What Is to Be Done?

Imagine taking the guesswork out of publishing. Imagine a publisher printing only to fulfill orders, and with a minimum of waste; imagine further a system that sidesteps warehouses and wholesalers.
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Dear Books Editor Amy:

After you posted my pre-Halloween correspondence to you, some commentators unkindly suggested I, as one of those "corporate book publishers," should stop whining, and step aside to make room for more innovative types. To put it bluntly, civilians suspect us publishers of being incompetent.

Amy, do tell them we're proudly semi-competent. It's the system that's evil; we, like so many others who love books, have been battered by it. Therefore, the system must be abandoned. But what could possibly replace it?

Imagine taking the guesswork out of publishing. Imagine a publisher printing only to fulfill orders, and with a minimum of waste; imagine further a system that sidesteps warehouses, wholesalers, and even--at least at the outset of a book's life--bookstores and online retailers. This would be 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 twenty years or so, development and editing have increasingly fallen to agents, and marketing has become the responsibility of authors themselves.

The new publisher that results from such imagining looks very much like the company founded a few months back by Colin Robinson and myself, OR Books. I'm the "O" in the name, and he's the "R", and between the two of us we've experienced an uncomfortable number of decades toiling in publishing's increasingly barren fields. I ran my own company, Four Walls Eight Windows, for a number of years, then sold it to Avalon, a larger company, which got bought up by a still larger company, Perseus; Colin's run two of the most highly-regarded independent publishers in the business--Verso and The New Press--and most recently, he was a senior editor at Simon & Schuster.

It'd be fair to say that we have a pretty good idea of the ills that beset publishing--and that's certainly not unique to us. But what galvanizes Colin and myself is a vision of publishing that is in fact very traditional, despite our determination to jettison the old system of distribution via several intermediaries (publisher-to-wholesaler-to-bookstore-to-consumer--and then back again), of massive discounts, warehousing, and unpredictable ordering.

While we certainly have no antipathy to ebooks, and make them available to consumers from the date of publication, we're committed to text. We're not about to go Vook ourselves. And we don't see our company as at least partially miniature movie studio, as apparently does another entrant in the arena of new publishing, HarperCollins' former CEO Jane Friedman, who recently founded Open Road Integrated Media. For OR Books, the book is the thing, and video is a selling tool to reach many readers who might otherwise not have heard of us or our books.

I should say "book," because to date we've released one title, Going Rouge: Sarah Palin--An American Nightmare (edited by Richard Kim and Betsy Reed). The experience of publishing this book seems to prove our theory: aided and abetted by sharp design, first-rate editing and a lightning-quick, six-week turnaround from proposal to finished book (a nod of thanks is here due our Minnesota-based printer, Bookmobile), we've sold many thousands of copies, both in traditional formats and as ebooks. And all this has occurred without our being listed on Amazon, or barnesandnoble.com, or any other retailer, large or small.

The inbox of our email is quite a mix: along with occasional obscenity-choked death threats from Palinites come the pleas from friendly readers. Why aren't you on Amazon? Why can't we find you in my local store? How can you be "real" publishers and turn down these opportunities? To explain is to signal we're doing something genuinely different. It's only by selling straight to consumers, and avoiding returns and crippling discounts, that we can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on promotion. From a personal stance, it's difficult; our friends and colleagues of many years work in bookstores (both the chains and independents) and they are itching to sell this book. But they will get the chance to do so, very shortly.

Until December 1, the only place to buy the book is on our site. That day, another publisher, which has licensed the trade paperback rights to Going Rouge, will make its copies available to retailers across the country. That publisher will take the marketing we've done for Going Rouge as the basis for a new campaign for the book, and give it a new and extended life, undoubtedly to the renewed chagrin of the Palin crowd. The model has proven workable.

Can we sustain a company on this basis? We're banking on it.

All good wishes,

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