Publishing Consultant And PublisHer Board Member Emma House Interviews Inspiring Bookwomen Around The World.
Flavia Alves Branin is the head of Saber Education in Brazil, with leading imprints and brands from K12 to Higher Ed. Saber is part of the Cogna Group, one of the largest private educational organisations in the world, where she is also a partner.
Flavia has over 25 years’ experience in publishing, and is active in Brazilian publishing trade associations. She is the vice-president of Abrelivros (Brazilian Association for Educational Content), a director of SNEL (in the Institutional & Technical Council for the Brazilian Union of Book Publishers) and is a former president of ABDR (Brazilian Association for Copyright). She is also a board member of Minha Biblioteca – a consortium of Brazilian publishers offering a digital content platform for universities.
Flavia holds a PhD from the University of Sao Paulo (FEA-USP) and has also attended the Stanford Professional Publishing Course (SPPC) at Stanford University, as well as Leading Change for Organisational Transformations at London Business School. She teaches as a professor in leadership and publishing (FIA Business School and MBA in book publishing).
How did you get into publishing?
I think I was destined to be a publisher and in education since I was a kid. I am the daughter of teachers, and grew up in a house full of books and conversation about great authors. I have always been a good student and I wanted to work in education, to write, read and give classes like my father.
But I got into publishing by chance. At the age of 17, when choosing my career, I wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do, but had a lot of different options in mind. I ended up studying business administration at the University of São Paulo and very much enjoyed it, and in the final year I worked in marketing with one of the biggest credit card companies in Brazil. One day, I saw an ad to be a business book editor – the application deadline had passed, but I decided to leave my resume printed under the internship section door anyway. It would be too good to be true: using the business administration course I took and being able to work with books at a publishing house! And it worked. I entered the publishing market on that day in 1997 and never left.
Why? It’s a mix of something accidental – the ad I saw in college when leaving a document and the deadline had already passed – with what was meant to be. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What brought you to Saber Education?
I entered the profession by chance, but I fell in love with it. I would come home at the end of the day having learned new things from all sides – what it was like to be an editor, an executive, what I read in the books I published, in the amazing conversations with the authors, and with my peers.
I grew up in that business editorial world, which was brand new, hiring more people for the team, increasing the scope, breaking new ground such as digital.
Along with the opening of new opportunities and changes in the market (new styles of work and of being an editor), opportunities began to appear and I progressed in my career. It was all very fast. At the age of 25 I became the area manager.
When you’re inside, you don’t always notice so many changes, everything you’ve lived through – it was an era of all kinds of transitions in the publishing market.
Did you always want to run a publishing house?
In all the psychological tests that I do I’ve always wanted to help people to develop, to learn, and to study. First as a teacher and then as an editor and manager. Being a leader in an area of education and books is a sensational opportunity to be able to do that: help in the growth of readers, students, teams; to be able to dedicate myself to the development of the people I work with, the people who study with our content and courses.
This idea comes up a lot in discussions with Carlo Carrenho (a Brazilian publishing colleague), when we talk about an executive career versus volunteering/social work: that being a leader has also a huge impact, that being in a leadership position in a big company, in a market like publishing, is where you can make the difference.
And like most people who work with education, content, and books, we always want to learn more, to challenge ourselves more. We are curious about the next step and challenge ourselves to grow. I accepted all the new challenges that came my way, and with that my career prospered.
What challenges did you face in reaching such a senior position?
People always ask me that. I think I was so involved that I didn’t even realise the size of the obstacles (or had time to worry about them), I just walked or treated the obstacles as challenges that I would overcome.
I think my challenges are very similar to those faced by others in this industry – the devaluation of reading and books, and book piracy in Brazil.
Of course, being a woman is also an issue. I remember some meetings I had at the beginning of my career where I was tested in every way until the author could trust me. I had the feeling of always needing to take an extra step to prove myself.
What is the publishing scene in Brazil like?
It’s not so different here from other countries suffering from social inequality.
On the one hand, we have a rich array of publishers, creative professionals, and people wanting to publish their books. But on the other hand, we have channel challenges – a series of factors, exacerbated by the pandemic, mean that we have even fewer bookstores than before.
I thought digital would grow quickly here – because we saw it in other countries, we read a lot about audiobooks, new ebook players, and we have most of the big players here. We challenged ourselves at Saber to grow every year in ebooks, but it has not been easy.
Unfortunately, we still read little as a country. Few books reach second editions, and few authors live off their writing. But it’s a very resilient industry – we’ve gone through so many bumps and absorbed them. However, something that really pisses me off is the high level of piracy.
But on the positive side, I see that we have charming neighbourhood bookstores pop up, as well as innovative content, wonderful covers, new talents.
Where does Saber fit into the industry?
It is part of one of the largest education groups in the world – over $1 billion in revenue, 22,000 employees, 1m students across its courses, schools and colleges. So we have a large structure at our disposal – with large corporate areas, an internal university to train employees, the culture of a large corporation. But we are a national company – big, but Brazilian.
We are now the largest Brazilian publishing company in the Global 50 Publishing Ranking, incorporating several companies; one of them is Saber. Which in turn is formed of three other companies. Saraiva Educação, a reference and leader in Law, has been in the market for more than 100 years, and has several publishing labels (Benvira, Erica, Expressa – which only publishes digitally, SaraivaJur, SaraivaUni). Another company that is part of Benvirá is Red Balloon, with its own schools and franchises to teach English to children. Finally, Saber Soluções Educacional, with books and solutions for public education, with revenues of around 100 million dollars. Saber is also a leader in K12, with its imprints of great tradition in Brazil such as Atica, Saraiva and Scipione.
What is the environment for women in publishing, especially in senior positions?
On the one hand, we don’t have as many women as we would like. But, on the other hand, I have so many special colleagues in the field, who are inspiring and shaping a new generation, that I am optimistic about it.
For example, two of Saber’s units are run by incredible women – Daniela Villela at Red Balloon and Ana Paula Matos at Saraiva. Most of our editorial and content areas have senior women in leadership: Alice Silvestre is the head of K12 Public Editorial, Thais Reato of the Law Editorial, and Ruymara Amleida of ELT Content. We joke that we have to be careful not to have a meeting with just one man in the room. Today, Saber’s senior leadership has three women and three men.
There are several examples of publishing houses with women in leadership. Of the ones I am closest to, I would cite Karine Pansa and Amarylis Manole.
What and who has shaped and inspired your career?
I believe that we are all influenced, and myself in particular, by the people we live with the most. And I’ve been very lucky to meet very special people in my career and in my personal life.
In my personal life, certainly my father. His values and phrases are deeply planted within me. He was a teacher, a voracious reader, editor-reviewer-writer – he wrote a lot – for himself and for others. He edited books, theses, and inaugural speeches. When I was a kid, I used to publish books and sell to him. It would be more or less two dollars a new book I wrote (I just didn’t like to illustrate, so I used pictures from magazines) even though I always forgot to charge him.
In my professional life, the team I work with inspires me a lot. The messages, videos and meetings I see them playing teach me so much, it makes me want to be better, to be able to give back, to dive even more.
I am also very inspired by my boss – a voracious reader (I love people who love to read) with generosity, depth and values.
What are you most proud of?
In general, what I do and who I work and live with every day: the team I work with, the authors who write for us, seeing the books and content we produce being used – in the classroom and on the street, I don’t forget the first book I edited. It was one on Financial Mathematics – I understood that as an editor I needed to put myself in the role of a teacher using the book, of the student studying with it – I redid each exercise (and found several errors that had been overlooked in previous editions by another publishing house).
What do you still want to achieve?
I think I’ve been so blessed in my career – my plans are for continuous improvement more than a title. I want to continue learning – feeling that at the end of each week I am a little more advanced. In July I went to take a course at the London Business School which made me want to achieve something like this every year: open my mind, come back inspired. It was about Change – a continuous factor in our lives and in our market.
I also want to continue contributing – with associations, with the next generations, and with volunteer work. I want to generate results – seeing people grow, books selling more and affecting more people, the publishing business growing, and new ways of making books being consolidated.
What motivates you to contribute to the wider publishing industry?
I was given so many opportunities that I take great pleasure (and responsibility) in reciprocating. I grew up with my father telling me that “To whom much has been given, much will be asked” – I studied at a public university (free), I had a lot of opportunity to grow. Dedicating my time is a way of saying thank you, it gives me huge satisfaction. Not to mention that every time we dedicate time to someone (person, association), you learn twice as much. We also have so many challenges in the publishing market – the more people who come to help, the better for the books, for us as publishers and for readers.
Are the associations you work with active in encouraging female leadership?
The publishing industry has a lot of women – mainly at entry level, who join after graduating. But we are losing many women due to lack of care and inclusion, meaning we have few in leadership. But when we look at the associations of which I am a part, there are many women in management or board positions. When we organised the first PublisHer in Brazil, the associations agreed to help us immediately. They suggested people to be invited and helped with the press release and the logistics.
Tell us about the PublisHer event you ran at the Sao Paulo Book Fair.
It was an incredible experience. It came from an informal conversation with Karine Pansa, who immediately sent a message to Bodour Al Qasimi (founder of PublisHer and president of the IPA). Bodour was extremely generous: on the one hand, she brought good practices from other countries but also gave us a lot of freedom to show the face of Brazil.
The Saber/Saraiva Marketing team also put their time pro-bono – and what was supposed to be a chat turned into a great event.
On the day, the chemistry was strong: the women present loosened up, opened their hearts, told their experiences. In the end, it felt that everyone there had known each other for a long time. I will keep with me always the stories and examples from this conversation. Several generations came together and it was fascinating how the new generation of publishers has been dealing with issues so differently than the previous.
How do you fill your time outside your career in publishing?
I don’t have much time outside the publishing world, as I am always near a book (reading, studying, giving classes). I love to read the books we publish, because while I learn I can also connect with the work done at the publishing house. I end up reading more books published by our imprint Benvirá in the business area but also from our competitors in the market.
Most of my free time is spent with my daughter and family: exploring new places or just talking and enjoying each other.