Nion McEvoy, 60, has steadily built a media empire that currently includes Chronicle Books, 7×7, and California Home and Design Magazine, all of which are stylishly housed in one building near the Giant’s ballpark. At Chronicle Books, McEvoy is the chairman, CEO and owner. He is a descendant of M.H. de Young, who founded the San Francisco Chronicle and was the co-founder of San Francisco’s cotillion ball for debutantes. Chronicle Books is a separate entity from the media outlet and McEvoy bought and took over Chronicle Books in 1999. McEvoy is trained as an attorney and also has a hand in McEvoy Olive Oil, which was started by his mother Nan McEvoy and is known as much for its peppery olive oils as it is for its annual harvest celebration for 500 luminaries and friends.
Having Chronicle Books based in San Francisco is interesting on many fronts: the publishing industry has historically set up shop and celebrated itself on the east coast. The company’s catalog is rich with books on cooking and food, but there’s also music (Beatles fans take note), art and photography, kids books, gardening and fiction titles as well as the world’s cutest dog with over three million Facebook fans, Boo. Boo potentially manages to charm even those who normally find small dogs to be sort of lame and annoying (guilty!). Chronicle Books reflects local excellence with successful titles that include Miette, Tartine, Tartine Bread, Bottega by Michael Chiarello, Simply Organic by Jesse Ziff Cool, and the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook, according to Sarah Billingsley, who is Associate Editor at Chronicle Books. Food titles with national reach include the bestselling Cake Pops as well as Weber’s Big Book of Grilling and the vegetable-focused book Plenty. Bay Area Bites interviewed McEvoy, Billingsley and Peter Perez, who is Associate Marketing Director, Food & Drink/Art Publishing at Chronicle Books. Their comments have been condensed for clarity.
Bay Area Bites: What’s new with Chronicle Books?
McEvoy: We were really blown away by Cake Pops by Bakerella. The sales numbers are pretty insane and it’s been a huge success.
The sun was out more often than not last year and we had a good year. Over the last decade, the world of publishing has been troubled, anxious and confused yet we’ve always been profitable.
Perez: It’s really exciting that we’re putting out the Yigit Pura cookbook. He’s opening Tout Sweet at Macy’s any day now and he’s such a lovely chef.
Bay Area Bites: How did that come about?
Perez: Here’s a good piece of local gossip: Yigit knows Frankie Frankeny and Frankie’s wife Chloé Harris Frankeny through the Marriage Equality movement. The book idea was from them organically talking in a way that’s more closely knit rather than just an agent’s proposal arriving on our desk.
Bay Area Bites: What role does social media play at Chronicle Books?
McEvoy: The biggest food app that people rely on is Instagram. Everyone relies on what they saw and ate and everyone here is in love with it. We have a huge Pinterest culture and find authors there. So much of social media is relational and about discovering.
Perez: We were early adapters to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest and find neat ways to get people’s response. We’re really conscientious of being tastemakers and trend watchers; we’ve been publishing for over 25 years.
The most primal thing that’s been going on now close to five years is that we have a regular food based blog post weekly. I’ll write it or I often get our authors to guest blog. One of our best selling authors is Bakerella — and we’re approaching a million copies with her book. When she’s a guest blogger for us, it’s mutually beneficial. It’s not paid placement and it’s really through the social experience online.
For the blog, usually there’s a recipe embedded to give people a connection to the book. We share recipes, and it’s a PDF that you absolutely have permission to keep that content. Or we do Q&As and quizzes that get a huge response. We’ll do a crowd source kind of thing, where we use Instagram for hashtags and say, “Tell us your favorite ice cream flavor.” We published Humphry Slocombe and they have over 300K Twitter followers. We let the author be a judge, and select who we pick.
There’s more behind the scenes and context on why we published the book. When we do giveaways, it’s to get people to comment and instigate a response. We have a lot more readers than commentators. We’re trying to engage and not be hard hitting with, “Buy our books.” We know people love our books for a reason and we publish things we really believe in. It’s not just a crass commercial operation.
Bay Area Bites: Why keep Chronicle Books in San Francisco?
McEvoy: I’ve always thought that one of the advantages is there isn’t that much publishing in San Francisco so you don’t go out and have drinks on the town and run into folks. It’s an interesting world we live in out here. My kids are so into Facebook and I just see a world where we get increasingly digital and fast-paced and non-material. At the same time we have Slow Food and caring about where the chicken went to high school. We are increasingly interested in the physical and sensuous real world as a counterbalance to how much time we spend in our little screens and boxes. We are in fact all mammals and it’s under reported how much we like things.
Bay Area Bites: Nion, what’s your involvement with McEvoy olive oil & what’s the story there?
McEvoy: My mom used to say, “Sometimes I think in my last incarnation I was a medieval farmer because I love olive oil and bread so much.”
Mom got the property in Marin and thought it’d be a nice place for my kids. Marin wouldn’t let her do anything unless it was with an agricultural purpose and she thought olives. I introduced her to Maggie Klein’s book The Feast of the Olive and then to Italian olive expert Maurizio Caselli. Maurizio looked at it and said “Oh yes, perfect.” Then my mom imported seedlings from different Tuscan varietals and planted her first crop with olive trees. She’s 93 now and does not make all the executive decisions so I get pulled in to help out. Our little marketing dept Christina Cavallaro and Jane Steele–who both worked at Chronicle Books at one time– thought it’d be good to go into lotions and skin care products for our 80 Acres line. We had to learn that from scratch. Then a few years ago we released our 1st scent/flavor called verde. Then after that, we did lavender and blood orange. Those have been dramatically successful and now sell in Harrod’s. The relation between olive oil and Chronicle Books is that both companies share a love for high quality and the beautiful and sensuously pleasing.
Bay Area Bites: Nion, what is your guiltiest food pleasure?
McEvoy: Caramel and sea salt ice cream from Whole Foods. I’m not that susceptible to junk food but I am susceptible to food.
Chronicle Books is having a Back To School Warehouse Sale, where you can save 65% on select titles. Peter Perez recommends arriving early for the best deals and selection.
WHERE: Chronicle Books Corporate Headquarters ONLY
680 Second Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
WHEN: Wednesday, August 22, 9:00 am-7:00 pm
Thursday, August 23, 9:00 am-7:00 pm
Friday, August 24, 9:00 am-7:00 pm