Jessica Dawson is the Editor-in-Chief at Founder Nonfiction, a publishing house dedicated to telling the stories of business owners and entrepreneurs. She and her team collaborate with business owners who should have books, but who don’t have the time to devote to learning the fine details of writing and publishing. In this interview, Jessica talks to Businessing Magazine about some of the things she did right in starting her publishing company, and some of the things she might do differently if she knew then what she knows now about starting and running a successful business.
Who were some of your mentors that helped you during your start-up phase? What advice did they give you that you would consider to be invaluable?
I didn’t grow up in a family of entrepreneurs, nor do I have many friends who have started businesses. In fact, when I started to go in that direction, a lot of people kind of thought I was nuts. That said, I did find a couple mentors early on—other freelancers who were working with the same kinds of clients I was. They had a little more experience in the publishing industry, and they had also run other kinds of businesses before. One of the most solid pieces of advice I got from both of them was to understand (I mean really understand) that getting into a business partnership is a lot like getting into a marriage. Partnerships create all kinds of new dynamics and communication challenges, not to mention the fact that they’re difficult to get out of if things start to go badly. No partnership is perfect (just like no marriage is perfect), but you have to be willing to work through differences and solve problems in the best interest of the business at all times.
Are there any things that people in the publishing industry told you/warned you about that you decided to discount when starting your business? How did that decision benefit or hurt you in your early days in business or in the long run?
The publishing industry has been around for a long time, so there is a lot of lore surrounding it. Many of the traditions and “rules” were in place for a reason—they worked. But with print publishing on the decline and digital publishing on such a steep rise, things have changed dramatically. There are no gatekeepers anymore, and with technology developing as quickly as it has, there are hardly any rules anymore. This means that there are a lot of old publishing traditions—advances, agents, large print runs, huge marketing budgets, book tours—that simply don’t make sense for a small digital publishing house.
What most small publishers have come to understand, and this applies to self-published authors as well, is that every author and every book is different. There is no longer a formula that works every time. At large publishing houses like Penguin, Random House, or HarperCollins, the old formulas are mostly still in place, and they’re mostly effective due to how much influence those companies have in the industry and how large their budgets are. But for small publishers or self-published authors? Depending on the specific author and book, a book tour, for example, might either be the best way for them to connect with their fans or it might be a colossal waste of money. For certain authors and books, an agent can be an enormous asset, but for others, finding an agent is a lot of unnecessary hassle.
At Founder, we’ve sidestepped a lot of these issues right out of the gate. We don’t follow a traditional publishing model, which was seen as being a little unconventional at the beginning, but has become extremely common as the years have gone on. Rather than depend on royalties from book sales, our company charges a one-time fee for the production services of the book and then turns full rights over to the author. That keeps it very simple for everyone, and it means any marketing efforts are now the author’s choice. No author has to weigh whether a certain ad placement or newsletter blast or author appearance will balance out their advance, and no author is required to engage in a bunch of activities on behalf of making us money. If an author wants to try something, we’re happy to consult and give our best advice based on our past experiences, but once a book is done, the author is in the driver’s seat.
There are plenty of publishers that follow this model, and some do it more ethically than others. We are strong believers in not forcing authors to purchase any services they don’t need, and we don’t make promises we can’t keep. Other publishers might say that we’re losing out on opportunities to make a bunch of extra money, but we would much rather err on the side of the author. We want our authors to end up with professional quality books that will be lifelong assets for them, and we want them to have those assets free and clear.
One warning that really has come true is that the industry is changing literally every day. I was warned that I would need to be flexible to survive, and that has absolutely been true in my experience. What may be a hard and fast rule one day is straight-up against the rules the next. It’s kind of crazy how it works.
If you could travel back in time and sit down with yourself as you launched your publishing business, what would you tell yourself?
That’s tough. I want to say that I’d tell myself to be more organized and to have a better laid out plan. At the beginning, we were all winging it a little more than we maybe should have. But at the same time, because the industry is changing all the time, it’s probably best that we didn’t have such a concrete plan.
I will say that I had very high expectations about the future, and that was a mistake. It was probably my inexperience talking. I thought I’d have been a lot further along much more quickly than I actually was, and that led to some disappointment and some feelings of failure. If I could go back, I’d probably tell myself to temper my expectations and to be patient. Hard work and perseverance always win in the end, and I still believe that, but I let my imagination run a little too wild at the start.
I’d probably also tell myself that feelings of failure and disappointment are symptoms of having high standards and are totally normal. Find me an ambitious entrepreneur who doesn’t feel those things from time to time. I’m not sure they exist!
On a more practical note, I would tell myself to let professionals do their jobs. In other words, don’t try to be your own accountant. Don’t try to be your own attorney. There’s a reason I didn’t go to school for those things—I wasn’t interested in those things and don’t know the first thing about them. It can be a pain, and it can be expensive, and fortunately I actually got this one right. I found an accountant and an attorney very early on, and if I could go back, I would strongly encourage myself to do it the same way.
What business mistakes could have been avoided if you had known then what you know now?
Over the past couple of years, the team has gone through some personnel changes, and that’s been tough on both a business and a personal level. Again, it’s back to partnerships being like a marriage. On an intellectual level, I always understood that it was important to choose partners carefully and to enter any partnership with a solid plan for what to do if things started to go badly. It just never occurred to me that things would ever go badly. Maybe I was overly hopeful or maybe I just didn’t want to think about anything too negative. In any event, a lot of stress and anxiety would have been avoided if I’d thought about it more before going into any partnerships, and if I’d been more alert to early subtle signs of things falling apart.
What decisions did you make early on that you look back on now and say to yourself, “Hey, that was pretty smart”?
I think the smartest thing I did in my whole startup experience (and I’m so grateful I did it early) was realize that I don’t know everything and I won’t ever have all the answers. This realization is what led me to hire an accountant and an attorney so early on. This is also what led me to seek out and work with other business owners who provide services I need and who have been in business much longer than I have. Matt Smith of Modmacro is a great example. He has been an excellent digital marketing partner for Founder, but even more than that, he’s given me so much basic advice for running a successful business. I hear a lot of stories of entrepreneurs learning hard lessons because of being stubborn and determined to do everything themselves. I did not have that problem. Being open to all kinds of different relationships with different business owners has helped shorten my learning curve by a lot, I believe.
You can learn more about Jessica and Founder Nonfiction on her company’s website: https://foundernonfiction.com/