DBW Interview with Mary Ann Naples, Publisher, Rodale

DBW Interviews in InnovationMary Ann Naples is SVP, Publisher of Rodale Books, which publishes all things health and wellness. Before taking the helm at Rodale, Naples held a variety of positions that informed her approach to steering the publisher, including nearly a decade of editorial work, more than a decade of being a literary agent, and a sizable amount of time working in business development.

Amidst the flurry of publishers scrambling to innovate and find new revenue streams to support their book business, Rodale recently launched Rodale Wellness, a content and e-commerce website for wellness seekers—the same audience that comprises the bulk of Rodale’s readership.

Digital Book World recently spoke with Naples to discuss the company’s new site, the state of publishing, innovation and much more.

What led to the creation of Rodale Wellness?

So, as you know, we focus on wellness books. We interpret wellness sort of broadly—everything from health and fitness to happiness and personal development and spirituality. And I think we saw the opportunity that we could have a deeper engagement with our readers that could help them either discover or go beyond the messages in the book. We just wanted to serve them better and basically wanted more ways to connect directly with our audience. Rodale Wellness has three parts: the first part is connecting with influencers—of course our influencers are our amazing authors. Tools, which are the e-courses we’re developing and events. And then inspiration, which is our content in all the forms that it comes in.

Going forward, how do you see the site expanding or evolving?

I think it will definitely evolve, and the very first order of business is to grow it aggressively. So I’m here at Rodale with all these incredible brands like Men’s Health and Women’s Health and Prevention and Runner’s World, and Rodale is really a company that knows how to drive traffic and build these brands. So I’m using all that expertise to say, ok, we have this new brand and we have to grow it as much as possible. And then I think what’s cool about it is we can grow it along with products that are branded right from the very beginning. I just think that there is an opportunity for there to be a deeper connection from the beginning. So how can it evolve? It will definitely grow, and then assuming we build this in the best possible way, I think we’ll have the opportunity for us to dig deeper in different niches, so you can imagine gluten-free, or in any other place where we have great engagement we can go a little deeper. And I also think we should go deeper on authors so there are areas for some of our great franchises.

Do you view Rodale Wellness, or a site similar to it, as a model for how publishers should be innovating in this space?

I think it’s one model. I think it’s an interesting possibility of a model. People say that general publishers can’t do things like this, and I personally don’t agree with that because I think you could build a niche in any area. But I do think it is about verticals. If you try to be too general, you risk not appealing enough to anyone. But what I think is helpful for publishers is the ability to ensure that your books have great exposure beyond what we’re all able to do with marketing and PR. So I think that [ours] is a great model.

Do you think that Rodale is uniquely positioned for this sort of venture given the combination of its specific publishing focus and amount of resources?

Well, one of the reasons I was excited about this job was that I definitely think Rodale has some unique advantages, especially because we have these business models in house whereas at other houses you kind of have to build them from scratch. The infrastructure and the in-house knowledge is certainly an advantage, but even so within our book group, we still have to hire from outside traditional book publishing to have people who know how to grow sites and know how to work these models. So I do think we have some advantages, but at the same time I don’t think it’s insurmountable for a general interest publisher to see the value in this kind of model and want to create something, like Macmillan has done with Tor and science fiction or Random House has done with TasteBook around food and cooking.

Obviously there are a lot of positives for your readers in creating a community where they can gather and stay informed on the latest news, but from a business standpoint, is the goal of a site like this purely to increase resources for the book publishing side?

I think we have three top goals. The first goal has got to be to serve readers, because if you’re not serving readers, you’re not delighting them and you’re not giving them content they want to come back for every day, you’re not going to succeed in any of your other goals. And we happen to be in an area where we actually help people change their lives, so we have to keep that in mind with everything that we do. Our other two biggest goals, I think, are to give us other ways to better serve our books and authors so when an author comes to us, we’re able to say that we do the things that other publishers do, but all of our books get major content packages. So every book has 10 different articles on our site and are syndicated that go out into the world in other ways, including across our branded sites. We’re creating e-courses out of our books with many of our authors. We’re starting to do online events, such as our upcoming Greatness Summit with Lewis Howes, that will have massive audiences so we can serve our authors better and give our books more visibility to be discovered. And last, we want that direct connection with the customer, beacuse even while we’re selling books in the trade and we love bookstores and we want to get everyone going to them, we also say come to us because we can give you more information. We can give you all these additional ways to experience this content.

With a site like this, how do you define success? Do you define it by whether or not you recruit more book readers? Are you able to tell yet from your data if you are?

I think there are a couple stages. I think you want to have enough revenue coming to cover your content creation costs, so you can do all this additional exposure and serving your authors and all that. So there’s one level where you have a great site and it’s sort of paying for itself. Then there’s the other level where—I don’t think it’s as exciting if it’s just, “Oh, here’s the site of a book group.” I think it has to be its own thing. So I almost want to separate the “here’s what we do for book publishing” and the “here’s what we do for the site,” where we truly give support tools and ways to change their lives and we give them all this access to experts. One of the visions for the site always has been to work with all publishers and authors in our space to make sure that we’re serving the audience with all the content that they want, not just content from Rodale. So we’re actually just about to reach out to our friends at other publishers about a very large online summit that we’re going to be doing in the spring that we’re opening up to non-Rodale authors. It’s about the overall experience for the reader.

So it sounds like there are really two measures of success: there’s how it affects the book publishing side, but then there’s the site itself, which does have to be a standalone entity, but the relationship is symbiotic. There’s really no way for them to be entirely separate, but I suppose that is the ideal.

Yeah, I think [Rodale Wellness] does want to be its own thing. I think the pitfall for many of the things that I see out there is that they are relying on people to do it in their spare time. You know, find some content while you also hold down a job as an editor or a publicist or whoever’s doing it. And the site gets updated once every week. Our site is its own thing, and if we treat it that way it will be of benefit to the world.

Do you envision similar sites under the Rodale name, or is this one pretty all-encompassing?

I think if we prove out this model, I could certainly see adding additional sites, but that’s not where we are right now. We could do something around food or other parts of the vertical that we’re in.

When you were named Publisher two years ago, you said, “I’ll look to build on Rodale’s incredible assets, as well as create opportunities for growth across new categories and initiatives. My background as an author advocate with a long publishing history, coupled with my branding and start-up experience, will help me forge new paths for Rodale in this fast-shifting digital publishing landscape.” So was Rodale Wellness, or something similar to it, something you already had in mind then?

Actually it was, and I have a variety of evolving presentations that started with when I was interviewing for the job, just because I think it was there to be done. At Rodale, it was so obvious that we had the opportunity to engage with the audience a little more strongly. I’ve been here about two and a half years now, and have just sort of varied it and built on it, and everyone here in the book group has been incredibly entrepreneurial, reading things like The Lean Startup and learning about that experimentation model. We learned about not being perfect and making mistakes and integrating them into the content creation and all those other things into our workflow, and I think we’re really trying to bring an entrepreneurial mindset to it. So in a way, I’m frustrated that we’re not farther along, but in some ways I look back and we’ve come a really long way. We had nothing, and now we have the site, we have the courses, we have the online summit that we’re launching. So it’s pretty exciting.

Looking back at your history and that quote we alluded to, you have an incredibly unique and varied career in publishing and business. You’ve been an editor, an agent, you’ve worked in business development, and the last few years you’ve been a publisher. How do you feel your experience being on all different sides of this industry has informed your vision for how publishers need to innovate to survive?

I think that I’m pretty lucky because I’m able to bring multiple perspectives to it and I can add some different skillsets because I’ve been in all of these positions. I was speaking with someone who had been approached about this job, and she said to me, “It’s good that it’s not me who got it because I would’ve been so in the weeds of traditional publishing that I wouldn’t have seen these possibilities.” And that felt kind of true for me because, whether or not these are good ideas—and of course I think they are—I feel like we have to get outside of this—sorry, I know this isn’t exactly sound-bitey. My first day here was the first day I’d been inside a publishing company since 1998. And then I’d been an agent, so I was outside for 13 years, and then I was working in startups, so since 1998. And I came in, and I started to get a sense of what the rhythm was, and my biggest impression was, “Oh my God. It’s exactly the same!” And it was. Everything was the same. Except ebooks exist now. That was a little breathtaking and a little bit depressing. And so I wanted to shake it up a little bit. I wanted to take these chances and I wanted to make something great. We’re building on something that’s already great, but I think we can make it even stronger.

If book publishers are to survive, they obviously must adapt, and building new revenue streams is a big part of that. Beyond sites like yours, how do you see publishers evolving to meet the needs of today’s stark reality?

It feels like we’re pretty early in the game of imagining new possibilities. Even just thinking back to my first day and how similar it was. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in digital and international and new kinds of products, and we’re experts in this content that, whether it’s nonfiction or it’s fiction, it can go out in many containers. And we have the opportunity to bring it to people in many ways, and I think we’re going to find more ways to do that. We’re obviously experimenting with some of them, and I see other publishers doing pieces here and there, but it hasn’t gained the critical mass that I think we eventually see or will have to see. I want to think about publishing as being able to deliver a great experience and help a reader change their life in whatever form is best for that reader. I think publishing is going to stick around for a long time, and I hope to be able to be part of all the changes that are ahead of us.

Rodale Wellness is hosting its first Greatness Summit November 16th-23rd. The summit is a free, week-long online event, hosted by Lewis Howes. It features 28 top experts ranging in specialty from business and entrepreneurship, to nutrition and fitness, philanthropy and more.

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