John Oakes is the co-publisher of OR Books, a publishing company that “embraces progressive change in politics, culture and the way we do business.”

(In which the publishing industry is compared to a dead Norwegian Blue parrot, and evolutionary theory is briefly discussed.)
At the most elemental level, pain serves a purpose. It teaches those of us who survive the experience. If we don’t learn, we go on suffering—or we vanish from the earth.

In discussing contemporary publishing, there’s really only one mystery. Why does a collection of sophisticated, intellectually curious adults, many of them with substantial financial resources at their disposal, perpetuate a system that has failed? To quote John Cleese whilst attempting to return his deceased Norwegian Blue, publishing is “stone-dead,” an ex-parrot nailed to its perch, as it were, by sporadic bestseller and backlist sales. It hinges on guesswork and cronyism, on antiquated, environmentally and fiscally disastrous supply and production systems. The persistence of this system would be understandable if there were no alternative. But there is, and it’s not even based on proprietary technology. It’s primarily a matter of attitude, of being willing to try a new direction.

Not too long ago, I was reading about the “Red Queen Theory of Evolution.” A concept first put forth by the American evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen in the 1970s, it was named after the bloody-minded chess piece in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the relevant passage, the Red Queen says to Alice, “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” Van Valen applied this metaphor to evolution, suggesting that species are in a constant race for survival and continually must evolve new ways of defending themselves throughout time. It seems to me this metaphor is exactly what we need to keep in mind when considering book publishing today. There are a million different paths to stability, if not success—but there’s one sure route to disaster, and that’s staying in place.

I’ve worked with medium-sized independent publishing houses, with start-up houses that could barely pay the rent, and those that were more concerned with interior decoration than the bottom line, with those for which the editorial direction was more the scattershot, anarchic approach of “throw everything at the wall, and see if something sticks,” and those that cultivated books over a period of time and believed in focused, careful editorial curating. All companies, large and small, shared the horrific experience of the sales conference, of justifying in a few minutes why the little world represented by a particular book was to enter the publishing universe. The motivation of the sales force was not the issue: whether glassy-eyed, stunned into somnolence by the hundreds of titles they’d have to represent that season, or energetic, well-intentioned, well-read, and open-minded representatives—a few days or weeks later, all sales reps were obligated to present the title in question in a flash, if at all, to similarly overwhelmed store buyers.

In this pitiful exercise, guesswork piles on guesswork piles on guesswork. Finally, assuming the editors convince the sales reps who convince the store buyers to stock the book in question, the consumer has the final word, and the returns will soon stream in. The result? All lose. The author: it will be that much harder for her to place her next book. The store: its valuable shelf space is taken up by product that doesn’t move. The publisher: it reimburses the store for the cost of those books, and must nonetheless pay the printer. The printer loses because it’s operating in an environment populated by increasingly unhealthy clients. And the reader loses, as in their desperation the publishers and stores push more and more “product” into the world with less and less regard for its quality.

An Alternative

There’s this thing called the Internet, this magical thing, which, with some work, enables a seller—a publisher—to reach a vast number of potential consumers—readers. It has been calling out to the book industry for some time now. In fact on Christmas Day, 2009, an historic milestone was reached (and ignored by most). On that day, for the first time ever, Amazon sold more electronic books than print books.

At OR Books, we decided to re-examine publishing from the ground up. We feel that there are certain elements of the profession worth keeping—editing, marketing, design work. Here’s where we’re different. We don’t accept returns; our primary business is selling direct to consumers. We are platform-agnostic, and we issue our ebooks simultaneously with print editions. We don’t have sales reps and don’t solicit stores, but if the stores do come to us, we sell on a prepaid, non-returnable basis, at a flat discount (50 percent). We sell to third parties only out of necessity: we post our books on Amazon after selling them for a month or so on our own site exclusively. We don’t have sales conferences; we promote our books on the Web through ads, emails, excerpts, promotional videos, author appearances, and only very occasionally in print publications. We then do our best to license the book to traditional publishers (which have the joy of dealing with bookstores and returns and ruinous discounts). We succeed in doing so about half the time. If we don’t license the book to another publisher, more often than not we do just fine working with an author to build an audience. Our success does not depend on the first few weeks of a book’s appearance on shelves, as is almost always the case with the traditional model.

The challenge for OR lies in marketing its titles. Thanks both to the advent of self-publishing—which I would argue has surged in recent years less because of technology than because of the proven incompetence of traditional publishing—and to the over-stuffed lists of the professionals, consumers see record numbers of new titles every season. Millions of new books are added to the lists every year. This is at once a challenge and an opportunity: the challenge is obvious (to make a book rise above the sea of mush). It is an opportunity because only a handful of these books are marketed with any seriousness. And a large portion of what OR saves by adopting a saner approach to inventory and sales goes into promoting its titles.

People call OR a “radical alternative” or an “experiment,” but in many ways we’re a throwback: we advocate a process wherein the publisher focuses on developing ideas into workable manuscripts, carefully editing them, and, above all, devoting substantial resources to marketing the finished product. These tasks were once the exclusive province of publishers, but in the last 20 years or so, development and editing have fallen increasingly to agents, while marketing has become the responsibility of authors themselves. We print only to fulfill orders, with a minimum of waste; we sidestep warehouses, wholesalers, and even—at least at the outset of a book’s life—bookstores and online retailers, including Amazon.

If it sounds simple, it is. And the people quickest to understand our model have been agents and authors. Among them, we have found that the greater their exposure to traditional publishing, the more they’re veterans of the industry, the more they’re receptive to what we’re doing. Consumers really don’t care whether they buy from us or from Amazon, just as they don’t care whether the publisher’s name on the spine of the book they’re buying is Random House or OR Books. The result is that we at OR Books have rather quickly acquired a stable of name-brand authors, represented by top agents, and that we’ve even begun convincing ourselves that there is a way for unsubsidized book publishing at the highest level to continue, and thrive, in the 21st century.

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