Episode 53 – The Portfolio Penguin view with Adrian Zackheim

Adrian Zackheim‘There’s an awful lot of talk about platform in the media business these days,’ admits Adrian Zackheim, the founder of Portfolio, Penguin’s prestigious business book list. ‘It’s an obvious strategy for publishers to seek out people with pre-existing platforms and attempt to extend them, [but] one of the attractions of this work, for me at least, is that there is this calculation that one has to make about where is that platform? How significant, how important is the platform, and how good is this person as a communicator? Then how significant are the ideas that are being developed here? You have to triangulate those three considerations in order to determine the prospects for an author.’

This is a fascinating insight into how one of the world’s most famous publishers of business books makes his acquisition decisions, and where he sees the industry heading.


Penguin Portfolio: http://www.penguin.com/publishers/portfolio/

Alison Jones:  Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m delighted to be here today with Adrian Zackheim. Hello, Adrian.

Adrian Zackheim:      Hello.

Alison Jones:  Good to have you here. I’m just going to introduce you briefly to everybody. Adrian is the founder, president and publisher of Portfolio within Penguin Random House in New York, where he’s been editor to an incredible list of business authors, including of course Seth Godin, who recommended him as a guest on this show. He’s also previously worked at Harper Collins, William Morrow, Doubleday and St. Martin’s Press, cousin of Macmillan, where I used to work, so a nice little family connection there. He’s also the author of The Dummies Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Welcome to the show, Adrian, it’s great to have you here.

Adrian Zackheim:      Good to be here.

Alison Jones:  Firstly, of course we all want to know – what’s it like to publish Seth Godin?

Adrian Zackheim:      I’ve worked with Seth now on a number of books, not starting with his first, but for the last I guess 12 years or so, and I have to say he’s one of the most exciting authors I’ve worked with. He’s one of the most active minds I’ve encountered. He’s original and he is a spectacular collaborator.

Alison Jones:  He’s also an ex-publisher, isn’t he? I imagine he’s very savvy.

Adrian Zackheim:      Yeah, that is also an advantage because the details of publishing are well known to him, so he brings a lot of experience to the table and knows the ins and outs of our business as well as anyone.

Alison Jones:  It is one of the great joys of being an editor, isn’t it, is just working with some of the best brains on the planet.

Adrian Zackheim:      It’s definitely an occupational benefit. I can’t say that I have a complaint about that.

Alison Jones:  Now Adrian, you founded Portfolio for Penguin.

Adrian Zackheim:      I did.

Alison Jones:  Back in 2001 now; I didn’t realise it was quite so old. What was your vision for that? How did that come about?

Adrian Zackheim:      I’d been in publishing for a pretty long time, I guess, up to that point. I’d been running the Harper Business Line at Harper for the prior seven years, and I fancied the opportunity to start something from scratch and to set up an operation that, if you will, solved all the problems that I had inherited in other prior jobs. I suppose I created a few new problems, but at least I solved all of those problems.

Alison Jones:  Tell me a little bit about those problems. What kind of things were you kicking back against?

Adrian Zackheim:      I wanted to have a programme that was completely… where the marketing of the books was baked into the operation, where the people who were talking about the books to the public were completely involved in every part of the operation. I had found in prior jobs that there was a siloing effect between the marketing side and the editorial side, and my plan was to keep the two parts as connected as possible, and also to have the staffing on the marketing side be as robust as the editorial staff, and that has been something we’ve been able to do.

Alison Jones:  That is fascinating, because I’ve been in publishing 25 years, and I know there’s an almost sort of endemic distrust between marketing and editorial in many companies. Do you think it’s particularly business books that need that, or actually does the whole of publishing need to get editorial and marketing in the same room, on the same page?

Adrian Zackheim:      I’m a little reluctant to hand out advice to all of publishing…

Alison Jones:  Oh, go on.

Adrian Zackheim:      …but it had been my experience certainly that for nonfiction and particularly for business books … well, first of all, the market so-called for business books is very large and complex. There’s a whole ecosystem of business information, which is a little bit distinctive from many of the subcategories in the bookstore. There are magazine, newspapers, radio stations, and even TV networks that are dedicated to covering business information, so having a deep and experienced large marketing team that can connect with that complicated ecosystem struck me as a must. It wasn’t just a dialogue between us and book reviewers. In fact, it was not that at all. Reviews alone are not at all sufficient for any kind of publishing, but certainly not for business publishing.

Alison Jones:  Yeah, I totally agree. I think that multi-platform thing, it has been true for a long time for business books. I think it’s increasingly true for other kinds of books as well.

Adrian Zackheim:      It is.

Alison Jones:  Go on.

Adrian Zackheim:      No, what’s the next question?

Alison Jones:  I’m just interested in the mechanics of that. Your marketing and your editorial team, do they consider themselves marketing and editorial, or do they have a separate structure?

Adrian Zackheim:      In the beginning we just did everything together because we were very, very small. The founding of the imprint, it was just me and an assistant, but very quickly we added some marketing staff, and for the first five or six years the imprint was active all of the decisions were made by the group. I presided, but we had everybody participating, and even now we bring the group together a lot and have the entire team participate in many of the larger decisions. In all of our long term strategy work, we involve absolutely everybody, so that people are … well, they do have a stake in it and they know they do.

Alison Jones:  I think that’s a really interesting vision for the way that you went about the publishing. What kind of books did you want to publish?

Adrian Zackheim:      From the beginning our objective was to find books that were going to be in the discussion, in the conversation, in the business communities’ conversation. We were looking for voices that were going to be heard. Certainly in the early days we focused a lot on the utility of the books. One of the questions we generally asked was: how is this book going to be useful to our readers?

Now that the programme has matured, we are perhaps not quite as rigorous about the utility question, although I dare say that we can answer it in the affirmative most of the time. Of course you do end up publishing books that are just simply, on the face of it, they seem like subjects that we know our readers are going to be interested in. Whether the books solves their problem with that subject is another matter. If it’s not useful in the strictest sense, it needs to be informative in some significant way.

Alison Jones:  It reminds me of that William Morris quote: “You should have nothing in your house that you don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Adrian Zackheim:      I suppose it’s consistent with that. I don’t know about beautiful, but informative in any case.

Alison Jones:  I like that phrase ‘in the conversation’, because that is very much it, isn’t it? Books take ideas and explore them and then somebody else takes it up and does something else with it. I think it’s an ideas business. What do you think, when looking back over the big successes of Portfolio, are the characteristics that mark out, the really successful, the great business books that you’ve published?

Adrian Zackheim:      I’m not sure that I can detect a pattern. The first big success that we had back in the early part of the last decade was The Smartest Guys in the Room. I guess that was the first major book that we got traction with, and it was a journalistic book. It ended up being made into a documentary and it was an exploration of the Enron scandal. That I guess was on the informative side, more so than the utility side. I suppose there are uses for that book, and it’s certainly still in print and still being sold.

Alison Jones:  That’s timely as well, wasn’t it? Enron was back in 2001, wasn’t it, 2000…?

Adrian Zackheim:      Yeah, Enron, the thing happened in 2000 … I guess the company collapsed in 2001 and the book was published … I think it was 2003; I’d have to look that up. 2003 or 2004, but the point is it was a huge company, or was a company that was perceived to be huge, that turned out to be more or less founded on sand. For many of the industry pundits, it was a shock to find out that they had placed so much faith in an enterprise that really didn’t have any legitimacy.

Alison Jones:  I’m guessing the book explored the more fundamental questions that that created.

Adrian Zackheim:      Exactly, so that was our first big success, I guess. Shortly thereafter we started working … I think at that time, we had already started working with Seth Godin. He came quite early in the history of the imprint and we published Purple Cow first, and then many other books. Seth, of course, was a multiple threat because his books had applications around innovation, around technology, around marketing, around management. He was at the other end of the spectrum. Every book was bristling with utility.

Alison Jones:  Mm-hmm (affirmative), and rather genre-defying.

Adrian Zackheim:      Yeah, and he was a popular speaker and definitely he was creating the conversation. It was not so much being in it as he was defining the conversation. I don’t know how many of my authors we should be talking about. We’ve been lucky enough to publish many, many, many people who have moved the conversation either forward or in some direction.

Alison Jones:  Let’s talk about authors. Well, not particular authors, but just in general. If there’s no pattern to what makes a great book, it just is the right thing, the right topic at the right time by the right person, is there a pattern or is there a particular set of characteristics around really successful business book authors? What do they tend to do or be that helps with the marketing of the book?

Adrian Zackheim:      The ones that have been most successful for us are definitely … you can check off items. They’re original thinkers or at least, even if their ideas are not completely unique to them, they have found a markedly unique way to frame or discuss whatever it is that is their subject. They have identified something which is of critical importance to a large community. They offer solutions to problems that are universal, if that’s what they’re doing, if problem solving is their objective, or they’re reporting about something of universal concern. I’m thinking now about one of our authors, Scott Adams, the cartoonist and essayist …

Alison Jones:  Dilbert.

Adrian Zackheim:      Yes, Dilbert … who is an enormously creative individual that I’ve had the honour to work with for several decades now. Why is Scott Adams of continuous interest to a large audience? It’s a little bit hard to say. Do his cartoons and his blogs attract an audience because of some particular … he’s obviously a very funny man, but he’s also a puncturer of myths and he’s a righter of wrongs, in a certain way.

Alison Jones:  That’s a great job description.

Adrian Zackheim:      But mainly I think he’s funny. He’s obviously very, very funny. Maybe he’s a bit of an outlier.

Alison Jones:  Do you look for that platform? We were talking before about the multi-channel, multi-aspects of business thinking and the conversation going on all these different places. Do you look for somebody who has that platform already, or do you take that idea and build the platform around it?

Adrian Zackheim:      There’s an awful lot of talk about platform in the media business these days, and even we get confused about it sometimes. Certainly when we’re taking on an author who has never had a book published before, one of the indications that this is a person we should consider is the pre-existence of a significant platform, either in one media venue or in many, because that means that this person has already started to attract a community, and that that community can be built upon. It’s an obvious strategy for publishers to seek out people with pre-existing platforms and attempt to extend them.

Alison Jones:  It de-risks it a bit for you, doesn’t it?

Adrian Zackheim:      It does, although that’s one of the attractions of this work, for me at least, is that there is this calculation that one has to make about where is that platform? How significant, how important is the platform, and how good is this person as a communicator? Then how significant are the ideas that are being developed here? I suppose you could say you have to triangulate those three considerations in order to determine the prospects for an author, and obviously we’re wrong as often as we’re right.

Particularly in this day and age … I suppose I’m going to cheat here and I’m going to go back to a book that Seth Godin wrote quite a long time ago called Tribes, in which he alleged that people in our present highly digitised universe, everyone is compelled to be a leader or to contemplate the role of leadership because there are so many tools at our disposal for communication and for building a following.

I suppose a corollary of that is that anybody who is a compelling thinker and communicator, who has been completely unable to build any sort of following or to even create a ripple of interest in the media world, when they come to us with their book proposal, we have to consider it with some suspicion, because how come nothing has happened around this idea set so far? Which is not to say that that is a consistently reliable indicator, but it is a concern.

Alison Jones:  That’s interesting, so it’s almost becoming a needed to play. You know, you have all these tools and why have you not begun this …

Adrian Zackheim:      Particularly if you were now coming to us and saying, “I am dying to get this idea in front of a large community. You need to help me because this idea is so important, but I really have not been able to attract a single follower.”

Alison Jones:  Yeah, when you put it like that, there’s a definite flaw in the logic.

Adrian Zackheim:      Yeah.

Alison Jones:  You’ve also been an author, which is interesting. I’ve done this as well; you can see from both ends of the telescope. Tell us a little bit about what you learned working at the sharp end, working at the author end, as well as the publisher end. What did you discover about the process and about yourself?

Adrian Zackheim:      That was a long time ago, so let me see if I can reactivate that recollection. It was invigorating to write a book. I had a collaborator, so that I did not have to … the entire burden of the creative process was not on me. I was a full-time publishing executive at the time, so it certainly would have been difficult I think to have written a book without that help.

I suppose the most important thing it did was it gave me a much clearer sense of what it’s like to go through the rigours of writing a book, particularly under time pressure. I think I have been quite a bit more indulgent of authors ever since, seriously, because I … prior to the work I did on that book, I really was not as clear on what was involved. I was very involved with my writers up to that point, and I’d vetted many books and put in many long hours, but the psychological experience of having the book be mine and having the deadline be attached to me personally was a new one, and it was very, very helpful to me in the way I work with writers now.

Not that I’m a pushover I hope, but I’m certainly more sympathetic to the challenge. Writing a book, it’s all very well to talk about the outline and about knowing what the content of the book is once I have an outline, but the reality is that every book, as Anne Lamott has said so pointedly, has its own path, and every nonfiction book, as well as every novel, and sometimes that path goes in unpredictable places and takes the author with it.

Alison Jones:  That’s part of actually the point of writing, isn’t it? It’s a thinking tool as much as anything, but the corollary of that is that sometimes you need to go back and revisit the whole principle.

Adrian Zackheim:      It’s true. I can’t say that our book, the Dummies book, was a particularly unexpected path, although there were bumps on the road. There were facts or bodies of information that needed to be filled and that we hadn’t perfectly anticipated, and there were instances where we just needed to do more research than we expected. That made the process longer and took us down pathways that we hadn’t really expected, but we didn’t go as far afield as one might go in a more open-ended work, but still it was an education for me, and I think I’ve become more receptive to the issues that confront a writer in the process of producing a manuscript.

Alison Jones:  There’s two particular issues that immediately come to my mind. One is the time thing. As you say, you had a full-time job, and that’s the way for most business authors, isn’t it? They’re not full-time writers.

Adrian Zackheim:      Exactly.

Alison Jones:  They’re busy people by definition. The other one is the self-doubt, and it never really occurred to me … I know I used to be the editor of the Oxford Companion to English Literature. I remember talking to Margaret Drabble about it, and she was saying she had an utterly different relationship with me as her editor of a nonfiction reference book than she did with her fiction editor, and it was much less emotional. It was much more professional, like a partnership, but actually the emotional stuff still gets in there, doesn’t it?

Adrian Zackheim:      It does.

Alison Jones:  Yeah, I hadn’t quite taken that all on board so much before I started writing myself again.

Adrian Zackheim:      Yeah, so I think that’s true. Earlier in my career, I did work with novelists, and my observation, limited though it is, is that in writing fiction, there’s even a more compelling psychological component to the creative process, but it’s not absent in nonfiction at all. It’s definitely an emotional process, no question.

Alison Jones:  It is, and it’s a good point because I don’t think that people necessarily realise that straight off. When you’re not expecting it and then you’re certainly wracked by self-doubt, it’s a bit of a shock, but you know it’s part of the deal, at least you can be prepared for it.

Adrian Zackheim:      Yeah, that’s true.

Alison Jones:  So as we gaze off into … we’re recording this on the 16th of January, 2017, a brand new year, exciting new world, where do you think business books are going in this brand new world?

Adrian Zackheim:      Yes, I was afraid you were going to ask that question, and you did warn me, so I’m not surprised. I’m afraid I don’t have a terribly useful answer to it because business books are clearly going off in many directions, and it’s hard to know which one is going to predominate. It’s been my experience, and I’ve now been working in publishing books for the business community now pretty much full-time for about 20 years, maybe a little bit longer, and I have been just astonished overall over that period of time by the diversity of the books that we’ve published, and the number of different directions that we can dash off in at the same time. I suppose one of the standard comments is that in a period of rising economic possibilities, books on speculation do particularly well and then with diminishing economic possibilities, books about economic preparedness and survival have their moment, which I suppose is a way of saying either direction of the market is good for publishers.

Alison Jones:  It’s like being a florist, isn’t it? You get them on the way in and the way out.

Adrian Zackheim:      And on the way out, and I suppose as of right now we’re in a period of economic uncertainty, so that is particularly fertile soil for book publishing, and also political uncertainty. I think the obvious comment is books about political uncertainty and its effect on the economy are certain to flourish in the coming months and possibly years. Beyond that, books that advocate solutions to complex problems. However, it seems to me that business continues and the problems of the business community are complex and the appetite for solutions has never been keener, so I suppose I’m very optimistic about the category, never been more optimistic about the category, but where it’s going to take us exactly I can’t say.

Alison Jones:  It also means it’s very frontlist driven, doesn’t it? It’s very hard to backlist things when they’re all about uncertainty and complexity, and things are moving so fast.

Adrian Zackheim:      The interesting thing about business publishing is on the one hand, the frontlist is always a lively place because it’s very topical and there’s always new topics and new problems that need to be embraced. On the other hand, the great classics in the business world, the books that endure for a very long time and continue to be very popular, and as a business publisher, I can tell you that a very large of our annual revenue is derived from backlist sales because the books that we published early in the life of the imprint have stuck around and are still of tremendous interest to a new generation of leaders, a new generation of business students and so on, so we benefit from both parts of the process.

Alison Jones:  That’s really interesting. We’re running out of time I’m afraid, but I was going to ask you about e-books as well, which I think all trade publishers have been wringing their hands over the fact that e-books have not been as big a part of their revenue as was expected cheerfully ten years ago. Scholarly publishers not so much that’s worked pretty well. I’m guessing e-books are a relatively robust sector for business books.

Adrian Zackheim:      Actually, our experience is they are steady but not very large. We have never seen e-books become larger than 15% or 17% of our overall business.

Alison Jones:  Yeah, it’s just stuck there, hasn’t it?

Adrian Zackheim:      The speculation we make is that most of our readers are interested in having the book around for a convenient reference.

Alison Jones:  And to furnish the room?

Adrian Zackheim:      Something that… as a statement, that they’ve grown their body of knowledge and are serious about solving the problems in their workplace.

Alison Jones:  It’s true, isn’t it? A physical book says something about you in a way that invisible content on your Kindle app just doesn’t.

Adrian Zackheim:      That’s right.

Alison Jones:  Interesting. Absolutely fascinating, thank you.

Adrian Zackheim:      My pleasure.

Alison Jones:  Adrian, I always ask my guests to recommend another guest for the show, so someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books. Who do you think would be a good guest for the Extraordinary Business Book Club?

Adrian Zackheim:      Let me think about that. Probably be interested to hear from Ryan Holiday.

Alison Jones:  Do you know, I have asked Ryan Holiday on and he’s not responded, so I shall go and chase him up and say Adrian Zackheim said to come and find you, and see if that makes any difference.

Adrian Zackheim:      I’ve certainly had interesting conversations about business publishing with him, so he occurs to me as somebody.

Alison Jones:  I love the way he curates his book list as well.

Adrian Zackheim:      He’s just got ideas about this, and obviously he’s a practitioner. We’re proud to be his publisher. Maybe I can encourage him.

Alison Jones:  Yeah, that would be great, brilliant. Right, and if people want to find out more about Portfolio, I’ll put the link up on the show notes, but what should they particularly go and look for?

Adrian Zackheim:      I guess the link is the best place to look. We are updating even as we speak, so I think we should have some reasonably current information up there fairly soon.

Alison Jones:  Excellent, and given this is going to go out probably mid-February, are there any hot books that you particularly want to draw people’s attention to? What’s going to be the next big thing?

Adrian Zackheim:      I suppose I would recommend … I’m thinking now that we’ve just got Nick Bilton’s new book American Kingpin coming out around when the podcast will be landing, so perhaps you might want to give Mr. Bilton’s book a look.

Alison Jones:  Fantastic, great hot tip there. Thank you, so much fun to talk to you, Adrian. Thank you very much for your time.

Adrian Zackheim:      My pleasure.

Alison Jones:  Good bye.


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  1. Pingback: The author platform: Why it matters for publishers - BookMachine

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