Friday, June 26, 2009

Interview with POD Pioneer John Oakes of OR Books

The Therapist’s New Clothes is now available!
It’s real. I’m speechless.

How convenient, then, that I happened to have talked to John Oakes, who, together with fellow publishing veteran Colin Robinson, has just launched OR Books—which seeks to combine the editorial professionalism of traditional publishing with a model that draws on new technologies for production, marketing, and delivery.John Oakes (in shades) with Colin Robinson (with the bullhorn) at the OR Books "launch party" during BEA. Photo by Miriam Berkley.

JDS: I’ve been reading about OR Books and admire your willingness to try something new. What keeps you in publishing at a time like this?

JO: What draws people to the book business is a sense of fun and wide-ranging interests. I have a restless mind—an English major also fascinated by science. The appeal of books remains. The world is too fascinating a place to be tied down to one thing.

JDS: Is there still fun to be had?

JO: The system of traditional publishing has gotten less fun over the last several decades. The decline in book-reading predates the Internet. Not reading per se but book reading. But now there’s electronic reading: still less than 1% of the reading public, but skyrocketing as people read on computers more and more. Print on Demand is part of an answer. There’s no upfront cash, production quality is now first rate, and the delivery system more streamlined.

JDS: One thing that interests me about POD-- haven’t explored electronic publishing—is the waste it cuts out.

JO: The traditional book system is hell on the environment. One little book is printed at the printer. Then shipped to the publisher’s warehouse. Then to the wholesaler or a major retail client. Then from wholesaler to the bookstore. If the book is among the 50% that are not sold, it goes back to the warehouse of the wholesaler then the warehouse of the publisher. Most likely, unless it’s made of Teflon, the book will be damaged and can’t be sold. This is bad for the publisher, the author, the bookstore—as the book had taken up shelf space—and bad for the planet. For that you’ve cut down a tree.

JDS: Yet most companies haven’t taken this to heart.

JO: The big guys are so entangled in the system it’s hard for them to extricate themselves. You’ve still got those high advances, publishers plunking down $1 million bucks for a first novel. It may be a good first novel, but they do that because they panic—they’re desperate for a hit and think this is the way to get it.

JDS: Where does OR Books fit in?

JO: Colin and I had been talking for a long time before we both, so to speak, found ourselves out on the street. We believe this shift is going to happen, that this is how publishing will look in the future. There’s still a need for professional editors and publishers to work with authors to shape a book and to market it. Some of the technicalities will change but the roles are the same. I don’t know that we will be, say, the Simon & Schuster of the 21st century, but someone will be.

JDS: Will authors balk if you’re not offering those mega-advances?

JO: I don’t think authors will be a problem. We’ve got books in the pipeline and are another round of drinks away from author deals with Dale Peck and a bunch of other name-brand authors tired of their experience with the traditional publishing system. We’re interested in progressive ideas but we look at that broadly. We will do contemporary fiction, edgy popular science, politics and memoir. It will be the independent publishing ideal of publishing what we love.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thoughts On Local (Continued)

The last few days I’ve been going up to the Northshire to look at the galleys and make corrections. I’m in that almost-book stage, when one frets over commas and looks up words in the dictionary ten times.

The Northshire and my other favorite shop in town, Al Ducci's Italian Pantry, have in their windows "Buy Local" decals that look like this.

Upon moving to Vermont a dozen years ago, I was struck by the awareness that in a small market like ours every purchase matters. I found that knowing this, buying things from local merchants took on an added dimension, that of a relationship as well as a transaction. This consciousness of how and where I buy combined with my recent explorations in economic processes have led me to look more deeply at "Buy Local" programs. One result is this article that's been up this week on on why buying local matters.

Okay, so I've got this book that's written, designed, and produced locally. This is an approach that I value and want to support. The book will be sold at the Northshire (and whatever other outlets I can convince!) as well as online. But do I want this to be a "local" book and reach only readers around here? Heck no! I believe that there's another kind of "localness" based on common interest. These are the communities that the Internet and the new social media have allowed us to form. How to find this community of readers will be my next challenge. And that means grappling with the subject of the book.

But for the moment, let's stay local as in Southern Vermont. This is Al Ducci's. I dare you to stop by and not want to buy everything on the shelf. Homemade mozzarella, anyone?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Local Angle

The Espresso Book Machine appealed to me for another reason that I haven’t mentioned: the opportunity to do everything locally. You see, ever since I wrote on the Transition Town movement in the Christian Science Monitor, I have looked at means of production and exchange differently. Why should tasks be outsourced if they can be done right here, keeping money in the local economy? Why should products be shipped (using fuel, raw materials, space, etc.) from production facility to warehouse to distributor to retailer if we could cut out some of those steps?

My response to the current economic downturn has been to ask questions about how money functions and to explore alternate means of exchange. I have found myself traveling down economic byways I never knew existed. Here are links to articles I’ve done on the topic for and Yes! magazine.

How does this relate to The Therapist’s New Clothes? Well, remember that dazzling cover? I am paying designer Amy Anselmo in editorial services. The absence of typos in the book is thanks to Gabrielle Rynes, who would only accept lily plants. Tony once conducted an independent study for daffodil bulbs in lieu of a fee. The daffodils pop up all over every spring and the bulbs have multiplied. Here in Vermont it is too late for daffodils and too early for lilies but our lupine are up in force:I will get back to the theme of local economies in future posts.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

(More) Family Traditions

I can write stuff: books, reported pieces, essays, even the textual haikus that go up on Twitter. But I’m not one for making stuff.

I was curious to know how someone devised a machine that makes books. So I called Jeff Marsh, inventor of the Espresso Book Machine. He explained that he’s always been “a fixer of things. If I can ask the right questions, I can fix a problem or solve it.” He said that the basement of his childhood home was set up with a lapidary lab, geology lab, electronics lab, and chemistry lab, which gave him the confidence to try out ideas and to follow his curiosity.

Though he’s a thing person and I’m a word person it turns out that we have something in common: inventors in the family. Marsh’s grandfather Albert J. Marsh had numerous patents, including one for the metal alloy that allowed for electrical heating, as in the toaster. My great-grandfather Lehman Weil created an early washing machine (the story is that he sold it to Maytag for $10) and the traffic light. I’ve heard other claims about the traffic light, but I do, somewhere, have a 1905 newspaper article describing Lehman Weil’s “Gift to the City of New York”. He was compelled to create his Stop-Go Signal after he witnessed a small child run down by an automobile in downtown Manhattan. In his presentation to the mayor, he read a poem he had written about the risks posed by the automobile.

Lehman Weil’s pride and joy was an early airplane, his Ornithopter. In some drawer I have his manuscript “The Story of the Weil Flying Machine”, which, in lovely embellished cursive, he wrote in anticipation of great success (and fame and fortune). Which never happened. But he didn’t give up. Here is my great-grandfather and his Ornithopter:Maybe there is a gene for quixotic enterprise. You think?