Twenty years after he founded the indie San Francisco press Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Steve Piersanti continues to stay focused on the company’s original mission of stewardship and socially responsible publishing practices. That commitment has led B-K to be profitable for nine years in a row, and profits in 2011 will top the $424,868 generated in 2010 on sales of about $7.5 million.
One of the innovators in multiformat publishing, Berrett-Koehler, which first began producing e-books in 2000, has seen its digital sales grow dramatically the past few years, accounting for 12% of total revenues last year. The company has 35 digital distributors. B-K does between 30 and 40 frontlist titles annually, all simultaneously released in print and digital formats. With 450 titles now available (only 20 titles have gone out of print in two decades) Berrett-Koehler, which is distributed in the U.S. by Ingram Publisher Services, now employs 24 people, many of them for more than 10 years running. The company is controlled by 250 stakeholders, divided among authors, customers, employees (including suppliers, sales partners, and service providers), and “friends in publishing” and former employees. Its distinctive organizational practices revolve around a democratic process in all areas, from pay increases to changes in benefit plans, and include the unique “Author Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.” All the activity helped B-K become a Certified B Corporation during 2011.
The company has three divisions, B-K Life is focused on individual change; B-K Business on organizational change; and B-K Currents on societal change. The latter division produced the bestselling This Changes Everything, the first book about the Occupy movement. It was followed by Corporations Are Not People, which reached #124 on Amazon. Berrett-Koehler’s three all-time bestselling titles in both print and digital are Leadership and Self-Deception, Eat That Frog! and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Thirty-eight of its titles have sold more than 100,000 copies.
In addition to e-books, B-K has branched out into specialized digital editions as well by selling individual chapters from a selection of books. “We have about 150 chapters from eight different books available for sale now,” Piersanti said. “We have certain books that chunk really well, where chapters successfully stand alone.” Among these are The Change Handbook and Eat That Frog! The chapters sell for $3.95 to $9.95. “This is an example of Berrett-Koehler trying to do different things and maintain our digital leadership on both the marketing and editorial sides,” Piersanti said. The press also creates enhanced e-books with embedded audio and video. The digital edition of Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence, for instance, includes two songs that describe the quality of the voice; videos of Brazil and India can be found in Walk Out Walk On.
Piersanti is proud of the success of Berrett-Koehler’s popular Web site, www
.bkconnection.com, which receives up to 50,000 hits a month, and points particularly to its semimonthly e-newsletter, the BK Communique. “It’s a community builder,” he said, and it regularly features short promotional videos for new titles, the first of which, for Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, has been viewed more than six million times. The newsletter also includes publishing news, freebies, blogs, candid and funny staff photos, recommended apps, and a link to the top 50 Web viral videos.
Several events in July will mark the 20th anniversary of Berrett-Koehler, including a celebration on July 17 at which the top 10 bestselling B-K authors will speak and be honored, and a day-long “Community Dialogue” to engage B-K authors, readers, service providers, and other stakeholders in planning collaborative actions to support the B-K mission of “Creating a World That Works for All.” “We want to stay true to our mission and commitments in the future, so we’re developing more ways to strengthen them,” says Piersanti.