We already long-respected the company for plenty of good reasons; now one more:
Hope and action: The mission of Patagonia Books
Philanthropy has been a part of Patagonia Books’ mission and operations from the beginning, says Director Karla Olson.
When Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor wear and gear giant Patagonia, announced his decision to donate his $3-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…
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