When Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor wear and gear giant Patagonia, announced his decision to donate his roughly $1-billion company to the newly established nonprofit Holdfast Collective for the purpose of combating climate change, Yale Climate Connections was both impressed and curious.*
How would this change affect the book operation that had supplied some of the more attractive and intriguing titles YCC has highlighted in its monthly bookshelves over the past several years?
And what had prompted an outdoor clothing company to become a publisher in the first place?
Yale Climate Connections reached out to Patagonia Books through one of its representatives. Stephanie Ridge of Wild Ridge PR graciously agreed to set up a Zoom interview with Karla Olson, director of Patagonia Books.
It turns out that philanthropy has been vital to the mission and operation of Patagonia Books from the beginning.
Below is the transcript of that interview, recorded in late September and edited for brevity and sequencing.
What made the maker of quality outdoor clothing and gear decide to become a book publisher?
We have a long tradition at Patagonia of distributing, through our catalogs, essays of 750 to 1,000 words. (The classic, time-honored original was The Art of Clean Climbing by Tom Frost in 1972.) Then in 2006, Yvon Chouinard published his business memoir with Penguin Random House, and it was a great hit.
(It’s selling like crazy now, too, after his announcement. We are planning a new edition.)
And that convinced him and others at the company that there are some things that require more than 750 words; they might require 75,000 words. And so Patagonia started publishing books.
What four or five titles were most important in establishing the press and defining its niche?
The first book was a coffee-table book: Yosemite in the Sixties (2007). It was about the people who established big rock-wall climbing in the 1960s. The next couple of formative books were Beyond the Mountain (2009) by Steve House, a memoir about what climbing has meant to him, and Surf Is Where You Find It (2008), a book by Gerry Lopez, one of the guys who founded big wave surfing. He writes about the mindset you need for surfing.
An underlying theme of these outdoor sport memoirs was the love of nature, the love of wildness. And from these books emerged what we’re now calling the climate change memoir, because the other thing these people were learning from their time in the wild was how climate change is changing the wild. Among these books would be Life Lived Wild (2021) by Rick Ridgeway, another revered climber, and Swell (2018), by surfer sailor Liz Clark. More recently, we published then National Geographic reporter Doug Chadwick’s Four Fifths a Grizzly (2021) in which he explains how his perspective on nature has changed over the years.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some of our best-selling titles are hardcore training books, like Training for the New Alpinism (2014). These books get people confident enough go out rock climbing, usually on public lands, which then leads them to want to protect those lands.
How and when did you join Patagonia Books?
I’ve been in the publishing industry for 40 years. I moved to New York after I graduated from college, and I got hired by Putnam. Since then I’ve worn a number of hats. I was the editorial director of a publishing company. I’ve worked for book packaging companies. And I’ve been a creative director. In 2012, I had a consultancy, working with smaller independent publishers on developing books, and I got a call from someone I had worked with over the years. She said she was now at Patagonia and they were looking for someone to run their publishing program. So I applied for the position. It’s a dream job for me. It’s an amazing, mission-driven company; it’s a really great place to sundown my career.
When I joined the company, Patagonia had published 12 books. Since then, we’ve published over 60. We ramped up pretty quickly; we brought a bunch of projects on immediately and then started to do five to eight books per year. We’re keeping that pace.
How do you find your authors? (Or how do your authors find you?)
Sometimes we get books over the transom. Some come through book agents and some through the Patagonia community. Whenever we’re thinking about acquiring a title, we ask ourselves, why should we publish this book versus some other publisher? What can we bring to it that will make the publishing experience unique or successful? And oftentimes that’s the connection to the community.
Another way is someone, sometimes even our CEO, will come to me with an idea. For example, Yvon Chouinard wanted to do a book about salmon and how they are endangered. And so with my background in book development, I approached Mark Kurlansky, who writes very well about culinary-ecological topics. [Editor’s note: Kurlansky is the author of the New York Times bestseller and James Beard Award winning Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.] And he said yes. Then we lined up artists, photographers, and graphic designers to support his work.
How has editorial acquisition changed?
There were more coffee table books in the beginning. Photography is still a big part of our brand identity, and our books still have photographs in them, but the text is now more important.
I think we’re also moving away from books that are only an expression of the sport and more toward titles that reflect on the climate crisis and what actions someone can take. Our mission statement is that we’re in business to save the home planet. And in the book program we’ve taken that to heart.
I think anyone who has handled one of your books would be impressed by the quality of its production. Salmon (2020), for example, just knocked me out with its beautiful binding, the photographs, the scientific illustrations, and the other artwork. And yet Patagonia Books are modestly priced. How do you manage this feat?
I as a publisher take full advantage of the fact that I don’t have to publish books to keep the lights on at Patagonia. We’re backed by a $3-billion company, so we don’t have the overhead costs that other publishers do. The books are considered part of Patagonia’s mission, and we realize that if we price the books too high they won’t get into the hands of as many people.
But I should also note that we sell 40% of our books direct to consumer, through our stores and through our website. Because we have the better margin on the books we sell direct, we can price all our books more attractively so that independent bookstores can carry them too.
And how does Patagonia Books achieve this balance of quality and price while also pursuing its very public goals for environmental sustainability?
Again, we benefit from some economies of scale. Patagonia’s wear and gear catalogs/journals, like our books, are printed on 100% post-waste recyclable paper, and we negotiate with the same broker for our much, much smaller purchases for the books. And because we sell so much direct to consumer, we can go with bigger print runs and amortize the costs of paper and printing over more copies. (Average run is 10,000 copies.)
But sales are not the only measure of success. Tracking Gobi Grizzlies (2016) is a perfect Patagonia Book. It’s done well in sales, but the real positive for Patagonia was that it was used very successfully for fundraising. It generated signification donations for the preservation of these bears.
Where are most of your books printed?
We did print over in Asia for a while, but Patagonia has pulled out of China entirely due to human rights issues. Now we’re printing in Canada, and we’re looking at some printers in the United States who can work with 100% post-waste recycled paper. When we contract with a supplier or printer, we look at their human impacts statement. We look at the inks they use, the chemicals they use in the clean-up process, etc. Toward that end, we eliminated dust jackets several years ago, starting with Salmon. They just result in more “hurt books.” We are using a plastic laminate on these bare covers, and we don’t like it, but we found that if we don’t do it we get more books returned as damaged. [Editor’s note: “Damaged” or “hurt” books cannot be resold at full price. In a follow-up email with YCC, Karla Olson said that Patagonia Books finds creative ways to give these books away.]
Do you anticipate Patagonia Books moving into new fields or topics?
Yes, we just published our first children’s book in May, Better Than New (2022), and we are planning to publish more children’s books in the future.
Patagonia works with a company called Bureo. It’s come up with a way to create cloth from recycled fishing nets, which we’re using to make Patagonia’s classic baggy shorts. The book tells the story of how this company persuades local fishermen to recycle their nets, and it features children who encounter a sea lion all tangled up in discarded netting.
In addition to the children’s books, we’re working on a series of books for young adults, something else we haven’t done before. We’re also looking at social justice and diversity, as they touch on environmental issues. And we’re experimenting with reviving and remaking out-of-print classics, like Waves and Beaches, which we published in the summer of 2021.
What message would you like to deliver to the readers of Yale Climate Connections about the future of Patagonia Books?
The thing that most publishes don’t do well is brand their books, making who publishes the book a factor in the buying decision. I’m trying to create an experience that is consistent from one title to the next, so you know what you’re going to get. So I would say, “Turn to us for beautiful books with great storytelling and a hopeful message that includes action.” It’s not going to be preachy, but you’re going to get the message that you should join your local environmental organization, you should stop and appreciate nature. And you should vote.
Look to Patagonia Books for beauty, hope, and action.
Also see: A 12-title introduction to Patagonia Books
*This sentence was updated March 27, 2023, to reflect an estimate offered by Patagonia. At the time of publication, the New York Times reported the company’s value was about $3 billion.