Unhappy his first book publishing experience, Ari Weinzweig decided he'd do the next one himself
by Jan Schlain
From the May, 2017 issue
When Zingerman's co-founder wrote Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, he recalls, "I got an agent, because people told me to get an agent. But it was not a great experience for me."
The agent placed the manuscript with a big publisher, Houghton Mifflin. But the company didn't coach him through its process--"you don't hear anything for months and then bam, they're ready to print."
He didn't like the low-grade paper the company used to keep the price down. And he didn't like their marketing plan: they wanted to place the book in every Barnes & Noble bookstore and have Weinzweig go on QVC to sell it.
"Long story short," he says, "it wasn't fun." Like other authors before him, he'd discovered that "at the end of the day they've paid you for the book, and it's not your book anymore--it's their book."
So Weinzweig published his next book himself--and the next, and the next. In 2009, Zingerman's Press opened in the south-side warehouse complex that also houses Zingerman's Bakehouse, Candy Manufactory, Coffee Company, and Creamery. Like those farm-to-table businesses, he keeps the press local and uses only the best ingredients, with sustainably sourced paper and hand-drawn artwork.
Many of his books are about food, from The Story of Traditional Wisconsin Cheese to Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon (bound in cloth or pigskin) to a small, handmade chapbook titled Sardines! But the titles listed first on the press's website aren't about food--they're about management. Leading that list is the four-part (and counting) Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading. The subtitles all begin A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to and continue (in order of publication) Building a Great Business, Being a Better Leader, Managing Ourselves, and the Power of Beliefs in Business. You won't find any of them on Amazon--they're sold at independent booksellers and Zingerman's training (ZingTrain) events. Yet the Lapsed Anarchist titles alone have been through nine printings totaling 63,000 copies.
In March, Inc.com listed Weinzweig
as one of "The World's Top Ten CEOs." They asked each one for a favorite quote. Weinzweig chose this one:
Beliefs underlie every single thing we do, both individually and organizationally. Beliefs are like the root system of our lives. In my metaphor, I started to look at organizational culture as the soil. Clearly the quality of the soil will have a huge impact on what's planted--new ideas or new people--in the organization.Much of Weinzweig's own belief system is rooted in his reading as a U-M undergrad in the 1970s. One of his favorite places was the Labadie Collection of radical literature, on the seventh floor of the graduate library. He was particularly drawn, he says, to the collection's political pamphlets, "small booklets put out a century or so ago to convey the views of anarchist writers like Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, and Jo Labadie," the collection's original donor.
Anarchism is usually defined as a political theory that rejects governmental authority. But "politics isn't really my thing," Weinzweig says. He's written that he sees anarchism as "a way of living life, not a political program." In business, that means enabling people to work together freely, with leadership but without much hierarchy. Or, as he sums it up, "I just want to do my work and make a better place for people."
After graduating from Michigan, he washed dishes at Maude's, an early Mainstreet Ventures restaurant where Ruth's Chris is now. He moved up to cooking burgers and then into management--where he naively tried to leave everyone alone in the belief that they would do the right thing on their own.
"That didn't work at all," he says. That's when he began to call himself "a lapsed anarchist, because I still believed in it but I didn't practice it."
Fast forward to Zingerman's and his first Lapsed Anarchist book. He was invited to speak at the U-M Jewish Studies Center on "Rye Bread and Anarchism." Realizing he hadn't looked at an anarchist book in decades, he got his old copies out and started rereading them.
"It blew my mind," he says. He realized that anarchism's noncoercive vision "was incredibly parallel to what is called progressive business." He also realized that as they built Zingerman's organization, he and partner Paul Saginaw had unconsciously "applied anarchism in many ways."
He credits much of that to Saginaw. "I reference him a lot [in the books] because he's taught me a lot," Weinzweig says. Coming of age in the 1970s in a family of academics and doctors, "I had very negative beliefs about business ... Paul's father was a dentist, but his grandfather was in business, and his grandfather shaped Paul's beliefs around generosity and community. [Paul] taught me that business is just a tool, and you could do whatever you want with it."
One of their most radical decisions was to adopt "open books management." Ari's assistant, Jenny Tubbs, points out that every employee has access to the company's financials--and is taught to understand them. "We know what our sales are, profits are, goals are," she says. "We hear from Ari and Paul where we are and where we're going."
Tubbs' role is a testament to the company's openness to individual initiative. She started nineteen years ago at a short-lived venture into retail, Zingerman's Practical Produce in Kerrytown (where Sparrow Market is now). She was "doing prep work and making improvisational soups and salads."
In college at MSU, Tubbs had a job where she saw better ways to do things--but when she made suggestions, her boss told her, "That's not your problem. I don't pay you to think." She soon realized that at Zingerman's she was in "a very different place."
So when she decided Weinzweig needed an assistant, she told him so--and added, "When you post that position, I'm going to apply for it." Some time later, Weinzweig came to Tubbs and told her he'd posted the position. "I applied [along] with many, many people," she says, "and I got the job." She's also now the facilitator at Zingerman's Press, coordinating all the practical tasks that turn Weinzweig's thoughts into finished books.
When Weinzweig and Saginaw were developing their employee ownership plan (Inside Ann Arbor, August 2016), Weinzweig sought advice from John Abrams, CEO of an employee-owned design-build company on Martha's Vineyard. Abrams provided it--and was so impressed that he signed his key staff up for ZingTrain. Asked by phone how it changed the way his company does business, he says, "We noticed a practice that they do [at meetings]: they ask for appreciations, and there are no bounds to that. It sounds touchy-feely, but it was so effective," and now his company does it, too. "It makes us think about what we're grateful for."
Weinzweig is now at work on the fifth book in the Lapsed Anarchist series--but that won't be the next book Zingerman's Press publishes. Going back to where it all began, "the next book is going to be a bunch of food essays," Weinzweig says--including "a 10,000-word essay on prosciutto."
[Originally published in May, 2017.]
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