Karla Olson: We measure community impact before book sales

June 12, 2020

Though you may recognize Patagonia for the clothes, the catalog, or the overall strength of the brand, Books Director Karla Olson says the company has always had a rich storytelling tradition. Founder Yvon Chouinard climbed six months out of the year and came back with his own stories for the company to publish. Karla thinks his 2006 memoir, Let My People Go Surfing, convinced the company that there are some stories that can’t be told in a 750-word essay in the catalog. Patagonia officially started publishing books in 2007.

When did you join Patagonia Books? How does it fit into the rest of the company? 

I joined the company in 2012. The company had already published 12 books and they knew that it was a good way of communicating with our community and beyond. I often say that the books can go where the clothes can’t go, into bookstores. The books are a good branding tool as well, although we are very careful not to over-communicate our brand. I think we actually end up taking out mentions of Patagonia. We just let the story be the thing that convinces the reader that this is an issue they need to care about, or we let it entertain them in some way.

The goal of the publishing program is to educate people, inspire people, and encourage people to become involved with outdoor places and public lands. We’ve published 50 books, and if you look at them through that lens, they might look really disparate in the beginning, but you start to see that connection.  

What is the goal of this book? What are we trying to get someone to do by reading this book? That is a direct action. They’re going to care about the river system. They’re going to go outside and climb outside on public lands so that they are involved in the fight for public lands. They’re going to learn how to be more effective at environmental activism. They’re going to be encouraged to start a business that has social responsibility involved. Those are all goals that we articulate at the beginning of a project. 

From the background you’ve given on Patagonia, it seems like storytelling was a part of it from the very beginning and it’s only developed from there.

From the very beginning. What do climbers do after they’re done climbing? They sit around the campfire and tell stories about what happened that day or what they’ve done in the past. Surfers do the same thing. When they’re floating around in the water, they “talk story.” If you look at other sports like trail running, they’d commune at the end of a long run. Fly fishing is another one that we’re very involved in. The big fish story, right? These sports are all richly imbued with the storytelling tradition. Not that that’s how we choose the sports that we support, but it is something that connects them all.

How big is your team at Patagonia Books?

There’s only the two of us on the books team, but then we have various partners from other Patagonia departments. Most of our books are fully illustrated, so every book has a photo editor assigned from our photo department. We have a production manager who we work with to get the books printed and schedule everything. And we have a book designer as well as an art director, who comes from the catalog world, to make sure that the books are aligning with the overall aesthetic of the Patagonia brand. There’s usually five or six people on any given team depending on the needs of the book.

How do the print products like books and the catalog connect to other editorial, including the stories on the blog?

We’re getting more digital material. The stories are being repurposed or we’re encouraging people to come to our website to get the same storytelling [in shorter form]. We just flipped to this new website model a couple of months ago, which is featuring more stories.

We believe that people get involved in a subject through storytelling more readily than just a straight article or facts. And so we do that on our website, we do that on our catalogs. We’re doing fewer catalogs just because of the environmental impact. We’re doing more digital outreach, which is the way people are interacting with things anyway.

Is it difficult for the different editorial teams to make sure they all connect and align with the brand story?

The funniest thing about that is that the books are planned much further in advance than the catalog. I’d like to tell you that books drive the marketing throughout the campaigns of the catalog, but that’s not true.

We do align as much as possible. Although I have to say that the books are allowed to be acquired in a little bit more of an independent fashion, but we do align the books that we acquire very carefully with the goals of the company. And the goals of the company are articulated several years in advance. 

For instance, I knew a couple of years ago that the company was really going to try to help the movement in regenerative agriculture. There’s lots of editorial campaigns in the catalogs and storytelling about that. Therefore, I went out and actually sought to develop a book on the subject with different goals than other books that are out there.

A lot of my background has been in book packaging, which has been a real benefit to doing this job. The connections that I brought are not as important as the skills that I have to think about a project and then bring the people to it that can complete that project with the goals in mind. 

I pinpoint an author [or Patagonia ambassador] who I believe can tell the story that we want to tell in the way we want to tell it. Instead of having them come to me with a book project, I go to them and say, we think you can write a book on this subject, let’s develop it together.

Very seldom does a proposal come across the transom and I pick it up. Once in a while, but usually it’s a bit more involved than that to get to the process where we’re actually accepting a project.

Is there an average development cycle length through these books?

I think the longest is I contracted a book right away when I started in 2012, and we finally published it in 2018. 

The writing can take three, five years. Ideally, it takes two years or a year. The development process, once we get the manuscript, generally takes 18 months. That’s long for publishing. 

The company is very understanding. If anything, “Let’s not do it fast, let’s do it right,” is our motto. I’ve tried to shorten it up but every single time I’m proven wrong that it’s better just to give it the time it needs.

I would expect that book sales are the major measure of content success for the company.

Not necessarily. This is where we’re a little bit different because we’re not a traditional publishing company. Book sales are a factor that we watch, but the things that I share more often have more to do with the dialogue that’s created or the community that gathers around a book. 

Our bestselling book is called Training for the New Alpinism, which is for people who climb very intensely, what they call light and fast. You're climbing high mountains over 8,000 meters, you get to a base camp and then you climb very quickly with very little equipment to get to the summit and you have to train very intensely to do that. There’s probably about 3,000 people in the world that actually do it, but we’ve sold about 75,000 copies of the book.

What we’re trying to do with that book is get people out of the climbing gym and confident enough to climb outside, because if they climb outside, they’re going to be climbing most likely on public lands. And then they’ll realize that if these public lands go away, they’re not going to have anywhere to play. So they’re going to become involved in the fight for public lands.  

Another bestselling book that we’ve done is called Tools for Grassroots Activists, which is a book that is about best practices for environmental groups. The book has sold fine, but Black Friday 2018 we sent out an email and said, if you would like a copy of this book, we’re giving it away for free. We got 24,000 downloads. We didn’t make any money, but that was a huge success for Patagonia in terms of getting the information into people’s hands.

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