The Mission of Patagonia Books » Yale Climate Connections

When Yvon Chouinard, the founder of outdoor clothing and equipment giant Patagonia, announced its decision to donate his $3 billion company to the new nonprofit organization Holdfast Collective in an effort to fight climate change, Yale Climate Connections was both impressed and curious.

How would this change affect the operation of the book that had provided some of the most engaging and intriguing titles YCC has highlighted on its monthly shelves in recent years?

And what made an outdoor clothing company become a publisher?

Yale Climate Connections contacted 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 start.

Below is the transcript of that interview, recorded in late September and edited for brevity and sequencing.

What inspired the manufacturer of quality outdoor clothing and equipment to become a book publisher?

At Patagonia, we have a long tradition of distributing, through our catalogs, essays of 750 to 1,000 words. (The classic, age-old original was The art of clean climbing by Tom Frost in 1972.) Then in 2006, Yvon Chouinard published his business memoirs with Penguin Random House, and it was a great success.

(It’s selling like crazy now too, after it was announced. We’re planning a new edition.)

And that convinced him and others in the company that some things require more than 750 words; they might require 75,000 words. This is how Patagonia started publishing books.

What are the four or five most important titles to establish the press and define its niche?

The first book was a coffee table book: Yosemite in the 1960s (2007). These were the people who created big rock climbing in the 1960s. The next two training books were beyond the mountain (2009) by Steve House, a memoir about what rock climbing has meant to him, and The surf is where you find it (2008), a book by Jerry Lopez, one of the founders of big wave surfing. He writes about the mindset you need to surf.

An underlying theme of these outdoor sports memoirs was love of nature, love of the wilderness. And out of those books emerged what we now call climate change memoirs, because the other thing these people were learning from their time in nature was how climate change changes nature. Among these books would be life lived wild (2021) by Rick Ridgeway, another revered climber, and Inflate (2018), by surfer sailor Liz Clark. More recently, we published the article by Doug Chadwick, then a National Geographic journalist Four fifths a grizzly (2021) in which he explains how his view of nature has changed over the years.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that some of our best-selling titles are intensive workout books, like The New Mountaineering (2014). These books give people enough confidence to go rock climbing, usually on public land, which then leads them to want to protect that land.

How and when did you join Patagonia Books?

I’ve been in the publishing industry for 40 years. I moved to New York after graduating from college and was hired by Putnam. Since then, I have worn several hats. I was the editorial director of a publishing house. I’ve worked for book packaging companies. And I was creative director. In 2012 I had a consultancy, working with small independent publishers on book development, 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 manage their publishing program. So I applied for the job. This is a dream job for me. It’s an amazing, mission-driven company; it’s really a great place to end my career.

When I joined the company, Patagonia had published 12 books. Since then, we’ve released over 60. We’ve accelerated pretty quickly; we started a bunch of projects immediately, and then we started doing five to eight books a year. We maintain this rhythm.

How do you find your authors? (Or how do your authors find you?)

Sometimes we get books on the transom. Some go through book agents and some go through the Patagonia community. Whenever we consider acquiring a title, we ask ourselves why should we publish this book rather than another publisher? What can we bring to make the editorial experience unique or successful? And often, it is the link with the community.

Another way is for someone, sometimes even our CEO, to come to me with an idea. For example, Yvon Chouinard wanted to do a book on salmon and its disappearance. And so with my background in book development, I approached Mark Kurlansky, who writes very well on culinary and 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 feature photography, but text is now more important.

I think we are also moving away from books that are just an expression of sport and more towards titles that reflect the climate crisis and the actions someone can take. Our mission statement is that we are in business to save the home planet. And in the book program, we took that to heart.

I think anyone who has handled one of your books would be impressed with the quality of its production. Salmon (2020), for example, just blew me away with its beautiful binding, photographs, scientific illustrations, and other illustrations. And yet, Patagonia books are modestly priced. How do you handle this feat?

As a publisher, I take full advantage of not having 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 that other publishers have. Books are considered part of Patagonia’s mission, and we realize that if we price books too high, they won’t get into as many people’s hands.

But I should also point out that we sell 40% of our books directly to consumers, through our stores and our website. Because we have the best margin on the books we sell direct, we can offer more attractive prices for all our books so that independent bookstores can also offer them.

And how does Patagonia Books achieve this balance between quality and price while pursuing its very public goals of environmental sustainability?

Again, we have some economies of scale. Patagonia’s wear and equipment catalogs/reviews, like our books, are printed on 100% recyclable paper, and we deal with the same broker for our much, much smaller purchases for books. And because we sell so directly to consumers, we can go for larger print runs and amortize paper and printing costs over more copies. (The average print run is 10,000 copies.)

But sales aren’t the only measure of success. The Gobi Grizzlies (2016) is a perfect Patagonia book. It’s done well in sales, but the real bright spot for Patagonia is that it’s been used very successfully for fundraising. He has generated significant donations for the preservation of these bears.

Where are most of your books printed?

We printed in Asia for a while, but Patagonia pulled out of China entirely due to human rights concerns. Now we print in Canada, and are looking for printers in the United States who can work with 100% post-waste recycled paper. When we contract with a supplier or printer, we review their human impact statement. We look at the inks they use, the chemicals they use in the cleaning process, and more. To that end, we eliminated dust jackets several years ago, starting with Salmon. They just translate to more “hurt books”. We use a plastic laminate on these bare covers, and we don’t like it, but we’ve found that if we don’t, we receive more damaged books. [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 foresee Patagonia Books branching out into any new areas or topics?

Yes, we just published our first children’s book in May, better than new (2022), and we plan to publish more children’s books in the future.

Patagonia works with a company called Bureo. He found a way to create fabric from recycled fishing nets, which we use to make Patagonia’s classic baggy shorts. The book tells how this company persuades local fishermen to recycle their nets and features children who encounter a sea lion tangled in discarded nets.

In addition to children’s books, we’re working on a series of books for young adults, something else we haven’t done before. We also look at social justice and diversity as they relate to environmental issues. And we try to revive and remake out-of-print classics, like Waves and beacheswhich we released in the summer of 2021.

What message would you like to convey to readers of Yale Climate Connections about the future of Patagonia Books?

What most publications don’t do well is mark their books, which makes who publishes the book a factor in the purchasing decision. I try to create a consistent experience from title to title, so you know what you’re going to get. So I would say, “Look to us for great books with great storytelling and a message of hope 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 enjoy nature. And you should vote.

Look to Patagonia Books for beauty, hope and action.

Also see: A 12-title introduction to Patagonia Books