By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz)
Dominique Raccah's dream as a child was, unequivocally, to be an astronaut, and though she has yet to venture into outer space, her thirst for discovering new worlds has thrust her to the fore of other frontiers.
Raccah, founder of Sourcebooks, a 26-year-old independent book publisher based in Naperville, has embraced the digital revolution that has shaken traditional publishing.
In November she was named FutureBook's Most Inspiring Digital Publishing Person of 2013, rising to the top of an impressive roster of shortlisted candidates, including the CEOs of MacMillan, Amazon's Goodreads and HarperCollins UK.
Digital "has been transformative because it allows you to tackle new kinds of problems and create new ways of connecting books and readers," said Raccah, 57, whose company saw revenue jump 22 percent last year.
Some of Sourcebooks' celebrated initiatives include The Shakesperience, an interactive iBook that combines audio, video and a glossary to aid understanding of Shakespeare's plays, and Put Me In The Story, which customizes children's picture books with the reader's own name and photos to get kids excited about reading (putmeinthestory.com).
Raccah, whose family moved to the U.S. from Paris when she was 9, got her master's degree in quantitative psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle and worked at Leo Burnett's quantitative research department for seven years before starting Sourcebooks in a spare bedroom in her home in 1987, at the dawn of desktop publishing.
Sourcebooks now has 120 employees, seven imprints and publishes 350 titles annually, 13 of which became New York Times and national best-sellers last year.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: When did you realize that you would have to adapt to the changes in the publishing industry?
A: I got into digital really early because I got an iPhone. I was reading PDF files on the iPhone and I started playing with that. Once I understood the iPhone, when people started talking about the iPad I could imagine what I could do with it.
I pushed really hard for our organization to move to digital. In 2008 I was already pushing e-books, social networking. I was on Twitter very early, on LinkedIn very early. It was all experimental. When LinkedIn started its groups, I started a group about e-books, and it had one member, which was me. Today that group is managed by five people and has 70,033 people on it. I kind of changed the culture of the company from the model of being a traditional book publisher to being an experimental, proactive publisher.
Q: How do you embrace change rather than resist it?
A: I think you don't have a choice. We are at a crucible moment in the history of our culture. It is the most important moment in books. And in other media as well. The thing that I saw with digital was the opportunity to really change the world for the better — the opportunity to create a world of readers, to touch everybody. It starts from believing it's for the better. And it gets less scary.
If you are attached to the business models that you always had and the business models are more important than the goal, that's probably going to be a problem. Because the future is coming, with or without you. My goal has always been to get a book in every hand. That's the thing that propels me internally.
Q: If you could go back to the time you were about to begin this venture, what advice would you give yourself? Or any entrepreneur?
A: So many things! I would say, "Don't sign that contract." "Go learn about distribution." "Get to accounting faster." I would probably also say, "Don't be so scared. You can do it."
Q: How did you conquer those fears?
A: The person who conquered them was my husband (Ray, whom she met at college; they've been married 34 years and have three children). The partner you choose makes a huge difference in your life. In my case, I was really lucky. I screwed up a lot of times and I had a great partner. He really believed.
Q: How did you know he was the right partner for you?
A: My family was filled with really smart people. While I knew I was pretty smart, I wasn't as smart as any of those guys. When I met Ray, that was the first time I met someone who was unbelievably smart. He was as smart as my dad (a physicist), maybe even smarter, but also kind and generous. And that blew my mind. That kindness really makes a world of difference, because it allows him to forgive people. I had to learn how to forgive myself, which is very difficult. Because when you're starting you're going to make a fair number of mistakes. You have to forgive yourself, you have to put it aside and just power through.
Q: How did you balance work and your family?
A: I never hear men asked that question! But OK. I don't cook, I don't clean and I don't do housework. So probably I managed it by laying it all on my husband. But I was a pretty awesome parent, my children tell me that. I was pretty real and very concrete. And I was always in their corner, which turns out to be useful.
Q: What would you say is your greatest strength?
A: My curiosity. I'm just interested in things, and that comes together in interesting ways in the organization.
Q: Your greatest weakness?
A: I don't know how to stop. I don't give up on people, I don't give up on stuff, I don't give up on books. And there are times when you should probably call it.
Q: What's your favorite vacation destination?
A: I just got back from New Zealand with Ray. They have freedom camping, which means that if you are a self-contained vehicle, you can park anywhere along the coast and camp. We rented a camper and went all around the north island.
Q: You do most of your reading on your Nook tablet and iPad. Do you not feel nostalgia for the printed page?
A: No. I love physical books, and physical books and digital books will live side by side. But I don't have an attachment to a physical object. I'd like to be able to pick up that novel anywhere.
Q: Is there a future for print?
A: We know that there's a future for print. The (numbers are) unequivocal at this point. Digital is really good for narrative, storytelling. Even in nonfiction, what's working in e-books is biography and history. But children's books, illustrated books, picture books, cookbooks, big reference books, not so much.
Q: As a self-professed poetry lover, what is your favorite poem? And why?
A: I love Alan Dugan's "How We Heard The Name." It's very hard to put a why on poetry. (The poet) Billy Collins says we torture poetry, we make it mean something, and if we just enjoyed it we'd be better off. But I think that poem is a really great representation of life.
"There are certain points in your life when you're really looking for an answer or an approach or a way to think," Dominique Raccah said. "When I was thinking about leaving Burnett, I read a book called 'Handling Sin' by Michael Malone. I was trying to decide what direction to take, and I kind of made the decision through the novel. I think Raleigh (the protagonist) discovers all the things that really matter to him. And living a life you love was the moral of the tale."