Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Victoria Sutherland, and in 1998 I started a magazine called Foreword Reviews. We provide long-form reviews of books from independent publishers, these were smaller presses that weren’t getting much coverage, which may include an author-publisher to university presses—and everyone in between. I could see that this sector of the industry was about to explode and was creating good content, yet the existing trade publications were mostly ignoring them and only covering the top five houses.
Back then, we were primarily geared towards discovering great books for librarians and booksellers who were unable to find trusted reviews from small presses, and they needed reviews to stock books on their shelves. Now, our audience also includes avid readers who want to find more interesting titles to spend time with and find Foreword useful in doing so. Indie presses take chances on content that is different and diverse, and before their emergence, readers did not have many options outside of what the major houses suggested we read.
Now we are a media company, with the print magazine as our flagship product, serving as a brochure for other publishing services we provide including digital content, Clarion reviews for a fee, INDIES Book of the Year Awards program, editing services, digital content delivery, and foreign rights exchange at trade shows.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Ever since I was a little girl, I was obsessed with books and magazines. I remember creating my own books and walking them to the local public library, which unbelievably, the librarian welcomed (although I’m not quite sure they were ever put on a shelf). With this early encouragement, I’ve been a lifelong reader and a huge fan of authors and their writing process.
I graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in advertising and spent some time selling ad space for a local entertainment paper and a regional lifestyle magazine. At the same time, I was raising a family, and pursuing an advanced degree in business.
While visiting a childhood friend in Los Angeles, I saw a billboard showcasing the American Booksellers Association convention being held nearby, and bought a day pass. I went back again the next day, having found nirvana. On the flight home to northwestern Michigan, I was determined to figure out a way to get into the book business.
A tall order for a rural area, you might think, but Traverse City, MI and its environs were home to many many bestselling authors/screenwriters (Jim Harrison, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Luedtke, Doug Stanton, Bruce Catton, Dan Gerber); Interlochen, an international high school for the arts; and many other cultural institutions. By chance, I realized there was a book distribution center located in our hometown, and soon found myself employed in ad sales for the owner who hoped to start a magazine for his small press clients.
For a couple of years, I was able to connect with industry leaders at trade shows across the country. Soon after, he bought a literary review magazine called Small Press from a publishing house on the east coast, dropped the first publication, and promoted me to the publisher of Small Press. It was a beautiful piece with elegant writing and long-form reviews of mostly fiction titles from established independent publishers.
But after about a year, said owner started directing editorial changes that I felt were compromising the integrity and original intention of the journal, and when my offer to buy it was refused, I left to start Foreword with a couple of women editing colleagues who felt similarly about the changes and the potential for us to cover indie presses more thoughtfully. The company we left stopped publication within six months.
In hindsight, I don’t know exactly where this courage came from. I was raised in an environment that was very traditional at the time: pop worked as an engineer for one of the big three car companies in Detroit, mom stayed home to raise us. However, I married into a very entrepreneurial family who had some failures, but many successes. Knowing I had worked for a couple of startups, and in the magazine trade, they urged me to take the chance to create my own company, providing lots of much-needed advice and encouragement, as well as staking me with some funds.
My husband and I had enough equity in our home to finance some lean times those first couple of years as well. The two editors who left with me had an option for ownership by reducing their salaries, one took it, the other did not. Eventually, I bought her out when she left to pursue her own dreams of writing the great American novel.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We left our jobs in March, our company was incorporated on April 1, and we wanted a magazine ready for the annual booksellers to show at the end of May. The three of us were ready to rock and roll, but none of us had design chops and I understood the design of the magazine was critical to our success.
I also understood that our potential reader was overwhelmed with journals crossing their desk, some every week. To compete for their time, it was essential that when Foreword arrived, they felt like they had received a gift: the highest paper quality, lots of white space, gorgeous photos, and illustrations. Since we were monthly, I was counting on them not feeling crushed for time, wanting to savor our B2B journal, taking it home with them, even feeling comfortable enough to leave on their coffee table!
By chance, I found a freelance designer in San Francisco with a family connection in our area who was willing to work with us on a sixty-day timeline for our first issue. Back in 1998, working with this type of distance was just beginning to find legs, so I often think about what a miracle this was— being able to stay in northern Michigan and to have found someone so talented, one who could understand my wishes and translate them so well. She immediately provided us with a cover prototype and sample pages which we printed at a local copy shop. I took those with me to an industry event in Nashville to sell advertising space. Also, email and pdfs were not yet quite de rigueur, so we used the fax machine as a tool, a lot!
Outside of design and ad sales, the editors had their hands full. The publicity generated with our departure helped spread the word in the industry, but they were on the phone nonstop requesting review copies from presses that we handpicked to make our debut issue a statement piece. We were all three wives and mothers, so lots of home responsibilities got passed along to husbands at the time, but each one staunch supporter of our efforts.
In early May, I drove four hours downstate to the printer with my two children for a color check before the press run (back then, you did things like physically check color!). That’s when it really hit me: how much was on the line with this endeavor. All three of us were the primary source of income for our young families, and we had taken an enormous risk quitting good-paying jobs to start our own business.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The short time frame of leaving our prior place of employment and launching Foreword proved to be a blessing in disguise. With a small loan from one of my brother’s in-laws, I was able to pay the two editors, set us up in a small office space, buy computers, and put 50% down on the first print invoice.
My goal was to introduce Foreword at an industry event that hosted 25,000+ publishers, booksellers, and some librarians. BookExpo America was being held in Chicago at the end of May. That meant ~75 days to put it all together and have it printed in time to drive to our first event (booth space traded for ad space). The American Library Association’s annual conference was the following month, also hosting 25,000+ trade professionals.
Due to our limited staff, Foreword was designed to be a controlled circulation magazine, free to our target audience and supported by advertising. The first print run was 7,500 copies. 5,000 of which were mailed to librarian prospects, the rest packed into two family vans ready to head down to the convention where we hoped to collect bookstore subscriptions and shake hands with our indie press supporters.
The key success of that first event was making contacts at the wholesale database companies where bookstores and libraries go to order our books. Three primary vendors had picked up a copy of the magazine at the show and immediately requested the opportunity to syndicate our reviews due to the unavailability of independent press book reviews. This really helped early on to confirm the business strategy.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I like to say Foreword is a twenty-year-old startup. Our efforts to publicize, market, and drive sales have been bootstrapped from day one. The book business is very relationship-driven, so it was important to be face to face with our customers as much as possible, with the mailed delivery of a magazine to serve as reminders in between.
In hindsight, trying to introduce a monthly magazine was a mistake that probably delayed our profitability. After a while, I realized the unsustainability and backed down to bi-monthly production. I also worked on developing some other products/services that added revenues to our bottom line without the massive expense of a print journal. Those included an awards program that helped us recognize exceptional books (submission fees), a fee for review service for those publishers who missed our deadlines and were willing to pay for a review, and representation at rights fairs (per title fees).
Trade shows are extremely important on many levels. We use our print platform to barter for booth space at shows around the world, which significantly diminished the expenses surrounding participation. Not only were the show attendees our current and potential readers, but the other exhibitors were publishers who were key accounts for advertising. Plus, we were able to prospect many new leads. In addition to handing out the latest editions of the magazine, we also came equipped with some swag that made our booth popular.
The fax machine and mailed postcards were instrumental in getting the attention of our readers and ad customers at the beginning of our life cycle. But as the internet access improved (really aging myself here!), we added an IT position to build a website where the content would be archived and allowed for 24/7/365 online sales capabilities. High numbers of Google searches for indie presses, categories they publish in, and author information have made the site an extremely valuable source for digital advertising revenues.
A couple of years ago, we added a position that was dedicated to our social media presence. Facebook, Twitter, and some Instagram posts go viral which leads consumers back to our site and magazine. We didn’t realize the possibilities of this until we published/shared a blog about a cancer book (nearly 70,000 views). Re-sharing and reposting our content also assists our customers with their own marketing and publicity and delivers on our mission to help level the playing field for small presses in publishing.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Thanks for asking, we are doing fantastic. But, it took Foreword ten years to reach profitability (no sleep), and another ten years for me to be able to relax about financials (some sleep). The first ten were very rough, the second ten also stressful, but along the way, I knew we had a strong business model in an industry that needed us, so I really never thought about giving up.
In addition to cash flow issues the first ten years, it was difficult to hire and retain good employees. The stress this put on my first two editors/partners was pretty influential in their decision to leave in less than a couple of years.
COVID-19 contributes in a weird way to our continued success (I am sleeping!). We were forced to make some pretty intense pivots with travel and trade shows evaporating, but at the end of the year, we saw 2020 become one of our most profitable. Some of that is due to the gift of a forgiven PPP provided to small businesses during the pandemic. But mostly, it is due to tightening our belt, paying off credit card debt, and cutting a lot of the expenses related to travel/trade shows. What remains to be seen is how long we can sustain readership numbers without face-to-face access to our peeps, and we are working diligently on new ideas to keep our subscriber numbers growing.
We have also added a digital magazine option and have put a concerted effort into trying to develop our consumer readership. I’m spending a lot of time speaking at events via Zoom and participating in podcasts. Another opportunity for us was caused by the disruption of the supply chains caused by COVID-19: book sales remain steady, even increased YOY, but readers are now finding books outside of libraries and bookstores due to their current inaccessibility.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We depend on a lot of technology these days, here is a list of some resources:
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I am a devotee of Seth Godin and Simon Sinek, both of whose books/podcasts have helped me build a creative and wonderful work culture that is resilient and sustainable. I also took Seth Godin’s altMBA course which is primarily responsible for re-inspiring me at a pivotal juncture in my entrepreneurial lifespan. I am still friends with an international mastermind cohort involved I worked within the course, and we continue to meet bi-weekly.
Vistage is a global leadership group of fellow CEOs that meets locally about ten times a year. I didn’t realize how important having peers at my level, not necessarily in my profession, would influence my best practices in the workplace. Of particular interest, the book Traction by Gino Wickman was introduced to me in Vistage and guides our business.
Sam Harris is my greatest hero. His podcasts and meditation apps have given me optimism in a dreary world. I also enjoy Tim Ferris (books too), Marc Moran, and Russell Brand podcasts. Smart people make me happy.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Ooooh, there are many. My biggest takeaways from starting a business follow, are not inclusive, nor in any particular order:
- Visualization of your endgame is important. The paths to get there will evolve, but if you don’t have this clarity, it will be hard to stay focused during tough times.
- Customers first, until they become unreasonable/unstable.
- Passion/enthusiasm will not pay the bills. Have a sustainable plan.
- My employees are the most important asset. I make sure they know it. And I try to hire well.
- If possible, do it without a partner/partners.
- Transparency is a gift, but don’t be too generous with bad news. In darker moments, the staff knows things are tough, but sharing too many details they can’t help with stresses them unfairly.
- Give your team space and tools they need to perform and walk away. Hovering does not help them grow.
- Listen. You don’t always have the best ideas.
- Be generous with time off. Today’s workforce appreciates that more than money (as long as they are making a living wage!)
- A diverse team makes a stronger product.
- Love your job, it makes everything much easier. I feel so blessed to be working with books along with some pretty fun and smart people.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are a pretty tight team right now, but I am always looking to keep my prospect basket full, particularly with salespersons. Plus, we can never have enough good freelance reviewers.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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