When the Sales Guys Run the Company
Lessons from Steve Jobs, part 1
Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs has been out for a year and a half, and I finally committed to reading it. It’s a big book! The hardcover is 656 pages and the Audible version is over 25 hours, but worth every single minute. I got so much out of this book that I’ve been taking notes about some of Jobs’s wisdom and how it can be applied to our business. I decided to write some blog posts to open up discussion on some of these points.
Today’s topic came to me when I heard this quote from Jobs:
“When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off.”
That line hit me hard. For the last few years, I’ve been sad to see exactly this phenomenon happening in publishing. If you take out “product guys” and substitute “editors,” you’ll see what I mean.
The major change that we’ve seen in publishing companies over the last several years is that the editorial team—those people whose primary love and talent is acquiring good books—is no longer the final word on which books are chosen to be published. It is now the “sales guys.” Over a period of years, we went from the sales department having a vote, to them having final say and full veto power over everyone else. These days the people whose primary interest is the product—the editors—usually don’t even have a vote in the final decision.
Read a little more from Steve Jobs:
“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.” [Emphasis added.]
“It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything. The people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.”
“I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates, and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field. And then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the sales people end up running the company.”
It seems obvious that this is the way it goes in most businesses. Profit is the name of the game. Jobs is saying that to be a truly great company, to be a company that lasts, to provide the world with products that are truly innovative, useful and desirable, we should resist letting the sales guys run the company.
I’ve seen many editors sapped of their strength and passion, because their editorial wisdom and finely tuned instinct about good books have been devalued, in favor of the sales department’s judgment about what they think they can sell.
These editors work hard trying to bring the best books and authors into their publishing house, and in many ways it’s a thankless job. It doesn’t pay a lot, for one, and the editor is rarely celebrated. They do it out of love for books, and most of them are highly skilled and knowledgeable about the type of literature in which they specialize. But nowadays they must take every potential new book and author to the publishing committee, in which the sales department has the loudest voice.
So what is to be done? Surely the publishers will tell us that, in this economy where it is getting harder and harder to make money on books, there is no other legitimate way to run a company. The sales guys MUST be calling the shots, or they’ll be out of business!
But is there room to think of it another way? If the editors were given more room to find truly great books, even those falling outside of what has been “done before,” could publishing be revitalized simply through the quality of the content?
When Jobs was building Apple, he said he wanted to build, “…a company to last, not just to make money,” and his strategy was to focus on product over profit. Could this be a key to survival for today’s embattled publishing companies?
I realize this is controversial, but even if what I’m suggesting is unrealistic, what can we take away from this line of thinking? At the very least, should we all be fighting a little harder to keep the quality of our products (the books) in the front and center of our business model, as opposed to the profits?
What do you think?
Should we fight to keep the quality of books – not profits – at the center of our business? Click to Tweet.
Could publishing be revitalized simply through the quality of the content? Click to Tweet.
When the sales guys run the company, do the editors matter anymore? Click to Tweet.
Quotes are from Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, ©2011, Simon & Schuster.