This is the fourteenth in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our Small Press Database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
This interview was special for being conducted over Skype with Colin Robinson, one of the two founding members of OR Books, instead of via email. For that reason, our discussion diverges from our “standard” questions into more depth as the interview goes on. This conversation took place on January 7, a Wednesday, between Colin’s computer in the U.K. and mine in Oregon.
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Interview with Colin Robinson, Co-Founder
How did OR Books start?
We started in 2009. John Oakes and I had both been around in publishing for a long time. He’d been running Nation Books and Thunder’s Mouth and prior to that he’d set up Four Walls Eight Windows with Dan Simon. And I worked for a long time at Verso, and then at the New Press, and then for three years I was an editor at Scribner, which is part of Simon and Schuster. We’d both, I think, come to the conclusion that the existing publishing model didn’t really work. I got laid off from Scribner in 2008—Black Wednesday, it was a day when a lot of publishers laid off people—and John had sold his share in Four Walls Eight Windows, so we thought we might well start something new and start publishing the kind of books we want to publish.
Tell us a bit about OR Books. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
I think the kind of books that we’re publishing, that John and I are interested in, are the sort of books we’ve always been interested in. Namely books that are politically progressive, definitely on the left end of the spectrum. John is more of an anarchist than I am, I’m more of a socialist, but we overlap a lot in that. And then we’re also interested in the cultural avant-garde, so we want to do books which are off-beat aesthetically. I’m interested in situationism. I know John was originally working for Barney Rosset at Grove Press, and he did quite a bit of work when he was at university on Samuel Beckett, so he’s interested in that area. But the model we used when we set up OR is quite radically different from what we’d done before at the various companies where we’d worked.
Right, I watched your video where you explain it and it makes really a lot of sense.
It is quite a new approach. And the two main elements that are new about it are that we only sell direct to readers—or I could say we primarily sell direct to readers. We do sell to bookstores—especially independent boosktores, we’re quite keen on selling to them—but we primarily sell direct to readers and the reason that we do that is because we want to use the additional income we get that way for editorial and promotion work, which is very difficult to do at a conventional publisher. If you’re publishing a book and selling it to Amazon or Barnes and Noble, you’re giving them 50% of the price. And you’re probably spending 25% of what’s left on a distributor, and then you’re taking returns. So if you’re ending up with a quarter the price of the book, you’re doing quite well. That doesn’t leave any money for promotion, or anything else really. And so our model is selling direct.
The other thing is, we don’t have a warehouse. We only print the books once people order them. And we sell e-books. But every paperback we sell is print on demand. We have printers in Minnesota, just outside of London, in Australia—so the order comes through us, we put the money on the credit card, and then it goes to the printer who is nearest to the customer and they print out the book and send it. That means we don’t have a warehouse, we don’t have returns, we don’t have a sales force. It’s a really quite radically different model, but it’s worked very well for us.
How has the press expanded since 2009? It seems like you have at least a few people working for you at this point.
Yes, I think there are about 8 or 9 of us now. We’ve got quite a lot of people doing marketing and publicity. We’ve got publicists in the UK and in Canada, and we have a sales manager in the U.S., we’ve got an office in New York, we have someone doing digitial promotion in New York, we have a financial manager, someone doing bookkeeping, and often we have a few interns around. Nearly everyone does work on promotion and marketing. Because there were 300,000 books published in the U.S. last year, and actually, if you include self-published books, there were more like 3 million books published in the U.S. last year. So if you want to get your book noticed, you have to do some work on it. And what we do, that’s very much central to our strategy, is to try and do a lot of primarily internet marketing, and that’s very time consuming, that work. It often doesn’t involve spending large amounts of money, but it does take up large amounts of time, so we have to have enough people around to be able to do that work.
Do you mind if I go back to your catlog? You’re mostly publishing non-fiction books, and this aligns with the political mission of the press. What causes you to choose the fiction books that you do?
John does more of that than I do. We don’t publish that many books. We only do one or two a month, so we’ve probably published, over five years, 80 books. We’re really trying to concentrate our efforts on each book. And of those 80 probably less than a dozen of them are novels, or fiction.
But I think John has a sensibility which is quite distinct. The first thing he published was a book by Eileen Miles, who’s a poet, a punk-poet I suppose, in New York, and that’s done really quite well for us. We continue to sell that. When he was at Grove Press working for Barney Rosset, he published Gordon Lish, so Lish is someone who John appreciates quite a lot. And he and Lish talk about what fiction might work for us and they collaborate on that. I tend to do fiction where writers that I know and like, often non-fiction writers, write a novel. So I did a novel by Paul Mason on China. He’s better known as a generalist who writes about the economy, but he also wrote this novel that’s pretty good. I think it is anyway. And we published that.
So there’s probably a more consistent sensibility when it comes to what John does than with me. I’m probably much more of an eclectic and an opportunist. We’re definitely not trying to do mainstream, genre fiction. We like work which is, you know, quite edgy.
I’m interested in your place in the literary landscape and how you see that evolving. Where do you see publishing in the next five years? Where do you see it in twenty years? And where do you see OR Books’ place in that, for example?
I think what’s happening in publishing is that in the large houses ever more effort is being spent on trying to find blockbusters, really big books. And when you look at readership patterns you can see that, basically, more and more people are reading them. The books that really work are the Fifty Shades of Grey, Stephanie Meyer, Harry Potter. And all of the big houses are chasing books like that. They really want to concentrate their efforts on finding those enormous sellers, because that’s what they make money from.
And a vast number of books have been read by tiny audiences, practically no one at all, really. They’re very very specialist, or they just don’t find a readership. And in between, what is traditionally the mid-list, is falling away. It seems to me that that’s a problem for publishing, it’s a problem for writers, it’s a problem for the companies, it’s a problem for the culture.
Vast readerships of a few books and tiny readerships of a vast number of books means there is no real mobility in the middle. So the idea of starting out small and becoming significant is getting ever more problematic. That’s exactly where we want to publish. We’re interested in radical ideas politically, off-beat ideas culturally, trying to find significant audiences for them. So that’s where we’re taking ourselves. And I don’t think that there’s an overwhelming amount of competition there these days. That’s an area the big houses are generally moving away from.
With your and John’s extensive experience in the industry, is there anything you’ve been surprised with in the last 5 years of publishing OR Books?
One book, which we published in the fall of 2009, went on to the New York Times bestseller list. That was very gratifying. It was a book by writers from The Nation about Sarah Palin called Going Rouge. And it was the first book we published. Part of our model is that we sell direct, or print on demand and e-books, and then if we get a buzz going around on the book we look for a conventional partner to put it into the stores. And in that case, we did sell it to another publisher and it went onto the New York Times bestseller list with them. So that was nice!
I think publishers are edging towards it, but it’s surprising how slow it’s taking them to realize that what we’ve been doing for five years is really the way to go. Selling direct, really. Building a database of readers. We’ve now got tens of thousands of readers in our database. And increasingly, OR is moving away from doing as a conventional publisher does, trying to find an audience for its books. More and more now John and I are realizing that our responsibility is to try to find books for our audience. Do you see that distinction?
Conventional publishing has always argued that its job is to serve the writer. We don’t see that. We see our job as serving the reader. And that’s an important shift I think. Publishers are going to have to move toward to that approach, because it’s the readers who pay the wages. So it’s kind of perverse, really, that most publishers see the people they pay, the writers, as being their primary responsibility rather than the people who pay them.
I have noticed just recently that places like Verso, for example, have started to sell quite vigorously directly. They’re distributed by Random House, but they’ve been doing a lot of direct promotion, and I think that’s working very well for them. But I’ve been surprised that it’s taken people so long to come around to that.
I love the idea of that sort of reader-orientation.
Yeah, really trying to start with the audience. And we can only do that because we have a direct relationship with them. And as we get older absolutely the best way, we’re finding, is when we’ve done the second or third book by a writer, we just write to everyone who has bought their books previously—we can write them directly and tell them about it. That’s a very very good way to sell a book.
You can’t do it if Amazon’s got all the email addresses of your customers, which they generally do. We don’t sell through Amazon.
I think that’s amazing.
Well, we learned that a long time ago. Whoever has direct contact with the customer is in the driving seat. They will never give an email address of one of your readers to you. And there’s something outrageous about that really. I mean if you think of us doing our books on politics, or our edgy fiction, we’re in direct contact with a group of authors and a group of reviewers and a group of readers—we’re all part of that process and the only point at which Amazon enters that chain if you’re publishing conventionally is to take most of the money and take the email address of the customer and the book. There’s something appalling about that. They don’t stand for any of those values, so how come they get to take the customer address and the sale?
I’m going to let you go, Colin, but any last remarks?
I think the old paradigms in publishing are falling apart. And there’s something quite nerve-wracking about that if you’ve worked in publishing and you’ve made it your career, but there’s also something very exhilarating about it. The one thing that I’m convinced that will endure is people’s desire to read interesting, informative, challenging nonfiction and beautiful writing, good stories in fiction, and books that need to be written. That’s not going to change. That stays the same. And I think there are lots of opportunites out there for people who can produce writing like that or publish writing like that to find audiences. So it’s a great time to be involved in books.