Taunton's Lively preaches the zen of specialty publications

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When I told her I was having lunch with John Lively, the chief executive of Taunton Press, my wife, an interiors expert, ran through our apartment, pulling various Taunton books and magazines from shelves and coffee tables, averring that they were by far the most useful and engaging works she'd found on her favorite subject.

A few hours later, I recounted her enthusiasm to Mr. Lively. He thought for a moment-as I learned, he always thinks before he speaks-and said: "Our sensibility and our approach have always been to people who are hands-on, physically engaged in a process and with the materials."

I relate this anecdote about engagement because magazine publishing is in trouble. As Advertising Age reported last week, newsstand sales have suffered a quarter-century decline and advertisers have grown skeptical that periodicals are delivering real, valuable readers. Clearly, new models are needed, and Taunton, a special-interest publisher in Connecticut, may have one: passion. "What we've done through the craft of magazine making," Mr. Lively says, "is communicate joy."

Having started with a single magazine, Fine Woodworking, in 1975, the privately held, 300-person Taunton today publishes some 50 books a year and a raft of titles the industry would classify as "lifestyle." But such vacant categories are actually at the core of the problem Mr. Lively sees in a business whose "big city approach" to publishing is more voyeuristic than engaged, and whose "default mode is more about the medium than the market."

Taunton, by contrast, revels in particip-ation. It was the recognition of that skill set that allowed the company to redefine its mission and its market, and expand beyond its wooden base to include titles in needlework, cooking and interior design-the subject of its newest magazine, Inspired House.

Mr. Lively's own passion is quietly evident throughout the conversation, which becomes a dialogue about the zen of carpentry. "In making furniture, you reach a certain place," he says at one point. "You can read the wood, ahead of what you're going to use it for....It is a different kind of consciousness."

Central to the company's growth has been the understanding that Taunton is not a supplier to readers, but a member of their enthusiasm network. "Special interest publishing," says Mr. Lively, who joined Taunton as an assistant editor in 1979 when his passion for woodworking overwhelmed his Ph.D. studies in English, "requires involvement with your community, and that community includes your staff, your readers, your distribution channels and your advertisers."

The notion of community permeates everything the company does. In creating new products, for example, Taunton emphasizes co-development among magazine editors, book specialists, and advertising executives. The company's 180-degree performance appraisals-in an industry that still largely eschews this bedrock management practice-help inculcate and reinforce collaboration, a core value of the enterprise.

"Companies like to wrestle with the ownership of ideas," Mr. Lively says. "But `this is my story idea' is ultimately less fulfilling than being part of a community that brings ideas to fulfillment." It's a sentiment that may help other magazine executives rethink their organizations, their missions and their reader and advertiser relationships in the industry's time of transition.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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