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A Letter from Our Founder, John von Knorring

It was just about 20 years ago to the day that I drove to Virginia with my wife Robin to have an initial discussion with the owner of Books International, Stylus’ current warehouse and minority shareholder, about investing in the publishing business that I was planning.

I had been President of the company that I had created in 1978 on behalf of a British publishing group that was eventually to become Routledge, New York, right up to 1995 when Routledge’s then owners, the Thomson Corporation, undertook a reorganization to prepare the company for sale, and terminated my employment.

The story of the start of Stylus can be summed up in four words:

Necessity
Risk
Intentionality
Serendipity

To start with necessity. I found myself unemployed at the age of 52, at a time when publishing had started consolidating and there was a dearth of job opportunities at the level that I was seeking. After some months of fruitless job search and networking, I determined that the most promising course of action was to create my own job by starting my own business.

As to risk, I had at that point been in publishing for 30 years, but my experience had been in marketing and management. I had never been an acquiring editor, though I had worked closely with my editorial colleagues. I had spent my life in disciplinary publishing, working first in science publishing and later in the humanities and social sciences, but had no contacts in the area in which I had decided to specialize, the field of higher education.  And, finally, the attrition rates for start-up businesses are high. I didn’t have the information at the time but Small Business Administration and  National Business Incubator Association statistics show that 50% – 80% of new ventures fail within five years.

The intentionality was the decision to focus on higher education. I did so in part because — for the first time in 25 years in academic publishing — I had become interested in how books we published were used in class. My curiosity grew out of a CD-ROM project I had initiated just before leaving Routledge. The CD presented two extensive video case studies intended for use in applied ethics courses. It prompted me to ask about how the material would be used and think about pedagogy. The mid 90s also saw the rapid expansion of the Internet, and to a great deal of discussion about its potential disruptive impact on education. As I had learned in an executive course at INSEAD, periods of disruption favor new entrants in a field. Equally important, there were few competitors publishing in higher education at the time: just Jossey-Bass, Anker Press (later bought by Jossey-Bass), and Johns Hopkins University Press.

The serendipity came from not having a clear path of how I would achieve my business plan. It called for setting up a distribution business to represent and market British publishers in the U.S. — a means to get immediate income and to fund the publishing program. The cycle of finding an author, signing up a project, waiting for the manuscript to be completed, and getting book edited and printed, can take up to three years: three years of expenses and no revenue.

Serendipity was finding a British higher education publisher, Kogan Page (later bought by Routledge), looking for a U.S. distributor, as well as another small and progressive educational publisher, Trentham Books (still a client). Both companies were willing to take a risk on me. As it happened, more clients quickly came my way, the result being that the distribution business grew so fast, and required so much of my attention, that I couldn’t devote time to publishing for nearly two years. The first Stylus books came off the press in 1999 (more about them in another blog).

But I get ahead of myself. Stylus was formally incorporated in October 1996. Robin and I let our Larchmont house, moved to a rental in Virginia that same month, and set up shop together in a single room in the office suite of Books International’s warehouse.

For anyone who hasn’t started a new business, I have to share that the experience is eerie and disconcerting. The phone doesn’t ring — back then the phone and fax were the prime means of communication. You have to make the calls. Nothing happens, no sale is made, until you instigate it. In the early days of a business you know exactly what actions lead to each sale you make.

Looking back from where Stylus and I stand today, I’m deeply conscious of what I owe to so many people who made it this possible.
First, to my wife Robin, who died unexpectedly before her time three years ago, I owe thanks for overcoming her doubts, for literally working alongside me (we were in each other’s company 24 hours a day), rapidly learning about publishing and (with some trepidation) about computer systems, being unreservedly supportive, and a wonderful ambassador for the business.

Nothing would have been possible but for the willingness of early publishing clients, Books International, and the authors who took a risk on an unknown company. I’ve also been supported by a dedicated and young staff who have made things work so smoothly.
I owe a very special debt to all “my” authors who over the years have taught me all I know about higher education. A publishing house is defined by its authors, and I feel blessed by how Stylus is defined.

-J

#Stylus20

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