the Source of Sourcebooks' Success
2002 trade catalog begins with an unusual mission statement: "Our
sole goal is to help authors be heard." Authors?
Most publishers’ mission statements focus on books or
readers. But spend an hour with Sourcebooks Founder and President
Dominique Raccah and you’ll realize this mission statement
is a mantra for the feisty Midwest publisher and her fast-growing
company which celebrated its 15th anniversary this fall.
made time for an interview just before Thanksgiving. It was
a chilly day, with light snow floating outside the windows
of Sourcebooks’ offices in Naperville, Illinois, about
an hour west of Chicago.
must be frantic. This is the busiest season in your busiest
Raccah: Frantic? No. I’m happy.
I’m very happy.
Q: With your phenomenal growth, do
you spend your whole day putting out fires?
Raccah: Actually it’s not like
that anymore. I’ve surrounded myself with great staff,
and it’s less stressful than it used to be.
Q: How do you manage to recruit top employees to chilly Chicago?
Raccah: People love working here because they get to do their own
thing. We have a flat hierarchy, and everyone has a lot of responsibility.
Recruiting has not been a problem. You know we just got Jack Perry, don’t
you–the Vice President of Sales for Random House?
After the Advance
Q: You credit an emphasis on promoting authors for Sourcebooks’ success.
What do you do differently than other publishers?
Raccah: We treat authors as our clients. Maybe that goes back to
my days at Leo Burnett. We consider ourselves promoters of talent, much as
a record company would be with a recording artist, or an art gallery with a
painter. Authors who’ve been published in New York like the attention
they get here. It’s not a cold, anonymous process.
Q: Can you compete with the advances paid in New York?
Raccah: I think our advances are fair but the difference is we
pay royalties. Authors are used to never seeing anything after the advance.
We pay a smaller advance, but we pay out plenty in royalties. You should see
the size of the royalty checks that go out of here. I’ve made a lot of
money for authors, and they’ve made money for me. Don’t get me
wrong–it’s not a touchy-feely "I like authors" thing–but
we really see our business as developing authors’ careers. We’re
author-oriented, not book-oriented.
Q: Can you afford that? Do you sign them to long-term contracts?
Raccah: Absolutely. Most of our deals are for three to five books.
We don’t want our authors going anywhere. They should either be writing
or promoting, and that’s it. We do extensive media training with them,
and our publicity department books speaking engagements, but we don’t
take a cut of speaking fees. I’ll tell you what happens though. There’s
something about those royalty checks that builds a different relationship with
authors than an advance-only arrangement. They feel more like partners, like
part of a team, and that’s how we feel about them.
Q: Sourcebooks is known for obsessive promotion. On average, how
many review copies do you give away in the first year for a new release?
Raccah: It’s staggering. You don’t want to know. I don’t
want to know. It’s not unusual for us to give away 3,000 or 4,000 copies.
Q: A lot of publishers are upset seeing their review copies being
auctioned online. Has it affected Sourcebooks or your review copy policy?
Raccah: It drives me nuts. We’re tracking that very closely
now. We’re definitely marking review copies as "not for sale," and
we’re trying to get to the source of who is selling them.
Managing the Money
Q: Success has killed more publishers than
failure. How do you finance such rapid growth?
Raccah: It’s all about cash. I don’t believe in debt.
We got into debt once and I got us out of it. Debt can kill you. If you’re
deciding between growth and debt, my advice is to grow slower. It’s hard
to keep debt under control. You have to know how you’re going to finance
one bad quarter, or two bad quarters. The industry is getting tougher, and
one bad decision can wipe you out.
Q: So you focus on the cash flow statement, and ignore the profit
Raccah: I work off the balance sheet, actually. I use balance sheet
ratios, and I monitor them closely. I’d have to say the one mistake made
by most small publishers is that they don’t know their numbers–they
can’t tell if they’re making money or losing money.
Q: According to a survey just released by the Annenberg Public Policy
Center, women hold only 22% of the executive positions in top publishing companies–despite
the fact that women buy and write most of the books sold in the U.S. Has your
gender created more opportunities or obstacles for Sourcebooks?
Raccah: It was definitely an obstacle the first 10 years. Until you’re
a proven entity, you’re a nonentity and I think people have an easier
time dismissing women. Over the last five years, however, we’ve become
a major force in publishing. Today, being female is an advantage because it
helps me stand out.
In Tricky Territory
Q: In 2001, Sourcebooks entered the risky market of commercial fiction.
Has that worked out for you?
Raccah: It hasn’t been an unequivocal success, but we’ve
done OK. My mentors–the other publishers I turn to for advice–were
full of gloom and doom. Everyone thought it was a bad move. But they helped
me think through some of the problems in advance. And it’s helped that
we started with well-known authors.
Q: Has publishing fiction required a different marketing style than
Sourcebooks’ no-holds-barred approach to nonfiction?
Raccah: The main difference is the longer lead time required for
fiction. You have to be out earlier with galleys; you can’t just come
up with a hot topic and get it out there. But we’ve come up with a few
innovative techniques, including a pre-tour tour with Michael Malone before
his novel The Last Noel was in the stores. It made a big difference.
Booksellers loved Malone and remembered him. They bought the book and we toured
Q: Another risk you’ve taken is multimedia. Many big publishers
lost their jackets in multimedia, yet your MediaFusion imprint is on a roll,
first with Joe Garner’s And The Crowd Goes Wild: Relive the Most
Celebrated Sporting Events Ever Broadcast, which has sold over half a
million units, and then with the anthology Poetry Speaks: Hear Great Poets
Read their Work from Tennyson to Plath. Was it pricing? Packaging?
Raccah: The key is the product, not the pricing. A lot of publishers
were just stuffing a disk in a book, but these are integrated products. The
text and the disk are developed together. The Lenny Bruce biography has done
very well too. I think it’s the first biography done in multimedia, but
it won’t be the last.
Q: Poetry Speaks must have been a permissions nightmare.
Do you have any advice for other publishers considering an ambitious anthology
Raccah: They’d better be prepared for the long haul. Poetry
Speaks took five years to put together, and a lot of money and elbow grease.
We had to negotiate three or four rights contracts for a single poem–the
written work, the audio, photos, territorial rights… We ended up with
120 permissions for 40 pieces. It takes stamina to publish anthologies. But
then publishing as a whole requires stamina.
Q: Inc. Magazine rated you one of the fastest growing companies
in America. Do you have any plans to slow down, to conserve cash?
Raccah: We’re buying a bunch of companies right now. Wait until
you see us next year.
©2003 by Steve O’Keefe
All Rights Reserved