Friday, August 24, 2007

SolFest, Green Publishing, and a mini interview with Stephen Morris

And this time it's Eylon, guest-blogging for Eco-Libris from sunny and green California.

SolFest at the Solar Living Institute in Hopland California, was being promoted as “The Greenest Show on Earth” and I have to say that it was impressive. Thousands of people, good music, excellent food (I just had to get the combo plate from Amma's Kitchen's,) several big tents with ongoing workshops and lectures, and many many vendors booths with everything green under the sun.

One session in particular had my Eco-Libris spider sense tingling. The “Green Publishing”session with Stephen Morris, promised to explain about new technologies that “have made both book and magazine publishing more accessible than ever,” and to examine “the opportunities and the pitfalls of starting a local publishing “empire.”” I just had to go and report back, thus awakening my dormant journalist persona.

Morris has a very impressive track record in green living and green publishing. He was involved in the set up of several successful organizations, in publishing both in Chelsea Green, and recently in his own The Public Press. But more central to his presentation was his involvement in the publication of the Green Living journal, a quarterly publication, serving the “friends of the environment,” with an interesting multi-local and sustainable business model, that aims at bringing local news back home.

Since we're talking about a business model here then the first thing to ask is what is the problem being solved exactly? According to Morris, local news aren't local anymore. Dedicated local publishers experience a burn out based on lots of work and low returns and end up being gobbled up by national entities. Advertising money is siphoned out and outside interests are coming into the local reporting.

Green Living is based on a licensing model where a local publisher can get a license to publish a local edition of Green Living in their locale. Currently there are two editions being published. The original Vermont edition, going on for more than a decade, and the more recent Southern Oregon/Northern California edition. By acting as editor-in-chief, and providing administrative services to the local editions, Morris manages to cut on some expenses and provide the local publishers more time to focus establishing relationships locally in order to serve it better as far as localized content, and selling of advertising. According to Linda Pinkham, the licensee for the Southern Oregon/Northern California edition, she broke even by the 2nd issue and went into profit by the third. This is apparently unheard of in local publishing.

Some of the content is original but most of is re-used by permission of the original publishers and authors. When a certain local edition requires more content on specific topics, Morris supply it to the local publisher. For example, Pinkahm found out that in Oregon she is serving a growing community interested in green building.

Since I managed to miss Morris at the booth at the show I had to resort to e-mail to clarify some questions I had:

Q: How did you choose to publish a Southern Oregon/Northern California edition specifically?

I received an inquiry from Linda Pinkham for editorial work. She is a former Managing Editor for Home Power Magazine. I am familiar with the territory from my days with Real Goods. I was looking for a test location that had a high environmental consciousness, but one that was far enough from our home turf in the Northeast, so that if it didn't work out, it wouldn't hurt the core business. I wasn't quite ready to expand, but Linda was such an ideal candidate that I held it out as an option. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Q: What do you see as the minimum geographical region size or demographics that could support a local edition?

The geography will be different everywhere. You can probably find more "friends of the environment" within 5 miles of Berkeley than you can find in the entire state of (not meaning to pick on them) South Dakota. In general a population of 125,000 is enough to support a local edition of Green Living Journal.“

Q: Do you have any upcoming new local licensees lined up already?

We've just signed on to do a new edition in Northern Vermont. We have had inquiries from another 50 people around the country, but we do not want to expand until we're convinced we've debugged the mechanisms to support multiple editions.“

Q: Since you provide the licensees with a lot of the contents, where does their creativity come into play?

From their suggestions about what topics are hot and deserve coverage; from their selection of which article that we provide that they choose to run; to their comments on cover images; to new voices that they develop from their areas; to what they write in the Publisher's Page ... Those with no creative input need not apply.“

Q: What is the personal profile of the new independent publisher?

All over the map. We've had expressions of interests from recent college grads looking for entrepreneurial activities to energetic retirees looking for a means of doing something more closely aligned with their beliefs to community leaders looking to enhance the "green profile" of their locales. The only commonality is that these people all consider themselves 'friends of the environment.' “

Q: You mentioned 16,000 copies are printed for each edition. How many would you say are actually picked up and read? Where do the rest go?

100%. If we find remaining copies from the previous issue we pick them up and distribute them at the events we attend. (We just handed out over 1000 copies of the Southern Oregon/Northern California edition at the Real Goods SolFest. I can't think of a more fuel-efficient means of distribution.)”

Q: Green Living is printed locally, with soy based inks and on recycled paper, and that is great, but do you see magazine publishing moving away from tree based paper anytime?

Never say never, but I don't see us abandoning the paper edition any time soon. It's still the best way to present printed information. We've put a lot of effort into reducing our overall carbon footprint, however, from electronic invoicing to posting stories on our website so they are accessible for people who prefer getting their information that way. The whole idea behind our localization strategy is to produce and distribute as efficiently as possible. The backbone of our business are the small, local enterprises who are environmentally responsible. We want the dollars generated to stay right in the community.”

Q: How can any of this be applied to book publishing? Or do you have a different vision for that?

We have a book publishing division called The Public Press. Here the goal is very different from Green Living because we are exploring the economies of scale, but SMALL scale. Our goal is to produce the right amount of product for the demand, and no more. Conventional publishing rewards the economies of large scale and is characterized by extraordinary amounts of waste. We may never have a best-seller, but you won't find our books filling up the landfill either.”

Till next time...