Tag Archives: books

A small publisher that thrives in a declining industry

By Steve Piersanti

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Editor’s note: For the past year I’ve been serving on the board of directors of the remarkable little publishing company in San Francisco that will release my new book, The Business Solution to Poverty, in September. Berrett-Koehler publishes nonfiction exclusively, concentrating on business, personal fulfillment, and current affairs. Unlike so many other publishers, the company has been consistently profitable throughout the past decade, outpacing industry standards with rising sales as the book market shrinks. Berrett-Koehler was founded 21 years ago by Steve Piersanti, who continues to serve as editor and president.

In keeping with Piersanti’s inclusive style, more than 100 of the company’s stakeholders—board members, staff, authors, suppliers, service providers, customers, sales partners, and shareholders—as well as several industry experts unconnected to the company gathered on June 18-19, 2013, to participate in Berrett-Koehler’s strategic planning process. (Full disclosure: I also serve on BK’s Strategic Planning Team and helped prepare the event.) What follows is adapted from Steve’s opening remarks for the two-day event. He entitled his presentation “Secrets of Berrett-Koehler’s Success.” 

The article that follows is long (more than 5,000 words) but it’s well worth reading if you want to know what it takes to flourish in an industry—any industry, actually—that is experiencing disruptive change.

1.     Multiple Stakeholder Focus

This is really the foundational concept of Berrett-Koehler. This concept came before our publishing programs, our mission, our books, everything. It goes back to before Berrett-Koehler existed. Before founding BK, I had been president of Jossey-Bass Publishers during its challenging transition from being an independent company to becoming part of the media empire of Robert Maxwell and being placed as a division of Maxwell Communications Corporation. I quickly discovered that our new corporate parent was calling all the shots, and none of the other Jossey-Bass stakeholders really mattered. Not the Jossey-Bass employees who were central to the company’s success; not the authors with whom Jossey-Bass had longstanding relationships; not the suppliers and service providers on whom the company depended. All that really mattered was the call from my boss in New York City.

What was especially troubling about this new balance of power was that there was nothing our new corporate parent was doing that made Jossey-Bass more productive or profitable. Yet, without adding any value, the corporate parent presumed to unilaterally govern our company. It was easy to see that something was deeply wrong with this equation.

And so, when I created Berrett-Koehler’s founding document, “Vision and Plan for a New Publishing Business,” the starting place for my attempt to “rethink the concept of the publishing company” was what I called “Multiple Stakeholder Focus.” “Five ‘stakeholder’ groups – authors, employees, suppliers, owners, and communities (customer, societal, and environmental) – contribute to the success of publishing ventures. Each has a ‘stake’ or investment in the publishing business, whether that investment is time, talent, money, or other resources . . . Berrett-Koehler believes that more balance and equity is needed in the dealings among the stakeholder groups, so that the employees, authors, suppliers, and communities benefit more from the investment each makes and the value each creates for the publishing business. Berrett-Koehler also believes that the relationship among the stakeholder groups needs to be more of a partnership and more fair, open, humane, ethical, and interactive among all of the groups.”

An early manifestation of this focus was that our very first catalog in May 1992 listed many of our stakeholders by name in the catalog. We’ve done this in every catalog since then.

2.     Stewardship

This has gone hand-in-hand with multiple stakeholder focus from the beginning. We were deeply influenced by the ideas in Peter Block’s book Stewardship, which I started working on with Peter right after I began organizing Berrett-Koehler Publishers. In our first catalog I wrote: “If I were to choose one word to describe our vision, it would be ‘stewardship.’ By this I mean a deep sense of responsibility to administer the publishing company for the benefit of all of our ‘stakeholder’ groups.”

Block defines stewardship as “the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control, of those around us. Stated simply, it is accountability without control or compliance.”

So here was our role as BK managers and employees: to be accountable for serving the interests of all of BK’s stakeholders without needing to do so through control or compliance. Actually, we hope that all BK stakeholders will view themselves as stewards who are accountable for serving the interests of other stakeholders and the whole without needing control or compliance to do so.

3.     Community Engagement and Support

A couple of years into my service as president of Jossey-Bass Publishers I got a call from my boss in New York in which he said that there was a corporate-wide workforce reduction going on and all units were required to cut their headcount by 10 percent. Jossey-Bass had 68 employees, and we were instructed to reduce our headcount to 60 employees. This made no rhyme or reason for Jossey-Bass because we were highly successful and growing rapidly; we had just finished a year in which our sales were up 22 percent and our profits were up 46 percent. Moreover, our business plan of adding 8 more employees had already been approved, and now we were told that we had to instead cut 8 employees. This would have required us to lay off 8 employees, which was unjust and unjustified to me, given the circumstances.

Long story short, our management team fought this edict for two months and I refused to carry out the corporate order. On the afternoon of May 29, 1991, I was fired and told to clean out my desk. But the grapevine worked very quickly and the very next day at my home my phone started ringing with calls from Jossey-Bass authors, suppliers, and service providers who expressed their dismay at this chain of events, their belief in my work and stance, their encouragement to start a new publishing company, and their offers of support. These calls continued for many weeks, as one person who had heard the news would tell another person and encourage that person to contact me, and so on. It was through the support and engagement of all these people that Berrett-Koehler Publishers was born. Listed on the screen are some of the many people who became part of our original community in the first few months when Berrett-Koehler was being organized.

Today there are hundreds of ways that BK engages our communities and receives support from our communities. In the interests of time, I’m going to mention just one. BK authors and other community members are an army of scouts out searching for good authors and good book projects for us and recommending to those authors that BK would be the best publisher for their books. They are the most credible and influential scouts we could possibly have because they know so much about their fields and about BK.

Here’s how bestselling author Peter Block describes this engagement: “I have been a constant source of new authors. When someone comes to me about publishing a book, BK is the first place I send them. I do this partly because I know they will be treated with respect, and they will learn something about the market for their ideas. Most people I refer to BK get refused, but in a useful and sensitive way. So this publisher has a low cost feeder network for new properties, the life blood of the business.”

And here’s how bestselling author Richard Leider describes this engagement. “I have proudly referred dozens of would-be authors to BK over the years. So many that they have offered, partly in jest, to print a BK business card for me! Whether an author landed a contract with BK or not, EVERY single one of them thanked me for the care and insights that they received from BK. Now, that’s walking your talk!”

4.     Publish Books That Make a Difference

When our Editorial Director, Neal Maillet, applied several years ago to work at Berrett-Koehler, he wrote: “As a business and leadership editor whose titles frequently competed for shelf space with BK, I can only express my deep sense of admiration and, to be honest, envy, for the consistent sense of mission and values that BK titles communicate. BK books are for people who are determined to improve themselves and their organizations – not just to rely on corporatespeak or easy answers. BK titles always present a challenge and an invitation – the challenge to do the hard but rewarding work of making positive change, and the invitation to seek beyond self-gratification to community . . . More than anything, a BK book isn’t just a product to be sold. It is invariably part of a message that is consistent across the entire organization.”

It may surprise you but publishing books with a difference-making message was not part of the original concept of Berrett-Koehler. The original concept was more mainstream, which I described as “Leading-edge publications that make new contributions to professional audiences.” But this quickly changed. The books we attracted – and the books that most interested us – were books with big, path-breaking messages about changing individuals, organizations, and the world.

This started with Leadership and the New Science, which was one of the first three books BK published. When a former college advisor of mine sent me Meg Wheatley’s manuscript, I immediately saw that this was different from all the hundreds of books that I had worked on in my previous thirteen-year career as an editor and book marketer. The Library Journal review captured the difference: “Hold onto the top of your head when you read this book . . . Using exciting breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, and especially quantum physics, Wheatley paints a brand-new picture of business management . . . nothing less than an entirely new set of lenses through which to view our organizations.” A newspaper columnist called “The Lazy Literate” expressed the uniqueness of Meg’s work on her next book in a less flattering way: “Yikes! These folks have been eating too many avocados in their hot tubs!” Either way, Leadership and the New Science went on to not only sell nearly 400,000 copies but also to profoundly influence the work of thousands of other book authors, organizational thinkers, and organizational leaders.

In our 20th Anniversary Celebration a year ago, I cited the case of how a single BK book, Future Search, has made a positive difference for tens of millions of people around the world through the many thousands of future searches in more than 90 countries that have been conducted by the more than 4,000 people who have been trained in the future search methodology.

To give a very current example, the annual meeting this month of the foreign ministers of the thirty-five member countries of the Organization of American States focused on drug problems in North America, Central America, and South America. This meeting was organized around the methodology of Adam Kahane in his new BK book, Transformative Scenario Planning. For the past year the president of Columbia and other country presidents and prime ministers have been working to develop new approaches to drug problems, and they turned to Adam Kahane and his book’s transformative scenario planning methodology to help create and articulate those new approaches.

5.     Eat Our Own Cooking

From the beginning, we have been striving to learn from the books we publish and to practice our book’s ideas in our own company and community.

For example, a central concept in Stewardship is to avoid class systems in management, employment, and compensation practices. One manifestation of class systems is that most organizations have two compensation systems, with the executive compensation system designed to pay those at the top as much as possible and the employee compensation system designed to control costs. Inspired by Stewardship, Berrett-Koehler has just one compensation system for everyone in the company, and it is designed to pay a living wage to everyone, to minimize the disparity between the lowest and highest paid employees, and to direct our company success to raising the whole boat. Accordingly, the difference between my salary and the salary of the lowest paid full-time BK employee has always been less than four to one from the beginning of our company until now. And the same benefit programs and incentive compensation programs apply to everyone.

Another example. Anyone who interacts with Berrett-Koehler soon learns that our culture is all about sharing information openly and freely, so that everyone knows everything. We are open source with authors, suppliers, customers, service partners, and even competitors. And I have always perceived my job to be continuously sharing information in many ways with all of our stakeholder groups. But you may not know the source of this culture and practice. It all started with internalizing the ideas in Chapter 6 of Leadership and the New Science, which is called “The Creative Energy of the Universe – Information.”  Read that chapter, and you’ll see what I mean.

BK has also been influenced by another of the first three books we published: Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge. Give up the illusion that you are ever in charge. None of us is ever in control. But we all can get things done when we are not in charge. Of course, this lesson applies to this event. We all can get important things done by acting on ideas that inspire us here even though none of us is in charge of others here.

Finally, here’s an example in the words of our tremendous Director of Subsidiary Rights, Maria Jesus Aguilo: “I was hired as a production and marketing assistant in 1996. At about that time we were publishing Managers As Mentors, so my boss at the time, Pat Anderson, took me aside and told me: I just finished this fantastic book and I really feel like I need to be a good mentor to you. Therefore, I would like us to talk about what it is that you expect from your work here at BK and help you all I can. I told her that I was very happy with my position and learning a lot, but what I would really like to do is rights licensing. A couple of years went by before an opportunity presented itself for me to do rights, but when it did, Pat offered me the position. I learned two things early on in my career at BK: that BK really walks the talk in ways that deeply affect others, and that my managers at BK really listened to my needs and acted upon them. Almost twenty years later, I still derive a lot of inspiration for my work from how the ideas in our books change lives in big and small ways. They changed mine!”

6.     Mission: Creating a World That Works for All

For the first eight years of BK’s history we were in search of a way to express our mission. A mission articulates the fundamental purpose of an organization or enterprise, succinctly describing why it exists. We tried many different ways of expressing our mission. Some are shown on the screen. All had good points, but we were not satisfied with any of them. So we made articulating our mission one of the central objectives of our strategic planning process in the year 2000. “Creating a World That Works for All” emerged from that process and has been our mission ever since.

What has happened over the past thirteen years is that “Creating a World That Works for All” has come to be shorthand for everything that BK community members love about Berrett-Koehler. It has come to signify – all wrapped up in one short memorable phrase – our multiple stakeholder focus, books that make a difference, stewardship, partnership, sustainability, and many other dimensions of BK. It has come to have great meaning for many BK community members, who use it frequently in telling others about BK and expressing their own connection to BK. It has also served to communicate to authors and others a BK point of view, and this point of view is one of our major competitive advantages, as book marketing consultant Todd Sattersten recently pointed out to us.

What does this mission mean in terms of seeking changes in the world, selecting publications that advance these changes, and striving to pursue these changes in our own company and community?

7.     Partnership

Partnership is the way we seek to run Berrett-Koehler and to interact with all of our stakeholder groups – with collaboration, invitation, dialogue, consent, respect, openness, integrity, and mutualism, instead of compulsion, force, violence, or hierarchy.

Partnership is at the heart of the relationship we strive to establish with authors. One manifestation of partnership is our publication agreement, which has many clauses that create a more collaborative relationship between the publisher and authors than is the norm in other companies’ publication agreements.

The fullest manifestation of our partnership with authors is the BK Authors Cooperative, the one-of-a-kind organization where our authors come together to help each other in many big and small ways to increase their success and impact.

We are now seeking to establish a Berrett-Koehler Foundation that would further extend our partnership approach to helping young leaders around the world put into practice systems-changing ideas and methods that help create a world that works for all.

This partnership approach extends to our relationships with our suppliers, service providers, sales partners, and other stakeholders, as I’ll describe in later examples.

8.     Quality and Value Added

All of our systems and approaches are designed to add value and create quality throughout the publishing process. For example, we create high quality in our books by forming longstanding, close, collaborative partnerships with about twenty of the best book production teams around the country, then by sending each new book to the book production team best matched to the unique requirements of that particular book, then by that production team, the author, and the BK staff all working closely together to customize and enhance the book.

Throughout the book publishing world there are constant lamentations about decades of decline in how much editorial guidance and support publishers offer to authors. In contrast, one secret of BK’s success is the extensive editorial guidance and support we provide to authors. We do this in three ways, of which only the third way is common today among other publishers. First, we do a great deal of up-front editorial coaching of authors to improve the core ideas, organization, and framing of books, even before draft manuscripts are written. Second, we send all draft manuscripts to multiple outside reviewers who provide readers’ views of how to improve manuscripts. And third, we arrange top-notch copyediting of manuscripts.

This quality pays off in helping many BK publications to be bestsellers, not just upon publication but for many years following publication. Three BK books have each sold well over one million copies: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy, and Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute. In each case BK provided editorial guidance that made the book sell far more copies and have greater impact than otherwise would have been the case. For example, my and our manuscript reviewers’ guidance tremendously strengthened John Perkins’ messages in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, anticipated the major challenges from critics, and helped Perkins add and clarify materials to address the challenges before the book was published.

9.     Author-Friendly Practices

When Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine gave Berrett-Koehler its award for “Stakeholder Accountability,” it told the following story in the article announcing the award. “At first, Howard Karger says, he couldn’t figure it out . . . A two-time Senior Fulbright Scholar, Karger is the author of multiple books. In late summer of 2004 he found himself working for the first time with Berrett-Koehler . . . [He said] ‘After 25 years of book publishing, I was suspicious . . . I was made to feel like a part of the organization. Almost like staff.’  He grew more wary when the publisher insisted that he travel to San Francisco to meet editorial, marketing, design, and publicity staff. Finally, he realized, ‘these were people doing what they believed in and producing books they were proud of. Democracy for Berrett-Koehler is not just a slogan.’ [The article concludes] In the rough-and-tumble world of book publishing, Berrett-Koehler stands out not only for its treatment of authors, but also for the manner in which it engages employees, business partners, readers, and community.”

This article is describing one of Berrett-Koehler’s many unique practices: launching each book with a full-day 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.

BK’s author-friendly practices include the following:

  • Author-friendly publication agreement
  • Collaboration in publication decisions
  • Collaboration in cover and interior design
  • Extensive sharing of information
  • Open access to BK staff on ongoing basis
  • Responsiveness to authors’ contacts and requests
  • “Author Day” for every author
  • “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for BK Authors”
  • and the unique BK Authors Cooperative, an independent nonprofit organization.

10. Integrity and Transparency

These are two elements of partnership. I’ve decided to feature them separately because they pull together so many other dimensions of what makes BK work, as does Jamie and Maren Showkeir’s book Authentic Conversations.

One example of the power of our sharing information openly is our how our partnerships have worked with our two principal book printers, Malloy and Hamilton. There have been times in BK’s history, such as from 2001 to 2003, when we faced severe cash flow shortages and probably could not have kept operating as an independent company without agreement from our printers to extend substantial additional credit to BK even though we were far behind in payments on previous printing jobs. Here is the explanation from Bill Upton, Malloy’s president at the time, for why Malloy continued supporting BK: “One experience that stands out is how open you were with financial information, both current and projected, as you worked with Hamilton and Malloy during the years of loans and past-due payables with us. That openness is what made it possible for both printers to hang in there and continue to support BK.” He continued: “The obvious integrity and commitment of you and the entire staff was a very important factor. We’ve had experiences with other publishers in the past where they expanded their trade credit by working with additional suppliers – our old invoices were left unpaid while the publisher worked with new suppliers on a cash terms basis. We’ve also had publishers simply throw in the towel. Those scenarios were unimaginable with BK.” Fortunately, this trust paid off both for our printers and for BK. For some years BK has been, in Bill Upton’s words, “a model of correct, prompt, complete, problem-free bill paying.”

Our focus on doing what we say we will do, not overpromising, creating systems to fulfill promises, and holding ourselves accountable is especially noteworthy in the area of sales and marketing. Publishers are notorious for making lofty sales and marketing promises in their early discussions with authors and then not fulfilling their promises. Berrett-Koehler has just the opposite approach, which begins with being straight with authors about “The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing” [which can be accessed by clicking on its title here]. The rubber really hits the road with the extensive systems that our Sales and Marketing Department has set up (1) to explicitly tell authors all the things we will and will not be doing to market their books, (2) to follow through on everything that we said we would do, and (3) to report back to authors that we have done what we said we would do.

We strive to create systems of integrity and transparency in all areas of the company. For example, our book production systems are set up to enable us to publish books almost always on the schedule laid out at the beginning of the production process.

All of this is extremely challenging in an industry as complex as book publishing. BK Editorial Director Neal Maillet reflects this challenge when he reports, “I once asked the manager of a publisher’s royalty department how she kept track of all the tricky contractual exceptions editors negotiated and was told ‘We don’t – we just use the boilerplate and apologize profusely when an author or agent catches the mistake.’”

BK’s approach is to only commit to things that we can deliver, to create systems that enable us to actually fulfill our commitments, and to share information with our stakeholders that show how we have performed what we promised to do.

11.  Sustainability

Here I am focusing on two dimensions of sustainability. The first dimension is the thrust of many of our books, such as those pictured here, to establish lifestyles, institutions, economic systems, environmental systems, and other ways of living and interacting that are sustainable for generations going forward. The second dimension is establishing strategies and practices that make Berrett-Koehler Publishers sustainable both in terms of being able to stay in business and in terms of the environmental and social responsibility of our own business practices.

One embodiment of our commitment to sustainability is that Berrett-Koehler is a Certified B Corporation. B Corporations meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance. To qualify as a B Corp, Berrett-Koehler had to complete and pass a 230-question “Impact Assessment” that examined BK’s performance on measures of corporate accountability, transparency, compensation, benefits, employee training, worker environment, worker ownership, social benefit, community service, local involvement, diversity, job creation, and environmental practices.

12.  Multichannel Marketing and Sales

This has been part of BK’s formula from the very beginning. Our June 1991 “Vision and Plan for a New Publishing Business” listed 17 sales and marketing channels for the company. Today we still are active in all of the original 17 channels and have added many other channels, such as online booksellers and social media, which did not exist in 1991.

Our multichannel approach is good for authors and book sales because it increases each publication’s chance to succeed in the marketplace by giving each publication many diverse channels in which to find a market. For example, some books do poorly in bookstore sales but do well in special sales or foreign language translations.

Of course most publishers market through multiple channels. But most do not market as extensively in as many different channels as does BK.

The downside of BK’s approach is that it is very expensive. Berrett-Koehler devotes over 20 percent of our revenues to sales and marketing, which is far above publishing industry averages.

13.  Independence

In an age of corporate consolidation, BK has remained fiercely independent. Berrett-Koehler is owned by our stakeholders, including our employees, authors, customers, suppliers, service providers, and sales partners.

This independence allows us to chart our own course and to not have our unique values and practices submerged in a giant corporate bureaucracy. And it allows us to own our own future and to not be governed by short-term stock market pressures and shifting corporate edicts.

14.  Continuity, Constancy, Fidelity

One of BK’s great strengths has been our ability to keep good people and the resulting continuity of our staff. 18 of our 25 employees have been with BK for 5 or more years. And our average staff tenure with BK is 10 years. Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em has not only been a bestselling BK book, it has also been a guide to our company.

Another secret to our success has been the constancy of our purpose, vision, and distinctive practices over many years. Our list of 11 “Guiding Concepts for Berrett-Koehler Publishers” was written 21 years ago. All of these “Guiding Concepts” are still our touchstones today – such as multiple stakeholder focus and environmental consciousness and action. This constancy increases our ability to move Full Steam Ahead!, as the title of Jesse Stoner and Ken Blanchard’s book proclaims.

When people ask me what about Berrett-Koehler I am most proud about, my answer is our fidelity to our mission and values during the many challenging periods we have had over the years. For example, when the great recession hit in 2008 and 2009, like most publishing companies we experienced a substantial revenue decline. However, we decided to respond to this crisis by doing more of what BK stands for – under the headings of Integrity, Mission and Strategies, Participation, and Efficiency and Effectiveness – rather than compromising our mission and values. Whereas Publishers Weekly reported that approximately two thirds of publishing companies laid off employees and cut back their publishing programs during this period, Berrett-Koehler did neither. Instead, we shared full information with all employees, and the employees collectively decided to take a 10 percent across-the-board salary reduction (except for the lowest-paid employees, who received smaller reductions), which the employees then lifted after revenues recovered. My hope is that our identity as a company and community is so deeply imprinted that it will be our destiny and carry us through the many other challenging periods that are surely yet to come.

15.  Continuing Innovation

The previous 14 secrets may make it sound like BK is in good shape. However, it is clear that we cannot stand still. Everything is going through continuous change around us in our business and publishing environments. Unless we are leaders ourselves in making the future, unless we do new and surprising things to leapfrog over obstacles that have constrained us in the past, and unless we continue developing new ways of doing business that bring greater value to our customers and other stakeholders, Berrett-Koehler will not survive over the long term.

Larry Ackerman, author of Identity Is Destiny, recently observed that BK is now 21 years old and that this age can be viewed as having reached “adulthood.” I think that is a good image for where we are now. At 21, it is time to turn more of one’s focus outward to contributing to a larger work and to making a bigger difference in the world through service to others. This can be true of Berrett-Koehler as well and this event can help BK reach out in new and better ways to make a greater positive difference in the world.

As we seek to innovate in new ways, it is my prayer that we will continue to be guided by the secrets named in this address. I believe that there is great power within these ideas and that they will make our innovations better and more likely to succeed. We can do more to create a world that works for all. Thank you.

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Top 10 trends shaping the future of publishing

By Johanna Vondeling   

1. Everyone’s a publisher

Now that digital content is popular and relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, millions of individuals and thousands of non-book-publishing media companies have leapt into the business of creating and distributing digital content (often coupled with print-on-demand options).[i] [ii] The near-elimination of barriers to entry into the publishing marketplace has produced an ever-increasing flood of information and entertainment options for consumers.[iii]

Moreover, publishers’ primary competition today isn’t other books, but rather other forms of media, such as social media platforms, games, and streaming media. As the presence and relevance of physical retail for books continues to decline, so too will the necessity for other entities — including authors and other content producers — to work with established legacy publishers to bring books to market.[iv]

2. Content comes first

All content producers now need to approach format as a secondary consideration. The innovators are designing work-flows that prioritize the development and (pre-publication) tagging of content irrespective of format, knowing that the eventual outputs could be infinite: Print book? E-book? Online course? Webinar? App? Blog? Tweet? Tagging must be “semantic” (tagged for meaning, not just coincidence of terms), to facilitate discoverability. Content producers must make it as easy as possible for content to be re-purposed by its curators and leveraged and shared by its marketers and distribution partners.

3. Content marketing is king

Content is still king. And content marketing (defined as “marketing without marketing, or building soft power and social gravity for a brand through shared values and interests”) is edging out traditional push-marketing practices. By disseminating great quality and immersive content through social platforms, content producers can market themselves without interrupting consumers with more explicit advertising.[v]

Content marketing facilitates reader engagement. Engagement, in turn, produces strong brand ties, leading to increased purchasing, product loyalty, and customer advocacy. But there is no standard definition or metric for engagement, nor do most organizations fully understand the migration from engagement to revenue. The challenges are 1) understanding what’s happening within the dynamic ecosystem of content and social media and 2) being able to make tactical changes to increase conversion and revenue.

4. Big data rules

The amount of data in our world has been exploding. Analyzing large data sets—so-called big data—has become a key basis of competition, driving growth and innovation. The increasing volume and detail of information captured by enterprises, and the rise of multimedia and social media, have all been fueling exponential growth in data.[vi] As a result, businesses now have broad and deep visibility into their stakeholders’ behaviors and values. But which information matters most? Big data offers promise in making sense of this complexity.

The few businesses that have successful migrated from print-first to digital-first models have invested significantly in building in-house data and analytics teams.[vii] While the growing importance of data analysts should not be under-estimated, the need for creative thinking in the changing world of marketing has never been greater. Note the rise in recruitment of ‘data scientists,’ who are savvy in computer science but – crucially – also able to apply creative thinking to data-driven challenges.

5. Mobile matters

The number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the world’s population in 2013.[viii] In 2012, mobile subscriptions in China surpassed 1 billion and mobile Web users overtook PC access to the web.[ix] Millions of people in developing countries may never own a book or a computer, but they do own a mobile phone.

To move forward in “mobile optimization” means content must be conceived of and designed explicitly for mobile devices. Every experience offered through digital channels – every web page, shopping cart and piece of rich content – must work well on any device in any location. Customers generally understand that concessions need to be made for the smaller screen, touchscreen input, and slower speed, but they won’t accept unnecessary hassle or delay. Apps are a part of today’s approach to mobile, but they are not a cure-all to this challenge, as use of the mobile web increases daily.[x]

6. The Internet is the classroom

The education industry is experiencing dramatic disruption. Profits and enrollment at for-profit colleges and universities in the United States are growing at a staggering rate.[xi] We’re witnessing the proliferation of “massive open online courses (“MOOCs”).[xii] Education start-ups are creating and offering online study groups, flashcards, lecture notes, and a wealth of other tools for free. Investment in education technology companies increased from less than $100 million in 2007 to nearly $400 million last year.[xiii] And while digital textbooks have been slow to gain adoption, many education providers are turning away from print textbooks in favor of digital devices in classrooms and lecture halls. In response, some publishers are diving head-first into the growing business of online education.[xiv]

The disruptive power of information technology may be our best hope for containing the soaring costs that are driving a growing number of students into ruinous debt or out of higher education altogether. It is also a potential boon to those displaced workers under pressure to become “life-long learners.” But this disruptive power also poses a potential existential threat to many physical universities and traditional textbook publishers.[xv]

7. Get used to strange bedfellows

Legacy industries, like book publishing, are realizing that they can’t go it alone if they hope to survive and thrive. Many are forming unlikely alliances or funding start-ups to help them adapt amid the present flux and strategize for the future. In 2012, Pearson bought Author Solutions, one of the leading providers of self-publishing services. In 2013, Pearson and Kaplan have both launched incubator programs to help vet and mentor education-tech start-ups. Macmillan has been aggressively investing a fund of over $100 million in ed-tech start-ups.[xvi] Other publishers are leveraging ties with other branded media platforms and content providers. Hyperion is selling its backlist and will focus exclusively on content tied to its sister companies Disney and ABC.[xvii] Wiley is distributing material from (former competitor) OpenStax College, an open-source platform that makes introductory college textbooks available as free downloads.[xviii]

8. Set up high-value networks

Platforms like Craigslist and eBay engage in “commons-creation” by establishing virtual spaces in which strangers can pool their ideas, sell products or services, and make social connections. The platforms that can provide real value gain users (and often revenue) quickly. We’re also witnessing a dramatic rise in the use digital personal assistants networks like Task Rabbit.

And Amazon successfully launched Audiobook Creation Exchange, a platform that connects freelance narrators of audio books with the owners of content who are looking to publish audio books. As workers experience less job security and turn increasingly to independent and task-based employment options, such platforms provide value by leveraging the sponsor’s “right of way” to create credible networks that connect people seeking products and services with those eager to provide them.

9. Crowdfunding has come of age

Digital crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Unbound, and Pubslush are proliferating, gaining both users and donors at a remarkable pace. Now, content curators can use these platforms to locate content that readers are attracted to and willing to pay for – before it is produced and distributed. Combined with the boom in self-publishing, this trend means more opportunities for cultural producers to identify content with proven market demand, and more ways to identify the hardcore fan base for a particular set of content, before making the decision to invest.[xix]

10. The means of production is going hyper-local

Paradoxically, globalization is both making it easier to purchase a product on the other side of the planet and moving the production of goods closer to the site of purchase. The emergence of “additive manufacturing” and 3-D printing holds the promise that individual creators and users can “make” anything in their own homes. Book and magazine publishers are printing closer to their customers through globally dispersed printing operations and print-on-demand programs. Espresso machines facilitate the printing of out-of-stock and self-published books in physical bookstores.[xx]

All these developments offer the opportunity to bring production closer to the customer, facilitating just-in-time sales and providing more sustainable alternatives to current distribution practices.

Johanna Vondeling is Vice President for Business Development at Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 

Notes

i.         “Shatzkin: Soon, Most People Working in Publishing Won’t Be Working at Publishing Companies.” Digital Book World. March 19, 2013.

ii.         “Ecco, MLB Team Up for E-book Series.” Publishers Weekly. March 20, 2013.

iii.         “The Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing.” Steve Piersanti. March 6, 2012.

iv.         “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future.” Wired. March 19, 2013.

v.         Adobe/Econsultancy Quarterly 2013 Digital Intelligence Briefing. January, 2013.

vi.         “Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.” McKinsey Global Institute. March, 2011.

vii.         “The FT has ‘crossed over’ to become a digital business—but can anyone else replicate that feat?” paidContent. March 18, 2013.

viii.         Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017. February 6, 2013.

ix.         “2013: The year nothing but mobile matters for any business selling in China.” MobiThinking. December 20, 2012.

x.         Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012-2017. February 6, 2013.

xi.         “The Rise of For-Profit Universities and Colleges.” University World News. July 15, 2012.

xii.         “Massive open online courses: Time and a little money are a worthy investment.” Financial Times. March 11, 2013.

xiii.         “The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

 xiv.         “Wiley Launches Digital Classroom, Video and Ebook E-Learning Site.” Digital Book World. March 19, 2013.

xv.         “The Siege of Academe.” Washington Monthly. September/October 2012.

xvi.         Publishers Lunch. March 7, 2013.

xvii.        Publishers Lunch. March 7. 2013

xviii.        “Wiley, OpenStax Team on College Biology Textbook.” InformationWeek.com. March 11, 2013.

xix.         “Veronica Mars Lives again: Lessons from a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign.” paidContent. March 17, 2013.

xx.         “Just Press Print.” The Economist. February 12, 2010.

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From the ashes of the Holocaust, a gift of lessons for living

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A review of Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

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“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” This is the conclusion that a young Viennese psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, reached in the course of more than three years in a succession of four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The book he wrote in the space of nine days in 1946, originally under another title, morphed over the years into the thin volume known around the world today as Man’s Search for Meaning. It has sold more than 12 million copies and been translated into 24 languages, serving as a source of inspiration and solace for millions of people. Man’s Search for Meaning is frequently cited as one of the most important books of the 20th Century.

Frankl’s almost matter-of-fact description of his years in concentration camps is profoundly moving, the more so because it’s a fiercely personal document and makes no attempt to relate the familiar statistics now surrounding the topic or to place the Nazi phenomenon in historic perspective. Frankl writes simply about how he personally managed to remain hopeful in the face of staggering brutality, including the murder of his young wife at Bergen-Belsen and the death of numberless friends and colleagues. As Frankl relates, their deaths came not only at the hands of SS guards but also, at least equally, as the result of sadistic behavior by the “Capos,” prisoners themselves raised to positions of authority and privilege by the Nazis. The effect of reading this material is searing. Here, God is truly in the details.

However, Frankl’s story about life in the concentration camps is only one of several parts in Man’s Search for MeaningThe edition I read included five pieces written over more than half a century by three different authors: a foreword by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, an Afterword by William J. Winslade, and three articles by Frankl. The first of these three, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” has received the most attention from non-professionals. The second, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is Frankl’s brief summary of the principles and procedures of logotherapy, the “third school” of Viennese psychiatry that Frankl created — an approach that’s often termed “existential psychiatry.” (Somehow, Carl Jung seems to have gotten lost in the numbering system — perhaps because he was Swiss, not Viennese.) Frankl also wrote a “Postscript 1984” bearing the title, “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.” And all this writing fits comfortably into a remarkably thin little volume. 

Intellectually, Frankl’s abbreviated introduction to logotherapy for the layperson, was the most intriguing part of the book. The term itself is derived from the much-used Greek word, logos, which has been applied to all manner of pursuits in philosophy, rhetoric, and religion. Frankl took it to mean something like “meaning.” He rejected the determinism of Freudian and Adlerian psychiatry, insisting that neither approach was useful in treating more than a minority of psychological problems. In his own practice and that of the students under his supervision in a series of top Viennese hospitals, Frankl found that many psychological problems could be easily cured by one or a few conversations between the patient and the logotherapist. Logotherapy involved no years-long sojourns on the analyst’s couch. (In fact, patients sat in chairs.) He cites many cases of ingrained phobic and compulsive behavior that he and his disciples cured by somehow convincing patients not to worry about their behavior. A lifelong stutterer, for example, was cured when he was persuaded to enter conversations unconcerned about stuttering — and the cure was lasting. A fellow physician transcended his depression over the loss of his wife in a single, short conversation with Frankl. The essential truth of logotherapy is as Frankl discovered in the camps: so long as we maintain a powerful commitment to some life goal outside our present circumstances, we can get through practically any privation.

Man’s Search for Meaning should be in everyone’s library. The lessons Viktor Frankl teaches can be applied to challenges in any culture and all walks of life.

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Enough already! An open letter to Janet Evanovich


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A review of Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Dear Janet (if I may be so bold),

Maybe it’s me, but I doubt that. After you’ve written — what is it? 50? 51? — novels all told, I think you’re losing steam. Notorious Nineteen is, of course, the 19th in your Stephanie Plum series, and it shows. Here are a few of the most prominent signs:

  • Not one but two cars Stephanie is driving are blown up;
  • Lula consumes at least 8,000 calories of junk food in a single day;
  • Ranger rescues Stephanie from imminent death not once but twice;
  • A really bad guy gets blown up trying to kill Stephanie; and
  • Morelli and Stephanie still aren’t ready to get married after talking about it for 10 years.

Truth to tell, some of this is funny as it happens, which is why I kept reading this series of comic novels so long. But the humor is fast fading, and so is the guilty pleasure I’ve taken so long in this series.

I don’t know about you, Janet, but I’m ready to put Stephanie out to pasture at last. Appearances notwithstanding, she’s really pushing 60 now, right? Isn’t it time to lay off the staff on that assembly-line writing factory of yours and see what you can do on your own again?

Think about it. You may not be able to write anything original, but you won’t know unless you try, no?

Your erstwhile fan,

Mal Warwick

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Louise Erdrich’s haunting new novel of a brutal crime on the reservation


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A review of The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

At its best, fiction transports us to places we’ve never been, immersing us in the lives of people we would never meet. The most powerful fiction leaves behind indelible memories, endowing its characters with meaning more vivid than life.  Louise Erdrich received the National Book Award for The Round House, which is powerful beyond measure and achieved all this and more.

Erdrich centers her tale on a bright 13-year-old boy named Joe Coutts. When we first encounter Joe, we think we may have met him before. He’s the nice kid who lives down the block or around the corner, riding his bike, usually with his friends, through a middle-class suburb, getting into mischief. His father’s a judge, his mother a civil servant. How could his life be all that interesting?

But Joe’s parents aren’t really like our neighbors, and they don’t live in a middle-class suburb or a prosperous urban neighborhood. Though well-educated and well-off by local standards, they are members of the tightly interwoven Chippewa community confined to a reservation in a barren stretch of North Dakota or Minnesota. And The Round House is a tale of a brutal crime that afflicts the Coutts family and lays bare the deep fault lines in their community.

As we get to know the Couttses and the many members of their extended family, we gradually become acquainted with the cruel legacy of racism that constrains their lives to this day. Sometimes we laugh along with them at the humor, marvel at the beauty of their story-telling, sigh with despair at the loss of the old ways. But we are never unaware of the uniquely disadvantaged circumstances they and their neighbors find themselves in.

The Round House is Louise Erdrich’s 14th novel. She is an enrolled (i.e., official) member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Nation whose grandfather was tribal chairman around the time of her birth in the 1950s. For three decades, she has been writing highly acclaimed works about her Native American heritage and the interaction of Native and majority communities. (Her father was German-American.)

An extended account of Erdrich’s life and career appears on Wikipedia, with numerous details about her long, tragic marriage to anthropologist Michael Dorris, whom she met as a student at Dartmouth College in the 1970s. Knowing some of the details of her life, it’s easy to understand how Erdrich can write of the pain her characters suffer.

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The 12 best nonfiction books I’ve read in 2012

This was going to be a list of 10 books, but I couldn’t resist adding another two. It’s been a great year for nonfiction.

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1. Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Review to be posted Dec. 10. Look for it!

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2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

A penetrating analysis of the racist underpinnings of the U.S. justice system, the result of the ill-conceived “war on drugs” and deep-seated racial fears that has led to the mass incarceration of people of color.

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3. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

This exceptionally brilliant book is the story of a long-lost poem and of the man who rediscovered it more than a thousand years later, helping to trigger an upheaval in medieval European thinking that came to be known as the Renaissance. The Swerve details the staggering impact of the poem, a 7,400-line masterpiece that laid out in minute detail the revolutionary worldview of a Greek philosopher whose greatest influence was felt two millennia after his death.

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4. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann

Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492 — and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong. In this revised edition of a 2006 bestseller, we learn that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.

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5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

An enthralling and deeply disturbing book that reads like a novel, this is a three-year study of life in a small Indian slum nestled between the new Mumbai International Airport and the five-star hotels clustered nearby. A quest to understand poverty and the ways people find to transcend it.

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6. The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

Through a geopolitical lens, Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, look a lot different than they do in most history books. Stand a few feet away from a globe and squint: if the globe is properly positioned, what you’ll see is one huge, three-tentacled landmass (Asia-Africa-Europe); a second, much smaller one that consists of two parts joined by a narrow connector (North and South America); and several even smaller bits of land scattered about on the periphery (Australia, Greenland, Japan, Indonesia). That’s the world as Robert D. Kaplan sees it in this illuminating study of world history and current events as influenced by geography.

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7. The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

A thoughtful and impeccably reasoned new book that goes straight to the heart of the conservative argument favoring limited government and coddling the rich. Rather than quibble about this program or that issue, or fasten on the transparently shoddy logic of a Republican budget that promises to reduce the federal deficit when in fact it will surely increase it, Miller and Lapham’s argument strikes at the fundamental values and assumptions underlying today’s conservatism: the myth rooted in the writing of novelist Ayn Rand of the superhuman “job creator.”

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8. Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

Focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945.  Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.

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9. Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy

The truly truly astonishing story — one with profound implications for development throughout the Global South — of how a retired Indian eye surgeon founded a nonprofit eye hospital in a southern Indian city in 1976 that is today “the largest and most productive blindness-prevention organization on the planet.” Equally important, Aravind also serves as a global resource center for opthalmology, training one out of every seven Indian eye doctors, consulting on management and technical issues with eye hospitals in 69 countries, and operating a state-of-the-art research center.

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10. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

The mind-boggling story of six European double agents who were “turned” or recruited by the British and played roles as large as those of any American general in the success of the Normandy invasion that opened up the Western Front and the path to Allied victory.

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11. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

As ambitious as it is digestible, and written in an easy, conversational style, The Signal and the Noise explores the ins and outs of predicting outcomes not just in politics, poker, and sports as well as the stock market, the economy, the 2008 financial meltdown, weather forecasting, earthquakes, epidemic disease, chess, climate change, and terrorism.

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12. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

A fascinating account grounded in scientific research of a class of diseases known as “zoonoses,” that is, animal in origin, that encompasses AIDS, Ebola, Marburg, SARS, H5N1 — and many others of of the world’s scariest diseases. The book recaptures the drama in the lives of the research scientists, physicians, veterinarians, and others who are on the front lines of humanity’s defense against disease.

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The 10 best mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in 2012

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1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.

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2. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a World War II hero and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. The book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow.

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3. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi.

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4. The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

The events that take place in 2008 in the Midnight House — a site in Poland where prisoners in the “war on terror” are interrogated and often tortured — are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders. There’s nothing subtle about this gripping novel.

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5. The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business.

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6. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

It is late in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the tragedy of Kristallnacht unfolding in the background, an Austrian-born Hollywood film star named Fredric Stahl has come to Paris at the behest of Jack Warner to star on loan to Paramount Pictures in a war movie. The resolutely anti-Nazi Stahl finds himself targeted by Nazi operatives intent on enmeshing him in their propaganda machine.

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7. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky’s 14th V. I. Warshawski novel begins with seeming innocence with a gaggle of tweener girls dancing under the moonlight in an abandoned cemetery. Soon enough, however, we find ourselves enmeshed in the mysteries of some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens as well as a roomful of other indelibly drawn characters who illustrate Chicago at its best — and its worst.

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8. 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer

The third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle is set in 1966-67. Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in an unnamed Soviet satellite country, has been exiled to work in a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well.

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9. The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”

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10. Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.

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The 5 best novels I’ve read in 2012

Truth to tell, I haven’t read all that many trade novels during the past year, and, anyway, in general I tend to stay away from the literary “masterpieces” trumpeted so loudly by the likes of the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. More often than not, I find the darlings of the literary set are writing not for me but for, well, the literary set. I’ve seen far too many impenetrable tomes lauded as fine literature. Give me a good, gripping story any day of the year, and I’ll gladly forego pretty much any one of the Booker Prize winners of recent years. I truly enjoyed reading all five of the books listed below.

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1. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley

Political satire of the highest order. I found myself laughing hysterically, sometimes for pages at a time. But, like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.

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2. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Set in Bangkok in the 23rd century, this wildly inventive story examines humanity’s plight once the oceans have risen twenty feet, and most of the human race in in thrall to the American and Chinese “calorie companies” that have killed off virtually all traditional sources of food with genetically engineered plagues.

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3. The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

A chilling novel set in Geneva, where a brilliant and eccentric American physicist has teamed up with an unscrupulous English financier to use the scientist’s breakthrough techniques in artificial intelligence to manipulate the financial markets.

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4. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

The Orwellian story of a North Korean “tunnel rat,” trained in kidnapping and hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels leading under the DMZ to South Korea, who briefly becomes a confidante of the country’s elite military commanders and of the Dear Leader himself, only later to find himself confined to a prison mine, where citizens who run afoul of officialdom are worked to death underground.

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5. Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

A deeply unsettling novel structured as an open letter to Osama bin Laden from a devastated young mother whose husband and young son have died in a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London.

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Books that make great gifts

You won’t find coffee-table art books, slim volumes of poetry, or door-stopper romance novels among the twenty recommendations here, but you will find a wide range of great fiction and nonfiction: eight novels, eight nonfiction books, and four mysteries and thrillers are featured in this post. (Each of the titles below is linked to my full review.)

TRADE FICTION

Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

Intrigue, romance, and betrayal in the turbulent world of espionage in post-World War II Istanbul.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley

A wildly funny send-up of life inside the Beltway — and in the Forbidden City — by one of the greatest comic writers in the business today.

 

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

22nd-Century Bangkok after the seas have risen and humanity is struggling to survive. One of the best science-fiction novels I’ve ever read.

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

An engrossing thriller about high finance and high-speed trading on the securities markets, by the author of Pompeii, Enigma, and Fatherland.

The Debba, by Avner Mandelman

The history of Israel from Independence to the present as reflected in a heart-pounding tale of intrigue and conflict between Arab and Jew.

Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst

Set in Salonika, Greece, in the early years of World War II, this complex story of espionage and war involves an underground railway for Jews escaping Hitler and an anti-Nazi coup in what was then Yugoslavia.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

An insightful and revealing novel about the plague in England by one of today’s best historical novels, grounded in history but delving deep into the emotional realities of individual people as they might have been.

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh reaffirms his place as one of contemporary India’s greatest writers with this extraordinarily rich tale of class conflict, exploitation, and forbidden love against the background of the opium trade in the years leading up to the Opium War of the mid-19th Century.

NONFICTION

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, by David Quammen

A brilliant account of the emergence of deadly new infectious diseases around the world — those you’ve heard of, and those you haven’t — with gripping accounts of the scientists, physicians, and veterinarians who are on humanity’s front line of defense against them.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

Illuminating, insightful, provocative — there is no way to overstate the brilliance of this account of the long-obscure ancient thinkers whose insights seeded the Renaissance in Europe and inspired Thomas Jefferson.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

You’ll never look at global politics or world history the same way you did if you read this masterful study of the intertwined roles of geography and history in shaping human events and the destiny of nations.

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

Yesterday’s heroes come to life in this fascinating tale of the astonishing conversion of America’s faltering peacetime economy into the “arsenal of nations” that supplied the ships, tanks, and guns used to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Operation Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre

If your image of successful spies has been formed by Ian Fleming’s books or even John Le Carre’s, you’ll be blown away by the eccentrics and impostors who played large roles in Britain’s successful efforts to draw Hitler’s attention away from the Normandy Invasion.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro

It may be difficult for one who didn’t experience the 1960s as an adult to appreciate the consequential impact of Johnson’s career,

both for good and for bad. This extraordinary book helps close the gap.

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

A readable and inspiring survey of social entrepreneurship around the world and of the brilliant individuals who are expanding its reach at a breakneck pace.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

Chances are, you already know that Ayn Rand’s portrait of the heroic “job creator” is fraudulent. This outstanding little book explains why, revealing how dependent on government and community support are even the most successful corporations.

MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS

Liberation Movements, by Olen Steinhauer

A suspenseful tale of love, betrayal, and terrorism set in Eastern Europe during the heyday of post-War Communism, with two interlocking stories spanning the years 1968 to 1975.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Few murder mysteries have kept me guessing longer or propelled me toward the finish with such speed and power. An extraordinary example of the mystery writer’s craft.

The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

The events that take place in the Midnight House over a two-month period in 2008 are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of Botswana’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency, is listening to her assistant, Mma Makutsi, cheer up one of Mma Ramotswe’s best friends, Mma Potokwane. “’Nobody is useless,’ Mma Makutsi said heatedly, ‘and you are less useless than nobody else, Mma. Definitely.’ This remark was greeted with silence while Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane had tried to work out what it meant. The spirit in which it was made, though, was clear enough, and Mma Potokwane simply thanked her.”

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