Berrett-Koehler Publishers, known for its books on socially responsible career paths and values-based leadership, has published nearly 1,000 titles on business, economics, social justice, and personal development since it was founded by Steven Piersanti in 1992. Piersanti, who stepped down from a leadership role in 2019 but remains a full-time acquisitions editor, touts the company’s “mission of ‘connecting people and ideas to create a world that works for all.’ ”
BK sales first topped $10 million in 2018 but slipped to $8.9 million in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, before posting an 18% revenue gain in 2021, to $10.5 million. “We’ve heard from long-standing BK community members that 95% of American companies plateau or fold before they reach $10 million in revenue, but for the companies that achieve this milestone, it marks the beginning of a big growth curve,” said David Marshall, BK’s CEO and CFO. ”We are well positioned for our next wave of growth as we start our fourth decade.”
Katie Sheehan, associate director of communications, said, “Business has always been our sweet spot, and we still have all our franchise authors: our Ken Blanchards, our Brian Tracys.”
In 2021, 69% of BK’s print sales made through its distributor, Penguin Random House Publisher Services, were through Amazon, accounting for 33% of BK’s overall revenue, according to v-p of sales and marketing Kristen Frantz. Digital sales (e-books, audio, and online training programs) accounted for another 27% of revenue. BK also sells its business books direct to HR, managers, C-suite executives, and employees. Recently, when doing bulk sales for companies’ virtual events, BK bundled print books, e-books, and audiobooks; attendees could choose their preferred formats, and it made it easier for overseas participants to access content.
BK became a certified B Corp in 2011 (recertified in 2018), and in 2015, it was the first book publisher to become a California Benefit Corporation—a category that requires the publisher to meet high standards of corporate, social, and environmental performance. (“We are the only book publisher in the world that is both that we know of,” Marshall said.) Adhering to those principles increased the difficulty of operating through supply chain disruptions. Recycled paper for reprints is hard to come by, and though hardcovers have cachet in the business community—the Wall Street Journal bestseller list features only hardcover titles—production costs and shipping delays led BK to put a moratorium on hardcovers for 2022.
Even with hardcovers on hold, BK’s paperback list continues to perform well, and audiobook sales went up by 33% in 2021 over 2020. Sonya Renee Taylor’s bestseller The Body Is Not an Apology was a particular success. “It’s a body justice book and it’s a social justice book; it just really hit its time,” Sheehan said. “We sold through the 30,000-copy first printing and ordered 70,000 copies of the second edition.”
BK has high hopes for the May launch of Taylor’s new title, Journal of Radical Permission, cocreated with Emergent Strategy author adrienne maree brown.
The publisher takes chances on “younger people with great ideas we can push out into the world,” Sheehan said. When titles do well, “we take our 20% profit from them and feed it into five more first-time authors. Five years ago we made the commitment to taking on more authors of color, including Sonya Renee Taylor, Tamara Winfrey Harris [Dear Black Girl], and Mary-Frances Winters [Black Fatigue]. With the profits generated from those three authors, we jump-started books by 10 or 12 women of color, and five more books are coming.”
Promoting and celebrating BIPOC authors is part of BK’s “long-standing commitment to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, beginning with Cultural Diversity in Organizations by Taylor Cox, published in 1994,” said BK president and publisher Johanna Vondeling. This year, BK hired a consultant to help it design a long-term action plan to ensure it stays accountable in terms of its DEIJ efforts, Vondeling noted, adding that BK will prioritize recruitment, retention, development, and advancement of BIPOC employees in the years ahead.
Significant changes to BK’s workplace culture have also arrived in the form of remote employment. In late 2019, BK extended its office lease in Oakland through 2026, but most employees began working remotely in March 2020. That fall, BK polled its staff: “70% said they would prefer their primary workstation to be their home office,” Marshall said. Given those results, BK is seeking to sublease all or part of its new space in 2022, and will likely continue with a smaller physical space with shared workstations. BK sees potential in hiring remote-only candidates and hosting Bay Area events and retreats for staff as circumstances permit.
After 30 years in the book business, Marshall wants BK to evolve in the years ahead. “We are committed to transitioning the company from a more traditional book publishing business model to a media enterprise,” he said, “supported by our three growth areas: online training programs targeting newer generations of learners, data-driven advanced direct marketing to engage with our customers, and BK Professional, our new vertical publishing area.”
David Marshall, CEO and CFO, Berrett-Koehler Publishers