"My favorite people (Brand Yous) are ... CURIOSITY FREAKS." Tom Peters
Bill Raeder is the president of National Braille Press (NBP). Since 1975, he has served as managing director, then executive director, and finally assumed the position he holds today. During his tenure, the NBP has reversed financial losses, converted Braille transcription from manual to computer-assisted means, instituted web-based marketing and distribution of Braille, expanded the charitable support of NBP thirty-fold, launched the Braille schoolbook initiative, and initiated the ReadBooks! Because Braille Matters program to seek out preschool blind children, advocate for Braille literacy, and encourage parents to learn "just enough" Braille to help their child. He advocates Braille literacy for all children, not just those who are sight-impaired. Bill Raeder is about to retire after many years of heartfelt hard work and dedicated service to the Press, and he leaves behind some enormous contributions.
The Press has just celebrated great success with the July 2007 publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in Braille—at the same time as the print version—something not easily achieved (you can see a video about the accomplishment at MSNBC—we recommend that you watch it!). So, J.K.Rowling will make a virtual appearance by video feed at an upcoming fundraiser, which will also feature Jay Leno as the Master of Ceremonies. We're happy to assist Bill and the National Braille Press in publicizing their Hands On! Gala to be held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston, on October 26, 2007. If you'd like to help by becoming a corporate sponsor or simply making a donation, you can contact: Tanya Holton, National Braille Press 6l7-266-6160 x15, email@example.com, or Jennifer Stewart 6l7-266-6160 x36 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erik Hansen talked with Bill Raeder for our Cool Friends interview, in a Downtown Boston office building that was thrumming with life.
tompeters.com asks ...
Bill, what's the National Braille Press?
BR: We are a publishing house and a Braille printing house. We publish general information for blind people—almost all nonfiction—focusing on practical information that enables blind people to function in the world more successfully. One of our missions is to promote reading for blind young people.
We're also a Braille press, which means that we transcribe materials into Braille and then press and bind them. For instance, we've produced airline safety information so that anyone who needs that information in Braille can request it while flying.
Are there a lot of Braille publishers?
BR: Let's divide that into publishing and printing. We are by far the foremost publisher of general materials for blind people in the United States. Other publishers usually have a specialty—children's books, education, or religious materials. We do all of those as well as general materials including diet, safety, cooking, computers, that kind of thing. As for printing, we're one of five big presses that put large-volume material into Braille.
I usually conduct interviews by phone, but I'm in your office, and I hear the actual presses running just below us.
BR: Yes, you do. We think of that as the heart of the organization; it sounds like a heartbeat. The oldest of our Braille presses is from 1972. I came here in '75, and in '76 we bought the last one from Heidelberg Presses in Germany. By the time these start to fail—which will be some time yet—we will have new technology. These are letter presses—the old kind of press that uses hot lead—that are more easily adapted for Braille printing than the offset presses used today.
All our Braille is now transcribed by computer. Back when I first came here, our Braille transcription was done manually, and one of the first things I did was to look into how we could computerize it. One of our most innovative projects is creating new software that enables us to convert text files received from publishers or printers to text files ready for automated translation into Braille. Others have developed Braille translation software; our software provides for computer-assisted preparation of the files for Braille translation, with special format commands, and so on.
Are the rights to publish in Braille purchased separately from the traditional text rights?
BR: Copyright law in the United States provides that so long as we are a qualified, not-for-profit institution, we don't have to purchase copyright permission.
Excellent. But given current audio technologies—books on tape, computers that speak—a sighted person might say, "Why does someone have to learn to read Braille in this day and age?"
BR: That's a good question, and the answer gives insight into the condition of blindness. I always encourage people to ask the same question of sighted people: "Gee whiz, with all the audio books that are available now and with talking computers, why do you need print books?"
Well, we still want to read. [Laughter]
BR: Exactly. An awful lot of sighted people listen to novels, biographies, or maybe light nonfiction, but how about giving a tenth-grade algebra student the algebra audio book? Try and listen to that. When you have materials that you really need to study, like most science and math—by study, I mean you're constantly reflecting back on previous sentences—that's when you really want to read. For soft reading, like fiction, blind people are just like sighted people—many of them prefer to listen to it.
There was an article by James Fallows in the Atlantic in January 2001 about audio books and he noted how he went back and listened to some classics that he'd read previously, and there were characters that appeared in the audio version that he had no recollection of whatsoever. He said it's a whole different experience, reading the words as opposed to hearing the words. Doesn't our brain process the information differently?
BR: Very differently. I think of one as passive and the other active. If you read with your eye or your finger, you are active; you are in charge of the material. If you are listening, the machine is in charge, and you have to work buttons to get it to stop, go back, or whatnot, in order to try and simulate being in charge of the material. One of the complaints a lot of blind people have about listening to book recordings is that they put you to sleep.
You lost your sight as a result of an accident while working in the Arctic. Do you read Braille?
BR: No. I have studied Braille three times with significant concentration. Once, when I went through my original rehabilitation training. A few years later I hired a Braille teacher. And a third time, when I first went into business, I needed to be able to keep track of my clients, so I took a course from the Commission for the Blind. But I was largely unsuccessful each time because I just don't have enough sensitivity in these two remaining fingers.
In the same accident, you lost your right hand completely and you have the pinky and ring finger remaining on your left hand.
BR: Yes. And I have a quarter of the thumb. It turns out that the pinky and ring finger on your non-dominant hand are the least sensitive fingers.
Tom Peters speaks often about marketing to women and women in leadership roles. As a result, I've read a lot about gender differences. One thing I recall is that women's finger sensitivity is much greater than men's, in general.
BR: Is that true?
I wonder if it's easier for women, generally speaking, to learn Braille, because it seems that finger sensitivity must be the critical issue in learning how to read those raised dots.
BR: With most people it's probably not the sensing so much as the cognition, just as in learning how to read print, the ability to see is not the issue, but cognition is. In my case, I was dyslexic before I was blind. In those days, they didn't use the word "dyslexic." I was called a "non-reader."
It's a bit ironic. Here I am, the head of a publishing company, very much interested in literacy and I'm neither literate as a sighted person nor as a blind person. When I had my sight I managed to get through graduate school despite my dyslexia, but not by reading many books.
I was born in a very literate family. My father was a collector of books. I think he had five or six thousand when he died. As kids, we were forever running into the room in our house called the library. So I enjoy books, and actually have quite a few. I love to have people at the house and pester them to read to me.
That doesn't seem to happen much anymore—people reading aloud to each other.
BR: It's a pleasant activity. I have a new nephew-in-law that has promised to join me every Thursday evening to read books or just have fun discussions.
BR: It's based entirely on a good relationship with Scholastic, the publisher of the American edition of Harry Potter. Scholastic has been very cooperative with us concerning the last two books in the Harry Potter series. They provided us with the opportunity to produce the books in advance so that we can distribute the Braille edition simultaneously. This year, not only were we able to get the Braille edition published for distribution on the same day as the print edition, but Quebecor, one of Scholastic's printers, generously donated the UPS overnight shipping for the 532 Braille copies of the books that had been preordered, so that those 532 people got their book on Saturday, the 21st of July, across the country.
BR: We held a party here on that Friday night, the 20th, for a dozen or so blind kids. We kept them entertained with Harry Potter trivia games and the like. And then at midnight we had the countdown and bam, they all reached for their books, opened them up, and they got down on the floor and started reading. There it was, quarter past twelve, parents eager to get the kids home, and you couldn't get the kids out of here! I asked one girl, as she was leaving, "What page are you on?" She said, "I'm on page five." And I fully expect that she was on page 30 by the time she got home.
There's an advantage. You don't need light to read Braille.
BR: That's right.
It costs a lot of money to produce one book, and you try to sell the books at around the same retail price as the print version. How do you make that work?
BR: I'd like to think that that was one of our more important innovations. My first job here was to get the sale of transcription and pressing services running. After a few years we were making some pretty good money, so we went back into the publishing business.
I noticed that other organizations either gave the Braille reading material away, free of charge, or they charged the costs. Back in the '70s, one of the other printing houses printed the Braille edition of Webster's New World Dictionary, 72 Braille volumes. They were charging over $400. Well, what Braille reader is going to pay $400 when a sighted person could buy it for $14? That just seemed crazy to me. And it also seemed crazy to me to give it away. That's unduly paternalistic. If you want to provide assistance, then it should be on an as-needed basis, not on the basis of blindness.
So, what's the solution? We expect blind people to take responsibility and strive for productive roles in society. And so they ought to pay. But they shouldn't have to pay any more than sighted people pay. Our pricing policy is to charge what a sighted person would expect to pay. That means for Harry Potter, $34.99. But Amazon.com had a pre-order promotional price of $18.94. So we had to charge $18.94. It cost us $70 to make a book. So you can see that that price structure required a little bit of boldness and courage to go out and raise the money necessary to bridge that gap. And we have.
Which you could do because you're a nonprofit.
BR: Yes. That's really the purpose of a nonprofit. In the publishing arena, we pushed ourselves in the direction of raising charitable funds to make it possible for blind people and their families to buy materials at the same price sighted people pay. Recently we've started having major fundraising events. We have one coming up on October 26th, the Hands On! Gala. Jay Leno will be our host.
Excellent! How did you pull that one off?
BR: Called him up, that's how we did it. We'll be giving an award to J.K. Rowling. The contribution she has made with her Harry Potter books to promote reading for young people is just wonderful. It's true for blind people as well as sighted people.
We'll also have some kids reading Braille on stage, telling their stories, and why Braille is important to them.
You've grown the Braille press from a sleepy little organization into a thriving business concern. From a management perspective, what are your secrets?
BR: Start with knowing what you want for yourself. When I came here I knew that I enjoyed running a company, and I knew that I wanted to do something for the betterment of our society. Here, I could improve the human condition for blind people. Find a mission that you believe in and that motivates you. Here, our mission is to provide blind people with information to enable them to be more engaged, more productive, more responsible, happier people.
Next, imagine things that can be done. Focus on what the possibilities are. Then, get good people engaged in the mission. Once you get them, be honest, fair, open, appreciative, and respectful. And you know what? All the people reporting to me today are women. They are fantastic. They know how to multi-task, they're sensitive to the mission, they're compassionate, and they're hard workers. All I wanted to do was to bring in good people. After the fact, I looked and said, "Holy smokes, they're all women!"
Mentors, too, I've found, have been important. Be open to mentoring.
How do you put that into effect?
BR: I guide my management team to get mentors for themselves. I don't do anything formal. I encourage them when occasions come up: "Why don't you go talk to so-and-so?" Or, "You ought to develop a relationship with so-and-so because I can see they've been very helpful to you."
I think that my nature is to be fair, honest, open, and appreciative. And I think you tend to hire people that have similar traits. They are open and receptive to mentoring in the same way.
It seems you've always been a high achiever. When you were ten or thereabouts, wasn't there a grass-cutting episode involving doubling the payment per hour and running instead of walking behind the mower? It seems that maybe you haven't changed that much in your life—that you're always running twice as fast, metaphorically.
BR: I'm a hard worker, but I pace myself. If I need to quit and go lie down, I do.
Are you advocating napping?
BR: Yes, I would advocate napping. In fact, I heard a piece on NPR this morning about this Greek island—Crete, I think—where they were interviewing locals about their siesta time from two to five. Even in remote areas, that is beginning to die out, because big stores like Macy's come in and say, "We want standard hours." They had a doctor on from Harvard Medical School who has done a little research that shows, preliminarily anyway, that taking an afternoon nap is very good for the health, particularly the heart. Churchill did it. And I do it. What's the point in working if I'm so tired?
BR: Interesting. Pacing is important. Keeping calm, maintaining your analytical skills and decisiveness in what many people might see as a crisis is also important.
As I mentioned earlier, you were sighted and you had the full use of your limbs until you were in your early 20s, when you were involved in an accident with dynamite during some Arctic research work. Do you think there was any personality change as a result of that?
BR: I was with an old friend from my boyhood days about a year ago, we were joking around, and he said, "You know, Bill, this accident of yours, it really made you more intelligent." And we both laughed. He said, "I'm serious." Of course, I didn't gain any brain power, but it was a maturing experience. It caused me to take life more seriously. It was a personality change.
You've kept your sense of humor.
BR: That may have improved! [Laughter] After my accident in the Arctic, when I woke up from my coma, I learned that one of the other guys was also blind. I said, "We could play Blind Man's Bluff."
You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro?
BR: Half way.
What are the challenges there? Why did you want to do it and what are the difficulties?
BR: I like hiking and I like the outdoors. To go to Africa, to one of the tallest mountains in the world, it sounded adventurous and exciting. To go with a group of people, a team of sighted people and blind people together, was exciting. The team leader, Erik Weihenmayer, was a pretty notable fellow, the only blind person who has summitted Mount Everest. He has now summitted the seven continental peaks—the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. He's a great guy. There's no hubris about him.
What was challenging? Getting in shape. I asked him what I had to do to prepare. He said, "You just have to walk, uphill, an hour every day between now and then."
That's no small deal.
BR: It's a bit of an exaggeration, as it turns out. I started climbing stairs in my apartment building, five flights. I started climbing just in light gym clothes, and then, as I got better at it, I started putting on mountain boots and carrying a weighted pack. When I reported that I was climbing 29 round trips in an hour on these five flights to Erik, he said, "Yeah. I'm a little concerned about that. Can't you go down to the Prudential Center? I don't like to see you stop after every five flights and come back down. I want to see sustained climbing." He's tough.
Two weeks to the day before we started climbing, I slipped on the subway stairs right here in Boston and broke my rib. That's painful. I almost bowed out. But when we did get on the mountain, hiking wasn't too bad. Kilimanjaro is almost entirely hiking and very pleasant. The hiking wasn't too bad for my broken rib. But when I got into camp at night and stooped over to take off my boots, that was the biggest challenge of the day.
My companion, Jeanne, went with me, and, unfortunately, she suffered altitude sickness. At 13,000 feet, we decided to come down. She for her altitude sickness, and I for my rib. I'd had the fun of climbing on Kilimanjaro. So I was happy.
I read on your blog that at one point you were worried about not being able to make it to the top. You wrote something to the effect that perhaps we Americans are too goal-oriented. It was as if you saw ahead to what was going to happen, in a way, and were preparing. I can see that this is how you work.
BR: You may be right. Thank you for reminding me of that. I didn't know how physically demanding it would be or how challenging it would be. I remember thinking, "Am I doing this for work or is this for fun? This is for fun, I've got enough goal-driven work in the office. Out there, the goal should be to make sure I have fun. Rather than killing myself to get to the summit just because it's there, I had fun." Erik, the team leader, I think he was a little disappointed in me, and he kept saying, "You can make it, Bill." I know I could have made it, but I would have been miserable. So I went down and had fun.
We Americans are a pretty hard-working lot—
And getting worse. On average, we're working around 100 more hours a year than we did in the '70s.
BR: We're a driven lot. But if you're able to do what I do—find a mission that moves you and have fun doing it—the distinction between fun and work blurs.
Exactly. People are beginning to understand that. Mort Zuckerman was quoted in another New Yorker article [July 23, 2007] as saying, "I've never worked a day in my life."
BR: When I was ten years old, I worked on a farm. I worked in the hayfield, drove the cows up to the barn, got them milked, and so forth. That was fun, and that's why I was there: because it was so much fun. But boy, was it hard work? Yeah. There were only two times when it wasn't fun and became work. Once was when the farmer sent me at age ten to clean all the manure out of the barn. I can enjoy shoveling manure for a little bit, but that was a big job. The other was when he was plowing the field or harrowing it and asked me to pull rocks out of the field and carry them to the side. After about an hour of doing that, I sat down in the shade. So occasionally, work can get pretty heavy.
You're now on the verge of retirement, correct?
BR: Yes, this fall.
So this fundraising event at the end of October is going to be a bit of a going-away party for you.
BR: That'll be a great climax to go out on. And with the Harry Potter event last month, it's been a great year.
Yes, I am retiring. The world is going faster and I do find myself slowing down. I still enjoy it, still find it challenging, still feel as though I'm somewhat productive, but I do think that we, the National Braille Press, are on a high, and it's a good time to get off.
You've learned that from the football and the baseball players, right? Go out while you're on top.
BR: Right. I don't want them to carry me out.
I want to thank you for your time.
Email: braeder (at) – nbp.org
Blog about the Kilimanjaro adventure: www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/company/climb.html