TOC Evolvers: OR Books

This marks the first entry in our “TOC Evolvers” series wherein we shall profile folks who are doing something different in the world of publishing. If you know of a forward thinking, publishing-related business, organization, or individual who might make for a good TOC Evolvers profile, please let us know!

logo.gifToC:What does OR Books do? When were you established? How many employees do you have?
John Oakes: OR Books is driven by two concepts. Well, three. One: the current system of distribution and production, returns and discounts, in publishing doesn’t work for stores, authors, or publishers. Two: we will publish politically progressive and culturally adventurous work. Three: the classic rules of publishing still hold true: you need good editing, design, and marketing.

To address the first concept, we decided to scratch the Byzantine rules that surround the distribution and production of books: we sell straight to consumers, do intensive marketing, and then license the book to “traditional publishers.” We generally do not sell to wholesalers or booksellers, be they independent, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. We are “platform agnostic,” offering consumers their books as ebooks or in physical, printed form. They choose.

We started operations in the fall of 2009, and had a riproaring debut with GOING ROUGE: Sarah Palin, an American Nightmare. Since then, we’ve signed up a number of really exciting authors, including Norman Finkelstein, Doug Rushkoff, Chris Lehmann, Eileen Myles, Bill McKibben, Laura Flanders, Sue Coe and others.

We’re a total of four people, plus one intern.

ToC: What drove you to create OR Books?
JO: Colin (Colin Robinson, co-found of OR Books)  found himself expelled from Simon & Schuster, and I, after two decades working in independent presses, became convinced there had to be a better way to do business. This all coincided with our discovery of something called “the Internet,” which holds the promise of zooming in on interested consumers wherever they may lurk. Publishing is like the weather: we all talk about it, but no one’s doing anything to fix it. So we decided to give it a try.

ToC: How does OR Books stand out from the rest of the crowd in the publishing world?
JO: We’re much better looking. Plus, we intensively market our books. At many houses, including ones I won’t name such as HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, it’s common for an author to garner an advance of $50 or $100,000 or more–and then for the publisher to lose faith in the project and spend not a penny promoting it.

ToC:To date, what’s your proudest achievement at OR Books?
JO: In a short span of time, we’ve created a coherent entity: first-rate books and promotional videos for each; a snappy website (recently featured in a South Korean design journal–we’re not sure what they wrote about us, but we assume it was admiring)–and done so without any returns.
We’re approaching the era of sustainable publishing, when publishers will be able to print exactly the number of books consumers need. Waste will be minimal. For far too long, the words “flexibility” and “publishing” have been at polar extremes. Colin and I aim to bring them together. We’re not the first to observe publishing is facing the apocalypse: it’s happening, it’s here, and either we attempt to understand it, to surf it and benefit from it, or the business is finished.

John Oakes will be presenting at TOC Frankfurt on October 5, 2010. For more information, click here.