Calling the Shots, Together: AK Press on Their Worker-Run Publishing Project
AK Press is a worker-run collective and anarchist business that publishes and distributes radical books and other media to expand minds and change worlds. At AK Press, all the work is shared and it gets done without bosses.
Inspired by Labor Day, we are taking a moment to recognize the power of workers across the book industry. We asked AK Press to reflect on what motivates their work, their mission and goals in operating as a collective, and the benefits of being a self-managed publishing project.
Answers from Suzanne Shaffer at AK Press.
What is the story behind AK Press? Could you share a little bit about your history and mission?
AK Press started out as a tiny DIY operation in Edinburgh, Scotland—at first just one person selling pamphlets at punk shows and demonstrations. Over the last 32 years we've expanded in size (we're still small, but not that small), as well as geographically (we still have a presence in the UK but our main publishing and distribution operation is now in California). From the beginning our mission has been the same, though—to get anarchist and radical books and other materials out into the world as widely as possible, while our very existence also proves that it's possible for workers to self-manage a sustainable publishing project.
How would you describe the books that you publish and distribute?
As a collective we are inspired by the anarchist tradition, and the stories of people who have fought for a better world. While we've broadened what we publish over the history of our project (this past year saw us expand into speculative fiction and even put out a crossword puzzle book!), the common thread is still our commitment to radical, liberatory politics. We also distribute books published by a handful of other small indie presses whose politics align with ours.
What does it mean to operate as a worker-run collective, and what are your goals in organizing the business and your labor this way?
We believe that there's no one more qualified to make decisions about our project—from its day-to-day operations to what titles we publish to what we want to be doing ten years from now—than us, the workers who are most impacted by those decisions. So, this means we as workers call the shots together—and we don't have to worry about bosses or shareholders breathing down our necks.
What benefits have you seen in doing the work of book publishing without hierarchy or bosses? Has anything about the development of this project surprised you?
I think it's fair to say that as workers, being totally in control of our own publishing house leads to greater investment in the project—it's on us to develop the skills we need to be the best version of AK Press that we can be, and no one's going to tell us what to do, which means we're always talking about what we're most excited about working on collectively. I wouldn't say any of this is surprising, though—to us, it seems like a perfectly natural result of putting workers in charge of their own labor.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered functioning as a collective? How have you (or are you) navigating them?
Anyone who's worked in a collective knows that it involves a lot of meetings. We spend many hours of every week talking to each other about decisions we need to make, sometimes working out disagreements, making compromises, and making sure everyone is comfortable with where we land on things. At first glance it might seem inefficient to do things this way—but it's just part of how we do things, and we think it's totally worth the time to make sure everyone's voice is heard and everyone is contributing to the success of the project.
Could you share some upcoming projects from AK that you are really excited about?
We have new books coming out soon in both the Black Dawn Series (the speculative fiction series we launched last year) and the Emergent Strategy Series (which is curated by author adrienne maree brown and contains some of our most popular releases of the last few years). But of course there's lots more to be excited about... folks can check out more of our fall DRCs here.