John Oakes started at Grove Press in the mid-1980s, saw that crash and burn, then joined Henry Holt for a brief period. John then spent 17 years building Four Walls Eight Windows, which was sold to Avalon in 2004. He spent two years as simultaneously the publisher of Avalon's Thunder Mouth Press and co-publisher of Nation Books. John is currently executive editor with Atlas and Co., Publishers.
When Four Walls launched in 1987, did you have a detailed business plan and long-term funding, or was it a seat-of-the-pants start-up?
We profoundly didn't know what we were doing. I'd met Dan Simon at a party not long before, and we discovered a mutual interest in art and politics--most people I knew seemed to be interested in one or the other. I was at Henry Holt at the time, and he was working for a medical publisher, and I suggested we start up a publishing company. How hard could it be, right? He'd done one book at Writers and Readers with the late Glen Thompson under the imprint "Four Walls Eight Windows," and because we couldn't come up with a better name, we started with that--and we continued to work together for seven years, until I initiated a split. At that point I continued to run Four Walls, and did so until 2004, when I sold it. I think now I may know a little bit more about starting up a traditional publishing company than I did in 1987. Sadly, because of the advent of the Internet, those skills are less relevant today.
How long was it before you realized that Four Walls was a success, and was there a particular title that put you over the top?
You're kind to characterize it as a success. Four Walls was more like one long, drawn-out battle--not a war, which implies some respite from battle; a battle. There was never a point of victory; it was a constant struggle. Solvency became less of a joke as our backlist started to gain heft; but at that point I was exhausted and glad to sell.
How did your vision for the Four Walls list change over the years, and did you move to subsidize literary titles with more consumer oriented fare?
I never liked the how-to stuff, because I could never understand how people can find their own bodies so endlessly fascinating. We always had a weakness for pushing the literary envelope, and by definition that's risky publishing. Two of our most successful (or merely lucrative) titles were a history of Mormonism and a meditation on Fermat's last theorem. But I would argue that some of our most successful (or intellectually adventurous) titles were the novels by Michael Brodsky, the memoirs by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, and the post-punk rants of Steve Aylett. Towards the end of the company's life, I tried to balance each season with an edgy literary work, a classic reprint (for example, we brought back Sloan Wilson's classic The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), a couple of political books, an anthology, perhaps a memoir...I also very consciously tried to give editors working for me some latitude, so that on every season's list of eight or so titles there'd be at least a few that came from the editors, and not from me.
Given the tremendous changes in the industry, especially the consolidation in both retailing and publishing, could you repeat the Four Walls success if today if you were 20 years younger and just starting out?
I think, despite everything, there's still room for innovative and committed publishers, so yes. Look at Melville House: they started as we did, on a wing and a prayer and some dedication. When I started out, Bob Bernstein of Random House told me I'd need millions. We had $20,000. With new problems come new possibilities, and to me the Internet is a great gift to open-minded publishers.