Interview with AK PressMarch 4, 2007
This interview with AK Press was conducted by Joe Biel, a friend of ours over at one of our favorite independent publishers and distributors, Microcosm Publishing. We carry a lot of items that Microcosm publishes as well and distributes. And one of the largest radical book publishers they stock titles from is AK Press.
AK Press is a collectively owned and operated publisherAK was originally founded in Edinburgh, Scotland by Ramsey Kanaan in 1987 as a small mail order outlet. The project soon expanded, venturing into independent book publishing, and AK Press also now has a branch in Oakland, California – where Ramsey now lives.
Here is the interview.
1. Why perform distribution? What was the original concept/intention with starting AK Press? What is the mission?
Ramsey: I guess the answer to all three of those questions, for me, is largely the same. AK originally started to disseminate (first distribute, a little later publish) radical literature/ideas. Specifically, anarchist theory (and practice, and history, and strategy, and analysis, and debate and..and..). Ideas alone, of course, won’t destroy capitalism and the State. People, and collective action will. But, the ideas, experience, and history of such collective action definitely play an integral part in that. AK is a small attempt to help that process along.
2. As a collective organization, how are decisions made? What kinds of decisions are made as a group and what can be made through an individual performing their delegated duty? These are things I struggle with in the projects I’ve been involved in. What led to the process of collective ownership in the first place?
Ramsey: AK was collectivized when it became more than just me. For better or for worse, apparently one person just can’t do everything. There were a couple of friends/comrades with whom I’d been working with politically (doing various activist stuff outside of AK) – they were interested in AK, and the collective was born. Our founding principles, were immediately – as anarchists – that everyone should be paid the same, that everyone should have equal-decision making power, and that there would be no owners/bosses – i.e. that AK would be a self-managed, worker-run workplace. How that has operated in practice, of course, has been a never-ending process. We certainly didn’t have any models to draw upon, and much of it has been trial and error/making it up as we go long, wtih little more than political principles/experience and common-sense to guide us. None of our decisions are actually taken by concensus. We do a majority vote on everything, with what we call a minority veto that can be invoked if 2/5ths are strongly against.
All of the broad (and many of the minor) decisions to do with the running of AK are made by everybody. What we publish and what we choose to distribute, along with how we ‘run’ things. Individuals perform their duties under those collective guidelines…
Lani: Any decisions that affect all of AK and how we are run are made collectively. What we publish, what we distribute, who we hire, where we table at, these sort of things are representative of what we all talk about together because we are all affected by such things. Whether I buy toilet paper at the corner store or somewhere farther away is inconsequential, and would be stupid to wait for a decision from the collective on. Or whether or not I answer irate customer emails, or decide if I am going to open my mail first and then pull orders or vice versa, really job specific day to day stuff we decide on for ourselves, as long as we are getting our work done. We all screw up once in a while and make decisions that other folks think should be made collectively, but that comes with the territory of working with people who think totally different from you. It is an ongoing process, deciding what is important for all of us to talk about and what isn’t. Even in the two years that I have worked here, how much we communicate has changed drastically (for the better)!
Zach: AK was formed as a collective well before I came on but as for decision-making, we do so collectively over our finances, what we choose to publish, what we choose to distribute and what our relationship is to the public and larger social movements; what events we wish to take part in, what groups we affiliate with, events we may put on at our warehouse, etc. We are empowered to make decisions on a day-to-day basis for our jobs up to the extent where that decision may affect the collective as a whole. For instance, I can discuss an upcoming book with the author that we have scheduled but I could not offer that author a book deal on a forthcoming project without collective approval. It sounds a bit silly to offer specific examples and sometimes too abstract when discussed conceptually but in essence it’s rather simple. We share decision-making power over what we publish, what we distribute, and how we run our collective, and have equal access to information (whether financial, technical, sales etc.) to help us make informed decisions. While each one of us is encouraged to understand the intricacies of website management, book production, financial projection, trends in the book trade, etc., we aren’t expected to in order to still make informed decisions with the information presented.
Self-management in the workplace isn’t knowing how to do every single task – it’s having the proper tools and process to make decisions.
I suppose the answer of what led to the process of collectivization is a historical one. The strongest commitments of the anarchist movement have always been towards self-management in society and maintaining groups which utilize a collective process while keeping an eye out not to subsume the individual into that process to the point which that person may lose their individuality. We are attempting to find harmony in the workplace without order takers or order givers, and do it as best we can under capitalism.
3. Do you have something regular like weekly meetings? How are policies determined? How do you communicate? Are major decisions always made in consensus?
Lani: We meet several times a week, with specific meetings to talk about different topics on different days. Wednesday we talk about finances, Tuesday about publishing, etc. And we have longer meetings that happen less frequently to talk about making major decisions around here, like whether to take a pay-cut or pay-raise, whether we should change any collective policies, etc…
We thankfully do not make decisions by consensus! I have found that in other groups I have worked with, making decisions based on consensus has been necessary, mostly because we have needed to be on the same page politcially. With AK, we do no have a political “party line” per se (though I would like to believe that we are all class-struggle anarchists), so we do not really have to agree about everything. Though we all obviously agree on broader theories of collective organization (or we would not be working here), we may vastly disagree on what is important to distribute. For example, I read way more fiction than non-fiction, and am a big advocate for it. I also really want to expand our kid’s book section. Other people may not care about either of those things. I can probably count on my two hands how many times we have unanimously picked up an item for distribution. And I like it like that. Our catalog would be very boring if we all liked the same stuff. Likewise for publishing. We are all interested and have knowledge about way different things. And I feel as though we all make compromises quite often to ensure that as many people as possible are happy with important decisions. As long as I have worked here, I am the only person who has invoked minority veto in that time. I lost. And I was fine with it ten minutes later. You can’t take shit personally.
Lorna: The understanding when you come onto this collective (as you’re interviewed even) is that you must be willing to carry out the wishes of the collective—even if it’s a decision you personally didn’t support. People are able to block a decision when they feel strongly about the issue, but since I’ve been here this last year, that’s never happened. I’ve worked with other collectives that have operated fairly well on a concensus basis, but it is extremely time consuming, and it seems that decisions are often finally reached by people standing aside. Majority voting works very well here—in fact, i’m not sure how we could use concensus when, almost weekly, we consider a dozen or more books for distribution. Without voting, I’m sure that our already torturously-long daily meetings could easily become day-long meetings.
For larger policy issues, we also have a monthly “admin” meeting, where full members meet to discuss bigger topics, attempt to develop new procedures (such as member evaluations), and where we’ll address the occassional grievance issue.
4. How large is your staff? Do people have specific jobs or does everyone pack orders and deal with customers/suppliers? What are the most time consuming parts of the operation.
Ramsey: There are currently 10 folks here in the US – 9 of us at the Oakland warehouse, and Craig on the east coast, in West Viriginia. There are another two folks (and a warehouse) in Edinburgh, Scotland. We all have specific job duties, whether that be publishing, or accounts, or ordering, tech support/systems management, shipping/receiving, sales, marketing etc etc. The wider general health, and concerns of the collective are everyone’s responsibilities. Unfortunately, nothing that we do is quick, easy and efficient. There is no quick way to pack a box, nor apparently, publish a book. We’re constantly trying to make it less time-consuming…both for our sanity, and financially.
Lani: Someone does the finances, someone does our ordering, two people do shipping/receiving, I do our mail order…we have pretty specific jobs. And all together we table places, clean the warehouse, make the decsions that run AK, etc. What is most time-consuming depends on your specific job probably. I open a lot of prisoner mail, and replying to it takes forever. So does packing orders. If you are one of the publishing folks, I imagine that proofreading a book takes forever… In terms of what it time-consuming in meetings, it takes forever to cut the catalog every year, because we take the time to look at EVERY item individually. It takes hours. Inventory takes forever as well. Deciding what to publish each season is always a pretty long process as well. Overall, our meetings take up a hell of a lot of time. But it is worth it. Usually 😉
Lorna: In the last few months, the US has decided to restructure job responsibilities. Everyone had been responsible for an individual job (such as ordering, shipping/receiving, or accounts), as well as distribution decisions and coordinating one or two books per season. Work was overwhelming, and people felt stretched too thin.
We have now separated job responsiblities into publishing and distribution, and the original members on each “arm” were chosen by personal preference. Decisions about what books we publish and which we distribute are still made by the larger collective, but now each individual’s work is more focused. People who work on the publishing side work on all facets of book production (including soliciting manuscripts, catalog copy, etc), and do marketing, publicity and sales (which used to be one person’s job). Distribution people work on improving our sales, our networks of stores, publishers and distributors, on making new contacts, as well as doing tasks like ordering, shipping & receiving, and mailorder. Having said that, everyone still takes phone orders from stores and individuals, and does outreachy events.
I think the most time-consuming part of the work is communicating—both internally and externally. There is a lot of information flowing through here, and it’s easy to let things fall between the cracks.
Zach: As for time consuming duties… just about everything we do is time consuming. It just seems our lot in life that most aspects of what we do are rote… it doesn’t mean that the work is dull or uninspiring but all the self-management in the world cannot change the fact that the good things in life are produced through labor.
5. Around here, things are a constant process of refinement to deal with growth or make things flow faster and with fewer snares. Do your systems update regularly or have you established something that works?
Lorna: I think we are constantly developing new systems, and noticing inefficiencies. People are really interested in improving the business and how it operates, and everyone thinks of how their work lives could be improved. As well, each person that comes onto the collective brings a different set of skills and experiences, and that leads to improvements all the time.
Zach: We always try and keep our eyes open to processes that will make things run smoother here but they usually come from a brainstorm and are actively tweaked and massaged into a functioning part of what we do. We’re getting better at pinpointing where we aren’t efficient (whether in how we work or how we communicate) but have no automated system for that.
6. Are you a registered nonprofit? What led to this decision? What are the benefits?
Zach: We are not a nonprofit. The biggest benefits to us would be reduced taxes since there isn’t a lot of grant-funding for anarchist collectives. We looked long and hard into the idea and in the end we felt that the Board structure would potentially undermine our commitment to self-management and that we would be more open to institutional scrutiny. Non-profit doesn’t mean “no profit” it’s basically just a way for groups who ostensibly “operate in the public good” to have reduced taxes, receive tax-free grants, and funnel the profits (also known as grants) into the projects they work on or into the director’s bank accounts. NP’s are a mixed bag and unfortunately along with the ones doing really good work are many who sap resources and use them for personal gain…
Ramsey : Non-profits are controlled/managed by an outside board of directors, which must be more than 50% non-employees. We’re not willing to give up that control to an outside body.
7. It seems to me that many of your titles are very hand picked and your selection is impressive as a result. Did people come to the table with booktrade / distribution / bookstore experience or was it just a general interest in the subjects involved?
Ramsey: All of our titles are hand-picked, in so far as every title we carry (and publish) has been voted upon by the collective. And as such, what we do carry reflects both our political interests/concerns, and, to some extent, financial reality. We have to sell stuff to exist. Unfortunately, there’s often an inverse proportion to what we typically view as politically important, and actual sales! Most folks that have worked at AK, past and present, have had no booktrade experience. I’m sure that hasn’t helped us in many ways. Though, of course, many of the folks that have been at AK for years now, have years of booktrade experience!
Zach: It’s a mix of both, certainly, and the collective structure helps nurture those without book trade experience by seeking their opinions and advice about how to navigate the trade. Also, many successful ventures for AK have come about precisely due to the lack of experience in the trade. Too much regimentation can close doors. We’ve pioneered in many ways by remaining flexible and creative.
8. What kind of outreach work do you do to take the messages outside communities or radicals?
Zach: We table at many public events and try to make the materials we publish and distribute available through as many channels as possible. We are an anti-capitalist project that must use capitalism to reach people outside the “radical communities.” We sully ourselves in the world of capitalism in an effort to bring the politics out of the activist ghetto and to everyone. Our efforts aren’t meant for an exclusive audience because substantial social and economic change isn’t the role or responsibility of the few but of the many. 87% of the books purchased in America are done through Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble. We aren’t willing to have our politics shut out from these readers (and potential revolutionaries) by retreating from these channels, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to remain an obscure and easily misunderstood political movement.
Ramsey: Literature and ideas serve two purposes, I think. Or rather, two audiences. Firstly, it is to disseminate radical ideas to the ‘unconverted’, which I’m guessing is the focus of the question. The second is to foster debate, strengthen theory and practice, gain more clarity etc, within the various radical movements and milieu that we are in. In terms of outreach outside of those communities, we try (with varying levels of success, I suspect) a range of stuff. Firstly, insofar as the mainstream has any interest, we try and sell to those channels. We try and get our books into – well, anywhere that will be willing to take them. That includes the big bastards like chain stores, Amazon and suchlike. Hopefully there, people might stumble across them. We’ve also had some success in getting books into non-bookstores. Comic stores, record stores, used bookstores and suchlike. We’re trying to get professors, teachers and similar folks to actually teach our books in classes. We try and get libraries to stock our titles.. With our tabling, we attempt outreach at all kinds of (presumably) apolitical audiences, whether that be tabling at rock concerts, or at mainstream bookfairs, flea-markets, gun-shows, or at specific ‘liberal’ events that we’re trying to inject our politics/ideas into. By producing CDs and DVDs, we also attempt to get the ideas across to folks that might not actually read!
Lorna: We table at a wide range of events—we’re at the Barrio Book Festival this weekend, a progressive law day and Palestine culture fair next weekend, and were just at peace marches and a progressive fair last weekend. Other than that, AK collective members sometimes speak in classes, bookfairs and conferences.
9. What is the goal of tabling at events outside of your store, such as Warped Tour? How successful has that been?
Ramsey: The goal, is, as always, to get the ideas out there. I think we’ve been fairly successful in tabling at a wide variety of events – if success means getting the ideas to a place that they were previously unknown. I think its fair to say that we pretty much invented having literature at shows, through our own tabling and touring with bands, and encouraging others to do the same…
Zach: Many of us here were turned onto anarchism through the efforts of individuals reaching out to subgroups of youth and if we can offer a better political framework for young folks than the Communists or the Democrats then we’ll put ourselves out there. We use many different channels (from chain stores, the internet, musical scenes, etc…) to spread the word…
Lorna: I think tabling at a variety of events, like the warped tour, is a good way to do that. I don’t know how you’d measure the success of that really—getting one or two people interested in different ideas seems a success to me.
10. The idea of incorporating punk and DIY ethics into a project such as distribution is of particular interest to me. How have you incorporated punk and DIY ethics?
Ramsey: That is, of course, a somewhat semantically loaded question. Without trying to be too obtuse, what are punk and DIY ethics? Certainly, when I got into punk, and anarchism, in the late 70s (I started pretty young, I was 13), the two were very much synonymous. And AK grew out of my involvement with the whole anarcho-punk/DIY scene. The first literature I distributed were fanzines. I was singing in a band, and part of that whole DIY scene of corresponding, tape-trading, setting up gigs, touring independently etc. From an early age I was selling literature at shows, etc. But at the same time, I was heavily influenced by the DIY (or self-management) practices of the anarchist movement. There was also a network of small publishers, distributors, political magazines and pamphlets, radical bookstores etc, which while it overlapped somewhat with punk, certainly predated it, and continued on after the initial anarcho-punk energy washed up (and was largely subsumed into heavy metal) in the mid to late 80s. Both sides of that coin, of course, faced similar problems – of co-optation by the major labels (whether in record or publishing) when something is popular, the scourge of the chain stores (again, whether record or bookstores, putting the independents out of business) etc. I guess, for me, I’ve always been interested in collective self-management (and emancipation). And I guess that goes for all aspects of one’s life: whether in politics, music, economics, social etc etc.
Zach: Ask 100 punkers to define punk and you’ll get 150 answers. Some, but not all, of the folks at AK have backgrounds within the widely defined “punk scene” and so it would be hard to pinpoint direct links to that experience which would be definitive. I suppose if I was to answer for myself I would say that I was involved with the punk scene actively (as in I was a participant and not just a fan) for about 5 years or so in the early 90’s and some of what I accomplished with folks was incredibly gratifying, but ultimately limiting. You could say that I learned a lot about doing-it-yourself during those years but grew out of the punk ghetto that I saw as inherently limited in scope and plagued with re-inventing the wheel. Again, if it wasn’t for the good experiences I had within that subgroup I never would have moved on to my collective involvement at AK… it’s just that (unlike some folks who come from the punk milieu) I’ve tried to jettison the paralyzing limitations. Hopefully with some success?!
11. Do you continue to grow year after year or have you established a cap in your growth? What do you seek in the future as a collective?
Ramsey: Yes, we continue to grow. Both in terms of the physical size of the collective, and in terms of our sales. Again, it’s not easy, and there’s tremendous growing pains. But the potential is, presumably, almost limitless…until we’ve actually finally destroyed Capital and the State and helped with the Social Revolution. I think that’s a pretty rosy future for any collective…
Lorna: No cap yet. We’re fortunate to be able to provide wages for 10 people. In the future, we’d like to be able to publish more of the books on our huge (and growing) list. A raise would be nice too.
Zach: There are different ways to look at growth. Five years ago we had 5 employees and now we have 10. Three years ago we didn’t offer ourselves health care and now we do. Four years ago we were releasing about 10 books/cds a year and now we are doing about 18 to 20. In the past 10 years there has been a diversification and spread of radical spaces/infoshops in the states and AK has benefited greatly by their business as, in turn, with our “growth” we’ve been able to better service their needs. I’d love to see all of this continue and not solely for the sake of AK but for the potentials this growth opens up (in it’s small, large? way) to spreading the anarchist politics which form the bedrock of our efforts.