Johanna Vondeling is Vice President, Editorial and Digital, of Berrett-Koehler Publishers in San Francisco. B-K is an independent publisher founded in 1992. In every aspect of its business, in its corporate organization, in its company culture, in its acquisitions, and in its relationship to authors, B-K has marched to the beat of a different drummer. Is there something that the rest of the book business can learn from their experience? One thing is for sure. Their business model has been extremely successful. They’ve published over 350 new books since BK was founded, and all but about 20 of these books are still in print. More than 125 have sold over 20,000 copies, 31 have sold over 100,000 copies, and four have sold over 500,000 copies, including sales of all U.S. and foreign editions.
Johanna, can you tell us something about yourself? How long have you been in publishing? Have you always been in editorial? Didn’t you come from a publishing family?
My first paid job in publishing was with my hometown local weekly newspaper, Today’s Post. I hit them up for a summer internship when I was 14, and they hired me when I was 15. (They didn’t know how young I was and told me later they probably wouldn’t have hired me if they had.) I started out doing obituaries and pet stories, and I wrote and edited for them for several summers. At Yale, I edited one of the university’s several literary magazines, and one summer I worked as an unpaid summer intern for the San Francisco-based ZYZZYV. After I graduated, I was lucky (in a very down economy) to get a job as editorial assistant in the college English department at W. W. Norton. In 1998, Jossey-Bass hired me as an editorial assistant and eventually an editor, and I worked there for six years. I’ve been an editor at Berrett-Koehler since 2004. I’ve always been in editorial, but, as all editors know, the job also comes with a lot of marketing responsibilities.
My father, John Vondeling, was an editor and publisher for 35 years with Saunders College Publishing in Philadelphia. Growing up in a publishing household taught me a lot. Firstly, I never had any romantic illusions about the industry; publishing is a bottom-line business, and your books have to sell. Most importantly, I internalized the idea that your authors aren’t just business partners. My dad’s authors were among his closest friends, and we spent a lot of happy times with their families socially. When your authors are also your friends, fairness and transparency come naturally. A publishing trailblazer and a real character, my dad passed away in 2001. One of the perquisites of working in publishing is that I occasionally encounter former colleagues of his, who usually have interesting stories to tell about what a pain in the neck he was.
Can you describe in your own words what is the modus operandi of B-K? It has always seemed a little elusive to me. Its values are progressive, but progressive doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. Can you elaborate on that?
B-K is a for-profit mission-driven company. Our mission is “creating a world that works for all.” We believe that to truly create a better world, action is needed at all levels–individual, organizational, and societal. At the individual level, our books help people align their lives with their values and with their aspirations for a better world. At the organizational level, our books promote progressive leadership and management practices, socially responsible approaches to business, and humane and effective organizations. At the societal level, our books advance social and economic justice, shared prosperity, sustainability, and new solutions to national and global issues.
So how do these values get translated in the day-to-day workings of the company?
The company has an open, egalitarian structure of compensation and human resource policies. We don’t have an executive compensation structure, and everyone knows everyone else’s salary. Many decisions about the company are made at the monthly staff meeting, where everyone can add items to the agenda and everyone has a voice. Overall, we are less hierarchical than other publishers.
And the values account for your remarkable success as a business?
Yes, I believe that our commitment to our mission and our stakeholder approach is a key competitive advantage. Authors sign with us because they’re attracted to the mission, and they actively and enthusiastically recommend other authors to us—they’re our best scouts. Our various stakeholders are key partners when it comes to spreading the word about our books.
What about your relationship with authors? Most authors I know are never quite satisfied with their treatment from the publisher they are working with. Unless the author is fabulously successful, there is always a feeling that the publisher never did enough. But you seem to have a happy stable of authors who return again and again with new projects.
On average, B-K has the happiest portfolio of authors of any of the companies I have worked for. Part of the “secret” (which other publishers are welcome to steal) is about setting expectations frankly from the start. We work to educate authors about the realities of the publishing marketplace, so that they can be effective partners in the process. For example, we share with them “The Ten Awful Truths of Book Publishing” and we’re clear about what we won’t do. We’re straightforward about what we expect of them, and about what they can expect of us, as outlined in the B-K Authors Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
One of our signature practices that foster happy authors is the BK Author Day. All our authors are invited to visit our offices for a full day of interaction with all parts of the organization. An author’s “day” ideally takes place at some point between the delivery of the draft and the delivery of the final manuscript. Authors get to meet their editor in person, they talk to production about the internal design of the book, they strategize with marketing staff about the marketing plan for their book, and they make a presentation about their book over lunch to the whole staff and invited guests–it’s their first chance to pitch their book to the world. I don’t know any other publisher who does this on a consistent basis, but I do recommend the practice. If the author doesn’t have the opportunity to develop deep relationships with staff, there’s more potential for misunderstanding down the road. If you sit down and explain early on how publishing works, you reduce the future likelihood of misunderstandings and conflict.
B-K is quite clear about the fact that you don’t give advances. Is this an inflexible rule? Doesn’t that limit your opportunities for acquiring good books?
B-K does not pay advances. Our model is “shared risk, shared reward.” Those who want the details can see our publication agreement . And I encourage your readers to check out this letter from our publisher and president, Steve Piersanti, explaining how we view the publication agreement as a reflection of our commitment to a stakeholder model of publishing No advances does mean that we work somewhat infrequently with agents, since their business model depends on money up front. I’ve worked for houses that do pay advances, and, in comparison, I don’t believe the quality of B-K’s list is compromised in any way by the fact that we don’t pay advances.
A lot of authors feel that advances are necessary to support them during the period that they are writing their book. Isn’t this a reasonable argument?
I am very sympathetic to the need to pay the bills while writing a book. A no-advance policy obviously works better for, say, business book authors who have a steady consulting income independent of book sales, than it does for, say, full-time journalists who need to get paid for what they write. We try to be creative in helping authors whose resources are limited. I recently helped connect an author with a think tank and B-K partner organization that offered him a fellowship in part because they were excited about the book. And we’re using our social networks and publicity contacts to support B-K author Deanna Zandt’s efforts to crowd-source and friend-raise her own advance. We were thrilled when Publishers Weekly covered that story in a recent issue. I think there’s a lot of promise and opportunity in social networking to help support authors whose financial resources might be limited.
I’m relatively new to the publishing end of the book business. But by now I have had quite a bit of experience with editorial decision-making (mostly of the “rejection” variety). What is puzzling to me is that the calculations that seem to prevail in the decision for acquisition are confusing and contradictory. Example: If an author has a good book but limited platform, the book gets rejected because he has limited platform. If the author has a superior platform, the book gets rejected because the platform doesn’t overcome the weakness of the subject. Another example: If there are no other books on the subject of the submission, the book gets rejected because the publisher believes that this is an indicator that there is no market for the subject. But if there are lots of books on the subject, the book gets rejected because there is nothing new to say about it. I could go on. Can you lead me out of this hall of mirrors?
At B-K, we get 1,000-2,000 proposals a year; we have resources to develop and market 35-40 projects. Given the math, we’re forced to decline an enormous number of projects. No doubt: this business is frustrating for aspiring authors and agents. I do request that they get the facts about the industry and understand that, at the end of the day, the decision to decline a proposal isn’t personal. I get paid to sign projects, not to turn them down.
I can’t speak for other houses, but if we at B-K encounter a promising author with a “weak subject,” we usually work with the author to develop the project into something viable and distinctive. If authors don’t have strong connections to the markets they’re hoping to serve, we coach them to develop a more robust community following and encourage them to come back to us at a later date.
If an author or agent is looking for a publisher to help get the book into bricks-and-mortar retail accounts, it’s important to understand that a lot—including the initial decision to sign–is influenced by what the numbers show about the author’s previous success in those accounts. The first thing the bookstore buyers do when considering whether to stock a book is check BookScan and their own store’s records. If the author has no history at all, the buy will be small, perhaps so small that it won’t make sense for the publisher to invest the resources necessary to develop the book in the first place.
On a personal level, I get annoyed when agents suggest that editors are slaves to BookScan. We know BookScan is a limited tool, but we’re not the ones calling the shots in this dynamic. Moreover, no one is taking this lying down. We do everything we can to convince the buyers that they should stock our author’s books, regardless of sales history. And, as an avid reader of the call reports filed by the reps, I am constantly impressed by how hard they fight and soldier on in such a brutal economy. The upside here is that the marketplace is shifting in ways that mean lots of opportunities for selling books in untraditional venues—if the author is in a position and motivated to work those venues. But that’s a story for another time.
Describe the process for acquisition at B-K. How is it different from main line publishers? Why is it so successful?
Steve Piersanti and I are the company’s two acquiring editors. We both spend a lot of time working with authors to refine and focus their ideas before we share any project with our publications board. The back-and-forth is sometimes a big surprise and a challenge for authors, but in the end they appreciate the value of the process. Our publications board meets once a month, and any member of the staff—regardless of department–is invited to participate. We send all our drafts to reviewers for their feedback, a big job that is artfully coordinated by our Executive Managing Editor, Jeevan Sivasubramaniam. The reviewers really put their hearts and souls into their reviews, and they bring tremendous value to the process, often delivering lengthy and detailed feedback. Authors are deeply appreciative of the reviewers, whose contributions are a big part of why so many B-K books have won awards.
Do you have any subjects that you are interested in that are new or emerging? Are you following any new trends?
We don’t generally follow “trends” so much as communities. We have particular communities we’re focused on serving, like organization development professionals, and we’re always talking to members of those communities to find out what resources they need. We ask them to tell us who within that world has a growing following, who is doing interesting, ground-breaking work that should be published. Right now, I’m hearing that several of the communities we serve are looking for tools to help them make sense of disruption in their industries and the proliferation of content—everyone is overwhelmed and needs help aggregating information, managing complexity, and seeing patterns as they emerge, before it’s too late to respond. So I’m especially looking for authors with projects that serve those needs.
I suppose in any interview one must bring up the question of electronic publishing. What percentage of your sales are for e-books now? How fast is it growing? What do you foresee in the short/long term?
This year, our digital sales are on track to be 5% of total revenues. That’s growing quickly. We just started selling e-books last year, though we’ve had partnerships with digital content providers like Safari in place for several years. We expect sales to grow at an accelerating pace, especially now that we’ve formed a partnership with Ingram Digital to help manage our digital assets and distribute them more widely.
Sales of e-books seem to be concentrated in the hands of a few (one?) large entity. Is this troubling to you? Is there a way out?
I think it’s always worrisome when too much power is concentrated in too few hands. More options are always preferable. I’d like to note that B-K’s digital revenues aren’t exclusively or even mostly Amazon; we’re seeing some healthy revenues through Books24x7, for example. Last month, 45% of the content sold last month through our website www.bkconnection.com was in digital format. And we’re actively working with outfits like http://www.Scribd.com, which exposes tens of thousands of readers to our content and which just launched an exciting e-commerce function. BusinessWeek covered the B-K/Scribd partnership recently <http://tinyurl.com/mekolt>.
And does electronic publishing spell the doom of community bookstores? And what does this mean for the life of those communities? C’mon, be honest about this.
Community bookstores have a lot of perfect-storm pressures bearing down on them; the growing appetite for digital products is only a small part of the picture. Here’s a recommendation I certainly didn’t invent: think and act like a service provider, rather than as a commodity vendor. We’re seeing strong sales of print content when it is bundled with an immersive experience, like a keynote address or a training program. Bookstores that bring communities of interest together and provide a valuable experience might very well sell more books as a result. I think it’s good to remember that go-local guilt is not a viable business plan. You’re not going to be able to compete on the basis of convenience (the Amazon customer experience is just too good) or inventory (you just don’t have the space). So what’s it going to be?
What is the thing that you like best about your work? What least?
Best: talking to authors about interesting ideas. Least: the fact that the volume of work means I’m always behind and having to apologize to people for not getting back to them earlier.
Johanna, what have you enjoyed reading outside of work related projects?
I’m on a memoir kick this summer. Right now, I’m reading Madeleine Albright’s Madam Secretary, and I recently finished Katharine Graham’s Personal History. Memoirs are a new thing for me, and I’m finding that I love getting a history refresher mixed with a fuller picture of an intriguing person. Plus, since many memoirs are about great leaders, it’s good homework for the leadership books I acquire. I also love to cook, and I’ve been enjoying some great meals this summer thanks to the delicious recipes in cookbooks published in partnership with two restaurants here in Berkeley: Chez Panisse: Fruit (Harper Collins) and César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar (Ten Speed).