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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 6 (July 1999)
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ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEW:
with John Oakes, publisher of Four Walls Eight Windows

by Jeff VanderMeer
Copyright 1998 Jeff VanderMeer

[ED NOTE: The following interview is a preview of a special Ministry of Whimsy subsite to debut in November. This subsite will consist of interviews with over 40 independent publishers on the subject of independent publishing as opposed to commercial publishing—the inherent problems, creative solutions, the influence of superstores like Barnes & Noble, and other topics. The subsite will be designed by Jeremy Spinks, designer of the Ministry main site, and will be creatively structured so that those who access the subsite can either read each interview with each publisher, or the multiple answers to the same question by all 40+ interviewees. In addition to the interviews, there will be various sidebar articles by such notables as Lance Olsen, G. W. Clift, Brian Evenson, and others. -- Jeff VanderMeer]

What is your particular editorial slant or philosophy? In other words, what makes your press different from other presses?

Four Walls is committed to progressive politics, cutting-edge literature, and additionally is for-profit. That particular combination makes us unique, in my eyes.

What have been your biggest critical and popular successes and what differentiates them from your less successful projects? (Which brings us to another question--How do you define success for your press?)

Our biggest overall successes, in terms of sales, have been in the realm of nonfiction -- popular science. In terms of critical attention, I'd say writers like Paul Di Filippo, Michael Brodsky and Gordon Lish put us on the map. How do I define success? When a book I like particularly doesn't lose us money.

In looking at the major professional houses (Harcourt Brace, etc.) what, in recent years, do you perceive as their strengths and weaknesses--what do they do well, and what do they do poorly?

I don't look much at them. When I do, I feel what they're doing is often comparable to what we do -- except they have a lot more money behind them, and often they're nonetheless doing a worse job.

The proliferation of chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, at the expense of independent bookstores, has been criticized quite a bit in recent years--although B&N, for example, does deal with small presses. What, exactly, are the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with the chains. And have you had to change the way you do business?

I'm sure other people will cover this. But, for the record, the chains' proliferation has also been at our expense, in that the returns rate has been driven up astronomically.

Relatedly, perhaps, what are some of the biggest problems you face as an independent? Please share some of your more creative solutions.

Problem: getting the goddamned critics to pay attention. (And I don't just mean the Sunday N.Y. Times, either. Online "Salon" is one of the worst offenders.) Solution: kill them all.

Based on your own experience and knowledge, what role do you see independent presses playing in the next 10 years, and how does this role relate to trends among the large publishers?

I think we'll continue to attract brand-name authors away from the larger publishers, for any number of reasons. I think we'll see more of the huge houses falter and contract, or disappear entirely.

What projects are you currently working on, and what can we expect to see from your press in the next year?

In the fall of 1998, look for new tomes from Paul Di Filippo, Kathe Koja, and Brian Evenson (the last two authors are new to our list). In the future, look for Rudy Rucker and Lucius Shepard.

John Oakes is publisher of Four Walls Eight Windows and has been for the last

three years. He started his career as a reporter for the Associated Press and

then worked as an editor at Grove Press under the legendary Barney "Mad Dog"

Rosset before starting Four Walls Eight Windows with a partner in 1987. Website: http://www.fourwallseightwindows.com


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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