Sourcebooks’ Fall 2002 trade catalog begins with an unusual mission statement: “Our sole goal is to help authors be heard.” Authors? Most publishers’ mission statements focus on books or readers. But spend an hour with Sourcebooks Founder and President Dominique Raccah and you’ll realize this mission statement is a mantra for the feisty Midwest publisher and her fast-growing company which celebrated its 15th anniversary this fall.
Raccah made time for an interview just before Thanksgiving. It was a chilly day, with light snow floating outside the windows of Sourcebooks’ offices in Naperville, Illinois, about an hour west of Chicago.
Q: You must be frantic. This is the busiest season in your busiest year ever.
Raccah: Frantic? No. I’m happy. I’m very happy.
Q: With your phenomenal growth, do you spend your whole day putting out fires?
Actually it’s not like that anymore. I’ve surrounded myself with great staff, and it’s less stressful than it used to be.
Q: How do you manage to recruit top employees to chilly Chicago?
Raccah: People love working here because they get to do their own thing. We have a flat hierarchy, and everyone has a lot of responsibility. Recruiting has not been a problem. You know we just got Jack Perry, don’t you–the Vice President of Sales for Random House?
After the Advance
Q: You credit an emphasis on promoting authors for Sourcebooks’ success. What do you do differently than other publishers?
Raccah: We treat authors as our clients. Maybe that goes back to my days at Leo Burnett. We consider ourselves promoters of talent, much as a record company would be with a recording artist, or an art gallery with a painter. Authors who’ve been published in New York like the attention they get here. It’s not a cold, anonymous process.
Q: Can you compete with the advances paid in New York?
Raccah: I think our advances are fair but the difference is we pay royalties. Authors are used to never seeing anything after the advance. We pay a smaller advance, but we pay out plenty in royalties. You should see the size of the royalty checks that go out of here. I’ve made a lot of money for authors, and they’ve made money for me. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not a touchy-feely “I like authors” thing–but we really see our business as developing authors’ careers. We’re author-oriented, not book-oriented.
Q: Can you afford that? Do you sign them to long-term contracts?
Raccah: Absolutely. Most of our deals are for three to five books. We don’t want our authors going anywhere. They should either be writing or promoting, and that’s it. We do extensive media training with them, and our publicity department books speaking engagements, but we don’t take a cut of speaking fees. I’ll tell you what happens though. There’s something about those royalty checks that builds a different relationship with authors than an advance-only arrangement. They feel more like partners, like part of a team, and that’s how we feel about them.
Q: Sourcebooks is known for obsessive promotion. On average, how many review copies do you give away in the first year for a new release?
Raccah: It’s staggering. You don’t want to know. I don’t want to know. It’s not unusual for us to give away 3,000 or 4,000 copies. Sometimes more.
Q: A lot of publishers are upset seeing their review copies being auctioned online. Has it affected Sourcebooks or your review copy policy?
Raccah: It drives me nuts. We’re tracking that very closely now. We’re definitely marking review copies as “not for sale,” and we’re trying to get to the source of who is selling them.
[subhead] Managing the Money
Success has killed more publishers than failure. How do you finance such rapid growth?
It’s all about cash. I don’t believe in debt. We got into debt once and I got us out of it. Debt can kill you. If you’re deciding between growth and debt, my advice is to grow slower. It’s hard to keep debt under control. You have to know how you’re going to finance one bad quarter, or two bad quarters. The industry is getting tougher, and one bad decision can wipe you out.
Q: So you focus on the cash flow statement, and ignore the profit and loss?
Raccah: I work off the balance sheet, actually. I use balance sheet ratios, and I monitor them closely. I’d have to say the one mistake made by most small publishers is that they don’t know their numbers–they can’t tell if they’re making money or losing money.
Q: According to a survey just released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, women hold only 22% of the executive positions in top publishing companies–despite the fact that women buy and write most of the books sold in the U.S. Has your gender created more opportunities or obstacles for Sourcebooks?
Raccah: It was definitely an obstacle the first 10 years. Until you’re a proven entity, you’re a nonentity and I think people have an easier time dismissing women. Over the last five years, however, we’ve become a major force in publishing. Today, being female is an advantage because it helps me stand out.
In Tricky Territory
Q: In 2001, Sourcebooks entered the risky market of commercial fiction. Has that worked out for you?
Raccah: It hasn’t been an unequivocal success, but we’ve done OK. My mentors–the other publishers I turn to for advice–were full of gloom and doom. Everyone thought it was a bad move. But they helped me think through some of the problems in advance. And it’s helped that we started with well-known authors.
Q: Has publishing fiction required a different marketing style than Sourcebooks’ no-holds-barred approach to nonfiction?
Raccah: The main difference is the longer lead time required for fiction. You have to be out earlier with galleys; you can’t just come up with a hot topic and get it out there. But we’ve come up with a few innovative techniques, including a pre-tour tour with Michael Malone before his novel The Last Noel was in the stores. It made a big difference. Booksellers loved Malone and remembered him. They bought the book and we toured him again.
Q: Another risk you’ve taken is multimedia. Many big publishers lost their jackets in multimedia, yet your MediaFusion imprint is on a roll, first with Joe Garner’s And The Crowd Goes Wild: Relive the Most Celebrated Sporting Events Ever Broadcast, which has sold over half a million units, and then with the anthology Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets Read their Work from Tennyson to Plath. Was it pricing? Packaging?
Raccah: The key is the product, not the pricing. A lot of publishers were just stuffing a disk in a book, but these are integrated products. The text and the disk are developed together. The Lenny Bruce biography has done very well too. I think it’s the first biography done in multimedia, but it won’t be the last.
Q:Poetry Speaks must have been a permissions nightmare. Do you have any advice for other publishers considering an ambitious anthology project?
Raccah: They’d better be prepared for the long haul. Poetry Speaks took five years to put together, and a lot of money and elbow grease. We had to negotiate three or four rights contracts for a single poem–the written work, the audio, photos, territorial rights… We ended up with 120 permissions for 40 pieces. It takes stamina to publish anthologies. But then publishing as a whole requires stamina.
Q:Inc. Magazine rated you one of the fastest growing companies in America. Do you have any plans to slow down, to conserve cash?
Raccah: We’re buying a bunch of companies right now. Wait until you see us next year.
Steve O’Keefe is the Executive Director of Patron Saint Productions, Inc., a publishing consultancy (www.patronsaintpr.com). His latest book is “Complete Guide to Internet Publicity” (Wiley, 2002). Please send comments or suggestions for PMA’s Publishing Profiles to firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2002 by Steve O’Keefe