Shona Burns: 2008 Publishing Executive Hall of Fame Inductee
When Shona Burns first entered college, she was unsure of what she wanted to study. “I started out doing a business studies degree,” she recalls. “I was bored rigid. … I had met a couple of fellow students who were getting a publishing degree and found what they were talking about a lot more interesting than what I was doing myself.” Burns switched majors, and business studies’ loss was forever publishing’s gain. Through the ensuing decades, the initial enthusiasm she felt for publishing only grew, manifesting itself in an outstanding record of professionalism, innovation and service that has earned Burns the praise of her peers, a position as executive director of production at Chronicle Books and a place in the Publishing Executive Hall of Fame, the nation’s most prestigious honor in print production.
“Amidst the constant changes and challenges which circulate within the realm of publishing and manufacturing, Shona has always demonstrated a continued commitment to being knowledgeable about all aspects of the industry,” says John Sabella, senior vice president of national sales at Lehigh Phoenix, who has worked with Burns frequently over many years. “She has embraced and exuded the highest business ethics and has modeled, for the rest of us, a tireless dedication to her work. Our industry has evolved and grown stronger because of her many contributions.”
A Change Manager
In the course of a varied career, Burns has demonstrated how a willingness to learn, coupled with an innovative spirit, can translate into success. Rather than resisting the technological and workflow developments that have transformed publishing during the past 15 years, Burns has embraced them to maximum strategic advantage. If not always the first, she consistently has proven herself to be one of the smartest on the block, and her efforts have paid major dividends for Chronicle Books.
“I’ve been very involved in a lot of change management at Chronicle,” she says, having spearheaded management initiatives including the consolidation of three production departments into one and new approaches to product development. “We did a major project to determine whether this company is still innovating in a way that it should be in today’s market,” she says. “We asked questions like, ‘Who is our consumer, and who are we trying to [reach]? How do we define risk, and who do we admire?’”
The outcome of these and other initiatives was a major company reorganization.
“Whenever the subject of change management comes up, I think most managers duck. Very few have the courage to take it on. Shona didn’t duck,” says Michael Carabetta, creative director at Chronicle Books.
“I think it’s every executive’s job to continue to look for evolution,” says Burns. “Looking at how jobs are changing is [core] to looking forward. I do spend a lot of time thinking about what we need to be achieving.”
Her formal training at Edinburgh Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland—which included ink technology, editorial, copy editing, language, art history and graphic design—gave her the sort of “big picture” view of publishing operations that she believes is valuable to becoming a strategic problem-solver. “I think one of the great values I’ve gotten from my background is if you are exposed to all the departments … then you are given much more information to make better decisions for your own piece of the business. It really helps people to collaborate and build relationships within the company.”
Burns’ experience also includes having worked with book manufacturers around the world.
“We’re all struggling with same questions,” she notes. “I think the next big question for the industry is this one about how we figure out the supply chain in a way that allows us to not have so many returns and not have so much cost. We all have inventory. We all have cost attached to that. We all have late-running schedules and common product problems.”
The most immediate challenge affecting the industry, however, is the impact of short-run, digital printing, observes Burns. “The growth in the last three years is really amazing,” she says. “I think internally, getting procedures and processes in place that do not rely so much on print is a huge challenge—probably the biggest challenge to all production departments at the moment.”
For Chronicle, the impact of digital printing on production operations is most acutely seen in a major project that is currently underway to digitize the company’s backlist.
“I’ve been in this industry for 23 years. When I think about where I started, looking at baseboards with linotype on it that would stick on with glue, and here I am now trying to make books for Kindle with images in them, it’s just incredible,” Burns says. “If the next 20 years are like this, then hold on to your hat.”
Responsibility Beyond the Boardroom
While helping to steer Chronicle through these momentous changes, Burns has made time to be a leader in other ways, speaking on production topics at the influential Stanford Summer Publishing Course. “I find … education … really interesting because you get to share ideas and talk about what you do and inspire others. That’s really important to me,” she says. She sees mentorship as a key component of management and credits Elizabeth Hallett, director of design and production at Hodder & Stoughton, as a mentor and inspiration to her early in her career.
Burns also works with nonprofit environmental advocacy organization Green Press Initiative as an adviser on the group’s Book Industry Environmental Council, which is working to establish industrywide standards and recognition for environmental efforts.
“Shona has been an early leader on the environmental front, tackling the challenge of ecological responsibility and overseas production,” says Tyson Miller, director of the Green Press Initiative. “She helped to develop the ‘Treatise on Responsible Paper,’ and she has represented Chronicle on the Book Industry Environmental Council. Her voice, honesty and perspective is invaluable. She has helped the industry’s momentum in this area in a big way.”
Michael Healy, executive director of the nonprofit industry association Book Industry Study Group, also praises Burns’ leading role in promoting green initiatives.
“Shona has been one of the pioneering figures in our industry on issues related to environmental responsibility and sustainability,” he says. “Her commitment to more environmentally sensitive book production has certainly helped make Chronicle a leader in this area, but she has taken it further by being a prominent spokes-
person in the industry at large for a different and more responsible way of working. Her induction into the Hall of Fame is a very welcome acknowledgment of her contribution in these areas.”
Burns has worked closely with a U.K.-based group, Prelims (Publishers Resolutions for Ethical International Manufacturing Standards), which works to establish ethical production standards and elimination of child labor throughout the international book trade. “We work together to have suppliers work [toward] an industry standard for corporate social responsibility,” she says. Signatories to a resolution affirming social accountability standards include Chronicle, Scholastic, Random House and Penguin UK, among others. Burns says one of her goals is to raise awareness of this organization among U.S. publishers.
Of Superman and The Beatles
Besides her work on environmental and social initiatives, Burns says she is most proud of the distinctive publishing projects she has been able to oversee at Chronicle. “Experimenting with new formats, ideas, techniques—I think about the fun that we have in making some of this product happen, because it’s not your standard 6-[inch] by 9-[inch] hardcover book,” she notes. “I’ve stuck rubber tires on different covers. I’ve built statues of Superman. … Every day we’re in here having fun and trying to figure out what other inventive thing we can come up with. I’m really proud of being able to come up with new specifications that inspire the marketplace.”
As for individual projects, Burns cites her work on the “Beatles Anthology” as a highlight of her career up to this point. “Being involved with … a 3-million-copy best-seller was phenomenal, both in terms of the pleasure of publishing such a great book, but also in the challenges of the manufacturing and supply logistics involved with 11 simultaneous languages publishing at the same time.”
While some might find such a logistical challenge nightmare-inducing, Burns embraces such projects with that same spirit and enthusiasm that originally led her into the world of publishing. At the very least, she has certainly never found herself bored rigid.
“It’s an enormous challenge, but exciting,” she says. “I think in 22 years I haven’t really gotten to a point where I’ve ever been bored—which is amazing, to stay in the same industry and never having gotten bored yet. There’s just so much continuous change. It’s ever-interesting.”