2010 Hall of Fame: Ken Brooks
Ask a sampling of your book industry peers, and you will find that most publishing careers do not begin with an engineering degree. Yet, that is precisely the path that led Ken Brooks, senior vice president, global production and manufacturing services, Cengage Learning, through 17 successful years in the industry and now to the distinction of being inducted into the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame, the nation's most prestigious honor in print production.
"Mine is a little bit of a different path than probably most folks [in the publishing industry]," says Brooks. "My background is as an engineer. I have a bachelor's and master's [degree] in industrial engineering."
Brooks' foray into book publishing came in the early 1990s, when he joined Bantam Doubleday Dell and took over the production department, after years of working as a consultant. The change was a positive one for Brooks, and he began a varied publishing career that has included positions with Simon & Schuster, Barnes & Noble (B&N) and now Cengage, as well as founding and operating his own digital content services company.
"It's more than just manufacturing widgets. … You're contributing to people's state of being," says Brooks about what appealed to him about a career in the book publishing industry. "It sounds kind of soft and ideological, but that's what gets me going. It's not just any old industry; it's a really important one. And then being able to pull in things that make people able to work more effectively and deliver more effectively—that's the other piece. … Those two things have really made it a fun career."
'A Serious Change Agent'
To become acquainted with Brooks and his career, you quickly learn that he is laser-focused on technology and the future. "He is a serious change agent … and he has the leadership ability to execute change," says Charles S. Siegel, who hired Brooks at Cengage Learning and most recently served as president of Cengage's Academic & Professional Group before his retirement. "Ken has a passionate curiosity about technology, and its use and application in production, content management and business/operations process."
That passion for technology and change is reflected in Brooks' accomplishments throughout his career, including at his very first publishing job at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where he helped transform the production department by bringing in PCs for the first time. "They were all working on terminals," Brooks says. "[Introducing PCs to the department] was really a transition into a modern production department."
Later, in 1999, Brooks joined B&N and served as the company's vice president, digital content division, and president of EP Ventures Inc., a Philippines-based text conversion and composition company that Brooks set up for B&N. There, he also redesigned B&N's internal title database (with more than 1 million titles), set up a print-on-demand operation in its distribution center (which later was sold to Lightning Source), and did the prep work for B&N's e-book launch with Microsoft. Of that string of ground-breaking achievements, Brooks highlights establishing EP Ventures as a "big accomplishment" in his career.
"I didn't go into it figuring that I would set up B&N's operation there [in the Philippines]. I was just getting outrageous prices from all the vendors that were going to do the conversion for us," he says. "I really did it to create price competition, which did happen." However, he explains, B&N did not have the volume to support its own conversion and composition company and later sold EP Ventures to a French printing company.
Brooks' experience with EP Ventures led him to leave B&N in 2000 to found his own digital content services company, Publishing Dimensions. There, "I really pushed data conversion much farther into different formats of e-books. Also, that's where I first got into XML workflows for creating pages for print as well as e-books," he says.
However, after five years, "I saw that data conversion was getting to be a business where you had to have a fairly substantial footprint in India or China … and that just wasn't happening," Brooks says. "I had my experience in the Philippines, and it's a really difficult business." When Cengage (then Thomson Learning) came along with a "great opportunity," Brooks sold his company and joined the educational publisher.
"I was impressed with Ken's consulting and operational background," says Siegel of what stood out to him when hiring Brooks. "In addition, he had the experience of starting up and operating his own business. He had the technical abilities and industry knowledge, and when added to the variety of analytical and operation skills he developed in his work history, it made him the perfect candidate for the position I was looking to fill."
According to Brooks, the position at Cengage was an opportunity "to really revamp the way production is done in the education business," he says. "We took a bunch of different divisions and centralized all of the production activities."
"… Ken had ultimate responsibility to rethink and reorganize the way we did production and develop a market- responsive organization using the newest technologies with internal and external and on- and off-shore resources," says Siegel. "He took a fairly traditional book production process and built a highly efficient, automated when possible, process that includes and supports all media types, reducing costs, improving turnaround times and maintaining high-quality services."
A 'Maker of the Future'
Brooks cites one of his biggest and ongoing challenges as: "How do you create opportunities for folks who have spent their entire careers in print? How do you move them into digital? We've been doing that. We've been wrestling with that from the beginning."
He says that the key to that challenge is to reconceive the way employees view themselves. "The base skills of a good production manager in print are the same base skills that are needed in digital," Brooks notes. "The challenge that I've seen is that many [production] folks view themselves and get a lot of their self-worth from, 'I make beautiful books.' If you can … make that individual transition from 'I make beautiful books' to 'I help people learn' or 'I provide tools that help people learn,' it's a lot easier."
As you might expect, for someone so focused on technology and change, Brooks views the current digital transformations in the book publishing industry as very much a positive. "It's a huge opportunity. It's not a great opportunity if you just want to do the same thing for the rest of your career. You have to actually get energy from wanting to adapt and drive change," he says. "It's either be part of the steamroller or part of the road, and I think it's a huge opportunity to really be making the future rather than being a victim of the future." BB