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Innovation Keeps This Press Rolling: Sourcebooks Knows Its Niche, Marries Books with CDs, Web

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Innovation Keeps This Press Rolling: Sourcebooks Knows Its Niche, Marries Books with CDs, Web

by Ted Pincus

I never cease to be amazed how some entrepreneurs surmount the most formidable of odds purely through innovative ideas and guerrilla tactics.

Today’s case in point: Dominique Raccah doesn’t know we’re sliding into a recession and her publishing industry is littered with walking wounded.

By thinking way, way outside the box, she’s built Sourcebooks Inc. into a $50 million publisher that’s now among the nation’s top 20 independents. Although she turns out over 200 titles and 4.5 million books per year, she still is the sole owner and lives in the same Naperville house where she founded the company on $17,000 in savings 20 years ago.

In an era when book publishers and bookstores are dying in droves as the reading public becomes increasingly hooked on the Web, her Naperville company’s not only thriving but is over twice as large as in 2004, and she sees more than 15 percent further growth this year.

What’s the magic formula? It’s creative differentiation and niche focus, says the 50-year-old mother of three. “You must become an intense student of your marketplace. In ours, we recognized early that all books are returnable by the retailers, and you must reinvent yourself every season. So we elected at the outset to mainly issue books that are on the so-called backlist—books that are not hot fad followers but are read, and re-read and referenced as evergreen classics, and can be updated with fresh information each year.”

For example, she saw the groundswell of interest in college selection and created the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which today ranks as the No. 1 such guidebook in the U.S. Her alliance with U.S. News & World Report—pioneer of college rankings—led to a contract to publish all the books issued by that magazine. Her law school guide and med school guide are also No. 1. Similarly, her Sphinxseries is the largest selling resource for legal guidelines on a U.S. regional basis, as are her books on trusts, wills and other categories.

But where Sourcebooks’ innovation really shines is in topics with broad consumer appeal. Its “Complete Book of Baby Names” is another No. 1. Its Casablanca series of romance fiction and self-help books is soaring, as are its books on parenting. It has been the leading pioneer of mixed-media publishing, beginning with We Interrupt This Broadcast . . . , which featured text and CD audio of the 20th century’s most historic moments, as reported on radio. That was followed by Poetry Speaks, which offered text and actual voices on CD of great poets like Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot reading their own verse.

“This was followed by Poetry Speaks Expanded for which we worked seven years to convince the descendants of James Joyce to let us bring his art to life in his own recorded words,” says Raccah.

Then there’s Sourcebooks-Shakespeare which features renowned actors like Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacoby performing 14 plays in text, photos and CD audio.

Rather than fight trends, Raccah sometimes joins ’em. She next conceived of marrying books to the Web in a special way. Her Media Fusion series has over 100 titles now, including one on Mozart, coordinated with a Web site offering 20 hours of his music.

Ideas like these have catapulted Raccah’s enterprise into the front ranks that no publisher of her size has attained—like a spot on the New York Times best-seller list nine times in the past decade. The ninth was just two weeks ago with I Love You More, a children’s picture book that is the latest in her Jabberwocky series. Its multimedia Poetry Speaks to Children was a best seller two years ago. That was in the wake of hits like And The Crowd Goes Wild, The First Lady, Jefferson’s Great Gamble, Conscious Cuisine, and others by high-profile authors including Dan Rather, George Stephanopolous and Walter Cronkite. Coming out this month, she tells me, are The Entitled, Frank Deford’s tale of modern baseball, and Churchill’s Triumph by Michael Dobbs, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Raccah, who emigrated with her family from Paris in 1964, earned a master’s at University of Illinois at Chicago and started her mind percolating at Leo Burnett here, isn’t content with just the nation’s largest female-owned publishing house. Last year, she acquired seven small publishers, among them Champion Press, and hopes to double her output to 9 million copies in four years.

What’s the next hot topic? Childhood obesity, she says. “It’s becoming an epidemic.” And for Sourcebooks, that could be more fat of the land.

As published in The Chicago Sun-Times. Copyright 2008 by The Chicago Sun-Times LLC. Reprinted with permission. Ted Pincus can be reached at theopincus@hotmail.com.



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