When Dominique Raccah started Sourcebooks in 1987, she had modest goals and saw hitting the $1 million sales level as a distant target. With her company poised to celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, Sourcebooks, which recently passed the one-hundred-million-units-sold mark, now publishes about 500 books annually with a staff of 129, and its founder is seen as an industry visionary. This fall, Raccah was named BISG Innovator of the Year, and Sourcebooks was selected as a Rising Star by the wholesaler Readerlink. In recognition of her determination, creativity, and energy in making Sourcebooks one of the country’s leading independent publishers, Raccah is PW’s Person of the Year.
Raccah’s impetus to start Sourcebooks came from her decision to self-publish her own business guide, Financial Sourcebooks Sources. The book did not do as well as expected (“Bankers aren’t big readers,” she quips), but it did sell enough copies that Raccah was convinced that she should give publishing her full attention.
The publication of Raccah’s first book combined two developments that would become big factors in publishing in later years—self-publishing and the rise of technology. She used recently developed desktop publishing to release her first book, and she says one of the keys to Sourcebooks’ eventual success was that the company has always been in a position to take advantage of new developments in technology. Sourcebooks, for example, was involved with e-books early—it made titles available for the Rocket eBook reader and was one of OverDrive’s first publishing partners.
“Technology has always been part of my thinking,” Raccah says. “I’ve looked for ways technology can be used to serve readers, booksellers, and authors.”
Raccah’s early vision for Sourcebooks was “very, very, practical,” she says. She quickly switched the direction of the Sourcebooks line from a professional book orientation to a focus on general-interest business books.
In the early years of the company, Raccah used her background in analytics to see whether she could find a new business model that could be applied to publishing. What interested her most was finding new ways to complement the traditional book with other things that would appeal to readers.
That approach helped lead Raccah to what she considers one of the company’s most important breakthroughs—the creation of a multimedia series that featured books packaged with audio CDs, in Sourcebooks’ MediaFusion line. The series generated several big hits, including We Interrupt This Broadcast and And the Crowd Goes Wild.
Those successes convinced Raccah that poetry books with an audio component could also find a market. While most industry members she talked to about the project told her that she was crazy, Raccah went ahead anyway. Poetry Speaks and Poetry Speaks Expanded sold a combined 150,000 copies and led to a children’s edition.
That children’s edition, Poetry Speaks to Children, was released by Sourcebooks in 2005 and was the publisher’s first effort in the children’s market. Today Sourcebooks’ children’s business accounts for 40%–50% of the company’s revenue.
“Poetry Speaks to Children opened up all sorts of doors for us in the children’s market,” Raccah says. “When it became successful, booksellers asked our reps what else we had.” Those requests led to the creation of Sourcebooks’ first children’s imprint, Jabberwocky. “Without doing Poetry Speaks to Children, we may have never entered the children’s market,” Raccah says.
Taking feedback from outside the company and using it to develop new business lines also led to the development of Put Me in the Story (PMITS), Sourcebooks’ personalized publishing platform, which has enjoyed tremendous success since it was first introduced in late 2012. Raccah’s interest in customized publishing was piqued when Sourcebooks bought Cumberland House and she saw how readers were personalizing author Greg Lang’s photo books by adding their own pictures and other modifications.
A couple of years later, when Sourcebooks bought Marianne Richmond Studios, Richmond showed Raccah how readers were personalizing her books as well (two Richmond titles, The Night Night Book and If I Could Keep You Little, were in the first group of books to become part of PMITS). One of the reasons for the success of PMITS, Raccah says, is because, unlike some other technology-product introductions, Put Me in the Story was reader driven and fulfilled a need in the market.
Another key to PMITS’s success is that Sourcebooks has been able to attract quality partners. In a deal reached in November, for example, Sourcebooks added Curious George to the PMITS list, reaching an agreement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to do a PMITS version of Curious George Curious You: On Your Way, which is now available and can be personalized with a child’s name and photo and a special dedication from the gift giver. In 2017, Curious George and the Birthday Surprise will be made available on PMITS.
There are more than 140 children’s books currently on PMITS’s list, and Sourcebooks partners with such companies as Disney, Hachette, Macmillan, Nickelodeon, Penguin Random House, and Sesame Workshop on popular licensed characters. By the end of 2016, Raccah says, Sourcebooks will have paid over $1 million in royalties to authors and illustrators whose works are part of the publisher’s e-commerce platforms, including PMITS and Simple Truths. Those payments, Raccah notes, are important to ensure that Sourcebooks works with authors and illustrators whom readers are interested in reading.
In the second half of 2016, Sourcebooks expanded PMITS to the adult market, adding a personalized component to Simple Truths, Sourcebooks’ business-book imprint. Simple Truths now offers customers the ability to add business logos, names, and specific messages to select Simple Truths titles.
A final ingredient to PMITS’s growth has been its acceptance by retailers. In early 2016 Sourcebooks reached an agreement with Barnes & Noble that enabled Barnes & Noble to launch the personalized-books platform into many of its bricks-and-mortar stores and online. On Cyber Monday, B&N made personalized books one of its featured products.
Prior to starting Sourcebooks, Raccah ran the quantitative analysis department at the advertising firm Leo Burnett. Her interest in data followed her to Sourcebooks, where, in 2016, she established a data and analytics department.
Raccah’s comfort with numbers and technology is one reason she has been more at ease working with digital products than many other publishers. “Many people in publishing see change as a problem, but I see it as an opportunity,” she says.
Raccah’s desire to help bridge the publishing and digital worlds was one reason she joined the Book Industry Study Group. She was chair of the BISG board from 2008 to 2012 (two two-year terms) and was immediate past chair from 2012 to 2014. Raccah stepped down from the executive committee in September. “I met lots of remarkable people at BISG,” she says, adding that being part of the organization “helped me think through lots of issues.”
In presenting Raccah with the BISG Innovator of the Year award, Firebrand Technologies head Fran Toolan observed, “Dominique has driven innovation her entire career and continues to lead not only Sourcebooks but the whole industry into the future of what publishing can be.”
BISG is not the only industry organization Raccah is involved with. Sourcebooks has been a longtime member of IBPA, where she has become something of a role model for independent publishers. “For other IBPA members, Dominique represents the highest level of what’s possible when you commit to a career in independent publishing,” says Angela Bole, executive director of IBPA. “Beyond her personal success, however, Dominique has always been generous with her time and expertise and has contributed to the success of many other members at IBPA along the way. She is a true contributor—an inspiration.”
Raccah’s involvement with all aspects of publishing convince her that the industry has a bright future. She points out that publishing has navigated the digital transition much better than some other media segments. For her company, the final financial results for Sourcebooks in 2016 will depend on the all-important holiday season, Raccah says. Among the company’s best-performing areas in the year so far are adult fiction, up 37% in the first 11 months of 2016 over the same period in 2015; young adult, ahead 49%; and adult nonfiction, up 13%. The company also had 14 national bestsellers during the year, the most in its history.
Raccah built Sourcebooks in part on acquisitions, and she says that, after a brief hiatus from them, she is again on the lookout for an appropriate purchase. She notes that despite the lack of acquisitions, “we made a lot of moves” in 2016.
Among those initiatives was the appointment of Kelly Barrales-Saylor as editorial director of the company’s children’s nonfiction program, as part of the plan to expand that segment of the company. The publisher’s entertainment and gift division, formed in 2014, had its best year ever in 2016 on the back of new releases such as How to Catch a Leprechaun. An agreement with Major League Baseball led to Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Champions: The Big Book of Activities, which was published by Sourcebooks’ Jabberwocky imprint shortly after the Cubs’ triumph. Sourcebooks also signed author Juliet Lyons’s paranormal series Undead Dating Service, the first deal reached as part of the company’s Submit2Sourcebooks partnership with online writing community Wattpad. On a more macro level, Sourcebooks signed distribution agreements with four companies to expand its international business.
Raccah is optimistic about Sourcebooks’ prospects for 2017. “We may have our best list ever,” she says. A new line that has her particularly excited is the Dragon Brothers picture book series, which comes with an augmented-reality app that provides an enhanced reader experience. The books follow the adventures of brothers Flynn and Paddy. Once the app is launched, a child can hover his or her device over a map to explore Flynn and Paddy’s interactive world, allowing the reader to “see and hear dragons fly and geysers gush, and glimpse the brothers in action,” according to the company.
The series was created by New Zealand author James Russell and will be released in April. Raccah’s excitement about the launch stems from her long-held conviction that using technology can improve the reading experience. “We believe the opportunity with technology today is to connect kids with books in new and interesting ways,” she says.
As Raccah’s interest in augmented reality shows, after almost 30 years in the book business, she is still driven to find new ways Sourcebooks can reach new readers.
Notables of the Year