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The Insight at the Heart of Berrett-Koehler

Steve Piersanti Posted by Steve Piersanti, President and Publisher, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Steven Piersanti is founder, president, and publisher of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., a leading independent publisher of progressive books on current affairs, personal growth, and business and management.  

The Insight at the Heart of Berrett-Koehler

The dominant view in book publishing has long been that when an author signs a publication agreement with a publisher, the publisher now owns the book and the rights pertaining to the book.  The publisher “acquires” the book and it belongs to the publisher.

In 1991, as I was reflecting on my nearly fourteen years of experience in book publishing, the insight came to me that there was a better way to structure the relationship between publishers and authors: they could be equal partners, with shared rights and responsibilities, instead of publishers owning authors’ work.

This insight has influenced all I have done in publishing since then and it has had great impact on the design and operation of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

One initial consequence of this insight was the BK publication agreement.  Our objective, as I wrote, was “to create a more balanced and fair agreement - one that is more of an equal partnership - between the author and publisher,” whereas “most publishing agreements today are grossly one-sided: the author has few rights and many obligations, while the publisher has many rights and few obligations.”  Accordingly, the original BK publication agreement created nearly 22 years ago contained many provisions - all of which are still in our agreement today - to give authors rights that they often desire (such as partnering with the publisher in deciding many publishing details) and to strike from the agreement common provisions (such as the publisher having the right to the author’s next book) that smack of the publisher owning the book.

The most radical and unique provision is that the author is given the right to terminate the publication agreement after the book is published “if, for any reason, the Author is not satisfied, in the Author's sole judgment, with any aspect of the relationship with the Publisher or with the Publisher's performance in any aspect of publishing and selling the Work.”  This turns on its head the normal publisher-author relationship - wherein authors sign away their rights for life - and gives BK a powerful incentive to be responsive, collaborative, and high performing in all aspects of the publishing relationship.

This partnership insight has also led to a host of other distinctive BK practices, including:

- A “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors.”

- Viewing authors as insiders within BK who can interact whenever they wish with any and all BK staff rather than being expected to interact with just one “gate keeper” who tries to keep them from being a “nuisance.”

- Supporting the creation of an independent organization, the “BK Authors Cooperative,” that is owned and managed by BK authors to represent their interests and to aid each other.

- Launching each new book with an Author Day that connects the author to the whole BK staff, gets everyone excited about the book, and creates close collaboration between the author and publisher on all aspects of making books successful.

Because of these and other partnering practices Berrett-Koehler is viewed by many authors as one of the most “author-friendly publishers.”  As a result, even without our having any contractual obligations for authors to give BK first option on their next books, authors keep coming back to Berrett-Koehler.  Over 100 BK authors have already published multiple books with Berrett-Koehler, including 22 of our top 25 bestselling authors.

This partnership relationship with authors is clearly one of the secrets of Berrett-Koehler’s success.