“If you ever publish with another house, you’ll be disappointed,” literary agent Julie Hill told me. “Berrett-Koehler has spoiled you.” We were both at a cocktail party in San Francisco, celebrating the fourth anniversary of Berret-Koehler, a small publisher with a big mission: “Creating a World that Works for All.”
Sixteen years later – and after 25 books with a dozen different publishers – I discovered that Julie was right, Berrett-Koehler did “spoil” me. They treated me as a full partner in every step of the publishing process; they gave me an enormous amount of creative control; and they trusted me as an expert on both my content and my target audience. I don’t just respect my publisher – I don’t just like them – I LOVE THEM. Not many authors will say that about their publisher!
As Berrett-Koehler celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, it seems like a good time to share what I’ve learned from them … and why they are beloved by their authors, respected by other publishers, popular with book-buyers, and financially successful, even in these tough times. Here are a handful of lessons for publishers, and a few for authors, too:
1. Be up to something in the world. Build your company on a strong foundation of lofty vision, powerful mission, and compelling values. When I first discovered BK they published mostly business books and their mission was to transform the world of work through their books. Wow, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Most business book authors are do-gooders camouflaged in pin-stripe suits, motivated to help people and the organizations they work for. We preach the gospel of humanistic management; we want to make the workplace a kinder, gentler environment. BK’s mission is irresistible to authors like us.
2. Love your people. Almost every company spouts the same stuff about “people are our most important resource” but few actually live what they espouse. BK human resource practices are the kind that most HR types just dream about: job-sharing; working from home; flexible work schedules; excellent benefits; employee ownership through an ESOP; employees collectively decide HR and benefits policies, salary schedules, and company salary increases; transparency instead of secrecy in staff salaries..
3. Love your authors. BK has the most author-friendly contract in the book business, including an “out clause” which states that if for any reason the author is unhappy with the way their book is being handled, they can write a letter to BK asking to terminate their contract. BK then has six months to resolve the author’s concerns. If at the end of that time the author is still unhappy, the contract is terminated and all rights revert to the author. This is unheard of in publishing… and it’s brilliant. It’s a good faith guarantee, reassuring the author that BK will do everything they can to fulfill their commitment to the publishing partnership. Result? In 20 years, with over 500 authors, only one has exercised his out clause.
4. Learn from your authors. One of the best things BK does is take the time to hold an Author Day for each and every author whose work they publish. The author comes to the SF offices of BK and participates in a series of meetings all day long: editorial, marketing and public relations, design and production, special sales, and other key departments with whom the author will be interacting. Plans are made, book covers evaluated, marketing strategy mapped out, and more.
At lunchtime (this is the best part of the Author Day) all 25 people in the company gather in the conference room for lunch that has been ordered in. The author eats quickly and then conducts a one-hour workshop on the subject of their book. This gives everyone in the company an opportunity to get to know the author and to become familiar with the book’s content. It’s a wonderful way of getting everyone excited about the new book and equipping them to do great job in marketing and selling it. BONUS: It also provides high-quality training to employees and managers alike, since the company is committed to living the values their authors write about.
5. Don’t just build a company – build a community. BK goes to great lengths to involve stakeholders in all aspects of the company’s operations – soliciting input on book cover designs, book titles and subtitles; inviting subject matter experts to review manuscripts as part of the editing process; asking for feedback on the company’s mission, branding, and other issues. BK is owned by 240 of their community members, including employees, authors, customers, suppliers, service providers, and sales partners. Their annual shareholders meeting is a community gathering.
6. Let the inmates run the asylum. BK believes in participative management and the staff practice what their business book authors preach. Editorial decisions are not made by just the editorial board, but by the sales, marketing, design and production folks as well. They all participate in deciding which books to publish and it’s done by consensus. This means that sometimes publisher Steve Piersanti gets overruled by his team – even if he loves a project, it gets rejected if others don’t agree.
7. Share the risk; share the reward. BK doesn’t pay royalty advances to any of their authors, but instead offer higher royalties. This means that the author and the publisher both have a lot of skin in the game, guaranteeing that both will “work their butts off” (that’s a publishing term) to make the book successful. BK also offers an escalating royalty split, which means that the higher the sales, the larger percentage the author receives. AUTHORS: The days of big book advances are long gone, unless you’re a celebrity or mega-author already. Forget about front-end advances and focus on back-end royalties. If you believe in your book and are willing to promote it, you’ll make plenty of money.
8. Give authors lots of creative control. It is a well-known fact of human behavior that the more input a person has into the product they produce, the more invested they are in the success of that product. This is as true for authors as it for factory workers or anyone else. BK gives its authors a lot of say-so about book titles and subtitles, cover design, graphics and illustrations, layout, back cover copy, and marketing plans. One of the biggest mistakes other publishers make is in leaving the author out of the loop… sometimes alienating the author from their own book! BK never makes that mistake.
9. Authors: Be a good team player. When I was working on my first book with BK, Steve Piersanti told me that “most publishers think their authors are a nuisance.” Many authors – first-time authors in particular – have big dreams of literary success and expect their publishers to make it all happen. The truth is, your publisher has 50 books to promote in a season, or even 500 books — you have only one.
Instead of asking what your publisher can do for you, ask what you can do for your publisher: “What do you need from me?” “How can I help with marketing and promotion?” “Would you like me to write back cover copy or marketing copy for the catalog?” “How can I help you?” You and your publisher have the same goal – a successful book. Look for ways to contribute instead of complaining.
10. Authors: Collaborate with and support other authors. A number of years ago, several experienced BK authors decided to host a one-day marketing workshop for new authors. Turns out that both experienced and new authors got so much out of it that they committed to making it a yearly event. They also decided to find additional ways to support each other, so they formed the BK Authors Co-op. They host a weekend retreat once a year to network, share marketing tips, give and get feedback on new book ideas, and learn about each others’ areas of expertise. They make time for yoga, hiking, meditation, and food for the soul as well as the mind. BK authors do all this on their own – none of it is organized by the publishing house. BK authors feel a huge commitment to their publisher’s future and do all they can to contribute BK’s success, as well as each author’s success.
BJ Gallagher has written four Berrett-Koehler books, including an international best-seller, “A Peacock in the Land of Penguins” (in 23 languages). Her newest is “Being Buddha at Work: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money and Success.”