of our nonprofit that helped create Frog (they also pointed to our minutes over the years peppered with proposals of what we would do with the revenue if we reached certain thresholds that we had long ago passed).  Any of these would have run the same cost and liability risks as the farm in Gustine.  A publishing company (in fact, two publishing companies in the same facility with separate books were (again) all we could handle, but words flow freely at meetings in which you are free to confabulate whatever sorts of pies in the sky you imagine worthy of your philanthropy.  In this case we had to act one of them out to see what the downsides and problems were.

Firme Farm also had its pluses for the overall North Atlantic Books undertaking.  We may not have published as many sustainable-development titles over the years as we would have liked or trail-blazed green technology for our books, but we tried to set a model for how profits from psychospiritual and ecological books could be turned into land conservation and sustainable development instead of dividends.

I don’t think anyone in the publishing world noticed, though we did put the word out. In fact, when Phil Wood, the publisher of Ten Speed from whom we were renting our warehouse then, discovered that we had missed an annual rent hike and owed something like $12,000, which he offered to spread of the next six months, I suggested instead that we would pay half of it at once if the other half could go to BYA and the farm. “Phil would prefer the cash,” his henchman called to say. I guess everyone would.

In 2000 we also made a new addendum list of publishing topics for the Board:

  • Women’s issues, including ones involving women of color and international women;
  • Child-care, parenting, and education (including addressing violence in youth culture);
  • Gay and lesbian topics
  • Travel and anti-voyages;
  • Pop culture, underground comix, and graphic novels;
  • Cultural studies;
  • Theater/film/dance;
  • Current affairs;
  • Native American studies;
  • Death and dying;
  • Critiques of science and global economy;
  • Hip science fiction;
  • Interspecies and interdimensional communication (including dolphins and crop circles);
  • Alternative medical textbooks (including general somatic and osteopathic systems).

Some of these were realized; others fell by the wayside.

I will use 2000 as an artificial cut-off point and deal with subsequently published titles in a different context.

Chapter 4: Money, Strategy, and Risk | Table of Contents

Footnotes

[1]
The following sets of pages in Out of Babylon correspond roughly to the period covered from near the end of the previous chapter through the early part of this one: 443-445, 485-488, 521-537, and 552-553.
[2]
Throughout this book, boldface means concepts generally applicable to the publishing industry and business strategies.
[3]
I will no longer identify every Io or copublished title as to status and copublisher.  I will only list assorted and notable new ones.

{ 1 trackback }

Interviews Richard Grossinger, North Atlantic Bks | WritersCast
May 22, 2016 at 12:17 pm

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: