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Walking the Talk – Berrett-Koehler’s President Shares What Makes His Company Tick

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by Darhiana Tellez, IBPA Independent managing editor

Steven Piersanti, Founder & President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Steven Piersanti, Founder & President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers

As founder and president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers in Oakland, California, Steven Piersanti defines success as congruence. He seeks a sense of synchronicity between ideas and practices as well as between intention and reality in terms of the press’s relationship with authors, service providers, sales partners, and employees. Piersanti also strives for congruence between the ideas in the books the press chooses to publish—which tend to focus on helping readers become agents of change in their personal, organizational, and social lives—and how the company is managed.

Such congruence may seem like a tall order, but Berrett-Koehler has been walking the talk since it was founded in 1992 as an “act of hopeful defiance.” The story of its inception is legendary in indie publishing circles. In 1991, Piersanti was leading Jossey-Bass, located in California with corporate ownership based in New York. Even though the company was doing well, corporate headquarters ordered Piersanti to lay off more than 10 percent of the staff. Piersanti refused and was fired himself as a result of his defiance. As word got out, Piersanti was flooded with calls from outraged authors and suppliers, encouraging Piersanti to start his own company. And so he did.

The Berrett-Koehler Way

Given the impetus behind the creation of Berrett-Koehler, it’s no surprise that Piersanti would remain fiercely independent over the years. “Much of what is distinctive, special, and valuable about a company [that gets acquired] is swallowed when it gets integrated into the new, big publishing company,” he says.

So what is it about this little-press-that-could that allowed it to evolve into such a well-respected powerhouse in the indie publishing community? For one, there’s the unapologetic ambition to not just publish books but to make a real difference in the world. Its mission, “Connecting people and ideas to create a world that works for all,” speaks to this sense of purpose.

“We seek to eat our own cooking,” Piersanti says. “We try to learn from the books we publish. We try to put into practice in our own company a lot of the concepts, precepts, and practices that are talked about in our books.”

Another distinctive trait of Berrett-Koehler is its commitment to the concept of stewardship. “We need to operate a publishing company in the interest of all stakeholder groups: our authors, employees, suppliers, service providers, the communities in which we operate, our shareholders, the environment,” he describes. “All the different groups that are creating value in a company need to be part of the equation in terms of making decisions and defining the purpose of the company. The rewards that come about as a result also need to be balanced across all groups.”

This collaborative philosophy means that the company sees its boundaries as very wide. “Some people draw a company’s boundaries around just the owners or employees. We draw the boundaries as all the groups working together to make the company succeed. This includes authors, service providers, customers, shareholders, employees, publishing partners. We try to connect and involve these many groups of people in many ways.”

An example of how the publisher attempts to bring together this rich tapestry of perspectives and priorities is through its strategic-planning process. More than 100 people representing the various stakeholder groups convene for a two-day process to develop its strategic plan for the next few years. “We do tweaks of our strategic plan each year and a full revision every three to five years,” Piersanti says. Berrett-Koehler also likes to involve its communities in constant dialogue. “A lot of times, when we’re considering things, we send out surveys to broad ranges of our community.”

Author-Friendly Approach

Perhaps one of the most innovative ways in which Berrett-Koehler stands out in the marketplace is through its approach to working with authors, evidenced by its Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors document. “Many authors feel that they’re treated like nuisances by publishing companies. They feel that a publishing company signs a contract with them and acts like they own them,” Piersanti says. “We’re trying to make it more of a balanced partnership between the publisher and the author, where both sides are working together in a more egalitarian way to make the book successful.”

Six to eight months prior to launching a book, Berrett-Koehler invites the author to its offices for an “Author Day.” During this day, authors are presented with the opportunity to meet and collaborate with the different staff members across the publishing process from cover design to sales and marketing. Together, they develop a plan for how they’re going to make sure the book is successful. The press publishes 30 to 35 new books, and 5 to 10 new editions of books, per year and hosts an Author Day for every new book.

Berrett-Koehler also has a very unique publication agreement in place which includes a clause granting the author the right to terminate the publication agreement after the book is published if, for any reason, the author is not satisfied with the publisher’s performance in any aspect of publishing and selling the book. “I don’t know any other publisher that has this kind of agreement in place,” Piersanti says. “We’re basically giving the power back to the authors and making the publisher responsible for really performing well.”

A Greater Purpose

As the recipient of the prestigious Champion of Workplace Learning and Performance Award from the Association for Talent Development, Piersanti has earned accolades for his innovative approach to leadership. His company also earned the Organizational Excellence in OD Award from the Organization Development Network. Piersanti encourages other publishers to adopt a more collaborative management style where everyone is viewed as a leader in the organization. “The focus should be on service—serving employees, serving stakeholders—instead of self-interest. There needs to be diversity and inclusion instead of exclusion or privilege.”

More than two decades after Piersanti made the decision to launch his own, decidedly different publishing company, he can look back with pride at Berrett-Koehler’s still unfolding story of success, collaboration, fairness, and impact. “Our biggest accomplishment has been staying true to the values, mission, and purpose of Berrett-Koehler, even as we’ve gone through challenging times in the industry,” he says.

Though Piersanti speaks out candidly about the many challenges facing indie publishers in today’s tumultuous landscape (from oversaturation of the marketplace to shrinking book sales), the rewards of working in this industry are hard to beat. “There aren’t a lot of professions that one can go into where one can make a bigger difference in the world. We can have an impact on what people learn, how they think and do things, what ideas they are exposed to,” he says. “The appeal of the position is the tremendous impact one can have in people’s lives, in society, in our understanding of the world.”

Darhiana Tellez

Darhiana Tellez

Darhiana Mateo Téllez is managing editor of the IBPA Independent. She can be reached at darhiana@ibpa-online.org.

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