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On Que.

On Que

Carmel-based Que Corporation leads the pack of personal computer-book publishers.

Those owning personal computers know how useful they can be. The manuals accompanying them, however, are another story. They're frequently written in specialized jargon that's difficult for the average person to understand. Deciphering them can be a slow, frustrating process. Or was--until Carmel-headquartered Que Corporation entered the picture.

Richard Summe founded Que Corporation in 1980, originally as a consulting firm. But he soon realized that people were searching for low-cost books that would help them understand their computers and software. The Que company published its first book in 1981. Within two short years, another book published by the firm, "Using 1-2-3," went on to become the only personal computer book to sell more than a million copies.

In the years since, the company has grown into the largest publisher of books about personal computer programs and applications, controlling approximately 30 percent of the computer book business. Net revenues for Que this year were more than $30 million. Currently, it has 175 titles in print.

The books are sold mainly in chain bookstores such as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton and, as originally intended, are designed for the average computer and software user. They continue to be written in a style that's far more comprehensible than most of the manuals that accompany either computers or software. Many of the books have been translated into foreign languages (20 at last count) for international sales.

In December 1988, Summe, 48, decided to move into a consultant's role at Que and subsequently chose 32-year-old Scott N. Flanders to take over as CEO of Que and president of Macmillan Inc.'s Computer Book Division. (Macmillan purchased Que in 1986.) Although Flanders seemed relatively young and inexperienced to some in the publishing industry, he had trained steadily under Summe for three and one-half years before taking on his new role. Also, as Flanders notes, he's not really all that young among those in the computer industry.

Even before coming to Que, Flanders was used to taking on challenges. When he interviewed for his previous job with the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand, he went into the interview armed with a degree in economics from the University of Colorado and a law degree from Indiana University. He had no accounting experience to speak of. "But I always knew I wanted to head a business someday," says Flanders," and felt an accounting background would be a plus in reaching that goal." He got the job and, while still working at the firm, passed the certified public accountant's exam.

Coopers & Lybrand, says Flanders, gave him a solid foundation "in the basics." In 1985, however, he was offered a position in Washington and realized he'd come to a turning point in his career. It was at that point that Summe (whose company was a client of Coopers & Lybrand) offered Flanders a position handling international sales for Que--and Flanders' decision was made. "The opportunity to have Summe as a mentor was one I simply couldn't pass up," he says.

Flanders made the most of the opportunity he'd been given and was responsible for boosting international sales at Que from their 1984 annual rate of $250,000 to the current rate of more than $6 million. But Flanders says working at Que wasn't always an easy experience.

"Every six months, there'd be a review cycle," he recalls," and sometimes I received comments that weren't as positive as I'd have liked. At the same time, however, I realized that I was getting feedback from people who cared about my development and wanted me to learn how to arrive at the best business answers."

As it turned out, this training served him in good stead. Shortly after Summe switched caps and Flanders took on his new role as CEO, he decided to make some immediate and major changes. He subsequently terminated two senior-level executives and took 12 books out of print. In an even bolder move, he decided to challenge the conventional methods used by international book distributors, who traditionally had asked for deep discounts because of shipping and other cost factors.

"They generally asked for and received discounts but then sold the books at a high markup price," says Flanders." Because of currency differences, they often realized a huge profit. I felt it was time to question the industry's standard terms." As a result, Flanders asked international distributors to take lower discounts.

Although some felt this was a risky move, it paid off handsomely for Que. "We found that international distributors were still eager to take on our line because the growth potential of our books remained very attractive to them," he says.

Another major change in international distribution occurred when methods for transporting books to sites such as Australia switched from ocean to air freight. It generally takes books three months longer to arrive by sea than it does by air--a crucial difference for those in the book industry. "The maximum shelf life of a computer book is only 18 to 24 months, so losing three months cuts significantly into the total sales we can anticipate in an overseas market," he explains.

On June 5, 1989, another major move occurred at Que when the company acquired Indianapolis-based Howard W. Sams Co. It is a purchase that Flanders believes will help expand Que's dominant position in computer-book publishing and international acquisitions. "Howard Sams has traditionally been strong in technical books in areas such as artificial intelligence, while Que's strength has been software applications," says Flanders. "With Sams on our team, we should be able to expand our services into a broader market."

Although Flanders clearly has made several large, and profitable, changes at Que, he isn't one to overemphasize his role. Approximately 150 employees work for the company. Flanders stresses that employees such as Roland Elgey, Que's director of marketing and international sales, also contribute strongly to the company. "We're very lucky to have the type of staff we do here," he says. "In Elgey's case, his sophisticated negotiating tactics caught our eye and he's proven to be a world-class talent. Several other talented people also work for Que."

Finding capable employees is an ongoing process, says Flanders, and editorial heads at Que regularly interview potential proofreaders and editors. The editorial test applicants are required to take is "rigorous" and covers both editorial ability and computer literacy.

One major reason editorial accuracy is so crucial is that, unlike other computer-book companies, books are not published at Que until the actual software comes out. Sometimes this means that Que is the last publisher to hit the market with a book on a particular product.

But Flanders doesn't want to sacrifice accuracy--even if it means losing initial profits. "This is largely a word-of-mouth business," he explains," and some companies who push to get their books out do so at the expense of accuracy. Computer products can often go through last-minute changes that aren't reflected in books that come out early. We feel the best dollars are spent for editorial perfection and would rather sacrifice a quick profit if we can maintain our reputation for accuracy."

In addition to seeking out qualified editors, Flanders continually searches for high-quality authors. Sometimes he or one of his editors will hear of a person with the experience necessary to write for Que; in other cases, authors submit queries to the company.

Sometimes even good writers have to be pushed to produce a book containing the quality and accuracy Que requires. According to Flanders, not every author takes kindly to criticism--in fact, he recalls one who repeatedly bristled at some of the suggestions he was given. But, after he made $100,000 on the consequent book, he personally thanked Flanders for working with him.

Other divisions at Que include the Best-Sellers, Emerging Topics and Programming Groups. The Best-Sellers Group primarily includes books on the 1-2-3 series, Word Perfect, DOS and D-Base. The Emerging Topics Group, which covers areas such as upgrading and repairing personal computers and using Harvard Graphics, presently accounts for one-third of the total revenue at Que.

In spite of Que's prominent position in the computer-book industry, Flanders also admits there have been some recent disappointments. The Programming Group, a relatively new division of Que, has grown more slowly than anticipated. "If you're strong in one area, it's easy to believe that you can branch into another quickly," Flanders says.

"But we've discovered that well-recognized authors are more important in the programming area than other types of computer books. There is a small fraternity of authors there. So we're still fine-tuning this division."

Completing international transactions also can be fraught with challenges, says Flanders, and it still takes longer than he'd like to complete some transactions. Disappointments, however, are relative, since no book at Que has been unprofitable this past year--a track record many in the business would envy. "We set our goals pretty high," he says. Happily, there are also pleasant surprises--such as the book, "Using Harvard Graphics," which Flanders expected to bring in around $250,000 in sales. Instead, its sales totaled more than $1 million. "Our research indicated there was a market for the book," he says. "But we didn't realize how many people were searching for a good book on that particular subject."

Flanders currently spends 50 percent of his time on the road, representing Que at trade shows and visiting major clients. He works long hours during the week and currently counts Sunday as his only free day.

Future goals for Que include increasing the company's brand-name recognition among consumers and furthering international expansion. International sales at present account for 20 percent of total revenues. Flanders would like to see that sales share grow to 35 percent within five to seven years and as much as 50 percent by the year 2000.

In November 1989, five out of the 15 books appearing on the Computer Books best-seller list were Que titles (and placed within the top six spots on the list). If the corporation's history in making and breaking records is any indication, someday soon all 15 best-sellers may be books published by Que.

PHOTO : "Using 1-2-3" is the only personal computer book to sell more than a million copies.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Profile; Que Corporation
Author:Corn, Jane
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Article Type:company profile
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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