Dominique Raccah on Starting, Scaling, and Succeeding as the Founder of Sourcebooks, the Largest Women-Owned Publisher

November 19, 2019

2019 Jim Douglas LectureThe 2019 Jim Douglas Lecture, presented by Simon Fraser University’s Publishing Department

To those unfamiliar, Sourcebooks is more than just the largest woman-owned book publisher and the largest trade book publisher in Chicago. Sourcebooks is an author-first, data-driven, innovative, mission-driven publisher. 

And with this model they’ve managed to achieve scores of New York Times bestsellers, hundreds of national bestsellers, and #1 selling titles in perennial categories.. “How do we accomplish those results?” Founder, Dominique Raccah, asked in rhetorical fashion at the start of her engrossing lecture, “I’ll tell you everything today.” 

Here are the highlights of 2019’s Jim Douglas Lecture with Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks.

The Jim Douglas Lecture was established in 2016 to honour the contributions of the late Jim Douglas, a pioneer in BC’s publishing landscape, best known for co-founding the namesake publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and most appreciated here in the SFU Publishing Department for helping start the Masters in Publishing Program. 

“As an entrepreneur I tend to think like a bricklayer. Many of my peers think much bigger thoughts than I do. I will lay one brick down and evaluate how people are interacting with that step. It’s a brick-laying strategy that takes years.”

Brick by brick, Dominique Raccah lay the groundwork for a book publishing company that wasn’t about to do business as usual.

When Raccah first started Sourcebooks, she didn’t have huge, intimidating goals. Her goal was simple: get the company big enough to move out of the house. 

Going against the grain of the more male-dominated approach to entrepreneurship in the 1980s where one would first secure financing and then build the business, Raccah learned by taking action and failing: “I started with the wrong business plan, I had no money or knowledge of the industry; I couldn’t have been more off. I wish I could tell you I was brilliant, but I didn’t get it right at first.” Along with the vital support and encouragement of her husband Ray, she had passion and willingness to learn. “I was willing to accept that I didn’t know anything, and I’d ask for help, and they’d help me, and I did that over and over again, and soon enough I got there.”

Again and again, Raccah implored the audience in the room—largely made up of young women enrolled in SFU’s publishing program—to just go out there and pursue their dreams. Her startup story was truly inspiring and most-importantly, non-intimidating!

“It has to be about the author. There is no job without the creative partner: we really start there.”

Dominique Raccah’s approach to putting the author “first” sounds simple in theory, but goes against the product-driven nature of the publishing industry.

Sourcebooks publishes authors, not books. At first glance, this sounds like a simple distinction, but to Sourcebooks, it’s anything but. Sourcebooks help their authors build-out their career, not just a single title, and with this strategy, they will buy multiple books from each author. “It’s our job to explode this author’s career” says Raccah, “so we ask, what can we do to help create success for this individual?”

As Raccah and her team have come to learn, audiences for an author aren’t built overnight, and so Sourcebooks’ author-first approach prioritizes focusing on investing in the author’s success, and using data to continually adapt a multi-book and multi-pronged strategy. So, what does this actually look like?

“Data can help you understand the scope of the problem; but it won’t tell you what to publish.” 

Most publishers leverage bibliodata to improve distribution, but Dominique Raccah has figured out how to leverage sales data to make better publishing decisions.

Sourcebooks takes a very data-centric approach, connecting readers with the best content, using data to guide decisions about how to position a book in a market. 

“Data is a creative weapon: it isn’t an answer. People think that data will give you the answer— ’If I just ask the data gods, I’ll know exactly what to publish’—but it doesn’t work that way. Data is great for giving you questions. It is a methodology for creating a deep understanding of the customer that leads you to books that work better for readers.”

Data, for Sourcebooks, is about lessening risk. It helps frame the questions Raccah and her team use when they strive to innovate on the way a book is positioned in the marketplace. 

Worried about all of this quantitative stuff getting in the way of creativity? “There is no conflict between creativity and data: data isn’t going to usurp the editor. It will inform the editorial process so you have a better chance of succeeding.”

“The dividing line between it working and it not working is almost like a point, as opposed to it being a some point you get it so it works seamlessly for the user; and once it clicks, there’s an avalanche.”

Being innovative in the publishing industry means being iterative.

Raccah credits the Lean Startup Model for how Sourcebook’s has developed its approach to innovation: build the book, measure the data, learn about what worked and what didn’t. “People believe that innovation is just brainstorming in a room; but innovation is really just asking the customer questions, and having them interact with the product in some way. And through that process you gain an insight into what their needs are.” By testing, repackaging and testing each book, Sourcebooks stays true to their brick-by-brick approach.

And on the latter point, Raccah implored the audience to understand that if what they are doing is not achieving the results they want, their problems likely aren’t big enough. Two problems that she walked through, during her lecture, came from Sourcebooks series on Poetry Speaks and Science for Babies.

For the “Poetry Speaks” series, Raccah wanted to connect readers with the voice of each poet reading their own words. Why? Poetry is fundamentally underrated as a genre. But Raccah believed that it’s ability to touch you was so much larger than we typically gave it credit for. That’s a big problem for poetry, and “Poetry Speaks” succeeds in touching readers and listeners by connecting written words with voice.

Chris Ferrie’s series of “Science for Babies” books, on the other hand, only made sense in the context of a big problem. Because, babies aren’t interested in science, right? And science books for kids are typically very dry, right? For Raccah and her team, the big problem that Chris Ferrie’s series tackled was humanity’s collective need for generations of new scientists.

Why does this approach work so well for Sourcebooks? “When you tackle really big problems, even if we fail, in that moment, people come and talk to you. People are inspired, people are with you because of the size of the problem. Focus on the problem. You are not the answer.”

“Books. Change. Lives.”

At the end of the day, sticking to a strong mission statement is what continues to drive Sourcebooks’ success.

Raccah concluded her talk by identifying what she believed was perhaps the most important differentiator for Sourcebooks: since the beginning, they’ve been driven by the belief and the mission that books change lives. And this mission certainly comes across well in the commitment to tackle big problems.

Sourcebook’s author-first strategy, their close attention to customer’s needs and desires, their commitment to innovation grounded in reality, and their commitment to tackling big problems through their books are tangible examples of how Raccah’s brick-by-brick approach has worked so well for Sourcebooks over the years.

Raccah argued that we will never see more opportunities in publishing than there are today, she believes that “all the news about books being in trouble is false. Books are better positioned than other media for growth.” And this, in itself is good news for those in the industry and those who wish to work in publishing. 

If you’re interested in getting the kind of education in publishing that allows for entrepreneurship, innovation, data-driven decision making, and elevating author success, consider applying for the Master of Publishing Program at Simon Fraser University before February 1st.