Careers: Interviews
A Look at the Publishing World

Stephen Ibaraki, ISP, recently held an exclusive interview with the Vice President of Merchandising, John Pierce, of Pearson Education (http://www.pearsonptg.com). Pearson Education is the world's largest publisher.

John has a varied and rich background having been involved in every aspect of the publishing field, from marketing, to publisher, to merchandising, to Web media plus being an international authority in computing.

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Discussion:
Q: I welcome you John and thank you for agreeing to this interview and sharing your experiences, wisdom, and vast skills with our audience.

You are widely regarded as a noted authority in the publishing field and widely regarded as a highly talented senior executive. What are your five top tips for effective leadership?

A: They are:

  • Trust, first and foremost - if you've hired correctly, you should have the best and the brightest. Let them run and give them a lot of rope.
  • Celebrate failure - like trust, you cannot berate someone for taking a risk and blowing it. If they don't try, they don't innovate, and you don't win. Learn from mistakes and share them, then fix them and move on.
  • Take the door off the hinges - I know many colleagues with an "open door policy". My philosophy is the same, but my people come first. I always try to make time for them, no matter what the subject.
  • Everything is my fault - when my team fails for whatever reason, I am very supportive publicly and privately. If someone is going to get in trouble, that person will be me. On the flip side, I make it a point to go out of my way to praise a job well done publicly.
  • Tough love - people don't grow unless you give constant feedback, both good and bad - a little gentle nudging goes a long way.



Q: Can you tell detail your personal history and in publishing?
A: Born and raised in New Orleans, I worked my way through college always thinking I'd be a clinical psychologist. When attending graduate school, I was afforded the opportunity to break into publishing at OCLC in Columbus OH where I worked on electronic publication systems and delivery systems for scholarly content to desktops when there was no World Wide Web yet. That led me to a day in 1994 while giving a speech at Internet World on SGML tagging when I met the recruiter that would get me into Macmillan, and since then, I've been involved in almost every aspect of the publishing field, from marketing, to publisher, to merchandising, to Web media.


Q: Can you detail the history of your company and what five factors that makes your company so successful?
A: Que actually began the phenomena that we know today as computer books back in 1981, when its founders realized that the personal computer wasn't that, well, personal. As the company grew and the opportunities expanded, Que merged with Sams Publishing and was bought by Maxwell-Macmillan, purchasing Hayden Books and New Riders along the way. Maxwell sold the operation to Paramount, which was then bought by Viacom along with Simon and Schuster, and the Macmillan USA company was created to do computer books, general reference titles, library reference products and digital media. When Simon and Schuster was sold to Pearson PLC, the former Macmillan computer units were merged with Addison Wesley, Prentice Hall and Peachpit Press to form the Pearson Technology Group, which is by far the largest publisher in the field today.

In terms of success factors, our company has always stuck with these key ideas:

  • Be fast - first usually succeeds
  • Be branded - series and authors drive much of the success in this industry
  • Be better than everyone else - if you can't be first or branded, you better have the best product and the ability to prove it
  • Be "of the market" = community means more to buyers of computer books than anything else, and advertising doesn't get you much
  • Innovate, Innovate, Innovate - eat your own young - take risks, make mistakes, learn voraciously, then leap again


Q: What are your one, three and five year goals?
A: One year goal- surviving another year of anemic tech spending, which has a significant effect on the computer business as a whole. Three year - further refining our consolidated marketing efforts to drive the initiative of Pearson as the predominant player in this market. Five years - I hesitate to think that far ahead - this is a wacky business.


Q: What are the hottest publishing trends and your top selling titles?
A: Graphics and web development titles lead the pack, as topics like Photoshop and Dreamweaver continue to sell very well. Our Visual Quickstart Guides from Peachpit, Classroom in a Book titles from Adobe Press and Sams Teach Yourself series have all performed extremely well, even with the tech downturn. Our top selling titles include the Photoshop 7 Visual Quickstart Guide and MacOS X Visual Quickstart Guide.

Consumer titles which provide value to the end consumer also fair very nicely, such as our "Best of the Internet" directory at $9.95, as well as our tie in with TechTV, the first cable network dedicated to the tech space. Leo Laporte's Technology Almanac continues to be one of the industry's strongest sellers.


Q: Where do you see publishing and/or technology evolving in the next two years and five years?
A: In the technology realm, the next two to five years are going to be years of integration and simplicity. Technologies such as .NET and Sun's SunOne initiative are going to try to make applications simpler, more integrated and easier to use. I think many of the major vendors are going to continue to simplify their applications, and make them more portable. Watch, in the next five years, the phone will take the place of many PDAs and laptop usage.


Q: What do you see as the next major killer application or technical innovation?
A: Web services - real time integration, in some way, will revolutionize everything we do. It'll take a while to get the kinks worked out, but reducing our dependence on the desktop/laptop and transferring our "work" to tablets, PDAs or phones is inevitable.


Q: Do you have two favorite stories to share with our audience?
A: I have one - how I got into book publishing in the first place. As I mentioned before, I started in the library world. My boss fell ill, and asked me to give a presentation for her at Internet World about SGML systems and the future of distributed content (big yawn). Well, I figured that I would have a captive audience of two people for this presentation, and ended up with 400 - scared me to death. I must have been decent, because a recruiter came up to me and said - "you don't know anything about book publishing, but do you want to talk about a position with Macmillan." That statement seems to be the story of my professional career.


Q: How does one become an author or technical editor for your company?
A: To be an author, one only needs to submit a proposal to any of our web sites. Our organization is always looking for the next mind to tell our audience great things. All of our web sites also have contact links for those that want to be technical editors. Unlike the "trade" business, more gets done on a proposal and resume than a full manuscript.


Q: What advice and tips would you give to aspiring authors/writers?
A: Passion and perseverance - that is the essence of publishing. A senior executive at Simon and Schuster once told me that there were two kinds of people in publishing - those who love it, and those that have lot's of money. If you want to be published, really think about your subject, the audience and your unique angle. Propose something. Iterate with feedback from the publisher. Then bug them to DEATH! Editors are busy folks, and perseverance will get you a long way.


Q: There is so much competition from a variety of sources. How do you maintain your unique position in the publishing world and clearly differentiate your titles?
A: As I mentioned, the "first, better or branded" message remains key. Our key value add is a sense of trust and professionalism, and that staves off free resources on the Internet and other places. The day that we begin to believe that what we do is produce "widgets" and that our business is a commodity is the day we stop publishing altogether.


Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Why publishing? Because it's the only job I can think of that keeps me on top of the latest trends, allows me to work with the best minds, and keeps me from ever knowing what I'll be doing in the morning.

Will books go away? While many of us experiment with electronic books and other resources, the good old fashion book will be around for a long time. Simplest "technology" in the world, and most likely not to kill you if you drop it in the tub...

If technology is getting simpler, will technology books go away? No. The simpler the technology, the more complicated the stuff that makes it up. Engineers and programmers will be the back bone of technology forever, and they must always learn. If you don't believe me, try telling the story of the Illiad in one minute, and you realize the complexity of simplicity.


Q: Consider this a blank slate, what additional comments would you like to make?
A: I've enjoyed this conversation immensely - if your readers have any questions about the publishing world, have them drop me a line:
john.pierce@pearsoned.com


Stephen:
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us John.

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