John Oakes: The reader’s publisher
Veteran publisher and co-founder of OR Books, John Oakes is often credited with revolutionising the world of independent publishing. Having recently revived the popular online magazine the Evergreen Review, the founding director of the New School Publishing Institute, New York will soon be visiting Chennai for a talk organized by Tara Books. Ahead of his talk ‘Evolving in Place’, the New York-based publisher chats about his story, the changing book consumer, and what lies ahead.
Tell us about your experience working with the Associated Press and International Herald Tribune?
Working for the AP was a great way to learn a bit about the susceptibility of journalism to marketing. I saw firsthand how reporters and editors are influenced by press releases and invitations. At the IHT I wasn't on staff, but a freelancer; there the great lesson was the astonishing impact an article could have. I remember covering the visit of U.S. Senator Charles Grassley to Paris in about 1986, and I'm afraid writing somewhat mockingly about his missteps. His staff was furious with me, but there was nothing they could do.
How did the concept of OR Books come to exist?
I'd been working in conventional publishing for over twenty years. But large or small, all the different publishers I worked with, consistently faced the same apparently intractable challenges: how to compete with the many other publishers, how to get attention in the media, how to battle the twin evils of excessive returns and high discounts. We were out of touch with our consumers – the readers. About the time I was becoming convinced book publishing, at least in the U.S., was doomed, this weird thing called the Internet came to light. Here was a way we could sell directly to the reader, and that is the focus of OR Books.
What is the role of a publisher in today’s societal context?
Publishers serve any number of roles. We provide entertainment, instruction, criticism... it depends on the individual publisher's goals. Some of India's most interesting companies – Tara Books, Navayana, Speaking Tiger, Fingerprint, Seagull – combine several of these elements.
Tell us about some of your future projects.
I'm working on an exciting project with an Italian philosopher named Riccardo Manzotti entitled "The Spread Mind." It's a discussion of how we humans think – Manzotti, a professor at the University of Milan, takes a holistic view, arguing that a thought is not a distinct "thing" but part of a mental ecosystem, so to speak. It grew out of his work with AI as a Fulbright Scholar at MIT.
Another manuscript I look forward to editing is by Thomas Drake, a former NSA officer whom Edward Snowden often cites as an inspiration. I view these people as heroes of civil liberties.
The event will be held on Saturday, June 17, 7pm at Book Building, Thiruvanmiyur
Details: 044 4260 1033.