An Interview with a Publisher
by Alexander Geffard
This semester, I am the lead intern of the Writing Arts department, and one of my duties is to organize and act as editor-in-chief of The Writer’s Insider. Near the end of February, with the guidance of my supervisor Dr. Drew Kopp, I assigned my fellow interns articles to write about, concerning various important topics related in some way to writing (which you can find in this issue). Once the planning was set, one article remained that needed to be written- the one that would inform readers of our partnership with a publishing company. Feeling that as the lead intern, I should be responsible with handling the article, I volunteered as tribute.
I can’t say much about how Dr. Kopp came into acquaintance with Ben Allen. From what I understand, the two met while taking a week long class in Cancun, Mexico near the end of 2017. Kopp learned that Ben had a publishing company in Oregon (BC Allen Publishing Group and Tonic Books), and thought of the idea of partnering with him. My supervisor has a dream of creating a Rowan publishing company focused on releasing Young Adult novels. The partnership, he saw as an opportunity. By involving the interns in projects with an actual publishing company, Kopp and the department could study what it would take to begin making this dream a reality. After meeting with each other, Ben Allen and Kopp came to an agreement, and the partnership was born.
In preparation for the interview with Ben, I asked my fellow interns to provide me with questions that would elicit meaningful responses. This was a chance for us to ask an actual publisher about his career and learn what it took for him to reach his position (which is especially beneficial for students who want to pursue a career in publishing). We also wanted to know why a successful man from Oregon agreed to partner with a small department from a university in New Jersey. Over the course of the week, I accumulated a number of these questions.
I contacted Ben to set up the interview. After a few back and forths concerning scheduling and time needed, we agreed to chat on Saturday March 3rd. I had to call him on a secure company line at 3pm EST and had to interview him for 20 minutes (which was as long as Ben would be able to speak with me).
Everything was set, and I was up for the challenge.
“How do you maintain reputation while being almost entirely removed from social media?”
I heard Ben laugh from his side of the call. He was enjoying a rare sunny day in Oregon, and was very enthusiastic to answer my questions for the article.
“ I think that’s created by the work that you do with clients, and my business has grown just by referral and invite, so occasionally I’ll find somebody online that seems intriguing to me, and I’ll build a relationship with them, and then we start to work together or I give them some of my time for free to give them a sense of who I am.
“And I come in with a proposal and a project in mind and ideas, and that can influence my reputation…”
Hearing him answer the question, I could sense he wasn’t too interested in reputation-- a fact which he quickly confirmed.
“Also, I’m not necessarily interested in reputation so much as I am in finding people that feel like a good fit… and through building relationships.
“So, referral is really how my business has grown… I go into all my interactions with prospective clients with the attitude that I really want to serve them. Whether they publish with me or not.
“I try to let go of the outcome and serve them as much as I can-- giving them a sense of what we can do together, and who I am, and what we can create…
“And that’s what builds I think what you’re referring to as reputation, which I would replace with like...connection. Our end goal is really to help spur human evolution and disseminate brilliant ideas that are useful for people.”
After hearing him, this really made sense to me. Reputation shouldn’t be in the forefront of our minds. It should be our connections and interactions with other people that shape how we work. Good reputation, in my eyes, really comes out of that.
But, with a business model like this, which doesn’t involve social media, wouldn’t he encounter obstacles?
“ As a business owner, your whole thing is to overcome different obstacles--create into the world something that didn’t exist before, and where there’s competition for it to exist.
“I don’t think of business as a dog eat dog world. I’m much more about how can we help and serve and there’s enough for everybody. But there’s always overcoming different obstacles.
“The major thing is that scaling a business, when your offering just by referral. When people have really tailored, polished, manicured marketing campaigns and structures, they know predictably how many clients they’ll close. With referral, you can’t really ‘turn on the knob’ to get more immediately.
“It hasn’t really been an issue for us, but it could be. It’s a little bit more like boom or bust. Sometimes you get a ton of clients, other times, you’re kind of in a lull. So, there isn’t a predictability to it.
“And ultimately, our purpose is not to build out in social media, but to create out more predictable channels for client creation.”
What really stood out to me here is that even with a perceived limitation like no social media presence, a publishing company can still be very successful and get a lot of clients. I always thought that in this technology filled world, the best way to get noticed is to build a presence and following on social media like Facebook and Instagram. Once the person was famous enough, they would start to receive deals. But Ben’s company gets many deals, and has zero presence on these platforms. It shows me that the popular path is not always the necessary one to be successful.
So, what does a normal day look like for a guy like Ben?
“It’s so dynamic. I’m changing what we do and how we do it all the time. The previous two years we were primarily focused on consulting with the authors (bringing in authors, working with them to write their books)… and we’ve starting shifting to focus more on the marketing/publishing side (though we’re still doing the writing side for some of the clients).
“So the day consists of phone calls with my clients/authors, phone calls with my team (designers, editors, ghost writers, proofreaders, distributors, my project manager, my assistant), … and then reading people’s work, providing comprehensive global developmental feedback ( I only do that in a small capacity... my team does more). I also strategize and plan for working with our authors and laying out plans for marketing. And all that can look a million different ways…”
It’s a very busy schedule, but it keeps him on his toes. He also provided some advice for managing such a day (which he believed would be really helpful for students’ productivity):
“Every morning, I get up, and before I check my email or I get on my phone, I meditate, then I do two hours of uninterrupted work on my number one project, and I structure my day in oscillation like that, and I focus, and then I relax for a little while, and then I focus again…”
As a student who constantly feels the need to procrastinate, and is dismayed by it, this advice really caught my attention, and I am in the process of trying it out (I encourage anyone else like me to try it as well).
At this point, you may be thinking, what does a guy like Ben look for when hiring interns and employees? Are there any skills that he keeps his eye out for?
“ I look for someone that’s hard working, that’s intelligent, that can figure things out on their own, that’s independent. One of the biggest things for me is people who are aligned with the vision that I have as a business owner- like they are excited, compelled, moved by the visions we have as a company.
“ Money is not a great motivator. There have been tons of studies on it. What really sticks out is mastery, autonomy, and purpose. So when my business overlaps with their business as a human being, I think we have a great place to start.
“Skills, you can learn. But like having the same purpose and the ability to be masterful is really awesome and then also, just people skills--being able to be really good with clients and with one another. It’s essential.”
And for someone like Ben to reach a position like the head of a publishing company, certain traits are needed.
“Stuff that I learned as a student helped. Obsessive focus-- wanting to master one thing by focusing on it, and researching it and finding the people that are leading in that field (and then studying what they do). Hard work, for sure. Taking action all the time--staying in action. Not in a way that burns you out, but ideally in a way that gets results. Nothing happens without action. It’s the hallmark of performance and results.
“And then the last one is being able to confront and overcome fear. And thinking creatively as well, actually. And people skills!”
As a student with six classes and multiple extracurricular activities, I realized that I have some of these traits--obsessive focus, hard work- which have led me to the position I am now (about to graduate after only three years, and preparing to complete a master’s during that fourth year). I take a lot of action, but I do get burned out a lot, often getting little sleep. Plus while I try to be kind to everyone I meet, I also tend to be socially awkward and fumble my words (if any come to mind at the time). These are things I need to work on, but it’s nice to know that I am on the right track.
You’d think a man like Ben Allen would have prepared his whole life around being a publisher, but that’s not true.
“I was a professor for a long time, and I thought that was it. I did that for about five and a half years, but about...four years in, I got real restless and I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. It stopped... filling me the way it used to. I wanted to impact beyond the classroom, impact more people. Now, working with some authors, with a push of a button, we can reach millions of readers- which is huge. I can reach a lot of people at once, whereas in the classroom I can reach only so many.
“I started experimenting building businesses, both of which are successful right now and are still running (even though I backed out of them). Then I started working with authors one-on-one, and as a result of the success of that, I built the publishing house.”
As you can see, Ben never premeditated a business in publishing- it was really something he just wound up in. Something that he really, truly loved and could share with millions of people. This was an indication to me that if I ever ended up in a career that I grew to dislike, I would still have the ability to “drop everything” and pursue something that interested me.
“Impacting many people with books is huge-that’s a really awesome thing. Books really have the potential to change lives. And that’s super rewarding for me.
“I also really love working with the authors and meeting the people that I meet on a regular basis, and working with the people that I work with- it’s just so inspiring. I get paid to read books that I would pay to read! And I get paid to be in close relationships with people who I would seek out as mentors! You know, that, is an incredible gift for me. That gets me so jazzed!
“I get to help them live out a life mission, help them with a goal. A lot of these people wanted to write books their whole lives and get stuck, and then they meet me, and we help them get unstuck.”
It’s a win-win-win situation- it’s a win for the publication house, it’s a win for the clients, and it’s a win for the readers. It’s a great place to be in.
So what drove Ben to partner with Kopp and Rowan University?
“I really like Drew [Kopp]. I think he’s awesome. I think he’s a brilliant guy. He really cares about his students and he really wants to offer them great opportunities. And he’s been teaching for a long time, and as a former teacher, I love working with students. I think it’s great. And a guy like Drew, I think shares that vision with me, and he really wants something to work for them and my company. And so, I appreciate that.”
I could see where Ben was coming from, as Kopp has been a mentor to me my entire college career. He’s has been really helpful along the way. It’s people like him who truly make an effort to create new and innovative opportunities for students. This partnership has already created new opportunities for me. I was able to practice my interviewing/people skills through this interview with Ben, a guy I have only briefly talked to before (in the presence of the other interns), who’s the head of a company in a state on the other side of the country, and who I’ve never met or seen in person. I’d like to be a film critic or film journalist one day, and experiences like this are ones that I have to get used to. I learned a lot conducting this interview and adapting it into an article, and none of it would have been possible without the partnership between Ben and Kopp.
I also know quite a few Rowan students who are trying to get a career in publishing and business, so I asked Ben if he had any advice for them.
“Just go start working in it. Don’t wait around. Go get involved. Go do internships. Go study it. Offer to help some author that you love. Find a way to serve the people you really want to work with. That’s a great place to start.
“I also feel like as a business owner (and I think for anybody in business), they have to be willing to stumble around and try to figure things out.
“ I’m fine with not knowing certain things and screwing somethings up and making a mess, and trying to figure things out... I feel pretty lucky that I’ve had the success that I’ve had with knowing as little as I knew…”
Don’t be afraid to “test the waters”. Trying different things out is really how you’ll learn what you really like and don’t like. It may not be easy (especially for anxious, shy people like myself), but believe me-- it’s worth a try.