In the past few years, publishers have been looking to nontraditional book outlets and direct sales for growth. But one Bay Area house, AK Press in Oakland, has been mining both from the start. The 18-year-old publisher/distributor was founded in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1990 and opened a U.S. branch in 1994; it earns roughly one-third of its revenue from selling direct to consumers through mail order and the Internet, and another significant portion from “tabling” (at events), according to Craig O'Hara, who handles East Coast sales and is AK's graybeard at age 37.
“We do at least one warehouse event per month and 40 out-of-town tabling events a year,” said O'Hara. “We've been on tour with rock, punk and political bands. We have people who sell at flea markets and on the Internet. We go to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, the San Francisco Anarchist Book Fair and the Left Forum. Basically, any way we can reach people directly, we do.” That includes a Friends of AK program that enables its 400 subscribers to get the AK list, one or more items a month, over the course of the year (a basic subscription is $25 per month). AK also sells direct to activist organizations and to specialty stores like Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore.
But perhaps the most unusual thing about the press, which has doubled the number of units it sells over the past decade and grossed $1.4 million last year, is that it's organized as an anarchist collective. Although its 10 U.S. staff members specialize in different areas—publishing/editorial, distribution and sales and marketing—each gets an equal vote when it comes to which books, CDs or DVDs to publish.
Most of AK's 17 paperback originals a year are published in the U.S., titles like Chris Carlsson's Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-Lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today! due out in May and Alexander Cockburn's just released A Short History of Fear. The U.K. operation, which is smaller, has only two members and focuses primarily on distribution.
“For years,” said O'Hara, “we didn't sell to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and Borders. Then we came to realize that as a political project, we have to be in as many channels as possible.” The company now reaches out to the book trade for its own list through Consortium and uses Turnaround in the U.K. It also sells to mainstream wholesalers and booksellers on behalf of the 100 exclusive distribution publishers (about 40 to 50 active clients) it represents. It sells their books, along with like-minded books from presses such as South End and New Press through its online store (www.AKPress.com), paper catalogue and tabling.
“There's no better source for books on anarchy,” said Don Allen, general manager of Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C. “When we opened our store in Virginia, we used AK Press for a high percentage of our inventory.” Allen turns to AK for hard-to-get books from other presses and keeps stacks of AK's three-DVD set on the Black Panthers, What We Want, What We Believe and of AK's vegan cookbooks at both Busboys stores.
Although AK's return rate through Consortium hovers around 30%, the return rate for AK's own clients is between 2% and 5%. In part that's because AK is very selective, said collective member Zach Blue. He notes that AK's margins are slim because it doesn't charge any of the fees typically associated with distribution: for warehousing, catalogue listings, promotions and returns.
More than half of AK's distribution clients are one-book publishers or organizations. Its most recent addition, PM Press, founded by AK's own founder, Ramsey Kanaan, who left the collective last fall, will have at least a dozen items out this spring, including Derrick Jensen's How Shall I Live My Life? “I really think PM will help lift the AK Press distribution boat,” said O'Hara, who anticipates that it could also raise the profile of some of AK's other publishers.