New ebook publisher from publishing veterans with novel ideas

John Oakes sez, "Article in New York Business describing OR Books, a new sort of publishing house being started up by two longtime indy publishers. We plan to take existing tech and apply it to old-fashioned publishing values--and to commit to massive marketing for our authors, and to do so within a progressive framework, releasing fiction and nonfiction."
Believing that e-books and print-on-demand technology have reached a tipping point with the public, Messrs. Oakes and Robinson will launch OR Books this fall as a Web-only house selling straight to consumers. The plan is to operate at a drastically reduced cost--blowing up a model whose inefficiencies have helped make this past year so painful for publishers large and small. The Association of American Publishers reports that revenues from adult hardcovers fell 16% through April, while revenues from adult trade paperbacks plunged 26%, compared with the same period a year ago.

Some specialty publishers have built businesses around e-books, but OR would be the first general-interest press to try the model. The partners are betting that the new-media opportunities that all book people are rushing to exploit will let a startup thrive even in a dismal retail environment.

"The whole system of stuffing as many books as you can into stores, whether or not buyers want them--it's broken," says Mr. Oakes, who co-founded and ran the left-leaning Four Walls Eight Windows for 17 years. The press disappeared in an indie shakeout in 2007. A stint as executive editor at Atlas & Co. ended last fall when the small publisher ran into financing problems.

John published my first short story collection, as well as books by Octavia Butler, Abbie Hoffman, Kathe Koja, Rudy Rucker and many other writers whom I adore and admire. This sounds like a great, exciting project!

Betting on e-books

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  1. That is both correct use of the English language and accurate to the content of the post, if you happened to read it, Jessemoya.

  2. It is a correct title, but also quite hard to parse…

    Anyway, sounds like a great concept, especially coming from people with a background like theirs. They say nothing about DRM, but I’m sure people like Cory and Rudy will convince them not to use DRM if they choose that direction.

    The only thing I’m worried about is the price:

    “Print-on-demand trade paperbacks will sell for $15 apiece, but the partners have yet to decide what to charge for e-books. Typically, prices for new titles range from around $26, or the same as a hardcover, to the discounted $9.99 that Amazon charges for most of its Kindle titles.”

    The paperback prize sounds reasonable, but an e-book for the same price as the dead-tree version doesn’t seem very attractive to me. It should be possible to get the price at least lower then the printed version because of the savings in printing, shipping, etc and still make more per e-book sold then per ‘normal’ book sold.

    But let’s not get overly pessimistic.. I hope they succeed and I also hope they will try out some creative pricing-schemes, like a discount on the dead-tree version if you’ve bought the e-book or subscriptions to certain authors or topics.

  3. “…The whole system of stuffing as many books as you can into stores, whether or not buyers want them–it’s broken…”

    Interesting statement. What are their views on DRM [as another broken (from the start) system]?

    “…Believing that e-books and print-on-demand technology have reached a tipping point with the public…”

    Personally, I would like to be able to buy an ebook along with it’s dead tree version as an analog backup for a [reasonably priced] combined purchase. That’s “my” tipping point…

  4. @wrickwrackscar

    I agree that a break in the hardcover price would be nice, but as a long-time publishing employee, I know that the unit cost for every printed book is pretty negligible. It’s like that old joke about a car only having $137 worth of raw materials in it. Most of the costs associated with making the book are elsewhere. I haven’t even been involved in that end of things lately, and given that a lot of actual printing has been shipped off to China, the actual manufacturing costs are probably even lower than what I remember.

    That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the costs for creating and maintaining the e-side of the business more than make up for the savings in dead-tree printing. The e-costs are something that, until very recently, were exactly $0 for most publishers, because they had no electronic product to speak of, aside from the occasional CD-ROM stuffed into the back of a textbook.

    This is exciting, though. I’d love to soon be in a position of having my choice of paper vs. e-book for every single book published. We’re nowhere near that yet, but I’m hopeful.

  5. @bookguy

    It’s true that the physical aspect is only part of the cost, but the price difference between hardcovers and paperbacks ($11 in this case) suggests that it’s slightly more then negligible.

    Swapping out the physical aspect for an e-equivalent should in theory lead to a lower total cost by cutting out the printing, shipping, store space etc. But there will also be a drop in revenue from ‘piracy’ and the loss of adspace in stores. And there might possibly be fewer or smaller bookstores left :(

    So, yes, it is exciting to see if and how this works out. I’m sure a lot of people here will be keeping an eye on them and will be trying them out when they go live. I hope they take a look at how Stardock Games approached the switch to online distribution, I think they’re on the right track regarding both drm and pricing.

  6. #5 and #6, one thing you’re forgetting is that in order to get per-copy print costs low enough to make a book viable, the publisher has to invest lots of money in a big print run, warehouse the books, etc. And then the only way to make money is to sell the whole run + of that big number of books

    With POD, you may pay more per book for the printing, and yes you have editorial costs, but by scaling down you can be profitable more quickly and easily and don’t have to worry about cash flow as much. A friend and I have started a business with a similar concept, 671 Press, but we’re publishing mostly niche books.

  7. “The whole system of stuffing as many books as you can into stores, whether or not buyers want them–it’s broken,”

    On the other hand, some of us really, really love to walk down aisles of books. Preferably used, haphazardly stacked books, aisles that are just barely large enough to permit two people to squeeze past each other, and with a cat or two lounging around the place being cute and fuzzy.

  8. @7
    That would make both the e-book and the POD side more economical. The money saved could be split between the authors, publishers and readers and everyone will be happy, except for the bookstore owners.

    @8
    It will be a shame to see more and more bookstores disappearing, like the record-stores are now. I hope they find ways to stay in business and else we’ll have to do with libraries, they’ll stick around a bit longer then bookstores, I guess.

  9. I think it’s exciting that people are looking at starting from scratch with publishing. Books are evolving, and sometimes it’s easier to realize the benefits of new technology without all the old-technology DNA hanging around.

    I also hope that this new publisher a) prices their ebooks reasonably and b) pays attention to “print” quality. I blogged about this today. Some publishers are slapping old titles onto the Kindle bookstore without any QA. If it weren’t for the Free Sample feature, I would be livid. As it is, I’m merely annoyed.

    I will watch watch happens with eagerness and hope for the best.

  10. First of all — good luck to that e-publishing start-up.
    This kind of publishing may really take off if Kindle (et al.) ownership reaches the requisite level. I believe it will when the devices become flatter and cheaper.
    Publishers face a similar problem to musicians and music labels — the sheer quantity of output is not going to go away just because brick and mortar and dead trees are no longer central.
    This implies a need for continued massive promotion costs and/or ingenuity including, as with newspapers and music, a constant search for a viral hook that will make the merchandise stand out on YouTube and other media.
    I also think that the healthiest medium will be drama (films and TV series) as in that field there is an expanding demand for content because of cable.

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