McKeown is the president and CEO of the Perseus Book Group. PW met with him in his Park Avenue office recently to discuss Business: The Ultimate Resource.
PW: How did the project originate?
JM: I had a conversation with Nigel Newton, Bloomsbury UK's chairman, during Frankfurt '97. We struck upon the idea of business as a field that was ripe for this kind of compendium. Over the last 20 years, there has been this avalanche of business writing and thinking. There's no way to cut through all the information out there, particularly if you need to quickly make a decision or get up to speed on an issue with which you've never had any real experience. It was the combination of the need of the user, the availability of the information and the zeitgeist at the end of the 20th century that said that business had attained a level of intellectual respectability that it didn't have a generation before. Put all of these pieces together and the result was a general trade book that goes beyond the standard reference book to be a filter to decision makers. We were really trying to pack a million dollars worth of consulting into a $59.95 package.
PW: How did you organize the effort to produce such a book?
JM: My approach to these kinds of mega-projects has always been to assemble a taskforce that draws the best people from within an organization, regardless of their title or imprint—that, and the concept of a decentralized editorial model, which is a worldwide network of contributors, with specialist editors for each section. Overarching that there's the intellectual "brain" of the project, a board of consulting editors who weren't affiliated with the project in any commercial way, who cared about it as an intellectual endeavor.
PW: When you embarked on this project four years ago, the economy was quite different.
JM: Clearly, business has been rocked by the downturn of the last year and a half. We are mindful of the risk of publishing in this environment, but the book also represents an opportunity to reinvigorate the category. We're pleased that booksellers are using opportunities—particularly one feature of the book, which is the best 70 business books of all time—to create theme tables, with our book as the centerpiece, to promote the whole category of business.
PW: Who will use this book?
JM: A senior manager, a CEO, a middle manager, somebody running a start-up, somebody in the nonprofit sector who wants to impose profit-level discipline on their organization, somebody who's just starting out on a career, people running library systems... or anybody who's just curious about the ideas, context and chronology of business. If I had had something like this when I was an MBA, it would have been an enormous lever for higher efficiency and productivity.
PW: What's your marketing approach?
JM: There were two ways we could have gone. The traditional route would have been to look toward a practitioner—a CEO, someone of real stature in the business community—who would become the spokesperson. Or we could go the other way, and look for someone who represented the kind of "wisdom factor." The perfect match-up was Daniel Goleman.
PW: How do you think the publication of Business will change the industry's perception of Perseus as a business book publisher?
JM: I hope it helps people see us as an innovator and not just a follower. New business models might emerge from this, including custom publishing opportunities. Yes, it's a traditional book, but it's much more than that in terms of the total publishing concept. In that respect, we hope the idea of innovation will actually have a practical application in terms of the flow of product, some traditional and some not traditional at all, into the marketplace. It'll mimic the fact that the market for business is much more geographically and institutionally diverse than we ever could imagine.