Take us back to 1987 and describe how you came to set up Sourcebooks from your home in Naperville.
I left a promising career with advertising giant Leo Burnett, cashed in $17,000 from my 401(k) plan, and launched a publishing house from an upstairs bedroom in my home in Naperville, Illinois. I started with just one book, and was initially focused on publishing professional finance titles, books for bankers, and how-to books for small-business owners.
It’s pretty wild that the company I started 31 years ago has become a Top 10 U.S. publisher and the largest woman-owned publisher in North America. We have over 100 employees and now publish hundreds of books each year in a variety of categories.
Before starting Sourcebooks, you ran the quantitative analysis department at the advertising firm Leo Burnett. Would you say your comfort with numbers and technology is why you've been so pro-active working with digital products?
We are a data-driven company in an industry that is way too rooted in the notions of “taste” and “instinct.” I’ll take data over my gut any day of the week. We gather and learn from data wherever possible, even if it’s on the smallest of scales. We use data in every single department of the company. My background has certainly helped drive us in that direction, but all areas of the company have embraced the use of data.
In terms of innovation, our personalized books platform came from the discovery that readers were already customizing our bestselling kids and gift books on their own. We launched Put Me In The Story as an app, and quickly realized that readers actually wanted a print copy featuring their child’s name and photo, as a gift or keepsake. We are constantly adapting to better suit the needs and wants of readers.
Sourcebooks' motto is ‘books change lives’, could you tell us more about the origins behind this ethos?
We know books change lives because books changed my life at a young age when I first came to America. I was 9-years-old and did not speak English. I found refuge in the library, where books helped me to understand the culture and the language of the world I now found myself in. I have seen over the last 31 years how books can make a profound difference in peoples’ lives, and that is what continues to drive the Sourcebooks mission.
What words would you use to describe the workplace culture at Sourcebooks and how many new titles do you release annually?
Agile, transparent and collaborative. We’ve also incorporated “growth mindset” throughout our corporate culture. It’s meaningful when every person on the team is pushing themselves to recognize that “you don’t know what you don’t know” and strive to understand something new. We publish 400 new titles each year.
Sourcebooks is widely recognized as a book publishing innovation leader. Tell us about some of your award-winning innovative projects.
In 1998, we broke all boundaries with We Interrupt This Broadcast by Joe Garner, a mixed-media book featuring two compact discs with integrated content. It was our largest first printing, and it went on to become Sourcebooks’s first New York Times bestseller. The brilliant pairing of live audio with photographs and the written word generated enormous interest within the bookselling community.
Three years later, we reinvigorated the way readers experience poetry with Poetry Speaks, a book and three-CD combination featuring noted poets like Tennyson and Plath reading their own work. This anthology, a Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller, was lauded by Publishers Weekly as having “the potential to draw more readers to poetry than any collection in years.”
After saying I would never publish a children’s book, we released our first children’s picture book, Poetry Speaks to Children, in 2005. The unique grouping of poems, illustrations, and a CD of poets reading their work delighted booksellers and found its way into the hearts of parents, teachers, and children alike, landing it on the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks. The title eventually marked the springboard for the launch of Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, which started in 2007. A decade later, we’re the 11st largest children’s book publisher.
How does being a female entrepreneur in the 1980s compare to today's world?
When I first started the company, my husband came with me to the bank to take out a loan. The banker only talked to my husband. He didn’t pay me any attention, even though my husband made it clear I was the founder and CEO of the company. On the next visit, my husband came with me again, but this time he sat at the back of the room and read a book. When the banker asked for his attention, he said, “you need to talk to her.”
Sourcebooks is the largest woman-owned publisher in North America. Our staff is 70% female, and our leadership team is 70% female. We publish books that empower, recognize and celebrate women who have made a difference.
Could you explain how your juvenile division is segmented and highlight a few of your favorite recent releases for our audience?
Sourcebooks Kids is the umbrella under which four children’s imprints live including:
- Sourcebooks Wonderland (customized, proprietary, and regional books)
- Sourcebooks Jabberwocky (ages 0—8, including board books, picture books, and chapter books)
- Sourcebooks Young Readers (middle grade)
- Sourcebooks eXplore (juvenile nonfiction
The viral picture book P Is for Pterodactyl, by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter and illustrated Maria Tina Beddia, skyrocketed to #1 on the New York Times Children’s Picture Book bestseller list in December, selling 63,000 in eight weeks (NPD Bookscan).
The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs by America’s Test Kitchen, which launched in October with a story on National Public Radio, spent 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and three weeks in the #1 spot on the Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover list.
Love: from Sesame Street by Sesame Workshop also debuted on the New York Times Children’s Picture Book bestseller list, the first time a Sesame Street book has made the list in 49 years.
In addition, with more than 850,000 copies sold of Baby University, the breakout series of science books for kids by Chris Ferrie, Sourcebooks Kids has quickly established itself as a leader in the preschool category.
In what sense do you believe technology can improve the reading experience? Please highlight specific titles from your list to illustrate your answer.
Reading a print book will always be an incredibly special experience for all ages, but there are absolutely some areas where technology can really create major impact.
Some questions we asked ourselves years ago were: How do we engage reluctant readers? How do we turn every child into a reader? With those questions in mind, we created Put Me In the Story, which takes bestselling books and personalizes them with children’s names and pictures. We work with bestselling authors, award-winning publishers, and blockbuster brands to shape each personalized story into the best reading experience possible. For parents and children, these books become very special bonding experiences that they cherish for years to come. It also engages children at a much higher level, and helps their love of reading grow.
Another example for us is our Fiske Guide to College, the #1 going-to-college guide. It features 316 of the best schools in the US, Canada, and Great Britain. We wanted to find a way to enhance the overall experience for parents and college-bound students, so we created the Fiske interactive app. This allows individuals to browse the curated list of schools and create personal college lists, flag schools for a second look or visit, add notes about each school, email admissions departments directly, and so much more. The college search can be very daunting, and this app really helps families organize all of the information that they need so that that can make more informed decisions.
How do you see the future of book publishing?
The future of publishing isn’t a far away concept; it’s actually happening right now. Books are unique, and the publishing is incredibly different than the music or magazine industries. When you buy a book for yourself or as a gift, that book tells the people around you what you like and what’s important to you. It’s another social way to share who you are with the world. That’s why platforms like Instagram are becoming vital to booksellers, librarians, and influencers. It helps them communicate their brand, and it helps them connect to the customer or reader.
As publishers, we have to be innovative and agile, and we have to constantly be thinking about what books mean to readers. We have to uncover new ways to reach them. The future of publishing involves changing and evolving. It means being brave enough to say that you don’t know the answer or the best solution – but that you’re going to ask questions and experiment until you find it. You have to stop believing everything you think you know, and you have to listen to what readers and saying and watch what they’re buying habits are. Then you collect your data, you experiment, you learn, and you move forward. And then you start the process all over again.