ATG Interviews Rolf Janke, CEO, Founder, Mission Bell Media
ATG Inter views Rolf Janke, CEO, Founder, Mission Bell Media
ATG Interviews Rolf Janke
ATG: Rolf, you have over 30 years’
experience in various aspects of academic publishing.
But for those readers not familiar with your
accomplishments, could you give us a rundown
of the highlights?
RJ: Over those 30+ years, I have been
involved with textbook, trade, professional and
reference publishing with such companies as
international Thomson, Blackwell,
ABCCLiO and SAGE Publications. At Blackwell,
an Oxford, UK-based company, I was one of
the first editorial executives to be based in their
first major office in the U.S.. That was a real
learning experience navigating a well-known
UK publisher through the complexities of the
U.S. higher education markets. It also allowed
me to travel outside the U.S. where I learned
that publishing on a global level was great fun!
My most memorable publishing highlight was at
SAGE where I founded SAGE Reference. What
a great opportunity to start an imprint under a
great company like SAGE. I will never forget the
early days travelling around to academic libraries
and listening to what was most important and
needed on the reference side then applying that
through award-winning publications.
ATG: We understand that you recently
founded a new company called Mission Bell
Media which is a publisher of digital and print
content focused on leadership and leadership
studies. Can you tell us about it? Where did
the idea come from? Why the name Mission
Bell Media? What market is your content
aimed at? What digital and print formats are
you publishing in?
RJ: I have always been passionate about
leadership as a topic. In my early days as a
publishing executive, I remember reading John
Kotter’s “Force for Change” which at the time
was the book on leadership, and I would argue
still is. That is when I started to watch, listen and
learn from leaders around me — from my father
to the CEO of the company I was working for at
the time. But it really wasn’t until the early days
of SAGE Reference where I was able to publish
in leadership and the Encyclopedia of Leadership
became one of the most successful titles we ever
did. It was not only a commercial success but I
was reading every article as it came in and learned
so much from it!
So fast forward to Mission Bell Media. Late
last year, I decided to to start my own publishing
company and sought the advice from
entrepreneurs on just about anything. Their advice was
simple; you better be passionate and enjoy what
you do and not be afraid to fail. I am passionate
about publishing and leadership so it was game
on. Mission Bell Media will produce digital and
print media in leadership and leadership studies
for librarians, faculty, students and professionals.
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interview — Rolf Janke
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The products will be e-reference works, eBooks,
software and video. Well, that is what is up on the
white board for the moment, and I am sure it will
change over time to include other forms of media
as well. We will produce print when needed.
The name Mission Bell Media has a local
connection for me. I live in Santa Barbara, CA
which has one of the larger missions in the state.
It is a beautiful building with so much history,
and I have always been drawn to the bell towers,
especially at night when they are all lit up. It also
has a historical-meets-contemporary feel to it
which sort of summarizes my publishing career,
an old print publisher now focusing on digital.
ATG: With such a deep connection to the
area would you ever consider publishing local
history or local interest books?
RJ: Santa Barbara County has a very strong
and growing wine region, and I have enjoyed
learning about our local industry for many years
now. I have actually thought about publishing
a few boutique titles on how some of the local
winemakers became leaders in their industry.
That would be great fun to do!
ATG: In addition to your digital focus it
sounds like you will be offering print-on-demand.
How will that work? Is your print-on-demand
model one that is being used most frequently by
smaller publishers? By even bigger publishers?
Will you doing any warehousing of some titles?
Is there a threshold?
RJ: I am looking at two avenues for print
distribution. The first would be licensing our
digital content to another publisher that has a
strong and established print sales, marketing and
distribution process established. I have already
been approached by some and feel this could be
a logical approach for our reference titles. The
second would be print-on-demand. There are
many sources to use and who we use will depend
on many factors such as our target customers,
product specs and the value they provide to the
customer. By focusing on digital and allowing
others to handle our print and inventory, we can
keep our costs down and make our products
ATG: Do you expect the bulk of your
market to consist of individuals or institutions?
RJ: This is a very good question. I think the
safe answer for now is both. If we publish
reference works on leadership as well as resources
specifically for librarians, you can see that the
individual vs. institution market can be one and the
same. There are other institutional markets we
will target, but they are not our immediate focus.
ATG: What is your strategy for generating
the kind of quality e-reference works, eBooks,
software and videos expected in today’s
academic and professional markets? How will
you recruit authors and contributors? What
quality controls will Mission Bell Media
provide in terms of peer review, copy editing, etc.?
RJ: There are a couple of aspects of the
quality issue here. First and foremost, our
mission is to produce content that provides a
real value, thus having a high quality attached
to it. Secondly, with such a high value that we
will place on our content; we will translate
that passion to our business partners who will
develop and produce our content. Ideally, the
end product, no matter what format, will meet
and maybe exceed the markets expectations.
Recruiting authors and contributors will
be a challenge because we are a startup, but I
have had the wonderful opportunity to work
many talented authors over the years and I have
already warned them that they should expect
a knock on their door from me. I am pleased
to say that no one has told me to go away and
come back later….
We will peer review our products as well
as put our content through the traditional
production process which will include strong
development, copyediting, etc..
I should mention that I will be establishing
an advisory board who will help assist me in
markets, technologies and processes that I am
not familiar with. The members will consist of
librarians, academics, professionals and digital
ATG: Why do you think that now is the
time for a publisher like Mission Bell Media?
What unmet needs do you hope to fill? What
specific opportunities led you to start your own
RJ: Because of our specific focus on one
topic and it’s a topic people care about. It’s not
about self publishing and it’s not a list of titles
that will get lost in a large publishers catalog.
As far as what needs we hope to fill, we don’t
necessarily want to publish more “how to”
books on leadership, as there are many, but focus
more on defining the many interdisciplinary
aspects as well as a focus on the experiential
nature of leadership.
Regarding the specific opportunities, I look
at it more as to what was and still is available
to me that led me to starting my own company.
I have met so many brilliant, creative, hard
working and entrepreneurial people over the
decades, and prior to officially announcing MBM,
I reached out and asked many of them their
thoughts on me starting my own company. The
standard response was “of course you should!”
There were also some pretty humorous
responses which I probably shouldn’t mention here….
ATG: Do you have any partners in your
RJ: Yes, I am currently working with some
key business partners who will be very involved
with various aspects of the business. I worked
with these folks when building SAGE
Reference, so I am very aware of their capacity and
how they can fit into my business.
ATG: Founding your own company is quite
a challenge. What are the biggest hurdles that
you’ve had to face so far? On the other hand,
what have been the most pleasant surprises?
RJ: The biggest hurdle for me is learning
to get out of my own way! We have all heard
“lead, follow or get out of the way.” Well, as
an entrepreneur, I need to practice what I am
publishing in. The most pleasant surprise is
how much fun it is to learn a whole new way
of building a business. You become the CEO,
the COO, the director of marketing, editorial
director all at once and your typical day is never
typical. I could write a whole article on this
alone. Oh, the dress code at MBM is a nice
change from the corporate sector.
ATG: If you could give one bit of advice to
an aspiring entrepreneur thinking of starting
his or her own business, what would it be?
RJ: Well, I am still a newbie entrepreneur
but I would say, surround yourself with creative,
smart and fun people and, of course, the advice
given to me, make sure you are passionate about
what you are doing. And the most sobering
advice, don’t be afraid to fail.
ATG: We understand that you were
spreading the word about Mission Bell Media
at ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia. What was
RJ: I was really pleased with the initial
reactions at ALA, from librarians, publishers
and old colleagues. I also received a great deal
of advice from CEOs of established companies,
but they themselves were once in startup mode.
There was also a genuine sense of enthusiasm
behind the focus on leadership and I only got
an “are you crazy!” from one person.
I should also mention that this ALA was a
very unique experience attending now on my
own — I really sensed a new-found appreciation
for this industry and that libraries have never
been more important!
ATG: Given your past expertise as founder
of SAGE Reference, we would be remiss if we
did not ask you about your views on reference
publishing. What do you see as its future?
Does it have one? If so, what does it look like?
RJ: Reference publishing has a future.
However, there are far more obstacles for
sustainable growth than there have ever been.
I have been working on this philosophy that
reference publishers have to believe that value
plus relevancy equals sustainable growth.
Your content has to be of value, and it must be
relevant. Haven’t we always believed in that?
Maybe more so but in better economic times and
when technology was emerging, not dominating.
Now, it seems more of a game of survival, and
perhaps reference publishers are too busy trying
to figure out the next big thing, ignoring what
got them there in the first place.
ATG: Speaking of SAGE Reference, what
have you taken with you as lessons from the
SAGE Reference experience?
RJ: Probably the most important lesson was
how to build something, grow it, brand it, grow
it some more, make it digital, make it global,
make sure people have fun working for it, grow
it some more and finally realize that the process
never ends. And that is a very good thing.
ATG: Starting your own company must
take a tremendous amount of time and energy.
Do you ever get a chance to relax and recharge
your batteries? If so, what are your favorite
activities and pastimes?
RJ: It is time consuming, especially when I
have never done this before. But I have learned
you also need to walk away from it
occasionally and recharge, so I take advantage of Santa
Barbara and ride my bike, play golf, enjoy our
local wine and head down to my satellite
ATG: Rolf, thank you for taking time from
what must be a very hectic schedule to talk to
us. It was fun, and we learned a lot.
RJ: Thanks Katina and Tom, I really
appreciate the opportunity to discuss Mission