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Eight Smart Business Lessons From a Savvy Business Publisher

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For the first eight months of 2012, adult non-fiction book sales in the U.S. are down 17 percent from the same period last year (according to BookScan, which tracks approximately 75 percent of retail book sales, including Amazon). But one publishing house is bucking the trend: Berrett-Koehler is having their best year ever, with revenues up 16 percent and pretax profits up a whopping 50 percent! Clearly, they're doing something right -- in fact, they're probably doing many things right.

I wanted to know the secret to their success, so I asked publisher Steve Piersanti and his staff to tell me what their secret is. But guess what? Their "secret" is no secret at all. They simply practice what they preach in the books they publish -- wow, what a concept! Their titles speak volumes (pun intended) about BK's corporate culture: Stewardship by Peter Block, Authentic Conversations by Jamie and Maren Showkeir, Courage Goes to Work by Bill Treasurer, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em by Bev Kaye and Sharon Jordan Evans, Great Leaders Grow by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller, 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work by Leslie Yerkes and David Hemsath, Getting Things Done When You're Not in Charge by Geoff Bellman, Mother Teresa, CEO by Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, Being Buddha at Work by Franz Metcalf, among others. You don't even have to read the books to get their message.

Here are a handful of Berrett-Koehler's smart business lessons -- not just for publishers, but for any corporation or business, and non-profits, too:

1. Be up to something in the world. Build your company on a strong foundation of lofty vision, powerful mission, and compelling values. BK's mission is to "Create a World That Works for All." Wow, who wouldn't want to be a part of that? If you have a powerful, noble mission, talented people will want to work with you and for you -- and customers will want to do business with you, too. What is YOUR organization up to in the world?

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. If your people really ARE your most important resource, how do you treat them so they know it? What steps are you taking to build employee loyalty, engagement, and commitment?

3. Love your stakeholders. 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. How can you establish a high level of trust and good faith with the stakeholders in YOUR business?

4. Learn from your stakeholders. One of the best things BK does is to hold an Author Day for each and every author whose book 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. Who are YOUR stakeholders -- and what are some of the ways you can learn from them?

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. Think about YOUR business: How can you strengthen the bonds with your customers and stakeholders? How can you build a community around your business or organization?

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. If you're a CEO or entrepreneur, you don't want just hired hands -- you want hired heads. What steps can you take to tap into the creativity, knowledge, and insight of ALL your people?

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. This is a great model for other types of businesses to emulate. How can you use profit-sharing -- or some other form of financial reward -- as a powerful motivational tool in your organization?

8. Give people 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. In YOUR business, what are some ways you can tap into the creativity of your people?

Smart business leaders don't just look to those in their industry in order to learn vital business lessons - they also look to other industries to see what principles, strategies, and techniques they might adopt and adapt. Berrett-Koehler does a lot of things right - their bottom line clearly reflects this. Whether you're a start-up entrepreneur, a corporate executive, a middle manager, or a leader in a non-profit organization, always keep your eyes open for good ideas in other organizations. Don't just learn from your competition - learn from EVERYONE.

BJ Gallagher is a workplace consultant and coauthor of an international bestseller, A Peacock in the Land of Penguins: A Fable About Creativity and Courage," now in 23 languages.