May 14, 2007
The Dangers of Success
One of the most dangerous problems a publishing house (or any business, organization or church) can face is success.
For a publisher, that success could take the form of a massive bestseller. What's wrong with selling one, two or ten million copies of a book? Isn't that what every publisher wishes for? Money solves so many problems, doesn't it?
A wise friend once told me, "Managers don't solve problems. They just exchange one set of problems for a different set." So with a bestseller, you solve the problem of lack of sales. What are the new problems you now acquire?
First, a bestseller can distort the vision and purpose of a publisher. While the particular book may easily fall into the goals and values of the company, when it becomes a bestseller, it can take over those goals and values. It can narrow the focus of the publisher, and leave the other important elements of its purpose in the dust. How? Marketing and sales will obviously want to pour a tremendous amount of effort into keeping the momentum going for the book. Editorial will devote one or more people full time to working with the author. Distribution may need to build a new warehouse. Without careful management, the sales of all the other books in the list can be neglected, as can other authors, as can other aspects of fulfillment. The vision narrows.
(If your mission as a publisher is to only or mostly publish bestsellers, this might not apply. For the other 99.44% of all publishers, it applies in spades.)
Second, runaway growth can lead to bankruptcy. How? It's all about cash flow, baby. If, for example, you have a big bestseller, you have to bring in huge printings of the book to make sure you don't run out of stock. Now you owe printers money. But you don't have the money to pay for them because you haven't sold them yet. When you sell the books over the few months, then people owe you--and they might pay over the next 60, 90, 120 days or more. The bigger the customer, the longer they can and do take to pay up. Keep this cycle going for a year or two and banks won't loan you money anymore to make up the gap between what you owe and what people owe you. (For a recent example, see "Bible Factory Outlet in Chapter 7.")
Third, even though we all know a bestseller won't last forever, we often act like it will anyway. We project ever-increasing sales into our budgets. We fail to deliberately plan for a downturn. Should we hire twenty more people to handle the increased workload during this temporary upsurge in sales, or should we try to outsource as much as possible to avoid the inevitable, painful downsizing that will come? Should we build more buildings to accommodate the expanded needs of the bestseller, or should we rent because we know we won't need this much capacity before long? Or should we do neither and sit tight, as uncomfortable as it may be? (Curt Matthews in "A Killer Bestseller" gives an excellent case study in how to avoid some of the problems with success.)
Fourth, a bestseller (or broad-based success as a publisher) can lead you to think that you know what you are doing. Publishing is not an exact science. If I think I know what I'm doing, I'm less likely to listen to others. Or collectively, if we as an organization think we know what we're doing, we're less likely to listen to others--our customers, our suppliers, our authors, our friends. Wise humility is one of the great casualties of success. (Don't misunderstand: I preach to myself.) And when we stop listening, failure is a likely consequence.
Dallas Willard, in his extremely helpful essay "Living the Vision of God," discusses the human and spiritual dynamics that accompany success and why it is immensely difficult to sustain. One of the keys, he says, to sustained efforts toward one's mission is humility. How do we get it?
Vision of God secures humility. Seeing God for who he is enables us to see ourselves for who we are. This makes us bold, for we see clearly what great good and evil are at issue, and we see that it is not up to us to accomplish it, but up to God—who is more than able. We are delivered from pretending, being presumptuous about ourselves, and from pushing as if the outcome depended on us. We persist without frustration, and we practice calm and joyful non-compliance with evil of any kind.
I commend his penetrating analysis and the rock-solid antidotes he prescribes. If we are to break the cycle of vision--success--narrowed vision--pride--failure, we must know ourselves honestly as an organization and as individuals. We must know who we are and who we are not.