Founded in 2009 by John Oakes and Colin Robinson, OR Books was designed to be a new kind of publisher. It’s business model was based on bypassing bookstores, using print-on-demand technology (printing a book only when it has been purchased), and the web to sell its books and e-books directly to consumers.
Although the OR Books model “actually works,” Oakes said, both publishing veterans acknowledge that they have changed their minds about bookstores—especially independent retailers. “A general trade publisher needs independent bookstores; they are essential to our well-being,” Oakes said. Robinson agreed: “Selling direct gives us the ability to publish quickly and the margin is very good, but to reach a wide audience you need to be in stores too.” Bookstore sales now represent 20%–30% of OR Books’ total revenue, and they are growing, Oakes said. E-books, he added, are about a third of most titles’ sales—more for tech books and less for other categories.
Like its cofounders, the OR Books list is focused on “progressive politics and social issues,” Oakes said, noting the two publishers share a delight in releasing “controversial books.” New titles include Trump U: The Inside Story of Trump University by Stephen Gilpin; Samuel Beckett Is Closed, a hybrid work of fiction, memoir, and criticism by Michael Coffey, PW’s former co-editorial director; and Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation by Liz Featherstone, a popular study of these groups.
OR Books exemplifies a new business model for publishers. Robinson explained that the name is not just an initialism based on the founders’ names; it comes from the word or, as in, another option for the book business. Robinson added, “It’s not just what, but how.”
Oakes insisted that direct selling “must be part of a company today,” though he thought it was a “crazy idea, when Colin first approached me,” to launch OR Books. “But everyone’s view on that has changed now.”
Indeed, Robinson emphasized that margins on its direct-to-consumer sales are so good they are able to use the money to promote the books heavily online. “And this helps our bookstore sales,” he said.
Asked if the house is profitable, Oakes replied, “We’re sustainable—and maybe a little better.” The house has a full-time staff of about five (not counting the cofounders) with offices on 14th Street in Manhattan. It develops many of its titles in-house, but also accepts submissions from agents. Advances, Oakes said, are modest.
A good sale for an OR title is about 5,000 copies (on the nonreturnable POD titles), Oakes noted. Ten thousand copies is “very good.” Among the house’s top 10 in sales are Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Julian Assange, Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff, and Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles.
At first OR Books offered bookstores a 50% wholesale discount (minimum five copies, payment up front, the books nonreturnable), but “most stores wouldn’t do it,” Oakes said. But retailer interest in OR titles has grown, and its authors started to complain about a lack of bookstore distribution. “We were about to lose some of our authors over the issue,” he noted.
In 2015 the house struck a deal with Charlie Winton, publisher of Counterpoint Books, to release 14 OR Books titles as part of the Counterpoint list and distribute them to trade bookstores via Publishers Group West. To date, the cobranded partnership, OR Books/Counterpoint Books, has published about 40 titles, and in fall 2018 it will publish 20 titles. In the partnership, OR Books takes care of the editorial side and delivers finished files to Counterpoint, which handles printing and distribution—including returns. The two companies split all revenues after production costs (which include printing and returns) and the authors receive their full royalty payments. OR retains the exclusive right to sell all its titles in POD editions via the OR Books website.
Print copies of the OR Books/Counterpoint titles are sold through the usual bricks-and-mortar and online booksellers. OR Books had a storefront on Amazon at one point, Robinson said, suppressing a smile. That ended abruptly after he published an anti-Amazon story on the Huffington Post, he added. “We’re not a fan of Amazon. It’s not good for publishers or authors. They’re squeezing out the midlist with ever more demands for discounts.”
POD technology, both men agreed, has had a revolutionary impact on publishing. “The quality of POD printing has been transformed over the last few years,” Oakes noted. “It’s very hard to tell what’s POD and what’s offset.”
OR Books uses two POD vendors to print its books and drop ship them directly to consumers and, in some cases, retailers within 36 hours of receiving each order: Bookmobile, a small vendor based in Minnesota, to fulfill U.S. orders and CPI for U.K. and European orders. Both vendors have software that monitors the incoming orders, collects and prints them in batches, and saves excess copies for future orders. “We don’t really print one copy at a time,” Robinson said.
OR titles are heavily marketed online. Email is important. The house has 60,000 email addresses and Robinson said it uses “videos, memes, and catchy original content of all kinds,” adding, “You have to do it” to give books visibility.
“We’ve learned how tough it is to survive as an indie publisher,” Robinson said. “But it’s easier now; we know we’ll survive. Now we both want OR Books to grow.”