How to Succeed in a Collapsing Industry

Publishing has always been a tough business, and today most publishing companies are barely surviving.  Of necessity they take a transactional view of the world.  Most, for example, treat authors badly.  In initial conversations, they woo the author, but the moment the author signs a contract, the author becomes a commodity to be manipulated.
For many decades I have known and worked with Steve Piersanti.  Steve is the founder of a publishing company known as Barrett-Koehler.  In starting the company, Steve was driven by purpose and values.  One of the many unusual things he determined to do was to take an alternative approach to authors.  He initiated unheard of practices.  At Berrett-Koehler they:

  • Give authors the opportunity to take back the rights to their book at any time.
  • Partner with authors in supportive ways that are detailed in a “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors.”
  • Launch new book titles with a one-of-a-kind “Author Day.”
  • Provide extensive editorial support.
  • Give authors more input in publishing decisions.
  • Share more information about marketing plans and results.
  • Hold a two-day book marketing workshop for authors.
  • Support BK Authors Inc. which functions as a learning community for authors.

What is the outcome?  Authors are fiercely loyal to B-K.  Their stable of books is of the highest quality.  The company’s financial numbers are impressive.
In a recent meeting, we were discussing these notions when a senior person made an observation: “We do not keep these practices secret.  We tell all our competitors about them.  They listen but they cannot imagine doing what we do.  The risk represented in telling authors they can have their book back, for example, terrifies.  But here is the thing, our authors never ask us to give them back their books.  They love working with us.  There is no risk.”
The above paragraph represents an astounding fact.  Stepping out of the conventional, transactional mindset, BK has created a purpose-driven, values-based company.  They have created unconventional practices that have thrust them to the forefront of their collapsing industry.  They can readily share these practices because their competitors have a conventional mindset.  Because of their fears and lack of a higher purpose, the struggling competitors are incapable of imitating the risk.  Yet there is “no risk.”  The account represents a baffling paradox.  The principles of positive organizing are inaccessible to the transactional mind.


  • When people are struggling to survive and full of fear, how do they tend to treat others?
  • How is it possible that BK faces “no risk?” Why is this incomprehensible to the transactional mind?
  • What principle in this account could be applied in your life now?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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