Committed: How Independent Publishers Craft and Refine Mission

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July 2015
by Deb Vanasse

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“You don’t become what you want; you become what you believe,” says Oprah Winfrey, a media mogul who’s no stranger to success.

Photo of Ruby Payne With a focus on readers and the ability to specialize, independent publishers are well positioned to work from meaningful missions that articulate what they believe and, by extension, what they will become.

The process of crafting and refining a mission begins with understanding what the term mission means within the context of your publishing venture. Ruby K. Payne, CEO of aha! Process, Inc., a company dedicated to improving the education and lives of people in poverty, notes that mission connotes spiritual purpose, while vision is more futuristic, and niche is more about audience.

Photo of Mark Cunningham“A mission is a very particular and fully conscious understanding of your house’s place in the culture and its approach to the marketplace,” says Mark Cunningham, founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books “Through mission a publisher will naturally find its niche, or the niche will find the publisher. It needn’t be sought so much as it will reveal itself, because one’s convictions are a kind of clarity.”

Photo of Judy GalbraithFor Judy Galbraith, founder of Free Spirt Publishing, mission is grounded in her lifelong goal of helping children and teens navigate life’s challenges. “When I started Free Spirit Publishing, I’d say that I had a strong vision for our niche, but I surely didn’t have an articulated mission,” says Galbraith. “Having a clearly articulated mission, one that everyone in the company is fully committed to, is extremely important on many levels. Internally, it informs and guides acquisitions, development, sales, and marketing.”

Ways Missions Are Made

Missions evolve in all sorts of ways. Payne’s mission began in 1996, when she published her first book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, aimed at reaching teachers and school administrators. With the book’s success, she embraced the expertise and vision of coauthors who applied her ideas to faith communities, higher education, criminal justice, and health care.

Photo of Pat alvarado For each new area of emphasis, aha! Process offers additional books and training services, but the fundamental commitment to the company’s initial mission has never wavered.

Pat Alvarado began Piggy Press with a motto: We love to read! By embracing what she calls a “self-imposed duty”—a mission of providing multilingual and multicultural books to help young readers learn about and appreciate the world around them—Alvarado has grown a list of nearly a hundred bilingual and trilingual publications.

Photo of Wendy DingellFor Wendy Dingwall, mission was born at the local level. In the Boone area of North Carolina, where regional publishers were focused mainly on nonfiction, Dingwall discovered talented authors writing fiction of all types set along the Appalachian Trail. In 2009, she founded Canterbury House to publish their work. “Though there have been a few exceptions,” she says, “I’ve published mostly fiction with strong Southern settings that include elements of romance, mystery, suspense, or inspiration.”

While Cunningham says the overall mission of Atelier26 was embodied from the start, he credits a grant application with directing his focus toward the five main values the company now articulates in its mission statement: the importance of idiosyncratic, affecting works; the idea that reading is more than consumerism; an acknowledgment of the essential role of independent booksellers to a healthy publishing climate; the value of partnerships between publishers and booksellers; and the right of authors to “liberating rights agreements and royalty structures.”

Mission-Based Benefits

A mission serves as a rallying point for a publishing venture, uniting those who work to make sure its aims are realized. “As the founder of Free Spirit, I’ve always felt it’s important that staff be on board with our mission,” says Galbraith. “If someone wouldn’t care whether theywere creating books for kids or basketballs, they wouldn’t be a good fit here.”

Mission can also strengthen the author-publisher relationship. “We look for authors who view our partnership as the making of culture, not the conquering of a marketplace,” Cunningham notes, citing one of the tenets of his company’s mission.

In addition, mission guides publishers in making difficult decisions, particularly with regard to submissions. “We basically do not publish outside of the mission of the company,” says Payne.

Especially when the choices are tough, mission helps a company stay on track. “Sometimes we’ve veered too far from our mission and we’ve acquired products that just don’t sell because they don’t resonate with our customer base,” says Galbraith. “It’s easy to get seduced by a really cool concept that feels right to us. After all, in publishing we’re idea people.”

On the other hand, independent publishers enjoy the flexibility of embracing mission-centric projects even when the bottom line doesn’t pencil in exactly as they might hope. “If topics we covered were solely driven by rigid margin requirements, we wouldn’t be meeting our mission,” says Galbraith. “There have been a few titles that we’ve published knowing that they’ll be a huge challenge to market, but they’re extremely important topics to offer children and teens, and for those who work with them.”

“Weighty topics such as child safety, kids in foster care, or dealing with grief and loss aren’t an easy sell. These are issues that none of us is totally comfortable with because they relate to sides of life that kids really shouldn’t have to encounter. But they do encounter them,” Galbraith adds, “and we’re here to help with that. We work very hard to figure out ways to market such projects so that even if they don’t make the percentage of profit we strive for, they’re at least marginally profitable.”

Adjusting a Mission

While missions help companies navigate the marketplace, the course sometimes needs to shift. When she relocated to Sarasota, FL, Dingwall revised her company’s mission, replacing the emphasis on the Appalachian Trail with emphasis on work set in a broader region, the Southeastern United States.

Recently, Free Spirit Press made slight alterations to the language in the mission that has guided the company for approximately 20 years, a commitment to helping children and teens think for themselves, overcome challenges, and make a difference in the world.

“‘Overcome challenges’ was previously ‘succeed in life,’” Galbraith explains. “We felt the term ‘succeed’ was too vague, because success means different things to different people. But every young person faces challenges in life, and we’re here to help them.”

Ensuring Endurance

Ideally, a well-crafted mission is a beacon that guides a company toward what it aims to become. But what if there’s a conflict between passion and profits?

For Cunningham, the answer is clear. “Passion is the only reason Atelier26 exists,” he says. “If someday we begin to feel that it’s ‘interfering’ with profits, then it’s probably time for some intensive self-evaluation.”

Payne offers another perspective. “Is there a way to continue the mission without any profit?” she says. “Passion allows one to go a few days without eating, but eventually there has to be enough profit to keep one alive.”

For a publisher looking to craft or refine its mission, Dingwall recommends keeping the focus simple, realistic, and value-based. Cunningham suggests looking at what sets the company apart from others—how it challenges the status quo.

“It’s crucial to really know yourself and what you care so much about that anything else pales in comparison,” says Galbraith. “When we created a more formal mission, we spent hours and hours crafting the precise language. This was time well spent, which is why our mission has hardly changed in the past 20 years. I believe our mission is evergreen, and we strive to create products that are as well.”


About the Author:

Deb VanasseDeb Vanasse is co-founder of the 49 Alaska Writing Center, founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, and the author of 16 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel set in her home state of Alaska. To learn more: debvanasse.com.

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