The Definition of Success
Merriam-Webster is a household name when it comes to dictionaries. In fact, its dictionary is said to be the second best-selling hardcover book in American history next to the Bible. So it might be surprising to find out that behind this book is a manufacturing department of just one: David Pelkey.
Pelkey, Merriam-Webster’s director of manufacturing, oversees the manufacturing of all printed materials for the company. “I do all of the paper purchasing, warehousing and inventory management, and I also have a hand in distribution,” he says.
Pelkey’s name may not be as well-known as the dictionary he helps produce, but this year, after 21 years in the graphic arts industry, he is getting a taste of fame himself. He is being inducted into the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed on leading publishing executives in book, magazine, catalog and advertising production.
Despite a lengthy and successful career, Pelkey wasn’t always in the business of making books. He started his career as a production planner for the machine tool industry. After eight years in that business, Pelkey fell victim to downsizing and found himself standing on the unemployment line for an impossibly long five months. It was that simple twist of fate that led Pelkey to the world of publishing.
“I learned about a job for children’s book publisher Field Publications,” Pelkey recalls. “Many people know the company for its Weekly Reader magazine. They were looking for an inventory planner, which was somewhat similar to what I’d been doing before, and I took a shot at it.”
Being an inventory planner for a year or so whet Pelkey’s appetite for publishing, and the executives at Field took notice of his drive. He was offered a promotion to junior print buyer. “I really didn’t know much about the graphic arts, but the company offered to give me extensive training, so I decided to give it a try.”
Pelkey’s tenure with Field Publications was long and impressive. He stayed with the company for more than a decade—1986 to 1999—weathering three name changes and an acquisition. Field Publications was ultimately purchased by an encyclopedia publisher based in New York and moved its operations there. Pelkey stayed loyal to the company and spent his last four years there commuting from central Connecticut to New York City and back each day.
“That was a five-hour commute—every day,” Pelkey stresses. He laughs about it now.
After four long years, however, Pelkey burned out on the travel and started looking for a new challenge, a new company that was more geographically plausible. A friend told him that Merriam-Webster, Inc., in Springfield, Mass., was looking for a manufacturing director, someone who could fill the big shoes of the predecessor who was retiring after 25 years of service to the publisher.
Pelkey applied for the job, and humbly recalls, “And surprisingly, they took me in.”
Changing the Model
Merriam-Webster published its first dictionary in 1847; it sold for $6 a copy then. To this day, the company is best known for its dictionary and thesaurus resources. For more than a century, the company’s business model had been print-centric. But with the emerging demand for electronic media, the publisher began to think outside of the print box.
One of Merriam-Webster’s electronic strategies has been to develop its Web presence. It hosts several Web sites, including one that’s free and several accessible by paid subscription.
“Advertising on our Web sites is becoming increasingly popular and is starting to bring in a lot of revenue,” Pelkey confides.
The company also produces companion CDs and hopes to capitalize on the iPod craze. “We already have a big presence in electronics, with technologies like the Franklin Reader [e-book reader software],” Pelkey says.
Merriam-Webster’s marketing philosophy doesn’t involve pushing one medium over another, according to Pelkey. Rather, the company responds to what its customers respond to—which continues to be an overwhelming favoritism for print. Approximately 90 percent of its revenues are still derived from print, says Pelkey.
The publisher’s new media strategies haven’t caused any profound technological challenges, as most of its products were already produced by database-driven publishing tools that were easily adapted to electronic output, says Pelkey. Instead, Pelkey says his greatest challenge has been in managing fluctuating inventories when customers have multiple formats from which to choose.
A Man of the People
From a chance transition from the machine-tool industry into the world of publishing, and from print-only to multimedia content production, Pelkey has faced his share of challenges. He credits his colleagues who offered support, taught him what he needed to know, and encouraged him to make his own new discoveries.
However, one mentor, in particular—a colleague from those early days at Field Publications—gave him essential advice that he’d follow throughout his career: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
“When I started out in publishing, I didn’t know a thing about the graphic arts, but I learned at a very early age that you have to ask questions. That’s the best way to learn and grow,” Pelkey says.
These days, Pelkey offers advice of his own to his industry friends: Network as much as you can. He stays active in the book community through organizations like Bookbuilders of Boston.
“I don’t have any problem conversing with my competitors and sharing ideas in a forum like that. And I’m a big believer that you have to take the time to develop real relationships with your suppliers and vendors,” Pelkey suggests. “I know that when I call the plant manager down at Quebecor, he’s going to take my call. He knows my business, and understands that if I’m calling, there’s a good reason for it.”
Pelkey says that the end product keeps him motivated. “When we launched the 11th edition of our Collegiate Dictionary, it was an enormous undertaking—lots of work, lots of hours, lots of people. We revamped the look of the dictionary, changed the jackets and covers. And when the final product came out, we got a lot of rave reviews from customers and the press,” Pelkey recalls. “It makes all the work worthwhile, to be recognized for having improved the product and contributing to your company’s bottom line.” BB
Gretchen A. Peck is a freelance author who writes about the international printing and publishing industries. She welcomes comments at GretchenPeck@Verizon.net.