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From Frankfurt: OR Books Preaches Elegant, Direct Model

By Chad W. Post

Speaking at both Tools of Change and the International Digital Rights Symposium, John Oakes of the newly launched OR Books elucidated his business model. Compared to traditional publishing structures, its simplicity is quite revolutionary.

Launching last fall, OR Books has a few specific strategies: it offers its authors relatively low advances (and high royalties), edits the books quickly so that they can be released months after completion (instead of years), spends the bulk of its budget on marketing each title, and licenses titles to traditional publishers. The big difference between OR and other indie presses is that OR ignores chain stores, Amazon and the like, only selling its books directly through its Website. This practice truly upends the industry’s beliefs at a time when most other publishers are trying to figure out how to make their e-books available through as many distribution channels as possible.

Every title that OR publishes is available through its site in paperback and non-DRM e-book formats. (There’s also a bundle option through which a reader can get both the paperback and e-book at a sizable discount.) As Oakes pointed out, the benefits of this system check a number of boxes on a publisher’s wish list: no returns, much more accurate pre-publication print runs, and profits that go straight to the publisher and author. OR Books author Douglas Rushkoff pointed this out in a recent interview with Publishing Perspectives, but rather than focusing on advance sales to a handful of large customers, OR Books is focused on selling real copies to actual consumers.

The OR Books business model is deceptive in its simplicity. In many ways, it’s a throwback to a time before supply-chain intermediaries permanently altered the bookselling business—a time when publishers were also printers and bookstores. It’s a model that—if successful in the long run—thrives on both satisfying the needs of customers and maximizing the publisher’s return. (It’s an obvious thing to point out, but OR doesn’t have to pay sales reps, or attend sales conferences, etc.) Although many authors and agents have been amenable to this model, Oakes said that a number of editors at traditional publishing houses are completely baffled and antagonistic toward such a strange business model.

Which might be why so many speeches at TOC Frankfurt revolved around the need for publishers to adapt by focusing more on the needs of consumers and less on how to retain old standards.
Andrew Savikas’s keynote looked at the intertwined evolution of form and format and the need to find better customer-friendly formats (i.e., apps) for things like guidebooks and other “database” titles. His underlying point—that readers still desire traditional content (classified listings, movie information) but in new, more convenient formats—really set the tone for the conference.

Pablo Arrieta’s presentation on readership in Colombia, and the restriction of content due to the lack of an iTunes/iBookstore in Latin America, was illuminating in its global perspective.
Sheila Bounford of NBNi also discussed the need for publishers to reconnect with readers, resonating with the theme of the day.

It’s true that TOC—or any call for “change” in the publishing industry, really—is mostly focused on implementing new technologies to increase revenue. That said, along with this expansion into enhanced e-books and video games comes a parallel change in philosophical outlook—which may, in the long run, have an even larger impact on the industry as a whole.

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4 Comments

  1. Carin Kuoni
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    It seems so obvious; amazing no one thought of it before.

  2. Posted October 12, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    One thing I wonder about is how this model, if adopted widely, would affect independent bookstores, which do offer many potentials for cross-pollination, interaction, community-building, and learning that chain stores rarely provide — or, at least a few independent bookstores, since many of the larger ones are barely different from the chains…

  3. Posted October 15, 2010 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    They have thought about it before, at least in the UK. One publisher I know brought out a year book (£25) which sold 5000 in the trade. Fed up with the grasping discounts demanded he withdrew it from the trade and sold it through his website alone. The result? Sales of 3000 and an increased profit of £15,000. Simple but very daring.

  4. Stephen Smith
    Posted October 19, 2010 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Mattilda,

    You pose a very good question. Can this model be leveraged to the advantage of the independent book seller or is it competition? As it is a fairly new and emerging trend, it would be great to hear from independent sellers to find out how they would envision themselves playing in this space. A given is there are greater margins to share between fewer players. How could the independents participate?
    Anyone?

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