Interview With a Gatekeeper: OR Books’ Colin Robinson
A Progressive Publisher Seeking an Alternative Way of Doing Business
I spoke with Colin Robinson, co-founder and editor of OR Books the day before the 2016 presidential election. We talked about politics, books, and his philosophy connecting the two; that OR Books’ progressive publishing model reflects progressive politics and culture and vice-versa. The uppercase “OR” reflects the last names of its founders, John Oakes and Colin Robinson. Simultaneously, the lowercase conjunction “or” also expresses their belief that there’s an alternative to conventional publishing, a standard not just reflected in their titles, but in their printing, promotion, sales, and turnaround times from draft manuscript to finished product.
Kerri Arsenault: What are your thoughts about tomorrow’s upcoming election?
Colin Robinson: I’m rather keen Trump doesn’t win, but I’m also not of this view that America is standing on the verge of a fascist takeover. That’s just not a realistic appreciation of the situation. And I also don’t think if Hillary wins that things will settle back down to business as usual. What’s been revealed in this election is that the center isn’t really holding in America. Bernie Sanders was an example of that and Trump is also an example. If Obama hasn’t been able to hold the center together . . . sure, I have issues with Obama’s politics, but as a politician he’s the most brilliant politician I’ve ever seen. That guy is never off; he’s scandal-free, smart, funny, moving, a really, really brilliant politician and he hasn’t been able to stop this process. So if he hasn’t been able to, I don’t think Hillary can. She’s a weaker politician than he is, and she also comes with so much more baggage. So I think this division in American politics is going to get worse.
KA: It seems like the middle of everything is gone out of America, including the middle class.
CR: I find it quite interesting that if you look at publishing or reading habits, the same thing is going on; the middle is emptying out. Many people are reading few books at the top, and fewer people are reading a huge number of books at the bottom. That middle ground—where new ideas usually emerge—is being emptied out.
KA: So perhaps publishing is reflecting our society?
CR: I’ve been reading Tom Frank’s book Listen, Liberal. He basically says it’s not really the 90%, but probably 15-20% of the American population, who are well-off professionals and quite liberal around social issues. But they aren’t liberal about serious redistribution of wealth. If they were, they’d have to give up their very nice houses, private schools for their kids, and so on. If you ask them about racism or gay rights or feminism, they probably would tick all those boxes. The self-righteousness of that group, who are very present at the moment behind Hillary, those who are telling people you’ve got to vote—it feels like a kind of moral injunction from people who have done fine as a result of globalization. Their lives, if anything, have improved. I can understand the working, lower-middle class of America. Globalization has really wrecked their communities and dashed the hopes of their children of owning houses, or getting well-paid, secure jobs, or even having libraries, or community centers, or nice shopping streets. All across America those things are gone. I can understand when they hear someone like Leonardo DiCaprio saying, You’ve got to vote! they’re like, Fuck you, it’s fine for you. Don’t simultaneously take the moral high ground and lead this lifestyle that is extremely comfortable for you but isn’t for us. I can see why that drives people nuts. It’s in large part what Trump’s supporters are angry about: that combination of a rather smug, well-off, professional middle class person preaching about how tolerant we all have to be.
KA: I know people like that in Maine, where I grew up, who don’t want to be told what to do by someone who has no understanding of their lives.
CR: I was in the Britain when Brexit happened, and the first thing the, oh, I don’t know what you want to call them—the Metropolitan elite, the chattering class—said was that these people don’t have a high education. The subtext of that comment is: these people are basically stupid and don’t know what’s good for them. Maybe they don’t know what’s good for them. It’s unclear, and I’m not sure why the Brexit vote came about. It’s complicated. What I do think is that they know globalization is something good, but it has not been good for them. They are probably taking the view that if you really don’t have anything, then any change is better than things staying as they are. If you embrace any change, well, it might be better because it can’t be much worse. For a lot of people, it feels like that, so they’re like, kick this over and let’s have something new. I can understand it.
I’m a socialist, which encompasses a broad span of things. I don’t believe the climate for capitalism that the Republicans and Democrats have managed over the last 40 to 50 years, since the 1970s, is sustainable. I don’t think it’s working for the majority of the people. So something new is going to come along, and it might be worse. It could be a really nasty racist, xenophobic society, more than it is already. But it also might be better. Bernie got 13 million votes. If you had told me a year ago that someone who is openly a socialist would get 13 million votes in an American presidential primary, I would have said you are smoking crack.
KA: He showed us that socialism isn’t our grandparents’ socialism.
CR: Right. Even though he is kind of a grandfather. It’s also that for young people, things like free healthcare, free education, minimum wage, the right of unions to organize—those seem like quite old ideas to people my age. They come out of the postwar consensus. But for people who are 20, those ideas are very new. They haven’t heard people talking about those things in mainstream American politics in their lifetime. I don’t think it’s really appropriate to call those things old ideas or new ideas. I think there is a morality attached to them.
Jeremy Corbyn, who I’m publishing a book about in the UK, is someone I really admire. One of the things he always says is that we should not tolerate living in a society where people are living on the street. On one level, that seems quite banal. You think, obviously. For young people, that kind of simple, ethical statement of what is acceptable in a decent humane society is actually very powerful. People identify with it. They don’t see it as banal. They see it as a kind of fundamental truth.
KA: I saw it in Sweden when I lived there, the lack of homeless people. For the United States, a country that is so much bigger than Sweden . . .
CR: And much wealthier. I don’t know the per capita income but the wealth of the United States is enormous. It’s the wealthiest country on earth.
KA: So we should be able to do more, logically.
CR: It’s abysmal. And it’s gotten substantially worse. I’ve been engaged in politics all my life, especially in political publishing. Not everything’s gotten worse, obviously. On social issues, we are living in less homophobic or racist societies than when I was a youngster, although these remain big issues. Most of my life I’ve been living in a state of permanent war, the planet being wrecked probably irreparably, and the wealthy getting ever wealthier while huge numbers of people slide into misery. Frankly, it sucks. If that system is coming to an end, well, I’ll take my chances that what is going to replace it will be better. I’m not sure it will be better, but if it’s worse, that will be terrifying.
KA: If you were a betting man?
CR: I would take my chances on embracing something new. I’m not going to mourn the collapse of that neo-liberal class that’s been in place since Reagan. It’s been a terrible, terrible system. I’m glad it’s in crisis.
KA: Speaking of living your whole life in war and misery, how did you get into publishing?
CR: I went to University in London and studied philosophy and Western European Government. Then I went to Faber & Faber and worked as a production assistant and publicity manager there. I remember I worked on Peter Carey’s first collection of short stories and really got to know him a little bit. That must have been in 1975 or 1976? From there I went to Weindenfeld and Nicolson, where I worked in the academic department. Then I went to Verso, where I started off in marketing and then became the Managing Director. I was at Verso for 17 years. It was really a fantastic experience. I published people who were real heroes of mine.
KA: Like who?
CR: Christopher Hitchens was one. I published five or six of his books. He became a bit odd later on in life when he started supporting George W. Bush, and when he became very ferocious supporter of the Iraq war. That was difficult. Although I still saw him after, we just didn’t talk about those things, otherwise it would have been very tense. He was a great conversationalist and also a really kind person. He always made me feel extremely welcome. He was great fun, too. I did three little books with him that were sort of amazing. The first one was on Henry Kissinger called The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a critique of Kissinger’s foreign policy.
KA: Does Kissinger live part-time in Northwest Connecticut, near where I live?
CR: That may be the case. There was a library in Connecticut that invited Henry Kissinger to come and open a new extension to their library. And the local bookstore, which was obviously quite progressive, was so incensed they invited Hitchens to come on the same night and do an event at their store. Kissinger’s security people found out about this rival event taking place in the town—and it was quite a small town—and decided from a security point of view it wasn’t a great idea for Kissinger to be opening the library, so he pulled out. So there was no one to open the library. The library contacted us and said, would Christopher Hitchens be prepared to open the library? And he did! He opened the library and also did the bookstore event and wrote a column later titled, “The Night I Ate Henry Kissinger’s Dinner” [laughs]. The next book of his we published was called The Missionary Position, which was about about Mother Teresa.
KA: Good title.
CR: Christopher originally wanted to call it Holy Cow, but we said that was sexist so we switched to The Missionary Position.
KA: Which, if you dig into that term a little, could also be construed as . . .
CR: God knows what the idea was behind it, but it was fraught on a number of accounts. It was a smart critique of the sanctimonious nature of Mother Teresa. The third book we did, which was the most controversial and has some bearing on the present moment, was No One Left to Lie To, which was about the Clintons. It was right at the beginning of the period where Christopher was moving to the right. It wasn’t really clear what was happening at the time, but he seemed to be obsessed by the fact that Bill Clinton was a sexual predator and likely a rapist. I did think it was odd, but the book was a cogently argued left critique of the Clintons. We put it out in the run up to Bill Clinton’s second election when he was facing impeachment. We had a big party at Pravda, which was McNally’s club/restaurant place on Lafayette. Two to three hundred people showed up. When Christopher spoke, he started taking about Clinton, how he thought he was a sexual predator and a rapist and everything. People started booing and hissing. It’s the only time I’ve organized a launch party where the guests turned on the person who invited them [laughs]. Christopher was loving it. He was stirring it up as much as possible.
You have to parallel it to where we are now. I published Doug Henwood’s book at the end of last year on Clinton, which is a quite sharp critique of her, and we just announced we were going to publish Hillary Clinton’s Goldman Sachs’s speeches that WikiLeaks released, with an introduction by Julian Assange and annotations by Doug Henwood. There will be a lot of contextualization.
KA: Wouldn’t that be a copyright issue?
CR: We checked with our lawyers to be sure we were entitled to do it. I think there is some argument as to whether this is legal because her speeches were stolen and they were private speeches. But our lawyer said if the annotation is extensive, which it will be, and given that she is a figure of great public interest, then fair use applies. That would be the rubric under which we will publish it.
KA: Tell me about OR books. You are a for profit venture, right?
CRL: In theory, we are for profit.
KA: Is that even possible in publishing?
CR: The interesting thing is if you look at publishing over the past few years, profits for publishing companies, especially the big publishing companies, have all the markets. Sales of books have fallen, but publishing profits have not. The reason for that is because the larger companies have saved money by cutting mid list publishing.
KA: Here we are talking about the gutting of the middle again.
CR: Yeah. Agents have told me that advances on mid list books have fallen by 40-60%. It’s a big problem. If you are a professional writer and you’re only getting half of what you earned previously for writing a book, what are you going to do? Write it twice as quickly?
KA: Or half as good.
CR: Or half as good. More likely what will happen is a slew of people who were able to learn a living as professional writers are going to be forced out of that job market, and writing will increasingly be dominated by people who have income from somewhere else, either inherited or from an academic job.
KA: That’s already happening.
CR: Yes, it’s really a problem.
KA: Not just with writers but with publishers, too. To work in publishing is difficult if you are in the middle, so to speak.
CR: Paul Yamazaki at City Lights was saying to me, if you look at writing today, there’s this kind of effervescence of minority writing—and there’s certainly more diverse voices in what’s being published—but if you look at editors, the gatekeepers—if anything, it’s become less diverse. I mean, how many black editors are there in New York? Four? It’s so appalling. You can see why it happens. With rents the way they are in the city, that more than anything else. You can’t really work in publishing if you aren’t in New York, or at least it’s quite difficult. Sure there are publishers in Minnesota and the Bay area, but the heart of the business is in New York, so you’ve got to live in the city. If you are paying $2,500 a month in rent, how can you do that? How can you do that on a publishing salary? You can’t. So the people who are coming into publishing now, who are assistants or interns, have some wealth in their families who are capable of supporting them.
KA: How does OR fit into that?
CR: Well, we don’t pay very well, and we’ve had people come to work for us who come from somewhere else in the US because they want to work in publishing. They sleep on a couch or a friend’s floor for six months. In the end they get exhausted by it and often go back to where they came from. It’s very sad. In 20 years, the people who are going to be the people running the industry and have probably all come from Sarah Lawrence or Brown—not that they’re necessarily bad people; actually many are very smart and decent people—they come from a very narrow social background. Surely in the end it has to have a social impact on the way the industry is run and what gets published.
KA: Is then our literature a reflection of our culture or is it determining our culture?
CR: It’s both. It’s dialectical.
KA: Tell me about working with Noam Chomsky.
CR: I published a few books by him. Daunting. That was a nerve wracking experience.
KA: How does one edit Chomsky?
CR: With great humility.
KA: It must be like getting into an argument with a mirror.
CR: I remember sitting with him at MIT where he was teaching. He really likes to talk and he’s interested in ideas, obviously. That’s what’s wonderful about him. He doesn’t tolerate fools gladly, but if you have something interesting to say, he really wants to know about it. So we started having a discussion about whether politics could be a science. He was very skeptical about it. He said, give me one scientific precept that’s got any bearing on politics. I said, what about the idea of dialectical materialism? So we got into this discussion about Hegel and Kant and at a certain point [laughs] I’m sitting here thinking, I’m discussing Hegel with Noam Chomsky! This is the most intimidating thing I’ve done in my entire life!
I also published someone who was quite close to Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein. Quite a controversial figure. We did a book of his called The Holocaust Industry. He argued that senior figures in the Jewish community in the United States were actually doing quite well personally out of the way that the Holocaust was being memorialized and how the compensation being pad to victims was in part ending up in the wrong pockets.
KA: You don’t shy away from difficult or complex topics.
CR: I remember Finkelstein calling me up the next day after that book came out. He was reviewed in the New York Times. He said he’d actually done an analysis of the review of The Holocaust Industry and compared it with the review that they had given Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and they had been considerably kinder to Hitler!
Finkelstein also wrote about Israel and Palestine, which is one of those areas that’s sort of a touchstone. You can write books about slavery or gay rights or lots of things, but if you get into Israel and Palestine, suddenly people back off. It’s such a contentious thing.
KA: The situation in Palestine has a parallel to what you were saying, that you lived “in a state of permanent war” and “huge numbers of people sliding into misery.” For Palestinians born after 1967, that’s all they know, too. Misery.
CR: When I look back on my life—I was 16 in 1968. Just when I was at my most open to the kind of magical, big ideas of the world, when your head is exploding with how extraordinary ideas can be, there was this worldwide revolutionary moment at Columbia University, or Mexico, or Paris, of course, you know. I remember we occupied our high school then near Liverpool. Our two demands were one, we wanted to be allowed to smoke, and two, to grow our hair long. And if you told me at that time that what we were doing was connected to what was going on at Paris at the Sorbonne, I would have had no idea. I didn’t see those connections at all. It was the zeitgeist, and it made me realize that another world is possible. It’s a way of organizing, fundamentally.
Of course what happened then was from that point on we kind of closed down. Until maybe recently, I don’t think young people had the thought that another world is possible. They basically think, this world we are in is the only world. I think Slavoj Žižek said once that people find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. There’s some truth there. Is it better to have had that magical window at the age of 16, to know another world is possible and spend the rest of my life being basically disappointed? Or is it better not to have had that hope in the first place? I think I feel very lucky to have had that moment.
KA: That magical moment of realizing other worlds exist must have in some way compelled you to do what you are doing now at OR Books. You are leaning into, for lack of a better word, the zeitgeist.
CR: I hope I’m not being a doctrinaire as a publisher. Obviously, I’m on the left, but I would publish books if they were interesting or intelligent even if they were pitching against the left or didn’t have any politics at all.
KA: To switch topics for a minute; most of your books are print on demand, right?
CR: We only print on demand. And we pretty much only sell direct to readers.
KA: That’s different than the typical publishing model. Why did you choose to publish this way?
CR: After Verso, I was at the New Press for a few years and then I was at Scribner until 2008.
KA: Until publishing had a massive bloodletting.
CR: Yes, I knew I would be one of the first to go. I think I must have been the least profitable editor Scribner ever hired [laughs]. I was proud of the books I was doing, but they were not working for Scribner. I think I was in my mid fifties, and the industry was in turmoil, and I thought, I’ll never find another editing job again. So John Oakes and I found each other. We were kindred spirits. We got together and thought, let’s start our own publishing company. Then we got all tabula rasa, we can do whatever we want. There’s something very liberating about that. When we looked at the publishing we wanted to do—mid-list, intelligent publishing; not pot boilers, but not specialist texts either—the market was so difficult. If you are publishing conventionally, you’re giving a place like Barnes and Noble something like 50 percent of the price. Then as a publisher you would be getting 25 percent of what’s left. Then you’re taking returns. There’s no money left. You can produce the book and pay for overheads, but marketing? There’s no money left for marketing at all.
These companies are not just cutting author advances, but they are cutting the mid-list, the marketing budget, the staffing. They are just putting books out, and if they work, then they will put more resources behind them. Generally, they don’t work and those books are abandoned. It was sort of like, here today, gone tomorrow [laughs]. We thought, what kind of model could avoid that problem and would allow us to actually market these books? The strategy we came up with is that we would try to sell direct, as much as possible. That way you can keep the names and addresses of your customers, which means we are often selling books to people who have already bought books from us. That means you are making a shift from conventional publishing where you’re trying to find an audience for your book, to what we’re doing, which is find books for our audience. We are starting with the reader rather than the writer. That’s not to say writers aren’t incredibly important; they are. But we’re not being paid by the writers. The people who are paying us are the people who are reading. So we see ourselves as representing this group of readers, who we hope trust us sufficiently, to feel that if we say to them, we think this is a book you might be interested in, then they’ll take that seriously. It’s like hand-selling but on the Internet.
KA: How do you get people to your website to know about your books and then subsequently buy them?
CR: We decided early on we weren’t going to make our website a destination. The amount of work that it would take to do that. I mean, look at Lit Hub. It’s great but the amount of work that goes into Lit Hub is enormous. We try to go to the audience where they are on the Internet rather than getting them to come to us. We really grill the author; where is your audience on the Internet? What sites are they on? Which Facebook pages are they looking at? We go to those places and put messages on those spaces. They have to come back to our site eventually, but they saw our book where they are, not where we are. It’s time consuming work. It’s not cheap either. But if you are getting the full price of the book back, well. Take a $20 book. If you sell that at Barnes and Noble, they take $10. Then the distributor would take $2.50 of what’s left and probably spend another $2.50 on returns. So perhaps $15 has been spent on distribution. If you sell it direct to readers, you get the whole $20 and can use $15 to promote it. You can practically hire someone to knock on doors.
KA: What a great idea! Like a milkman or an Encyclopedia salesperson.
CR: The other thing is that when you’re selling direct, you get rid of seasons, you get rid of catalogs, sales conferences, sales reps. I’ve known lots of sales reps in my time and they are generally great people, smart people, but so are book buyers. In a chain where the editor knows the book intimately, they have to present it to a salesforce who are probably looking at thousands of books, and they are also describing it to them in a minute or two. After that, they have to present 2,000 books to a bookseller and they have a minute to present it to them . . .
KA: When editors talk about their books and their authors, their passion is evident.
CR: In the way we’re publishing at OR, we are talking about the books directly to the consumer, straight from the author to the editor to the reader. It makes more sense. We also only print on demand. The way it works is that the orders come through our website and the system routes the order to the printer nearest to them. The only deal we have with the printers if they have to ship the book within 36 hours. They decide how many to print. They’re printing digitally not offset, but they’re not printing one at a time. If they are getting a hundred orders a day, they’re probably going to print 500. If they are getting two orders a day, they are probably going to print ten. The unsold copies don’t belong to us, they belong to them. Oddly, with our paperbacks, we never own these books; they’re either owned by the printer or by the buyer. So no warehouse, no overprinting. We say we’ve reached the point of no returns. I mean, where would the returns go? We don’t have a warehouse and my apartment is tiny.
KA: Are there any problems with this model?
CR: The downside might be regarded as antagonistic toward bookstores, because we are selling direct. I like bookstores as much as anyone. They add substantially to the quality of people’s lives. If you have a bookstore in your community, it’s a great resource, so that’s an issue. What we do is, if the book starts to work through our direct selling and internet promotions, then we look for a partner to sell into the stores. My argument is that if the book is doing fantastic on the internet and you’re putting resources into marketing to get a buzz going within your core readers, then you’re only putting books into stores that are working. I would argue that’s better for bestsellers. It’s a way of stopping this tide of books sitting on shelves for a few months, not selling, and then being sent back. Who gains from that?
Our first book, Going Rouge, made the New York Times bestseller list in 2009, largely because of the confusion between our book and Sarah Palin’s book, Going Rogue. The cover of our book is also very similar to hers, but I don’t think readers ever confused them. Her book was called An American Life, and, as you can see, ours is called An American Nightmare. Perhaps one of my greatest triumphs in publishing is that Fox News ran a piece on Sarah Palin’s book, and they were being very favorable about it. They kept cutting from the presenter who was talking about the book to a screen shot of the book, and the book they kept cutting to was ours, which was surprising because ours was a paperback and hers was a hardback. Someone in the Fox studio had made our book into a hardback either through unbelievable idiocy or sabotage, it’s not clear which. At the end of the segment, the presenter said, there’s been a technical problem. That actually isn’t Sarah Palin’s book.
So I wrote to Page Six, the main gossip column on the New York Post, and said, would you be interested in writing a piece about how Fox news mixed up the two books? They ran it as the lead item on Page Six. So you had a situation where Fox news, which was a Murdoch-owned TV channel, was being poked fun at by the New York Post, which is a Murdoch-owned newspaper, about confusing our book with Sarah Palin’s book, which was being published by Harper Collins, a Murdoch-owned publishing company. It was a perfect circle!
KA: What do you think about your role as a literary gatekeeper?
CR: I’m generally standing outside the gate peering inside. I’m probably more of a bottom feeder than a gatekeeper, eating the food that the fish swimming higher up don’t want to touch.
KA: I would argue otherwise.
CR: Sometimes the fish higher up aren’t as smart as they should be. That Sarah Palin book we did; I couldn’t have done that at Scribner. They wouldn’t have taken it on. And if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have allowed me to pirate the cover of her book. They would have been so anxious about the legal implications, and it wouldn’t have worked.
KA: Can you explain by what you mean when you say you are a progressive rather than an independent publisher?
CR: My co-partnership with John Oakes has been great. We work well together. His background is different than mine. He did his masters on Samuel Beckett and worked at Grove Publishing. He just published Barney Rosset’s autobiography, and he’s on the board of the Evergreen Review, the magazine Rosset founded. We see ourselves as progressive in politics, obviously on the left, very opposed to racism and inequality and xenophobia, but we also see ourselves as being progressive culturally. I’m doing a book about Chris Marker, the French New Wave filmmaker. I’m also doing a book on Mayakovsky, the Russian revolutionary poet. We’ve tried to do culture as well as politics. We also see ourselves as being progressive as the way we approach the business. So it’s those three things: politics, culture, and the way we do business.
KA: Why does Lit Hub Executive Editor, John Freeman, call you Red Robin?
CR: It’s probably my politics. It should actually be Red Robbo, who was a British trade unionist in the 1970s, but John calls me Red Robin. Of course red in American indicates the Republican party.
KA: Or Communists.
CR: I did publish a luxury edition of the Communist Manifesto when I was at Verso. It was the 150th anniversary of the book, and we were thinking, how can we do it in a way that could get some attention? I mean, you can buy the same thing for free or for five cents normally. Anyway, Eric Hobsbwam wrote a new introduction and we put a little red ribbon on it with red endpapers and a cover painted by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melmid. We die stamped workers of the world into the case. It was really a beautiful little book. At the time, I was talking to someone at New York magazine and she said, but where are you going to sell it? And I said, we’re going to sell it in upscale retailers across the country. She said, which kind of upscale retailers are you talking about? I was thinking, I don’t know, I don’t even know any upscale retailers. What do I know? I’m just an impoverished leftie book editor. But I had heard of Barney’s so I said, like at Barney’s. She said, do you mind if I call Barney’s and ask them if they would be interested in carrying the Communist Manifesto and I said, be my guest! I put the phone down and thought, well that’s the last I’ll ever hear from her. Twenty minutes later she rang up and said you should talk to Barney’s. They’re pretty interested in this. I practically fainted. She talked to Simon Doonan, and he said he would be quite interested. He said, why don’t you come up and present it to me. So one day I went to Barney’s and met with him. At first he was kind of, is this a joke? He said, what do you want? I said, we could have one of the big windows on Madison Avenue filled with mannequins with big red flags saying “Workers of the world unite” with their fists in the air. You can dress them in whatever you want and in their bags they can have a copy of the book. He sat and listened, then said, you know what? I could see this working. I came out of there amazed.
We press released it and the media went berserk! There were TV crews on the sidewalk outside of Barney’s asking people what they thought of the idea. It was in the New York Times. It was all over the place. On the front page of The Staten Island Advance the headline said “Retailer Sees Big Sales in Marxism.” [laughs] Then there was a backlash before it even happened. People were writing that this is the biggest outrage. You can’t blame them. Terrible things were done in the name of communism. The gulags existed. But to blame Engels and Marx for that would be like blaming the Spanish Inquisition on the people who wrote the Bible. Barney’s pulled out, but by then we were off. We went to a hotel, I can’t remember which one, and asked them if they would put copies of the book in the bedside tables where you might otherwise find a Gideon’s Bible. To my amazement, they said they were quite interested. Then we pres released, and then there was another flurry of publicity. We sold 100,000 copies of a book that you could more or less get for nothing. But I got attacked by people on the left.
KA: For commodifying something that shouldn’t have been commodified?
CR: I believe in the market. The left has a tendency to think you just plant your banner and because of the power of the idea, people will automatically gather around it. That isn’t the way the culture works. You have to be playful and be involved in the sell in some way to get your voice heard. We live in a market environment. You can’t turn your back on that if you want your ideas to be read. You’ve got to play in that game somehow.
We found sections in the Communist Manifesto where the writing is very beautiful. It’s almost poetic. We found passages in it, and there are quite a few, where Marx and Engels are praising capitalism. They saw capitalism as a way of modernizing the world that allowed socialism to come behind it. You get out of the idiocy of feudalism into a kind of globalized world that way. They welcomed that. They found it was progressive. So we took the best passages and blew them up onto big boards and put them in a bookstore on Wall Street. It was a huge window display. We did a big mailing out to all the people working at banks and said, you really ought to be aware of what’s in this book; it’s not necessarily hostile to what you’re doing. We got great media coverage. But the Wall Street people were completely uninterested. They were too busy making money.
KA: We’ve not discussed your editorial process yet.
CR: I tend to edit on paper. I’m old fashioned in the sense that I don’t believe in this idea of crowdsourcing, and I don’t like postmodernist writing very much. I like clarity of expression. I think the rules George Orwell said about writing, about concision—those things hold true for me.
KA: What else holds true for you?
CR: I don’t think we are standing on the edge of a precipice in this election. American politics doesn’t work like that. If Trump is elected there will be enormous resistance. If he tried to take away abortion rights in this country, there would be an enormous campaign against him. If he really tried to build that wall, ten years ago there was a mobilization of Latinos where several hundred thousand people marched through Dallas around immigration. That would stop him. I mean clearly he is an awful, awful person, but I don’t think he is that ideologically driven. It means that if you put up resistance to him, he’s not going to go to the wall, so to speak, to defend it. We are not going to fall off the end of the earth.
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Postscript: I sent Colin a note the day after the election, to see if he was surprised at the election outcome. He said, “Of course Trump is appalling but, in my opinion, he won primarily because a complacent and supercilious elite, who’ve done quite well for themselves throughout this economic crisis, failed to deliver on the change they’ve repeatedly promised. They’ve been able to hold onto their wealth and, at the same time, claim the moral high ground. I can understand how infuriating that must be for so many people. Which is not in any way to excuse racism or xenophobia or misogyny wherever it exists.”