The year was 1984, and things were about to get interesting for a young publishing executive at the academic Westview Press, in Colorado, named Lynne Rienner. At the time, she was running the day-to-day operations of Westview for publisher Fred Praeger. One day, amid growing tension between the two, Praeger fired her.
“As so often is the case, getting fired turned out to be a good thing,” Rienner says. “Within days, many of my authors and others in the university world contacted me to suggest that I start my own business.” Months after her sacking, she did just that.
This summer marks 30 years since Rienner heeded the advice and encouragement of her authors and peers, and launched Lynne Rienner Publishers. The company was officially started in the summer of 1984, she says, with the date of incorporation listed as August 23. “In October 1984, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair with no books, but a stand, thanks to the American Collective.” And with the help and support of a number of publishers—including many international presses—her house got off on the right foot, she says.
“We became financially self-sufficient by the end of our fourth year. And we added the 10th person to our staff in our 10th year,” she recalls. “The opportunity I saw was to combine the quality level of a university press with the necessary efficiencies of an independent press. And that is the niche that we established for ourselves.”
Rienner now employs 16 full-time staff, in Boulder, Colo., as well as a host of freelancers and contributing editors. And from its humble roots, the press today publishes an impressive list of scholarly books, with a strong international flavor, in fields like international studies, politics, sociology, and criminology, as well as a small list of literature in translation, including books by such notable authors as Naguib Mahfouz, Ghassan Kanafani, Derek Walcott, and Tawfiq al-Hakim.
The business also includes FirstForumPress, which was established in 2008, and Kumarian Press, a 2013 acquisition, considered at the forefront in the field of nonprofit-sector management.
Personally, Rienner today is a highly respected independent publisher, well-known among her peers for her personal touch, and active in professional organizations, including the Association of American Publishers. After three decades—decades of deep, rapid technological and business changes in the publishing industry, including massive consolidation—she remains proudly independent—and her company is still growing.
Not that she hasn’t ever wondered what it might be like had she gone in another direction. “You betcha!” she says with a laugh, when asked if she had ever considered working for a larger company. “At the very beginning, I did not start out to build a company. But having built one for someone else, I thought, why should I do this again for somebody else? Why don’t I do it for me?” She recalls being offered $300,000 back in the ’80s for a 51% stake by an investor—and she turned it down. “That was a turning point.”
She concedes that it can be lonely at the top sometimes, and that she has wondered occasionally if it would have been easier with a partner, or even working under a corporate umbrella, to share the pressure of making major decisions. “But there is a real plus side to being independent,” she says. “There is a plus to knowing I can make decisions. This is a more human company. I think of this company as real live people publishing good books for other real live people.”
The Next 30
Over the past 30 years, Rienner has seen a lot of change—and she knows more is coming. E-books still account for a very small portion of the company’s sales, she says, but they are trending upward. And while digital has enabled innovations like print-on-demand that have made the academic publishing business more efficient, digital has also created tensions between libraries and academic publishers over issues like pricing and new models, something Rienner hopes can be overcome, even as strident voices on both sides of recent debates emerge.
“I find it troubling that there is tension between publishers and librarians, given how much overlap there is in our interests,” she says. “Based on my own conversations with librarians, I believe issues like open access, e-book licensing, and so on can all be resolved in a ‘win-win’ way.”
What does the future hold for Lynne Rienner, and the press she started? “I know this will sound boring,” she says, “but we will continue to do what we’ve been doing—publish good books that make a contribution.”