Graveyard of Publishing

This video featuring OR Books founders Colin Robinson and John Oakes was created in March 2009 to help launch their new company. Filming in front of a vacated Barnes & Noble Superstore building and an actual cemetery helped illustrate their point about the "death of conventional publishing." "I think we're in the midst of what's called a new paradigm shift...on several levels: politically, culturally, and also technologically," says Oakes. "As people are more comfortable with the Internet, and it becomes something that's indispensible, reading (becomes) natural on your hand-held device or computer...and OR Books will still give people the option of reading in the traditional manner, of having a book that's printed on paper. What we are is 'platform agnostic' -- we're open to everything -- we're not excluding anything, except for the old system, which doesn't work." See the YouTube video and other movies about their books at the YouTube OR Books Channel.


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Indie Groundbreaking Publisher: OR Books

A Brave New Publishing Model
It’s an old cliché, but sometimes losing your job is the best thing that can happen to you. Colin Robinson would probably agree – he was fired by Scribner on December 3, 2008, the “Black Wednesday” that axed about 200 publishing jobs – but his recovery was swift. Less than a year later, on November 16, 2009, Robinson’s new venture, OR Books, released its first title, Going Rouge, one of the most talked about and best-selling books of the year. The timing was everything: Sarah Palin’s biography, Going Rogue, was, coincidentally, released the next day…!

How did Robinson and co-founder John Oakes do it? By breaking all the rules of publishing, that’s how. OR Books is recognizing that the bookselling world has changed, and they are changing the way they do book business accordingly.

Utilizing print-on-demand technology and offering ebooks direct to the customer from their website allows them to opt out of an outdated distribution model. They are able to bypass the steep discounts that put publishers at a huge disadvantage, and avoid the return of unsold inventory -- which can lead to pulped books -- a complete waste of paper and energy used for shipping back and forth. This new system allows a rapid publishing turnaround and brings relevant books to the public and help them explore the issues of the day. And because Robinson and Oakes publish very selectively, they avoid adding to the glut of titles flooding the marketplace.

The OR website lists the basics of their model:

“Our editorial standards are fastidious; our design clear and elegant.”

“We employ exciting promotion with highly creative use of video and the Internet.”

“To avoid the waste of unsold stock and returns, we produce our books only when they are wanted, either through print-on-demand or as platform-agnostic e-books.”

“This system allows a rapid publishing turnaround so relevant books can intervene quickly in issues of the day.”

“Most importantly, we sell direct to you, the customer, shipping promptly when a book is released and/or your order is received.”

“Our approach jettisons the inefficiencies of conventional publishing to better serve readers, writers and the environment.”

You gotta love it -- someone is finally willing to jettison the inefficiencies of mega-publishing. All the returns, remainders, pulping – all of the waste -- not to mention the wasted talent and ideas that don’t get published in the conventional model that demands mega-bestsellers to make a profit. This is the kind of news that gives one hope for the future of the book business.

Robinson has become an indie-pub hero for his bold new take on publishing and bookselling, and refusal to sell through Amazon. Here’s part his essay in the London Review of Books, written soon after his firing:

“Books have become detached from meaningful readerships. Writing itself is the victim in this shift. If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?

“Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centered society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

This is not to say that the book is doomed. But publishers will surely have to change the way they do business.”

Newsflash: OR has announced the coming release of Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attach on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict. Okay, this event happened on May 31st, and the book will ship on July 28th?

Here’s Robinson on the Amazon sales model (Huffington Post 3/22/10)

“To sell our titles, Amazon would require a discount of 55% or even 60%, that's $11 or $12 on a $20 book. Amazon would use some of this money to discount the book to its customers -- that's what gives it its edge. If, as a publisher, you try matching their reduced price, Amazon will insist your new, lower price is the basis for their discount, so they can cut their price still further. That makes it pretty much impossible for you to compete with direct sales to your customers.

“For their very substantial take on a book, Amazon will rarely do more than simply make it available. Rather than going out and finding customers, it waits for them to come to it. And, of course, plenty do -- received 615 million visits in 2008; the company has 50 million customers annually.

“But at OR Books, our calculation is that, for the amount of money we would have to give Amazon, we can do a better job finding customers ourselves. We know who our audience is, we share their interests, we visit the same websites and read the same writers. We empathize with them in a way that is impossible for the Bezos behemoth.

“ will never, remotely, be a destination site in the manner of But by investing our money in clever advertising and extensive online mailing, in imaginative viral video and lively author events, we are heading out into the world to the places where our potential readers already congregate.

“When we arrive among them our pitch is not that of a big corporation fighting ruthlessly for market share. It's that of a couple of editors who love the books they publish and hope to convey their enthusiasm to like-minded readers. For every e-mail we get querying why our books are not available on Amazon, we get another saying how much our new approach is appreciated.”

It’s going to be interesting to follow the OR Books story. If nothing else, they’re having fun: the company launch announcement was made at sea, on a historic New York fireboat. Going Rouge will go down in history as one of the best and best-timed satires of all time. And their book on the oil spill will ship in September – they must be waiting for more of that tragicomedy to unfold.

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Going Rouge
Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, Editors

Sarah Palin has many faces: hockey mom, fundamentalist Christian, sex symbol, Republican ideologue, fashion icon, “maverick” populist. But, above all, Palin has become one thing: an American obsession that just won’t go away.

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Deepwater Horizon: The Oil Disaster, Its Aftermath and Our Future
Peter Lehner with Bob Deans

Deepwater Horizon was supposed to be the cutting edge of energy exploration: drilling 5,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, the $560 million rig would be indispensable in helping to solve the ongoing energy crisis.

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Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict
Moustafa Bayoumi, Editor

“We have been attacked while in international waters. That means the Israelis have behaved like pirates … The moment they start to steer this ship towards Israel, we have also been kidnapped. The whole action is illegal.” - Henning Mankell, aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla

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See previous Indie Groundbreaking Publisher articles:

Berrett-Koehler Publishers: B-K Crash-Publishes Declaration of Independence from Wall Street in 50 Days


Prometheus Books:
Dedicated to Telling the Truth


Dawn Publications: Sharing the Joy of Nature with Children for 30 Years


Lee & Low Books: Being inclusive is about living inclusively every day of our lives.


Cleis Press: Proving that (Really Good) Sex Sells