Michelle Alexander discusses her book “The New Jim Crow,” from nonprofit publishing house the new press. Miller Center / CC BY 2.0
Michelle Alexander discusses her book “The New Jim Crow,” from nonprofit publishing house the new press. Miller Center/CC BY 2.0

Diane Wachtell and André Shiffrin, the longtime publishers of Pantheon Books at Random House, founded the New Press in 1990 as a nonprofit publishing house operating in the public interest.

If TNP doesn’t ring a bell, one of its top-selling books might. Originally published in 2010, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” was highly influential in shaping the criminal justice reform movement that’s taken hold over the past decade. While not a bestseller out of the gate, the book went on to become a touchstone, inspiring activists and funders alike. For example, Agnes Gund, who launched the $100 million Art for Justice Fund in 2017 to end mass incarceration, specifically cited the book as an inspiration. At the time, over 900,000 copies of the book were in print.

“The New Jim Crow” took on a second life after the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed. Since May, TNP has reprinted 240,000 copies for the book’s 10th-anniversary edition.

Alexander’s book exemplifies TNP’s mission of examining economic inequality and environmental injustice to “reframe national dialogue and increase understanding about systemic barriers to equity and provide a platform for reaching mass audiences,” said James Phelan, the TNP’s director of development.

Philanthropy has been central to what The Nation’s Victor Navasky called TNP’s “bold experiment in nonprofit, relatively radical book publishing” from the very beginning. Founding funders included the MacArthur Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies.

Earned revenue accounts for about 70% of TNP’s annual budget, with the other 30% coming from contributed sources like grants, individuals and events. Current funders include the MacArthur, Kresge and Lumina foundations, and Gund’s Art For Justice Fund. “The New Jim Crow” was funded most prominently by the Ford Foundation, as well as the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Wallace Action Fund and the Overbrook Foundation.

In early spring, however, all of TNP’s successes hung in the balance as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on the economy. What follows is Phelan’s recollection of how the New Press managed to just stay afloat with support from funders, only to find the public suddenly clamoring for its titles in the midst of a national uprising.

“We Faced an Existential Threat”

In the early stages of the pandemic, brick-and-mortar shops quickly closed. Amazon, which accounts for close to 50% of TNP’s business, halted “non-essential deliveries.” And foundations that had committed to 2020 funding told the publisher that those grants were off the table. TNP, Phelan said, faced an “immediate and existential crisis.”

In response, the publisher created an online bookstore at bookshop.org, implemented austerity measures, imposed a 20% staff furlough and secured a $438,000 CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program loan. It also turned to its broad network of donors.

The publisher convened a core set of high-level funders and individual donors for an April 3 Zoom presentation. The call featured testimony from New Press authors Bill Moyers and Michelle Alexander, along with TNP’s Board Chair Gara LaMarche and Executive Director Diane Wachtell, who walked donors through the publisher’s dire financial predicament.

“Our pitch was our reality,” Phelan told me. “Our business model was under siege by a sudden, nationwide economic collapse, and as an organization serving as a key component of the progressive media ecosystem, we faced an existential threat.”

The call raised $400,000 in emergency support from foundations and individuals, with another $100,000 secured in the wake of the call, for a total of $500,000. “This infusion, along with the $438,000 PPP loan we later secured and various other measures, provided what we felt was enough cash to keep the institution intact through 2020,” Phelan said.

A number of current and former funders, including the JPB Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, stepped up to provide emergency operating support, while other current funders were quick to convert existing grants to general operating support.

“From Famine to Feast”

Phelan attributed TNP’s fundraising success to two key factors. Funders “understood quickly and intuitively that TNP’s high percentage of earned revenue relative to other not-for-profits rendered us uniquely exposed to the marketplace.” TNP also benefited from its position in the nonprofit publishing sector.

“The country does not have multiple public-interest publishers,” he said, “and funders seemed to understand the importance of preserving the infrastructure of an organization that plays a unique role in the progressive media sphere.”

After making the case for emergency funding for several months, TNP suddenly faced a new challenge. After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others sparked nationwide protests, news outlets, commentators and the general public were compelled to dig into the publisher’s deep catalog of titles on criminal and racial justice. There was a huge new audience for books like “The New Jim Crow,” Paul Butler’s “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” and Mica Pollock’s “Everyday Antiracism.”

The response created what Phelan called a “surreal famine-to-feast reversal.” TNP went from the worst months of sales in its history in April and May to the best month of sales in its history in June, with hundreds of thousands of reprint copies queued at the printer to meet surging demand.

TNP received support from two new funders in recent months, the Emerson Collective and the Schmidt Family Foundation. Phelan told me TNP began speaking with these new funders last year, and that the funding arrived “just as the country was buffeted by both COVID-19 and the national protests for racial justice.”

The developments forced Phelan and his team to pivot in the space of three weeks from an emergency funding case to “helping funders understand that continued philanthropic investment is critical if we are to continue publishing ahead of the curve, championing voices and ideas that aren’t yet commercially viable, and helping to expand national conversations on critical issues.”

Drawbacks to the Nonprofit Model

TNP operates in a mid-size nonprofit publishing sector that includes Beacon, Graywolf, Haymarket, Island Press, Coffee House, and Milkweed Editions. Each publisher operates in the range of $5 million-$10 million in annual revenues. What they all have in common, Phelan said, “is a very clear sense of mission, and this mission is what allows them to fundraise effectively, using contributed revenue to fill the gap between sales revenue and expenses.”

For-profit publishers navigating a market dominated by Amazon and stunted by COVID-19 may find this approach appealing, and they wouldn’t be alone. All across the country, for-profit newspapers have been exploring ways to migrate to a nonprofit model and avert the cost-costing wrath of their hedge fund overlords. The idea here is that a mixed-revenue model combining earned income and donations could provide these organizations with a path to sustainability. I asked Phelan if this is a viable option for for-profit publishers.

“While the concept of ‘changing the narrative’ is very in vogue in funding circles these days, this has yet to translate to an embrace of book publishing by most philanthropic organizations,” he said. “Hope springs eternal!” Phelan said a for-profit house considering the nonprofit route should identify “what aspects of their mission are good matches with existing program areas at foundations, or might appeal to major donors.”

If the publisher makes a successful transition, leadership will confront an array of new challenges. For instance, Phelan said that the head of the organization should be prepared to spend at least half of their time on fundraising and to invest in professional development staff on top of a standard publishing staff.

Another challenge for nonprofit book publishers is the fact that publishing timelines typically do not sync well with foundation funding timelines. “Books are slow media,” Phelan said. “Five years elapsed from the time Michelle Alexander signed a contract to write ‘The New Jim Crow’ and received an advance against royalties, to the time the book was published.”

Phelan argues that those immersed in nonprofit publishing as well as those contemplating it would benefit by calling for more general operating support from funders. “This would make reporting significantly less onerous and cleaner, would save organizations from having to carry restricted revenue on their balance sheets, and would be more respectful of the substantial amount of time it takes to bring a meaningful book into the world,” he said.

TNP co-founder and Executive Director Diane Wachtell provided a blunter assessment for those considering making the transition to a nonprofit model. “Overlaying the challenges of a nonprofit mindset and 501(c)(3) bookkeeping on top of the standard publishing challenges is like playing chess in three dimensions—not for the faint of heart.”

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