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Dare to Dream – Berrett-Koehler Aims to Transform Work

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The call came down from mogul Robert Maxwell. All units in his Macmillan empire must reduce headcounts by a specified percentage. Steven Piersanti said no. As the president and CEO of Macmillan’s Jossey-Bass and the founder of its notably profitable Business and Management series he was unwilling to fire his quota — eight people — at an imprint where profits were up 46%. Predictably, he himself got fired.

That was 10 years ago. Today, Piersanti and his colleagues are celebrating the 10th anniversary of his Berrett-Koehler Publishers company, which opposes “the corporate way of looking at the world” or, to put it more positively, supports “the movement toward a more enlightened world of work” and “more humane and effective organizations.”

The day after he left Jossey-Bass, Piersanti remembers, he began getting calls from authors and suppliers who wanted to pitch in if he founded his own firm. “I had so many offers of help,” he says, “that it made sense to go in that direction.” To name his new company, Piersanti and his wife made lists of family surnames and tried them out on various people in various combinations (his great-grandmother and her grandparents won). To structure it, he altered the traditional balance of power in business.

Redefining Publishing Partnerships

“I just couldn’t accept the idea that one stakeholder group should be calling all the shots,” Piersanti says, explaining that he was strongly committed “from Day One” to making authors and others truly partners with publishers. Somewhat to his surprise (“I had thought our books would be more like what we’d done at JosseAAAAss”), the manuscripts authors were sending reflected this mindset, so that the fledgling company’s “list followed from the nature of the operation.”

Even the Berrett-Koehler catalogs reflect its ideology. Their inside back covers list staffers (who currently number 18 and who appear alphabetically rather than hierarchically) and they also list scores of people who are not “formally on the staff” but who play “a crucial role in our success” through their work on marketing, sales, printing, warehousing, shipping, production, editorial and design matters, electronic publishing, and business and administrative services.

Author-partners are, of course, featured throughout each catalog, and apparently enthusiastic about the collaborative process. All 10 of Berrett-Koehler’s top-selling authors had or have new books or new editions coming from the press in 2001-2002 and several are explicit about why they come back. David C. Korten’s encomium echoes many others. Author of When Corporations Rule the World (more than 90,000 copies sold) and The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism (sales over 25,000), Korten explains: “I publish with Berrett-Koehler because you set a standard for integrity, professionalism, and author support without equal in the industry, Few experiences in my life have equaled the joy and sense of accomplishment that have come from the experience of working with the total support of such an exceptionally dedicated and talented editorial, design, and marketing team.”

Autonomy for Authors and Others

What accounts for this level of enthusiasm? It’s certainly not front money. Berrett-Koehler doesn’t pay advances, although it has a royalty structure that is “reasonably competitive” compared with other publishers of business books and attractive enough to get agents to approach. And it’s not just the fact that the authors aren’t treated as nuisances either, although many writers cite the contrast with that treatment at much bigger houses.

Perhaps the “multi-channel marketing strategy” is part of the explanation (Berrett-Koehler aims to “give each book multiple ways to find its market” via bookstore sales, rights sales, online promotion, media publicity, direct mail promotion, sales at conferences and meetings, sales through association book services and other resellers, catalog sales, corporate sales, and sales through a network of foreign distributors around the world). But the best answer probably relates to the depth of author involvement, shown clearly by Author Day and the Author Council.

The author of every Berrett-Koehler book is invited to spend a full day at the company, working with staffers from every department on the launch of the book and presenting information about it in a lunch-time talk. Moreover, as “stakeholders” in the enterprise, authors gather from time to time to brainstorm about promotion, collaboration, mentoring and more. The first Author Council, a three-day retreat in California in the fall of 1999, drew 29 writers from across the country who paid their own way and who reportedly described the experience with words such as “inspiring, fun, connecting, community building and enriching.” This year, another Author Council will take place in Santa Fe in March.

Like its authors, staff members at Berrett-Koehler have options that gibe with its emphasis on “a more enlightened world of work.” Piersanti himself has worked mostly out of a home office since the beginning and he reports that several other staffers also work at home at least part of the time. “We’re a nerve center,” he says; “Our real competency is the ability to pull together all these resources and get books to happen out there in the world.’

Idealism minus Illusions

But if Piersanti is proud of the way his company lives its mission, he is also a steely-eyed critic of its accomplishments. However progressive it may seem, his working at home is “problematic,” he says, and mostly a matter of personal preference. If he could begin again, he would do “tons of things differently,” being especially sure to set up systems early on and to avoid frittering resources away on initiatives like a short-lived booklet and pamphlet division. During the past few years, the house has suffered reverses in its direct mail operation as its core customers took to ordering from major Internet booksellers. Diverting direct mail dollars to publicity helps, Piersanti notes, but nonetheless and for a variety of reasons “we have to run harder to get the same margins.”

 

Yes, the year 2001 was “excellent,” Piersanti says, with sales up 18% to $5.5 million, and sales for 2002 promise to top $6 million. And yes, the company’s track record is impressive. One out of every ten books it publishes sells more than 100,000 copies, Piersanti reports; four have sold more than 200,000; the choosy distributor Publishers Group West; represents its list to the trade; many of its titles — including Leadership and the New Science by Margaret J. Wheatley (with sales over 250,000 and translations into twelve languages) and Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest by Peter Block (with sales over 150,000 and translations into six languages) — have “opened up new space” and spawned powerful trends; feedback continually shows “enormous impact.”

 

But when he’s asked about the company’s success, Piersanti answers in terms of a world far wider than his independent publishing house or the entire publishing industry. And in that context, there’s no blinking the fact that the mission is far from accomplished. There’s been “a great deal of backsliding in the world in terms of our agenda” since the mid-’90s and through last year, he observes, with the “bottom-line agenda overpowering everything else.” Although he thinks the trend may change in the wake of September 11, he fears that “the corporate way of looking at the world has taken over” and he sees Berrett-Koehler fighting a “rear-guard action” as the house enters its second decade. Discouraged but not daunted, he’s of the view that “maybe we’ve kept hope alive.””We are lighting fires in the mind,” he says, “waiting for embers to re-ignite.”

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