In September, John Oakes ’83, a veteran book publisher based in New York, returned to the Princeton campus for “Careers Beyond Wall Street,” a panel sponsored by Princeton Progressives. He described a shrinking industry that is, well, still stuck in the Stone Age.
“I think going into book publishing — certainly the traditional side of it — is tantamount to apprenticing yourself to a potter. Or a stone carver,” he said.
Book publishing is “quaint, time-consuming, frustrating, and occasionally thrilling,” he said — and it’s in the midst of a massive transformation.
As the co-publisher at OR Books, an independent press that sells e-books and paperback books direct to readers, and prints on demand, Oakes is shaping that transformation, one book at a time. In the coming year, Oakes also plans to re-launch The Evergreen Review, a groundbreaking literary magazine, with Editor-in-Chief Dale Peck.
The Evergreen Review, created by Barney Rosset, the late publisher of Grove Press, published a sea of cultural legends — including Susan Sontag, Malcolm X, Jean-Paul Sartre, Vladimir Nabokov, Allen Ginsberg, and Samuel Beckett — in its original run from 1957 to 1973.
Oakes first met Rosset, Beckett’s American publisher, in 1982, when he found himself knee-deep in his English department senior thesis.
“I knew vaguely of this mysterious figure called ‘Beckett’ who people found mightily impressive, both as person and as thinker,” Oakes recalled.
“At the time, I was probably more familiar with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated by Henry II’s knights, than Samuel Beckett. I needed to straighten out who was whom, and so I chose to do a thesis on the sainted Irishman, Samuel. I plunged in, really knowing very little about him,” Oakes said with a laugh.
As a senior at Princeton, the next step seemed obvious. “I decided I should be in touch with the writer himself,” he said. Rosset “must have been amused by my audacity,” Oakes said, but the publisher passed along Oakes’ questions to Beckett, who answered several. The thesis that came of it won the Charles William Kennedy thesis prize.
After graduation, Oakes freelanced for Le Monde, the Associated Press, and the International Herald Tribune from Paris. He eventually landed an AP job in New Orleans, writing wire stories, which “meant that you had to have a very high output of articles, not unlike people working for places like Gawker Media today,” he said.
Less than a year after moving to New Orleans, Oakes picked up the phone to a voice that would change the rest of his career. It was Rosset, who offered Oakes a job as an assistant editor at Grove in New York. “I think I was relieved — the slightly slower pace of book publishing is more my style,” Oakes said.
After working for two years at Grove, Oakes founded an independent press, Four Walls Eight Windows, in 1987. In 1995, he took over as publisher for that press until 2004.
In 2009, Oakes founded a new publishing house, OR Books, with Colin Robinson. As a fledging press, they saw an opportunity to reimagine sales and distribution — elements that remain fundamental to the business of book publishing.
“Six years ago, we decided to place our emphasis on selling direct to consumers — at the time something of a revolutionary idea, I suppose — and to only sell, including to bookstores, to people who pre-pay,” Oakes said.
“That can limit your sales,” he admits, “but it also takes you out of the collections business, which is a very good thing.”
OR Books publishes about 25 books a year. The press also works with other publishers (called OR Partners), including The Nation, The Big Roundtable, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.