Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews John Oakes

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

OR Books was founded in 2009 by two very experienced book publishing veterans, Colin Robinson and John Oakes, who realized that after many years, that the way books have been published and sold in the 20th century no longer applies in the 21st.  John’s description of their new venture (as told to O’Reilly Radar for their “TOC Evolvers” series) goes like this:

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.

I originally wanted to interview both John and Colin together, but the timing did not work out.  Colin was someplace exotic like London, so I talked to John in his tiny home office in Manhattan.  We had a great talk, as there is alot to talk about.  Alert to listeners, and while this is the longest Publishing Talks interview I have done, at about 45 minutes long, I think well worth the investment of time and you can always listen to it in more than one sitting.

OR Books was founded by John Oakes and Colin Robinson as a publishing company embracing e-books and other new technologies. They have already published some excellent (and timely) books, their first being Going Rouge (a great book to launch with), Eileen Myles’ riveting novel Inferno, and Doug Rushkoff’s new Program or be Programmed.  Their work is political, cultural, and literary, and so far has been terrifically interesting work.

John Oakes co-founded the publishing company Four Walls Eight Windows. When his company was purchased by the Avalon Publishing Group, he became publisher of Thunder’s Mouth Press, co-publisher of Nation Books, and vice president of Avalon. Among the authors he has published are Andrei Codrescu, Sue Coe, R. Crumb, Cory Doctorow, Andrea Dworkin, Abbie Hoffman, Gordon Lish, Harvey Pekar, Rudy Rucker, John Waters and Edmund White. Oakes serves on the board of PEN America. He has written for the Associated Press, the International Herald Tribune, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Colin Robinson was until recently a senior editor at Scribner. Previously he was managing director of Verso Books and publisher of The New Press. Among the authors he has published are Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Mike Davis, Norman Finkelstein, Eduardo Galeano, Eric Hobsbawm, Lewis Lapham, Mike Marqusee, Rigoberta Menchú, Matt Taibbi and Jann Wenner. He has written for a broad range of publications including The New York Times, The Sunday Times (London) and The Guardian (London) and has appeared on a wide range of broadcast media including NPR (“On the Media”), CNN, MSNBC, CBC and CSPN.