Business Books from Both Sides Now

Publisher Berrett-Koehler's unconventional -- and successful-- approach stresses both pro-corporate and anticapitalist titles

By Hardy Green

Does book publisher Berrett-Koehler have a split personality? Glancing at its autumn, 2002, catalog, two distinct kinds of titles jump out: First are the conventional business volumes, focused on such issues as mentoring and change-management. Then there are stridently anticapitalist critiques, including what B-K calls "the definitive document of the anticorporate globalization movement," which hits stores in November.

The seemingly contradictory mix has worked well for the small San Francisco-based outfit. Its hottest-selling titles include Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest by Peter Block, which the publisher says has sold more than 170,000 copies, and Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute by Ken Blanchard, John P. Carlos, and Alan Randolph, which B-K says is a 300,000-plus seller. The 10-year-old, privately held company reports around $5 million in annual sales and expects its performance in 2002 -- a tough year for most publishers -- to be a slight improvement over 2001.


  Steven Piersanti, B-K's president and publisher, sees no contradiction in his book list. He explains it this way: In the early '90s, Piersanti was chief executive of publisher Jossey-Bass when it became part of mogul Robert Maxwell's media empire. In that corporate setting, he says, he saw "a lot of use of compulsion and ineptitude in terms of working with people, lots of bureaucracy. I felt that there had to be a better way to run things. From global consciousness to economic systems to communities to organizations, change needs to happen at all levels."

It's that last step that takes B-K into territory unfamiliar to most business-book houses -- the worlds of New Age philosophizing, social criticism, and, indeed, street protest. Two of its books, David Korten's When Corporations Rule the World and The Post-Corporate World, are favorites of anti-International Money Fund activists. The Web site of the People-Centered Development Forum, of which Korten is president, promotes the books while excoriating capitalism's "suicide economy." Instead, PCDF favors "democratic, market-based alternatives that embody principles derived from the study of healthy living systems."

Marjorie Kelly's The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy denounces capitalism's "predemocratic concept of liberty reserved for property holders, which thrives by restricting the liberty of employees and the community." Other rabble-rousing B-K titles include Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor; and the new antiglobalization book, Alternatives to Economic Globalization, which lists 19 activists from such organizations as Friends of the Earth and the Rainforest Action Network as its authors.


  Berrett-Koehler isn't a left-wing outfit, though, explains the publisher. He points to another fall title, Walking the Talk by DuPont CEO Charles O. Holliday Jr., Anova Holding Chairman Stephan Schmidheiny, and Royal Dutch/Shell Managing Directors Committee Chairman Philip Watts, as offering "the business case for sustainable development."

Says Piersanti: "Our company is focused on uncovering new alternatives -- on saying, 'Yes, there are different ways of thinking about things.' Alternatives to individual greed and to the dominant economic model truly exist. We want to bring to light what's already out there -- to open up new space."

Nor does this attitude faze more traditional business authors who have published with B-K. "What Steve represents is a very ethical publisher who's trying to have a larger vision than just making a profit," says Robert B. Tucker, author of the just-published Driving Growth Through Innovation: How Leading Firms Are Transforming Their Futures. Adds Tucker: "He's very rigorous, so you can be sure that anything he publishes is not fluff."


  Margaret J. Wheatley, author of the best-selling business title Leadership and the New Science, says B-K should be congratulated for its foresight. "They've kept up with the times, where business has become the dominant and dominating force on the planet," she notes. "Business leaders must assume responsibility for the world that has emerged with global business."

The publishing house is also unconventional organizationally. Piersanti rejects the notion that any one "stakeholder" group should have most of the power. Authors, investors, suppliers, representatives of support institutions including libraries and colleges, and the company's 19 employees all have a voice in decision-making.

"We have community dialogues that draw these various stakeholders together in our strategic planning," he says. And every author gets an Author Day -- a full day during which the writer makes a presentation about the book's content, joins in design and production meetings, and brainstorms about promotion and marketing.


  That's quite a switch from most publishers, where authors are lucky if they get a say in the book's title. "Because we partner on books, I know that I can move into new territory both in ideas and book design, and that we'll both learn from the experience," observes Wheatley.

"It's a fresh approach to publishing," says Tucker. "Publishing is an industry that has gone way wrong. But Berrett-Koehler has redefined the author-publisher relationship, bringing out the best in authors. They don't just buy the book and tell the author to go away." That's a new alternative that few writers would reject.

Green is Books editor for BusinessWeek in New York

Edited by B. Kite

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