November 4, 2009

Or you could try OR


When people talk about “progressive publishing,” they’re almost always speaking about books, magazines, and websites connected with progressive causes. Writing about the poor, about inequality and injustice, about government deception and censorship. Sometimes progressive publishing means books about the opposition–about the perils and excesses of the Right, about its network of allies and funders, and about the media that pushes conservative causes. This last category will soon include a forthcoming book edited by Nation magazine editors Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, Going Rouge: Sarah Palin — An American Nightmare. The book is being published on the same day as Palin’s own book, Going Rogue. The idea is to steal some of Palin’s thunder but also to make a point. According to a press release, the book will address “the nightmarish prospect of [Palin] continuing to dominate the nation’s political scene.”

In the case of Kim and Reed’s Going Rouge, however, there’s another element of “progressive” publishing involved: it’s the debut title from the “alternative publisher” OR Books, led by veteran indie publishers John Oakes and Colin Robinson. (See the earlier MobyLives report here.) And about this publishing venture, there’s a lot to say, perhaps even more than about Sarah Palin herself.

With OR Books, the entire enterprise of publishing is being tweaked: the company isn’t selling their Palin book via bookstores (or online retailers like Amazon); instead, it’s printing only via print-on-demand technology. An eBook version will also be available, from day one. Both versions will be available exclusively from the publisher’s website. (Pre-orders are being accepted now, for a 10% discount. The eBook retails for $10; the print edition, for $16.)

What’s progressive about this? For people in the book industry, a lot. In essence, the company is saying: If you want the book, come to us. It also sets OR apart from almost all other trade publishers, which work closely with indie bookstores, distributors, book chains, and the wholesalers to launch new titles.

The company is also touting the environmentally-friendly side of this business model: with no returns, there’s no waste, no unsold books to be recycled (or fuel wasted on shipping unsold books around the country). According to the company’s site, the current bookselling system is “wasteful, environmentally disastrous and unprofitable for publishers, booksellers and authors alike.”

But is there anything progressive about not selling through bookstores, especially the indie shops that have long been the greatest champions of independent and progressive publishing? Not really, but according to OR Books, bookstores won’t forever be cut out of the equation: the company hopes to soon be able to sell direct, and perhaps on a non-returnable basis, to indie stores. In an interview with PW, co-publisher Colin Robinson said “Neither John [Oaks, co-publisher] nor I are against bookstores. They are nothing other than a good thing, but we can’t afford to be sending books there and watching them come back.”

A new model all around, then. And one that will grow over time. But there’s something else remarkable here: the new venture’s emphasis on promotion. Sure, all publishers want to get press and sell books, but OR Books has promised that money saved from the inefficiencies of trade publishing (deep discounts, wasted fuel and returned books, fees to distributors and other middle-men, and co-op for chain bookstore placement) will be re-invested into promotional campaigns, allowing budgets for publicity “at levels unprecedented in the mainstream… [allowing] tens of thousands of dollars to market books–in some cases, more.” You can think of it a covenant with authors: money saved will be reinvested in promotion.

While OR’s entire model might be called progressive in the sense that it’s advancing a conversation about the business of publishing books, it’s the company’s early success on this last front that holds out the most promise for independent publishers. “Progressive publishing” has long been constrained in promoting its books (and its ideas) by the inefficiencies that the OR partners have outlined. And in the case of Going Rouge, the expanded promotional budget seems to have legs: the book has been covered on NPR, by Entertainment Weekly, the McClatchy Newspaper chain, the Christian Science Monitor, the LA Times, and on TV: on MSBNC, and, most surprisingly, on Entertainment Tonight‘s “The Insider.”  All surprising places to see discussion of a radical book, put together by editors of the Nation magazine.

It’s an early hint that OR Books just might have a chance of building a business model. But it’s of course far too early to say. What the company is doing is risky. Nobody knows if people will agree to buy Going Rouge direct from OR. Or if the media will be enough to overcome the fact that consumers won’t happen upon the book in a store or have it suggested by an indie bookseller or on Amazon, as is the case with so many good, but underpromoted titles.

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.