Well-Read Purpose: Inside Patagonia's Growing Book Business

In purpose-driven marketing, Patagonia is in a class by itself, especially since its founders recently donated the $3 billion company to a foundation committed to protecting the planet. In a content mix that includes plenty of conventional media and video messages, the company's 15-year-old book publishing division plays a key role. Karla Olson, director of publishing, tells Retail Insider what's behind its publishing strategy.

Retail Insider: Why books? What's an apparel brand doing in the publishing business?

Karla Olson:We have been telling stories since our first catalog in 1973. And then, a few things happened to make Patagonia realize that not all stories can be told in 750 words. Some need 75,000. One catalyst was when Yvon Chouinard, our founder, wrote "Let My People Go Surfing," first published in 2006 by Penguin Random House. That's been a great partnership, and they're still publishing the book.

We're doing a revised edition, bringing it up to date with the new business model in 2024.

The book resonated so broadly with our community that we realized it would be valuable to use longer-form content on issues that are important to us and to differentiate the brand from other outdoor retailers.

Retail Insider: But why books at all? They require trees, and so many things can be done digitally.

Olson: Everything we print is on 100% post-consumer-waste recycled paper. And we create beautiful books while doing that. People like paper books. Over the last decade or so, sales of e-books throughout the industry have settled at about 25%. We offer e-books and audiobooks, too.

Retail Insider: None of your competitors -- or for that matter, any brand I can think of -- has a division like this.

Olson: That means I have the best publishing job on the planet! Many brands think people don't read books anymore. We know they do. And we want to use books to inspire and activate them to take action to protect the earth.

Retail Insider: It's easy to see how books enhance Patagonia's credibility, and you've grown to include 60 titles. What's in it for authors, as opposed to going with conventional publishers?

Olson: A question we ask about every book is, "Why should Patagonia publish this?" It usually involves connecting with our community on issues we're already promoting.

Retail Insider: What kind of books are you publishing?

Olson: In the early days, our books were pretty sports-specific. And our best seller is still "Training for the New Alpinism." It's for people who do what's called light and fast climbing. They drop everything at base camp and charge uphill for about 24 hours. About 3,000 people in the world probably do this, but 75,000 have bought the book and aspire to it.

Another is "The Responsible Company," which has sold 60,000 copies. We're doing a revised edition now to reflect our new business model. "Surf Is Where You Find It," first published in 2009 and written by legendary surfer Gerry Lopez, is another.

Retail Insider: Are books sold in Patagonia stores?

Olson: We sell between 50% and 60% of our books through traditional book-distribution channels. And then the other 40% of the books are sold through our stores, website and relationships with wholesale outdoor retailers.

Retail Insider: Do your books promote the apparel brand?

Olson: No. We go out of our way not to promote our brand. If an author wrote that they crawled into their Patagonia sleeping bag, we'd take that out. We tell great stories in an agnostic way.

Retail Insider: Books go out of date fast, especially in the fast-changing world of climate science.

Olson: We publish broader evergreen topics so they stay relevant. And a good illustration is that recently we've republished "Waves and Beaches," originally published in the late 1960s, adding information about climate change. It's doing well. And then, in February, we published "The Forest Journey," first published in 1986. It's updated and tells the story of civilization through the lens of trees. It's a foundational environmental text and shouldn't have been hard to find.

Retail Insider: As an academic field, climate change didn't exist when Patagonia started. How scientific do you want your books to be?

Olson: We've found alliances with the people doing the work on the ground, but more important is making the material as accessible as possible. So we hook scientists up with journalists who are great storytellers. We recently published "Sweet in Tooth and Claw," written by an environmental journalist who follows the ways species work together to thrive.

Retail Insider: What are some of the projects you're hoping to land?

Olson: Books for teens that encourage activism. We want to harness some of their anger, frustration and depression about the environment. I'm also looking to address the changing perception of fashion and self-expression through clothing. A book we didn't win is about the fight to remove dams on the Klamath River in Oregon. That's a bummer. We could have done something special. It went to Harper Collins.

Retail Insider: About those teens. I don't think of them as a natural demographic for you.

Olson: We are speaking more directly to them, which you can see in our "Facing Extinction" campaign and our "You scare them" voter drive. And our Worn Wear division, selling used clothes, is helping us gain visibility.

Retail Insider: Patagonia has become an intensely activist brand. How do books fit?

Olson: I've been here 11 years, and we have gotten more politically forward and specific. We've endorsed candidates and encouraged voting. And while our books can have many goals, one is always to inform our audience so they vote.

We've got a book coming out on regenerative agriculture. One of the goals is to help people know what's in the Farm Bill and why they should care.

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