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PubWest Talks with Joe Matthews, CEO of Independent Publishers Group

July 12, 2022


When Joe Matthews stepped down from the PubWest board this spring, the occasion offered us an opportunity to say thank you, of course, and to catch up with one of our most engaged, supportive and busy board members. In this fun and candid conversation with board member Helena Brantley, Joe talks about running a second-generation, transatlantic company, whether publishing has a pricing problem, and what he’s most proud of from his time volunteering on the PubWest board. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You run a second generation company founded by...educators?

My mom and dad met as literature professors at Northwestern University. He was teaching Moby Dick, and she was teaching American literature. My dad really wanted to be in book publishing. He figured the best way to start was to open a bookstore, they had a little bookstore in the Drake Hotel. My mother is just a very, incredibly intelligent woman. She speaks 5 languages, and can read and write Latin. She wrote a book called The Balancing Act about women in the workplace, and got on the Charlie Rose show. I remember being a kid, my dad brings out the TV during dinner. It's because mom's on TV, and it was such a surreal experience. I'll never forget seeing her there. They were sort of the mom and the dad of the company. We've got a little bigger now. We're a little more corporate, but we're still pretty indie.

What do you do as CEO of IPG? How do you learn? What do you read?

I'm still trying to figure out exactly how to run a transatlantic business, and that's going to be my big challenge this year. I've also worked through books like Scaling Up. Five Dysfunctions of a Team was my favorite of those. Because everyone who has a business needs to read it because you're reading about your own people, and you're realizing, oh my gosh, maybe we are a little dysfunctional. I am part of a regional business forum, and I do recommend that people consider joining a business forum. I meet the same group of business leaders every month. That's been really helpful. Talking to my parents is also a piece.

Tell me about Chicago and hybrid work?

I love Chicago, it's a beautiful city. I love our architecture. I love our four seasons. It can be a little tough in the winter. Now, I can't argue that it's essential to be in Chicago anymore. So many of our employees and new hire staff have moved or started remotely or are going to move, and I think that's fine. I like that we're all over the country and that you don't have to be in the big city anymore to run a good company – before Covid we would have said that it was essential to be in downtown Chicago to attract and retain great talent.

Does publishing have an elitism problem?

Our industry has always been a bit tipped towards privileged people in a lot of ways. Part of that, as we've learned now, is from things like unpaid internships. IPG offered paid internships fully 10 years before anyone was talking about it. Not because we were making some big social point; no one even knew. It was just part of our values. And we started offering health coverage for same-sex couples way before that was talked about. In fact, there was no way to do it other than we simply got invoiced for the health care of the significant other of a same-sex couple. We just paid the bill.

Does publishing have a pricing problem?

It’s awful to see someone rip down a pallet of books because they have to sticker every book with a new price. I'm the treasurer of the BISG. And I'm advocating that we take the prices off the backs of books. There's a lot of discussion around whether that's feasible or not, but I think it needs to happen, and I think it would actually be healthy for us as an industry.

Why is PubWest relevant?

Organizations like PubWest are really helpful because you're around entrepreneurs. You're in publishing. You need publishing-specific domain knowledge. So, being members with many different organizations, I think, is really important. And you try to cobble up together as much information as you can from as many different places. It's always changing our landscape. So whatever you knew last year, you're going to learn more anyway. So, I try to take that seriously, by constantly improving my own understanding of business legal stuff, the banking stuff, the accounting, and financial stuff. The trends in our industry. What everyone's doing.

Zoom…are you over it?

I think Zoom is now in our toolset, and it's not going away. In some ways, that makes us more productive. There are certain kinds of meetings where it's actually better if everyone is on Zoom. So, for example, my town halls, I think I'm always going to do them Zoom now because I want every employee to feel equally included. The way that's just not going to be possible now that we're spread out over the country. And now that we're hybrid in our office. I don't want to force people to go somewhere. I want them to go to get the good parts of a social interaction. I don't want to force people, especially if they think that they'll be less productive with a long commute or with a long plane ride.

Why are you leaving the PubWest board?

I'm simply overcommitted. If you look at my calendar, this would all make sense. It's just relentless and overwhelming. Especially with travel coming back online in general. There are so many different organizations, which I think is the best marketing for our business because we are B2B. So, answering things, speaking events, and being part of thought leadership in our industry is incredibly important to me.

As a member of the PubWest board for the last 3 years, what are you proud of?

I think the thing I am most proud of, when I look back on it, was right when the pandemic hit. The sky was falling. We didn't know how bad it was going to be, and PubWest started organizing those weekly webinars. But here we all were trying to figure out what in the world is going on. And I had this kind of viewpoint over a lot of accounts and a lot of trends. When I think back on it, that was really special. I think publishers were really jumping on and learning about PubWest as a result of PubWest's outreach and advocacy during a challenging time. I think that was one of the best things PubWest did and I was happy and proud to help contribute to that.

Article courtesy PubWest