James, Juanita 1952–
Juanita James 1952–
Book publishing executive
Juanita James flatly disagrees with the current outcry that young people are no longer reading enough, that the spread of electronic media—cable TV, the Internet, CD-ROM technology—has sapped the strength and power books once held in our society. In fact, James, who is senior vice president of editorial for Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC)—the nation’s oldest readers’ group—suggests book publishing is stronger than ever, though more specialized than in the past. She points to the array of choices being offered in a variety of formats. In aCBB interview conducted at her office at Time-Life Inc. in New York City, James remarked, “There are even people reading who are not ‘readers’—they’re reading the sensational types of books. They may never read another book again in their lives, but they pick up Howard Stern [the radio shock jock who penned a best-selling autobiography]. But that’s not our [Book-of-the-Month-Club] audience.”
Instead, Book-of-the-Month Club Inc, which encompasses ten specialty clubs in addition to its largest, general-interest namesake club, boasts a membership of about 3.5 million and appeals to more serious readers. That figure is up from the “more than 2.5 million” theNew York Times reported in 1992, when James was promoted from vice president of BOMC’s General Interest clubs. In the general interest job, James was able to expand the Quality Paperback Club (QPBC) and claim a 40 percent improvement in margin after only one year. Previously, while vice president of BOMC’s Specialty Clubs, she improved revenues by 30 percent in the space of only 15 months.
It was natural, therefore, that in the months just pre-ceeding and following James’s promotion to BOMC chief, publications like theTimes, Publishers Weekly,andBusiness Week all wanted to know: Would James be able to pull off another turnaround—this one company-wide—in the face of aggressive growth by chain stores Barnes & Noble and Borders and other discount outlets. The pressure was on. James responded.
Life did not start out that pressured. Born Juanita Therese James on October 1, 1952, in the Clinton Hill (now Fort Greene) section of Brooklyn, she was the daughter and only child of dressmaker Nora Corlette James and mechanic Compton Carew. James describes her childhood as a happy one marred only by her parents’ divorce when she was seven. Her parents were immigrants from the South American nation of Guyana, and her father wanted to go back while her mother chose to stay. The result was that young Juanita spent the rest of her childhood summers in her father’s homeland, absorbing its rich Caribbean-influenced culture while still speaking English (colonial British Guyana’s native tongue). “It was like living in two different cultures. It was wonderful,” James reported toCBB of
At a Glance…
Born Juanita Therese James, October 1, 1952, in Brooklyn, NY, daughter of Nora Corlette James (a dressmaker) and Compton Carew (a mechanic); married Dudley Norman Williams, Jr., (a telecommunications consultant), April 9, 1988. Children: Dudley Norman, III.Education: Princeton University, B.A., 1974;Columbia University School of Business, M.B.A., 1982.
Thomson-CSF, Inc., purchasing agent, 1974-76; Time-Life Books, researcher and administrator, 1976-81, promotions, including assistant to the president, vice president human resources and vice president, special assignment, 1983-86; Time Inc., financial analyst, 1981-82; Time-Life Libraries, president and CEO, 1987-90; Book-of-the-Month Club Inc., titles held include vice president of Specialty Clubs, vice president of General Interest Clubs, and senior vice president, editorial, 1990—
Member: Black Women in Publishing; The Women’s Media Group; Princeton University (trustee); National Urban League; Black Executive Exchange Program; National Association of 100 Black Women (Stamford, Connecticut chapter).
Selected awards: Named to Corporate Hall of Fame, National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, 1990; Distinguished Alumni Award, Association of Black Princeton Alumni, 1989; Achievement Awards, Links, Inc. (civil rights organization), 1988.
Addresses: Office—do Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc., 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
her adopted country, which was built by Africans, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Indians.
James’s schooling also was a positive experience. She was at the top of her class academically and earned one of her high school’s highest scores on the New York State Regents Exam; the result was a full scholarship to Princeton. At college, James majored in French with the intention to teach at the college level. After receiving her B. A. in 1974, she took a job where she could polish her language skills: purchasing agent for Thomson-CSF, Inc., a French electronics firm buying semi-conductors and chemicals from U.S. manufacturers. At Thomson, James discovered her heretofore-untapped aptitude for business and was quickly promoted. Officials particularly liked her proposal for streamlining small orders. Only in her early twenties, she was already showing an ability to renovate and turn around a company’s procedures.
Not that James was about to make semi-conductors her life. After she expressed interest in moving to Washington, D.C., and an old college roommate told her that Time-Life Books was relocating to nearby Alexandria, Virginia. She submitted her application and was hired in 1976. Her first job title was editorial researcher.
Time-Life Books is familiar to many Americans for the direct mail and television marketing campaigns they use to promote such series as “World War II” and “Mysteries of the Unknown.” Their titles are offered to consumers overseas as well. From 1976 to 1981, James performed a variety of jobs for the division, including researching books and checking facts. She soon was promoted to assistant to the chief of research. Then—because of her aptitude for budgeting, training and management—James moved to the administrative side of the process.
Those skills brought James back to New York City in 1981, to work for the parent company in Time Inc.’s corporate division as a budgetary analyst in the financial planning department. “It was a dramatic departure from an editorial job,” James said. But she now recognized that her interests lay with the quantitative and analytical aspects of the business. While in New York from 1981 to 1982, she solidified that interest by obtaining her M.B.A. at Columbia part-time and specializing in marketing and finance.
James did not stay in New York long. In 1983, Time-Life Books beckoned her back to Alexandria for what would be a temporary assistantship to Reginald Brack, the then-new president of the division—and now Time Inc. president—as he worked to turn around the ailing division. James was prized for her dual expertise in editorial and business matters and worked with the president on new structures for the division. Brack was impressed; after five months, she became his vice president of human resources. “He asked me to work with him to change the culture of the organization, to
make it much more active and action-oriented as well as to help better the communication,” James recalled during herCBB interview.
As head of human resources from 1983 to 1986, James became adept at managing labor relations, affirmative action policy, and management training, and developed a compensation program to achieve cost-containment goals. It was satisfying work but she wanted to learn more, and did so by taking on a not-so-glamorous part of the business—operations. “Fulfillment” is the department that gets the books out to customers, opens envelopes, and processes invoices. For several months, James served as the departmental vice president of fulfillment in Chicago. From there, she joined a third division of Time Inc., becoming president and CEO of Time-Life Libraries, the telemarketing subsidiary of Time-Life Books, where she was responsible for 750 employees in eight cities.
Telemarketing was another part of the business that was sagging financially, and Time Inc. was considering whether to close it. James was called upon to perform her turnaround magic. “It was a very manual operation,” she said of what she found. “There were no computers. They didn’t do very sophisticated list management. It was really what you’d call a cold-calling operation.” James implemented a strategic plan and instituted modern direct marketing techniques, automating two of the five offices before moving on. Her three years with Time-Life Libraries Inc. were positive ones; the unit’s profitability soared by 300 percent, her reputation grew. In 1987,Business Week tagged her one of “50 women to watch.”
In Alexandria, through friends, James had met Dudley Norman Williams, Jr., who became her husband in April of 1988. But he worked in publishing in New York and she was still in Virginia. The couple were in the course of consolidating their two homes into one in Stamford, Connecticut, in December of 1989, when trauma struck. James was in Baltimore on business, and five months pregnant, when her son, Dudley Norman, III, was born four months prematurely. The baby stayed in the hospital in intensive care; his anxious parents took temporary housing in Baltimore. They remained there for months. “It was a very difficult time,” James acknowledged toCBB.Then, when her infant son finally seemed well enough to take home to New York, he got sick and was again hospitalized. “That whole first year from a health standpoint was very stressful,” James said. Already on a leave of absence, she resigned from Time-Life Libraries.
When it was time to return, James’s request for a transfer back to New York was answered with a big vote of confidence: a promotion to vice president of BOMC’s Specialty Clubs. Again, a turnaround was needed. Which clubs should be dropped and which expanded? James responded by, among other moves, establishing the successful Crafters Choice club separate from the Home Style club and by ending the Mysterious Press, which was being squashed by competitor Mystery Guild. Her strategies resulted in a 30 percent increase in revenues during the period covering 1990 to 1992.
James’ next job, as vice president of the General Interest Clubs, similarly resulted in a 40 percent improvement margin for the Quality Paperback Book Club. The press was taking notice. “Segmented marketing is a central part of [James’s] plan,” wrote theNew York Times.“No longer are members divided into fiction and nonfic-tion buyers. Instead, the book club will rely on a personalized data base.” As James herself told theNew York Times in August of 1992, “There is clearly a diversity of interests out there. We plan to target our customers more precisely. If we find that a customer prefers to read women’s fiction, we’ll make sure that each month that person’s selections will include several titles from that category.” That July, she toldBusiness Week: “We need to change our old-fashioned image. We want people to think of us as a service, not a nuisance.”
In 1993 came the highest prize yet: promotion to senior vice president of editorial operations for BOMC Inc. overall. James did not slow her pace: she established One Spirit, the most successful new club in the division’s history, dealing with New Age topics; and from 1994 to 1996 she doubled the division’s profitability. Still, there was more to think about. Considering that Time Inc.—with its four book companies, including trade publishers Little, Brown and Warner Books—and magazine empire had become part of Time Warner in 1989, James knew her job now included strategizing for the media developments of the future.
“We give people information about books,” James explained in herCBB interview. “When we send it through the mail by catalog, we’re limited by how much we can describe.” The rapidly emerging Internet, she said, offers the “opportunity to really showcase to our book members just how much we know about books.” What are BOMC’s Internet plans? James would not say. But she did talk freely about another important aspect of her job, finding ways to expand BOMC’s audience.
Solidifying BOMC’s traditional upscale audience—urban, middle-aged, $45,000 household income—is one way. Increasing its ethnic diversity is another. “I think we have clearly diversified the portfolio of books,” she said. “There are many multicultural titles, especially compared to five years ago.” In fact, a recent catalog included such titles asMama’s Girl,a memoir about growing up black in the post civil-rights era; $ National Geographic illustrated book entitledThe World of the American Indian; Zenzele,a Zimbabwe native’s portrayal of the new Africa; andMama, Do You Love Me?,a children’s book about a young Eskimo girl.
Not so far removed is the issue of diversity within the staff of BOMC itself. Publishing, James toldCBB “is not a very diverse industry. It has too few people of African American ethnicity, of Asian or Hispanic American heritage. There is a sense I think of isolation and alienation.” What publishing does have is a “critical mass” of women who can understand that alienation. And as one of them, James is doing what she can to help young people from ethnic backgrounds. She is a part of such networking efforts as Black Women in Publishing and the Women’s Media Group. And she is devoted to their goals whenever she can spare the time away from her now-healthy six-year-old son.
“I think the industry does itself a disservice by not aggressively trying to become all-inclusive,” James noted during herCBB interviw. “And I would not say it has been easy for me. I think I have had a stellar career. But I have always had to have someone take an interest in me and as a result, I try to take a real interest in young people coming up. What you have to do is, if you have a goal in life—you feel that you want to make a contribution and you want to make an impact—you have to decide whether or not your skin is thick enough to try to accomplish that goal and try not to take offense at every slight or even unintended slights when you are that person that isn’t like everyone else.”
Business Week,July 20, 1992, p. 75.
New York Times,August 30, 1992.
Publishers Weekly,October 25, 1993, p. 9.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through aCBB interview with Juanita James on July 18, 1996.
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