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Season 2, Episode 3
Shattering Publishing Norms with Rebekah Borucki

Rebekah “Bex” Borucki (she/they) is a mixed-race neuro-riotous mother-to-five, grandmother-to-one, self-help and children’s author, and the Founder and President of Row House, Wheat Penny Press, and the WPP Little Readers Big Change Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit delivering literacy programming to K-12 students in underestimated school districts and grants to Black and Brown creatives and booksellers.

Borucki is driven by a commitment to make wellness, self-learning, and literacy tools available to all and to help others recover the freedoms stolen from them by white supremacy through activism centering Black liberation and trans rights. She lives with her family in her native state, New Jersey.

Website | Instagram

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Discussed in this episode:

  • Rebekah’s relationship with feminism
  • Being a high-school “opt out” not a drop out
  • Why storytelling is disruptive to systems and part of liberation
  • What goes missing when publishing gatekeepers are mostly white
  • What gave Rebekah the audacity to start a publishing company
  • The role Google played in getting Row House off the ground
  • Community is essential in doing something new and risky
  • The financial playbook for getting Row House off the ground
  • How being part of a marginalized community fosters creativity
  • Disrupting an industry by getting a seat at the table instead of rioting outside the building
  • How Row House makes its industry-busting 40-40 business model work
  • Why the future of publishing needs to be diverse
  • How Row House’s area of focus has changed over time
  • Row House’s selection process (and why Rebekah stays out of it)
  • Why Row House is no longer publishing anti-racism books for white people
  • Shared values are the glue that hold a diverse team together
  • How having autism affects the way Rebekah works

Resources mentioned:

Learn more about accountability coaching with Becky Mollenkamp

Becky Mollenkamp:

Hi, Rebekah, thank you for joining me. 

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Thank you for giving me time to talk about Row House. It’s my favorite thing to do. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Good. First though, before we get into Row House, tell me about your relationship with feminism.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

I don’t feel a strong relationship with feminism mostly because of what the feminist movement looks like to me, which is very white, very exclusive, not inclusive of disabled people, of trans women. So if I were to subscribe to any philosophy…well, first I’m for gender equality in all ways and I think that’s how I look at it from my point of view. But I’ve learned a lot from Black women and womanism, which is a more inclusive form of feminism, but also for Black women, which I think is really important.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

My feminism is intersectional, and I think if it’s not, then it’s not feminism. But I understand completely where you’re coming from. And definitely women of color have a consistent, different story as guests here than white women with their relationship with feminism. So you are not alone in that. And I respect and honor that. Let’s start with your story. You told me, and I didn’t know this before we talked, that you’re a high school dropout and a teen mom. How did you find your way to becoming a published author? Because I think it doesn’t fit the societal narrative around teenage dropout moms.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

I mean, it’s interesting because when we were talking about feminism, I was thinking about words and their meanings and what they mean to different people. And it’s so important when you’re communicating to communicate to people so that they understand if you really want to have that relationship. So with feminism, I’m thinking about what do people think of me when they hear that I am a feminist? What would they think of me? So that’s why I don’t choose that word because I know it is so exclusive to a lot of people, that are important to me, in their minds. So the same thing with high school dropout and teen mom for me, It’s a reality that didn’t forecast any kind of negative future, but for so many people it does. And I think that that’s a little bit of a hook I get. It doesn’t mean that I’m less smart. It doesn’t mean that I’m less educated. It doesn’t mean that I’m less responsible. None of these things. And I think in many ways that it’s the opposite. And I’ve started using my friend, Trudi LeBron and an author here at Row House, she wrote “The Anti-Racist Business Book.” She said, ‘you have to stop saying high school dropout, say high school opt out because that’s what you did. You made a choice for you. And then you went on and did so many good things for yourself to educate yourself.’ So I’m a high school opt out, like Trudi LeBron. And as far as being a teen mom, that was such a gift because I mean, besides all of the motherhood stuff, it taught me to just work so much smarter, so much harder with more passion, a lot’s at stake. So I have a high tolerance for risk, but I also am very determined for it to not be a risk. Like everything I try has to work out. So how did I find myself here? And I’m trying a lot of different things, exploring, being curious, wanting to tell my story, tell my story of poverty, of mental illness, of neurodivergence. And in telling my story, I found a community, and in finding a very large community, I found a book contract and became an author and then, I mean, we’ll get all into it, but very dissatisfied with what I saw in publishing and then, you know, decided to go out on my own as a publisher.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You were an author first. You didn’t work in the publishing industry. What did you learn as an author who was inside of the traditional publishing world with one of the big publishers? What did that experience teach you, and how did that inform what you’re doing with Row House?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

It taught me, well in language I have now and I didn’t have then, it taught me how white supremacy, colonialism, theft exists everywhere and in creative fields as well. And maybe in publishing why it’s so disturbing for me is because these are people’s stories and are the right people telling the right stories? Are we learning from the people who should be educating us on whatever topic? So I saw that there was this real lack of people that look like me, that come from where I come from. I saw the same material, the same stale material from the same authors coming out again and again and again. And that while so many amazing people work in publishing, the ones at the very tippy top don’t seem to care much about getting good content out there. They wanna get out what sells. So that was not interesting for me.

 

Becky Mollenkamp L

And that’s the storytelling side of it, which I want to talk more about. Also, though, there’s a business side of that, which you saw on the upper side of the equation. What was your experience there and how does that inform you today?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

I mean, same thing. White supremacy, colonialism, paying people with brown skin that might be queer, that might be disabled, far less than their white counterparts. Also, just not choosing their books at all. They’re not getting acquired. When you do get that contract, it was wildly unfair in terms of royalties. There was no equity that existed. There was really very little opportunity for new authors to be able to get enough money to actually market their books, to take care of themselves while they’re writing their books. So it was just one of those other examples of the rich getting richer, the successful getting more successful and no opportunity or very little opportunity for people with real stories that are also very sellable to get into the game and play the game in a way that would bring them success. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You’re changing all of that, which is very exciting. On the storytelling front, I read somewhere or maybe you said it when we talked, that storytelling is an excellent form of disruption. It’s a great way to disrupt things. Tell me a little more about that. How is storytelling part of our laboratory process?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

For me, I believe that our stories are our greatest asset, they’re who we are. In some cultures, it’s the main way to share information, to share history, to share ancestral knowledge, to impart wisdom on future generations. So storytelling is who we are. Our stories are who we are. And if we can’t share those with freedom with a real liberated feeling of ‘I’m allowed to do this and I won’t experience harm or repercussions.’ When we’re allowed to do that wholly, and other people get to know us wholly or we get to know other people wholly, then that is what brings around real change. You know, Michelle Obama, maybe she got it from somebody else, said it’s hard to hate somebody up close. I really believe that the more we know about each other, the less we would be able to hate each other. Yeah, so storytelling is a way to bridge those gaps, to disrupt the narratives that are out there and have been for hundreds of years without questioning. So I encourage everybody to tell their story, whatever it is, so that we can be more vulnerable and in community with each other. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I know this is going to sound like an obvious, softball question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. What goes missing then when the stories that are being shared by the major publishers are all from authors who look alike?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

There’s no benefit to the general public in getting the same stories from the same people. There’s also great harm to certain segments of the population who might already be marginalized, already be oppressed. Without their voices, without understanding their stories and seeing them as human beings, seeing us as human beings, then you care less. And we see it happening all over the world. When people aren’t seen as whole people, we’ve certainly seen it here in the history of the United States, but when people aren’t seen as people, it’s so easy to deprive them of rights, to murder them. Taking away someone’s culture, their voice, is a form of genocide. And we’ve seen it so many times over and over again with our native populations, especially here in the United States, and that erasure can be deadly. It could annihilate an entire people. So we have to get our stories out however we can.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And that started with you telling your own story and writing. But it’s a big leap to go from that to starting and running a publishing house when that’s not your background. What gave you the audacity to do that? And I use audacity as one of my favorite words.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Everything that I do in my life really comes out of necessity. I am a survivor and whether that’s great for mental health or not, it’s the way that I’ve come up, having to really take care of myself. So if I saw a need, I would fill it. And what I saw happening in publishing, and when I had to leave my former publisher for what I saw as very exclusionary, racist tactics, policies that were all through the system, I knew that something had to be done. I didn’t necessarily see other people doing it. So I just did it. And I think that it’s a really dangerous thing. In some cases, it’s important, yes, you need to be qualified. Yes, please don’t operate on me unless you’ve been through medical school. But I think that there’s a danger in saying just because I have a certain background, I can’t do this. And when publishing, I mean, you’re printing a book, you’re distributing the book. It isn’t rocket science. And I think my job as a publisher is the easiest job. It’s the authors that have it bad. They really do have so much labor to do that it is my privilege to be able to be a vehicle for their work to get out into the world. But I think for a lot of people in the margins, it’s not audacity, it’s necessity when there are big leaps made.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And Trudi, who you mentioned earlier, I had a conversation with her once about coaching as an industry that I’m in and regulations and it’s an unregulated industry and sometimes I find that challenging, but she also talked about gatekeeping and who are the people that end up holding the gate, the door, the keys to the gates? Those are usually not the people that I want to be determining my worth and ability to do something. So I think that’s really valuable to share. And, even so, I think most people see a problem and think someone needs to solve it, but it’s sometimes a leap to say that person should be me when it’s something as monumental as what you’re talking about.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

If you see a kid under a car, under a tire, you go and you take care of the kid. And I’m not saying that this was life or death, but actually building on what I said before, it is. If we are being silenced, if my people are being silenced, if people I care about are being silenced, and people I care about extends to every single human being on this planet, I really believe in community and family that way, I’m gonna do something. So I saw an emergency and it not being taken care of. It all depends on what matters to the individual. People take action and big action every day in their lives to help family, to do what they can, to stretch themselves beyond their perceived limits to make change. There’s a lot of fear, but you know, not eating is more uncomfortable than worrying about failing at a publishing company. So I kind of had to do it, especially when I quit and gave back my author contract. I had to do something, and I am unemployable.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I love that. I’m unemployable too. I think that most of us who are self-employed know that feeling of being unemployable. I think that it’s clear that you’re rooted in your values and your why. And I think the more that you have a really compelling, motivating why, then the easier it is to take those risks. So it’s great that you’re grounded in that. What was your process then? You saw the problem, you wanted to solve it. How did you go about figuring out how to do that when it was outside of your direct experience or training?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Google is a cool thing. And as someone who grew up, I had a kid before I had a computer. So I appreciate the learning that is available to us. And I have to give credit where credit’s due. My girlfriend, my dear friend, she was the editor on my second book, “Managing the Mother Load,” Kristen McGuinnis, she’s the one that called me back after that dark night of the soul when I quit my former publishing company and I announced it online. She’s the one that texted me and said, ‘Why don’t you start your own house? Why don’t you just do that?’ And it only took that little prompt to go, ‘Oh yeah. this is what we need’ beause we were kind of talking back and forth, so what now? Who’s picking up the ball on this? And you Google it, you go get the business name, go to LegalZoom.com and get your incorporation paperwork done. It was the beginning of October that I got that suggestion, and November 3rd, I got my Row House Publishing, Inc. at LegalZoom.com. It’s just step by step. It’s one foot in front of the other. And also just be really vulnerable in your asks and in what you don’t know. People wanna help when you do that. So it was done with community. That’s the real answer. It was done in community.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

That’s a good answer, and something for people to hear that it’s hard to do something like this on your own, impossible. Yet many of us are conditioned not to learn to ask for help or that asking for help is bad, it’s a sign of weakness. I think especially women we learn that we’re supposed to be super women who can do it all, and so I think it’s really valuable for people to hear that you built this community, that asking for help, allowing yourself to receive help is what helped you be able to make this happen.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

That’s another interesting part of it though. I talk about community a lot and I think I forget what community means or doesn’t mean to other people outside of my lived experience. I’ll give another example. I was talking about violence on my Instagram or on Row House’s Instagram, and I said we don’t condone violence of any kind. And my publisher, V. Ruiz, that works with me, they came and said, ‘hey, whoa, I need you to check something because people out there think that setting a Target on fire is violence.’ I was like, ‘oh, they think resistance is violence.’ I’m like, oh. So I had to amend that. So when I talk about community, like I don’t know that life where people say that you have to do something on your own. That is not my reality or the reality for many Black and Brown people, because that is not the culture that we came up with, because if that was the culture that we came up with, we wouldn’t be here. So from the very beginning, and I am a descendant of enslaved Africans from Georgia, from Sparta, Georgia. From the very beginning, I had this understanding that I am here because so many people work together and they work through hardship to keep their communities intact. I had a New York Times columnist ask me one time, so you came from rough beginnings, you came out of poverty, do you consider yourself a self-made person? And I was like the opposite. So that shows how much you know about the hood, right? Or the projects or poor people. I had the most beautiful upbringing of aunties who I was not related to by blood, of neighbors who would tell on me if I was up to something, neighbors who would feed me and take me on their family vacations when my family couldn’t provide. So yeah, I didn’t get that. And I think that that’s another nod to white feminism because white women feel like they have to do stuff on their own. And I know I’m rambling in a thousand different directions, but I’m also a birth doula. And I know that the mortality rate for white women is actually greater than Hispanic Latin American people. It says Hispanic in the stats, I hate that word. And it’s because white women don’t have that community.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Well, thank you for calling me in on that. I’m doing all the work to try and, no, no. I’m trying to do all the work to try to learn my feminism, where it is still centering whiteness. And obviously that’s my lived experience. And so it is where I start from, but I wanna do the work to make sure that I’m not centering whiteness in all of these discussions. And I love the opportunity to notice where that’s still happening, so thank you. And with Row House, when you started, tell me because I’m not sure exactly the timeline on the journey. In 2021, I know that you had 1,300 people who donated and invested for you to raise $1.2 million to get things started. I also know that you worked with the COO and the CFO of Simon & Schuster to help you with your business plan and figure out how to make the model that you wanted to do work. What was that timeline? Did it start with reaching out for others to bring in money and then sort of figuring out how to make it work, or did you start figuring out how to make it work and then getting the money to do it?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

First of all, only 2% of all venture capital goes to women, and .2%, something ridiculous, goes to Black women. So right away I knew if we were going to raise this money it was going to be by going out to the community and just asking for it. Saying we’re doing this thing we’re doing this for us will you help? I rallied every single influencer, every single person I knew. And I was like, look, we’re going to… So November, we filed the paperwork. We planned to launch on March 1st with our Instagram. And inside of that, we were talking to different authors. You know, we would have the conversation about inequity in publishing. And then March 1st, I was just, I just told everybody, let’s just flood the feed. Let’s just, everybody on every platform, let’s just talk about this thing happening. So the first 10 days we raised $100,000 and that was gifted money. So out of that $1.2 million, about $250,000 came in and straight donations. The others are investors, investors that came in for as little as $300. So this is a huge expansive effort. And after all the money that was raised, it was less than $1,000 per person when we averaged it out. So this was a real huge community effort. But then some people gave $1, and it’s very appreciated because every single dollar is going to really important work. It was filed the business name, started engaging the community, asking if anybody knew anybody, really standing strong in our mission. And that’s what got the COO, CFO of Simon Schuster interested in helping. He had been a contact of Kristen’s, but when he heard what we were working on, it’s like, yes. Cindy Spiegel came in. She was building her own house at the time, Spiegel & Grau or rebuilding it after they left Penguin. And she came in and gave us beautiful advice, questioned if we’d be successful or not, but I still love her. I was really excited to prove her wrong. And yeah, just people rallied. I really believe that if you’re doing something really cool, people wanna jump on board because they wanna feel good about themselves too. Like give them that opportunity to help, makes people feel good.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And speaking of Cindy Spiegel and the naysayers, not to say that she’s a naysayer, I know she supported you, but the people kind of questioning, will this work, I’m sure that’s something that you heard inside of the publishing industry, people who were ingrained in that industry and kind of put on the blinders of this is the only way to do it, right? That white supremacist, one right way of doing things, and working with people inside that industry, you know, people like Simon and Schuster, how did you balance that—working to disrupt the industry, and also still sort of needing the help of or accepting the help of people inside the industry?

 

Rebekah Borucki (22:02.087)

No one ever asked us will it work, people just said this isn’t going to work. That was the feedback. It was never like, ‘how is this going to work?’ It was either they were in, ‘we trust you, we believe you, we believe in this mission, we know you’re going to make it work,’ or ‘no I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole. There’s no way to do this in publishing.’ There’s one part where I really believe, and Will Smith said this in some, and I’m not a Will Smith fan. Did you read Jada’s book? 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I did not. I’ve heard quite a bit about it, but I haven’t read it.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

So, he said your inability to see how I could be successful is just your lack of imagination. And that can really hurt people. You know, if you can’t see things from people that look like you, like see big things, then that’s outside of your imagination and you have to really work hard. And that’s why I love the creativity of people in the margins because the creativity that comes through that hardship, that lack of representation, that forcing of innovation is just remarkable and powerful. But yeah, people just couldn’t see it because it hadn’t been done. It doesn’t mean that couldn’t be done. And I did see, though, parts of what we wanted to do being done at a lot of really, really cool publishers like North Atlantic Books, Verso, Barrett & Kohler. There were so many publishers doing really, really good work, but I also noticed, and this is no shade on them, but it’s just not the way that I wanted my trajectory to go. They were kind of stuck staying small. There wasn’t this place for expansive growth and competition with the big guys because maybe their views on capitalism, maybe they don’t want to do that. North Atlantic Books is a nonprofit. Everybody runs things differently, but I believe to actually make the big change that I think we need to make fast, we have to be big and we have to compete. So I didn’t pay attention when people said we couldn’t because people say I can’t all the time, whatever. But I couldn’t model myself, even off of people I’ve really admired, because they weren’t trying to do what we were trying to do or what we are doing. You know, New York Times bestseller lists, dominating the media, all that great stuff. It’s important, I think, to have perceived power in the eyes of the powers that be.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I saw a quote in a video that you guys put out that said, ‘We’re radical, but we’re not trying to exclude ourselves from the conversation.’ The idea being that you can’t force the big publishers to emulate what you’re doing with equitable pay, which we’re gonna get into, if you’re not at the table. And I think there are many people who want to be change makers, who wanna disrupt these systems, who want to see everything sort of burned down and rebuilt, which I think is you, it’s that radical idea, but who will judge when somebody is perceived to be selling out, quote unquote. Who’s saying this sort of thing of we’re going to be at the table of the table we want to burn down. And I’m just curious how do you internally sort of deal, wrestle with that? Because I think it’s something that many people who are trying to run an anti-capitalist business in capitalism struggle with, maybe at a smaller scale than you are, but we struggle with it.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

I think that what we see a lot of, especially people in marginalized communities, oppressed people, is that we see a lot of our people buying in or opting in to whiteness to gain power, to get into rooms. So they’re making themselves more palatable. And look, these are all survival techniques, and I don’t judge what anybody does to get into the room. Like Tupac said, ‘we’re gonna come in blasting.’ Sometimes that’s what you gotta do when they won’t share. So I love Tupac by the way. He has to make it into every single one of my interviews. But we also have to acknowledge that we’re not going to do it on our own. We have to do it in community. If you get that huge, radical community to all push at the same time, that could work, but it usually doesn’t gain us power here. I love a good riot. I really do. My method of activism is to get into this space. Not prove myself, but to show that we aren’t to be messed with, and we aren’t to be put aside. So I have to stay accountable. So people are checking me, maybe you’re being too soft here, or maybe you’re not taking the risks that you should be taking. Or more recently on social media, just say the thing. Just say the thing that we believe. As a company, you say it as the founder, just say the thing, and let everything fall where it may because we aren’t going by assimilating and being palatable, we’re just gonna fall in the same trap and why there’s this distrust of people who sell out because that’s what it is. You want to have the power so you make yourself more white in whatever way rather than just being yourself. I hope that made sense. And both. Absolutely, what I’m hearing is the rioting is a form of activism that’s valid and powerful and

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

What I’m hearing is the rioting is a form of activism that’s valid and powerful, and getting into the room, however that happens, and disrupting it from within is also a powerful form of activism and both can have their place.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Absolutely. I mean, there are as many ways to experience and to embody activism, advocacy, as there are people on the planet. I’m well aware that many people are not physically able or financially able to go out and march in the streets or to boycott a company. That’s just not possible for them, and there’s still so many ways that you can help and bring community and understanding to the world. So I’m a person who doesn’t like to tear something down without a plan to build it back up again. Not using the same ingredients, but I always have a plan for rebuilding. But there are also people that are just there to tear it down and there have to be people to be just there to build it up. Everyone has a place, but everyone should be doing something. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Find your own way to contribute to the change. I love that. And what you all are doing is a radically different approach to the business model of publishing in an industry where there are basically five companies that dominate, and some ridiculous number, like 90% of their staff and writers are white. You guys are trying to do a 40-40 model, $40K advancement, 40% royalty to every author, no matter the size of your following, which the more you learn about the publishing industry, the more you know, more and more, that it is about collecting people who have built up a big following because companies don’t want to put the money into marketing. They want people who already have a base to market to. So what you’re doing is very different. And what I’m wondering is how? How are you able to do that when those other five either can’t or aren’t, and I think the answer is that they aren’t, but tell me a little bit about how of that.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

There’s a high level of discernment in the titles that we pick. We’re not all over the place with our titles. It was very important to us, and this actually came from somebody that we were considering for a position, we ended up not hiring them, but they were awesome anyway. But they said, ‘It’s a good practice to imagine your books sitting together on a shelf and what conversations they would have with each other.’ I really love that. I think that all of our books can sit really beautifully on a shelf, and it makes sense. The same person could have all of these books, not share the identities, but have all of these books. And it really makes sense. So our books are all kind of a complimentary conversation to each other. We are highly discerning in the folks that we bring in, the authors, are they gonna work? Do they wanna be part of community? Are they gonna work in partnership with us? Because when we are giving more of the royalties or the profits, when we’re sharing more, we really need that partnership to make sure that everybody is doing the most that we can, and that we can pick up where they can’t. If an author’s like… I mean, we have authors that say …I mean, we had one who got hit by a car. She was in her car, but she was hit by a car six weeks before her book launch and sustained serious injury. And we’re like, so what do you need? You need rest. So how do we make up for all the things that you couldn’t do? And so it’s that community mindset. We support each other’s books. We have an incredible community that really loves what we’re doing and just loves our books because they’re published by Row House. We have, I mean, just a lot of support. We’re very vocal about our values. People tend to want to be near people or entities that are constant and dependable and share their values, and we provide that. And that makes our books successful, very successful. We’re not just throwing stuff at a wall and hoping it works. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And I’m guessing there are also probably things of the way you operate leadership structure. The very pricey CEOs or C-suite at most of those five companies, overhead, all of the things. So what are the other things that you’re doing just financially to make it work for you to be able to operate in that way that’s different from the Simon Schuster’s and Penguin’s of the world.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

I mean, what’s really, I mean, everybody’s doing this now, or most people should be doing it at least, is working remotely. So we don’t have that type of overhead. We don’t have a C-suite. We have a lot of rules and structures around how I would get paid. So I’m capped at five times the lowest-paid employee at the company forever and ever and ever. I do have profit sharing, so that’s where I would be able to make more money as well as our investors. I really reject the term ‘boss.’ I don’t let anyone use it. It’s hard to not have a hierarchy, but the way we look at it is that we are in partnership. We’re in community with each other and everyone has their specific role and their responsibilities. And for me as a leader, it’s important that every single person that works in this company is practicing and learning leadership in their way to be able to perform best in their job. Even if it’s an editor working with an author, how are you gonna lead somebody through this process? How are you going to be the calm in the storm sometimes because that’s very necessary. So I mean, I get excited when people take over big jobs and I don’t have to do it anymore. So it’s not hard for me to share leadership responsibilities. And it also makes other people feel so valued and necessary because they are. There’s people that if I lost them tomorrow, there’s no Row House. It’s really, really important that people are happy here, that they feel valued and that they feel like their work matters. So I don’t know if everybody, I don’t know if most companies do that. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

They don’t. And I’m curious why you think they don’t. Because I think it sounds like what you’re saying is the Simon Schuster and Penguin Houses and whatnot could do this, but they don’t. And why? Why do you think that is?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Black women have led every significant social political movement in the United States forever. And I am not seeing Black women in leadership, and then you have to kind of wonder why things don’t change. There’s not a vested interest in the current leadership of most companies, in most corporations, in liberty and liberation and decolonial business practices, like if they even know the word. And I have a ton to learn. I have an executive coach. I have someone that comes in and works with my people when there’s conflict. Comes in and fields all kinds of questions and how we can be better communicatorsI’m learning every single day because truly a core value of mine is wanting to see these stories get out, wanting to have equity in the workplace, wanting to make people feel loved, valued, seen, and empowered. I think that, or know that if that’s not happening in other companies, it’s because the leadership doesn’t hold that as a core value. So we have to replace those leaders with more competent ones. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yeah. What do you think is happening or going to happen? What is the future of the publishing industry? It’s been an industry that has seen lots and lots of consolidation, which clearly has not done anything to help with representation. What changes that? What is the future?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Well, consolidation will kill representation. We almost had a Big Four, but that didn’t happen. So Simon & Schuster, our distributor actually got purchased by another company. So it’s still, it’s still a Big Five. Consolidation would have just wrecked the careers of so many people, especially those with marginalized identities. I think that what we need is more. We need more small publishers making really cool, innovative, niche books, putting out crazy-good niche content. Just do less of the same, and it’s that diversity and that competition and that just sharing of ideas that’s going to make book selling and bookmaking so much more excited. But also books are great and people are always going to read them. And I think that we take in content differently and it’s changing all the time, but stories are forever. So we’ll keep making stories. Maybe one day it’s gonna be like, I don’t know what… I would never even dare to guess what the future’s gonna look like because I couldn’t have predicted any of this. But yeah, I think that the future of publishing needs to be more diverse or it’s gonna die.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

You’re about three years in now, I guess, actually. Those naysayers, where are they at in the journey now? Is it still ‘talk to me in five years, 10 years,’ or are you starting to see some of the traditional publishers come around a bit or get curious about what you’re doing and could this work for us or could we learn something here?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Well we had a very large publisher, maybe the biggest in the world, express strong interest in buying Row House because their attempts at diversity and putting diverse imprints in their company was not successful. It’s not because of the leadership within those imprints. It really is because the company doesn’t value that imprint as much or that work. So like, no, thank you. And we’re not here to sell, we’re here to fulfill a mission. And that could happen in five years, it’s unlikely. It could happen in 50, which would be amazing. But we really need to see real equity. And we need to grow as an entity, as a competitive entity, so that when we can’t sign an author, they have the power to go out and negotiate with other publishers and say, hey, this is what Row House is doing. I could get this, or I should be getting this. And so that’s why we empower every single person that comes to us or wants to, they’re allowed to have our contracts, they can see our contracts, they can see our paperwork, other publishers can see them. We share stuff all the time, our resources, because we really need to be united together. We’re all doing different stuff, we’re all telling beautiful stories. I think that the only people that we need to be in real competition with is the big guys that are trying to destroy us. I will say that our partnership with Simon & Schuster has been amazing. We’re not an imprint, we’re independent, but they are our sales and distribution partner. And by proving ourselves with sales, we’ve gotten a lot of access within that company. And they’ve been great to us because we make them money, but the opportunities that it’s afforded us getting our books in every single store. It’s just like, it’s so important. So where are the naysayers. That was the question. The naysayers are around. Some of them are really good friends. Some of them I have deep admiration for. Some of them have come around and invested. And it’s like, it’s not a brag. I think this should be a lesson for just not underestimating people, especially people who’ve done so much and been through so much in their personal lives. You know, this obstacle, building the publishing house has been stressful. It’s been frustrating. It’s been painful at times, but it’s better than…this is a gross story, finding half a cockroach in your cereal, which was my reality growing up. Like filtering the rice to make sure that there was no bugs in there before we eat it. Like, there’s been worse obstacles, there’s been bigger trials. So this is hard, but it’s also joyful and exciting.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Sometimes it’s good to remember that the things that we are experiencing as so difficult are not always the most difficult things to be going through. Row house explores books, from what I understand, kind of crossroads of social justice and personal development. That is your focus, where you guys excel. What is it about that particular genre, area that really appealed to you?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

So that was our initial focus because that’s the world I came from. I was in the personal development world. I was a self-help writer. Even my children’s books are about social-emotional learning and talk about mental health. So that’s the space that I was in, and that’s what I wanted to revolutionize. And then I get into this space and I see these brilliant books coming across my desk. Like this one that I wanted to buy before there was Row House, I read this, it was a friend. She was friend and editor of my children’s books. She wrote this beautiful book called “The Scrolls of Deborah,” and it’s fiction, I’m like how can I make this happen? How can this book be mine because I loved it so much. So that’s why we have the imprints. So Row House proper is still that academic, non-fiction books that can be in curriculum. But then we have these other imprints that are creating these really beautiful books, children’s books, fiction, YA, fantasy, romance. We have a romance imprint, Generous Press, which is independently run, and they are phenomenal, inclusive romance. And now it’s like literature and social justice is the real intersection. It’s like anything on paper and written through a lens of social justice. This book, I’m just really excited about it. It just got a rave review from Booklist, the American Library Association. But this is a feminist retelling of the story of Deborah and Rebecca from the Bible. So it’s biblical fiction. It’s total fiction because these characters had such a small spot, like just a couple of lines. And it’s just an incredible, incredible story that speaks to a lot of our shared history or a lot of our shared mythology, however you look at it. But yeah, a Jewish woman, Jewish American woman who was living in Israel until just a short time ago, for obvious reasons she had to leave, wrote this and it’s just, I love it. It’s one of my favorites.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I have a feeling that you get a lot of books that come across your desk that you love. And I also assume that you are limited in how much you guys can print right now, how many titles that you can take on in a given year. And we’re going to talk more in our bonus tips, which if you’re a subscriber of the newsletter, it’s free. Link is in the show notes, you can go and subscribe. We’re going to talk more about some of your tips for getting published or some of the things you might have to face and do or to do that. But I’m curious on your end of that equation, how do you decide? How do you deal with that? I haven’t seen either some like choosing your babies sort of stuff there.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

I don’t decide. I keep a very long arm’s length from acquisitions. Every single person I know is either an author or wants to be. And a lot of people, I would love to publish their books, but everyone goes through the same very fair, very equitable submissions process. And so it goes through kind of a secret submissions board, they look at it. And when it comes to my desk, it’s almost definitely a yes. And what we’re looking for, you know, we have a very open, well, we have an open submissions process that anyone can submit, whether they have an agent or not, which is exceedingly rare in publishing. So that’s really important for the equity point, but we list what we’re looking for. We’re very specific, the broadest, biggest brush stroke ask is that it should be something that starts a conversation or brings to light a conversation that might be happening in the shadows, or it expands on a conversation that is in the zeitgeist in a way that we have not seen. And I think all of our books accomplish that very well and it makes them exciting, and again not more of the same. We’re also not interested in books about anti-racism. We have The Anti-Racist Business Book. That’s it. We’re done. “Heal Your Way Forward” was that book for a lot of people learning about justice. Good, we’re done with that. Now, if you learn about justice, if you learn about activism, it’s going to be, not by accident, but kind of like a side benefit of reading one of our books. We write books for us by us, but that can be read by anyone and anyone would surely benefit. Like “All the Black Girls are Activists” is for Black femmes, period. EbonyJanice says it, but yes, white women, you can read this book and you will learn a lot from it. Just know that she wasn’t speaking to you, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be for you in ways that enrich your life and make your life better. We’re not interested in books that are teaching resistant people how to be decent. It’s just, I mean, because it’s just tired, it’s boring, and it’s not effective. And we saw what happened in 2020. If someone is seeking to make a change, they’ll find a way. We have to stop forcing everyone to be on our side and just do our good work. Put our heads down and do the work. Because no one’s coming to rescue us, and us meaning this community of people that are fighting for justice. We have to welcome people that want to help and want to be there, but this forced, everyone needs to learn, shaming white women, it doesn’t last. It doesn’t work. 

I want to talk about your staff, because I know that you said you have a very diverse staff and that you’re a big advocate or excited about what happens when you bring together a collective of diverse people. What happens?

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I want to talk about your staff because I know that you said you have a very diverse staff, and that you’re a big advocate or excited about what happens when you bring together a collective of diverse people. What happens? What’s the difference when you have a diverse staff vs. those traditional publishing houses where I think it’s, I actually think it’s something like 96% white.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

The point isn’t diversity, because diversity is just taking a bunch of ingredients or a bunch of different identities and throwing them in a pot and then hoping it works. We really want to create an environment that is inclusive and welcoming in a way that people feel like they can come in with their ideas, with their values, with their voices and be honored in them. That being said, even though we have very, a lot of us have very different politics, like the way that we express ourselves. Some of us do not believe in voting, others of us it’s like the biggest, most important civic duty we have. Our shared agreement is that we are here for the liberation of all. We’ll all do it in our way, but that is the shared agreement. The shared agreement is that everything is done better in community, that genius happens in community, as our Jedi consultant, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion consultant, Keena Reid tells us all the time. Genius happens in community. A shared important value of ours is that we give credit where credit is due. Like EbonyJanice says, citation is political. So whatever we’re expressing, we honor where we got it from, and that’s honoring our ancestors, our peers, everyone that influences us. So we are very diverse and complicated in our viewpoints, in our identities, but that shared value is what makes it work. I mean, we’ve had real conflict behind the scenes. You won’t see it, you won’t see us getting messy on the internet because we know how important it is for us to stick together and have that family in not an icky way.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

How do you manage that conflict? I know you said you had somebody that comes in and helps.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Keena’s a star. Keena’s amazing. Keena, you know, she facilitates sometimes like very beautiful listening sessions because there is this power dynamic that even if everything is beautiful and we don’t have a hierarchy, it’s still hard for someone to come to me, the person that signs their check, and have a complaint. So we need to have that neutral party who she always reminds people, she does not work for us, she works with us for our authors and our creative community. And that’s incredibly important to have that person who’s really schooled in decolonial methods of mediation, of communication. It’s not like your typical HR person. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

And you’ve shared a lot of the ways that you’re trying to change the way you run business through that decolonial lens. Are there other things that we haven’t talked about that you’re doing that are different that people could learn from?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

With the creative fields, I think a lot of people forget how important it is, and I’ll say leadership in these companies, how important it is to really collaborate with the authors, the illustrators, in a meaningful way that makes them feel valued, that their work really matters to you, to show up and just give them that face time, give them that voice. So we are just, it’s this highly collaborative process that starts from the minute someone’s signed. We support them with tons of resources, with publicity, with a marketing plan. We give it all up. We have once-monthly, all-community meetings, and they’re so beautiful because our authors, our illustrators, like anyone who is a creative, considered creative or an editor in our company. So sometimes we have freelancers that we work with just a couple of times and they come in and it’s a really beautiful exchange of ideas of sharing what’s coming up for people. I know that when I was with my former publisher, that was something that was good that was there, this idea that the authors were a community. And sometimes that was very real and sometimes it was very fake. Here, we try to foster those relationships in a way that are genuine, that are with everyone’s full consent so no one’s forced to promote anyone else’s work, but they are very enthusiastic to do so. I love seeing the authors cheering each other on on social media and all that good stuff. So we really try to have a high-touch environment that feels like people, or that is a place where people are allowed to express themselves. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

What I hear with all of that is the commitment to humanity, the commitment to people in your company, and that’s your staff, your authors, the readers, the fact that you’re just trying to show up as humans. And I think that is very different than companies that are very focused on dollars above all else. So thank you for sharing that.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Well, in Trudi LeBron, again, who wrote The Anti-Racist Business Book, she said something once and it really struck me, ‘your employees aren’t lucky to have a job, you’re lucky to have those employees.’ Like the boss is the lucky one, the boss is the lucky one. And I really feel that way. I work hard and I love this company and I put everything I have into it. And I still know how incredibly lucky I am because none of this would happen if not for the creativity, the talent, the showing up of like all these amazing people. I cannot believe I get to hang out with them. For real, like I nerd out. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of so many of our authors that I can’t believe that they chose us. So I have to honor that. I have to protect that. I have to be a good steward of these, folks, their books, their careers. It’s so important to me that they’re taken care of and that they’re honored. So yeah, I’m lucky.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I mean, I feel the same way about this podcast, you know, getting to have this conversation with you. I feel lucky. Every time I have someone on and I get to hear about their business and get to talk about big important stuff, yeah, that’s exciting. And I feel super lucky to be able to share space with people who are doing really cool things. So I fully get that. One last question before we go to our wrap-up stuff, which is I know you mentioned that you’re autistic. How does that show up as a superpower in running a business?

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Hmm, I don’t know if it’s a superpower. It’s definitely not a deficit. I would say that, and this isn’t, I’m speaking for myself. Obviously I can’t choose for any, or can’t speak for anyone else. There’s a frustrating element where as an autistic person and the way mine expresses, it’s really hard for me to put myself in places where I feel like I don’t belong. I know I do belong, but I feel that other people think I don’t belong. And it’s, you know, there’s the masking or the resistance to mask. It’s like, I’m gonna start masking, but no, don’t do that because then you’re not showing up as yourself and be very open with the autism. I think there’s a benefit in me expressing that and letting people know exactly who I am so that they can widen their perspectives around who gets to be the president of a publishing company. I also have great difficulty reading, very open about that. I’m a slow, slow, slow reader. I listen to audio books more often than not, even my own authors. And that doesn’t exclude me from being able to do this job and do it well. So autism, I don’t know it’s just who I am. I don’t know how to, it’s like, what is being biracial, how does that impact? I don’t know because it’s all of me. Like every part of me is every part of me. So, you know.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I guess, as an outside perspective, I would say that the piece that I know you’ve talked about, too, is just around representation and how much it matters. And being able to see yourself in someone else doing something is really powerful. And so I know it’s just how you show up. But I think for some other biracial autistic woman out there, it’s important that she understands that that’s the experience that you have to be able to say, I could, that is something that I can visualize for myself.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Yeah, I think that, so a trait that I see show up a lot in autistic people is a commitment to justice. There’s a lot of confusion for me, and a lot of autistic people I know, around systems of oppression because they don’t make sense. So it’s like, it’s kind of like this, make it make sense. So I am a very left-brained creative. I think of things logically. It’s step one, step two, step three. Where do I wanna be, and then I reverse engineer, work backwards, how am I gonna get there? So a lot of things, I look at systems and systems of oppression don’t make sense. So it wasn’t hard for me to dismantle them in my head. And when I started building this with Kristen, it was just a matter of what kind of publishing company would we want to be signed to? What does it look like? Who do we wanna hang out with? Who do we wanna serve? And the answers will come to you. I think people make a lot of things more complicated than they are, especially neurotypical people. Things I don’t think about as much, people think like, oh, weren’t you afraid? I’m like, not really, because it’s not like that. And I say like, it’s not like I’m gonna die if I do it. So I might as well try, like, what’s the worst thing that can happen? But I also honor that people sometimes anxiety and fear could feel like you’re dying. But yeah, autism, I don’t know. It’s all of who I am. And it makes me have a commitment to justice. It makes me want to see things be fair. And it also makes me wanna see things be done well.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Those are your superpowers. There you go. That was your answer. Well, now you know. That’s it. And I love it. All right. Let’s finish up because I want to honor your time, and I want to go record our bonus content for the people who want to grab that. So first, a resource. You’ve shared a couple books actually already, so those can count. But is there anything else that you want to share? Maybe something was actually pre- your publishing, but just something, it doesn’t have to be a book. It could be an educator or a podcast or anything else. But that was helpful for you and your journey getting to where you are now.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

I will give you a list of the books that radicalized me. There were three of them, really. So the first is, and this is going to cover spirituality, activism, community, all that good stuff. So the first was “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver. He wrote this while he was incarcerated. He was a member of the Black Panther Party. I read that the summer I turned 14. So I read it as a 13-year-old girl, turning 14, and that just unleashed this interest, passion, commitment to seeing the humanity and helping incarcerated people. It’s barbaric what we do to human beings in this country in particular. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. I think that every young Black and Brown girl has read that book at some point, a lot of my girls too, but I read that same summer. And the amount of power and self-advocacy and strength from this little girl who came from terrible beginnings, who was so abused, was just a miracle to me. So I have Maya Angelou as an example. And then the third, I shoplifted from a bookstore when I was 15, I was in the depths of very deep depression, very profound mental illness. And I didn’t have the money and I saw this book and it spoke to me, “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass. And that was the start of my spiritual journey. So those three books really radicalized me and grounded me as a human being. I still love them, I still recommend them. And I will say that when I’m feeling uninspired or down on myself, I read memoir. I’m a self-help writer, but not a self-help reader. I love to read a good memoir, and that’s where I’ve learned most about humanity and the way to do things. 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

I think there’s a lot of self-help inside of most memoirs if they’re good. And so I think that’s great. And you’re the first person to mention Ram Dass, who I love, and so that’s amazing. Okay, then finally, an organization that’s doing good work in the world that you’d like to spotlight.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Oh my gosh, there’s so many. Can I give two? 

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Yes.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Ancient Song Doula Collective. They are Black and Brown women doing incredible work in birth activism advocacy. So, them. Ooh, how to pick another one. The Trevor Project. It is a helpline for LGBTQ+ youth. I have a trans son, I am a queer person. It is incredibly important for me for these kids to stay safe and know that people love them. So yeah, those are our little pet projects that we try to support every month, so yeah.

 

Becky Mollenkamp:

Well, I always make a donation to the organizations that people mention as a way of saying thank you for your time. I already am a Trevor Project supporter, so I will add Ancient Song to my list and encourage other folks to do the same. I will include the information in the show notes so people can look them up. And thank you so much if you’re interested in learning a little more from the person who has created her own publishing company, some ideas around getting published, or perhaps it will be a little more of like, the difficulties in getting published, then please subscribe to Feminist Founders Newsletter. It’s free. You can find the link in the show notes as well. And we’re developing an amazing community inside of there. So I hope to see you there. Thank you so much, Rebekah, for your time. It really means a lot.

 

Rebekah Borucki:

Thank you, it was my pleasure.

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