Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press, insists that book publishing needs to return to the simple task of connecting readers and writers. He has created a social-networking platform called Cursor, which allows writers to form literary communities and post their manuscripts for members to read and react to. Nash also helms Red Lemonade, Cursor’s first imprint, which publishes work selected from its site. Matt Runkle spoke to Nash recently about publishing as manufacturing, the closing of Borders, and the tribalism of literary communities.
Matt Runkle: There’s a lot of worrying about the disappearance of the book as an object. Do you see the printed book in the same state of flux as the publishing industry?
Richard Nash: If people want something, why do they think it’s not going to exist? Not to get all sort of laissez-faire capitalist about this, but I’m going to have a moment of laissez-faire capitalism here and note that if people want to read the book in its printed form, then I predict there are going to be ways in which they can ensure that they will continue to get it in printed form because people are going to be willing to pay for it.
I mean the reality is that soon enough—even right now, technically—anyone will be able to get a digital version of a book and go and get it made into a physical printed book if they want. I mean right now, whether you’re using the espresso machine or—goodness gracious—3D printing, which is very, very, very much in its infancy, any kind of manufacturing over the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years is going to be able to be done as a hobby. So if you want a printed book, you will be able to get a printed book.
It has been a fascinating phenomenon in the discussion around publishing how adversarial people get around other people’s choices. So if someone says “I like an ebook,” a person will respond “Ohhh, I can’t believe—how can you do that?” It’s like that obnoxious person who you don’t want to go out to dinner with anymore because they can’t just order what they want, they have to comment on what you’re eating as well. What’s been epidemic in this discussion is that when both camps talk about their own preferences, they have to malign other people’s preferences too, and make grandiose extrapolations about the consequences of other people’s preferences for their own. If they like printed books, they should be buying the damn things instead of whining about other people’s preferred mode of reading. So I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years.
What we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object.
RN: When I started at Soft Skull in 2001 we were printing on 55-pound paper. By 2005, we were typically printing on 50-pound paper. By 2008, half our books were on 45-pound groundwood. And that’s because our print runs were going down. And even with publishers whose print runs weren’t going down, they were trying to save money. Because when the book’s primary purpose was not to be an object, but rather to be a mass-produced item for sale in big-box retail, then there’s going to be downward pressure on costs. And so what we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object—a process that is not external to publishing as it was practiced over the last 100 years, but has in fact been at its fore.
If you’ve got a manufacturing supply chain, then the dictates of manufacturing are going to be the ones that drive the business. And there’s certainly going to be some ad hoc occasional efforts not to do that: certain independent publishers will try to focus on quality, and certain individual books from other publishers might be tarted up for one reason or another, for marketing purposes. But those are the exceptions. Basically, when you’ve got an industry that is pushing out $25 billion worth of physical products into a supply chain, the vast majority of businesses are going to try to cut costs and increase revenues. And the simplest way to cut costs is going to be on the production side. So if the core of the business is no longer a supply chain, but rather the orchestration of writing and reading communities, the book is freed of its obligation to be the sole means for the broad mass dissemination of the word, and instead become a thing where the intrinsic qualities of the book itself can be explored.
MR: How did you come up with the idea for Cursor?
RN: For the last hundred years, publishers had been behaving not so much as connectors of writers and readers but as suppliers of products to bookstores in the same way that hammer manufacturers supplied product to hardware stores. The customer was the bookstore and the company was organized in ways that were designed to supply the product to retailers. We were basically all manufacturers.
I had come to publishing without really knowing anything about it. I was a theater director. I took over Soft Skull just to basically help out some people I’d become friendly with. As it turned out, I was lucky to have such a naïve point of view, because that was in fact what publishing needed, to restore it effectively to the status quo ante, to the act of connecting writers and readers.
I started Cursor basically to begin the process of trying to figure out what in fact publishing is. Because what we thought publishing was, was not in fact what publishing was. It’s not what writers and readers needed.
MR: So you see publishing as more of a two-way street?
RN: As soon as you say, “In the world there are writers and there are readers,” what else is there? There’s a whole bunch of things that start becoming clear, one of which is that the writer and reader is in fact the same fucking person. When we start to think that through, we realize, “Ah, look at the slush pile.” I look at the names and subjects of the cover letters, and I realize these people are the best customers.
We hear all the complaining that goes on in the world of poetry: “The only people who buy poetry are the poets.” Well no one complains about the fact that the only people who buy wool are knitters and the only people who buy oil paints are oil painters. And you know effectively because the Industrial Revolution method of reproducing media required volume and scale, there was a certain real critical aspect to it which is that you have as few writers as possible and as many readers as possible. The most profitable publisher is one who can print one book and have everybody read it. And so you kind of want to get as close to that as possible—of course recognizing that you can’t in fact get there, because you can actually lead horses to water but you can’t make them drink. Now the reality was that horses like to drink. So if you kept the number of pools relatively small, horses are going to have to go to the pools and drink, so people are going to read your books—as long as there aren’t too many of them.
The thing that doesn’t change is that word of mouth is why people buy books.
In 1990, there were 25,000 books published in the United States, and the superstores in the beginning were stocking up on some hundred thousand titles. So the superstores really needed a lot of new books, and people went to the superstores because where else are you gonna get your books? If you were a reader who wanted to read books, what else could you do other than go to a retailer and buy the books that the publishers have put there?
MR: Will the failure of Borders change the way the book business thinks of books?
RN: What does a person do when they want something to read? One of the big mistakes that often gets made in publishing is we focus a lot on price. We focus on how much a book costs and we decide whether it’s worth it or not. Now we’ve got a lot more books that are absolutely impoverished. The reality is that people’s decision-making process has a lot more to do with time than with money. It’s 15 hours in the inside of your head. Books are so cheap compared to the hours of entertainment they provide. The problem is, do they provide entertainment? Is it in fact a book you want to read? If after four hours you hate it, what most people say is “I can’t believe I spent fifteen dollars on this.” But what they really mean is “I can’t believe I just wasted four hours of my life on this.”
MR: Red Lemonade allows people to view free of charge complete manuscripts of books you have for sale. You’ve mentioned that having access to the full text online will help readers make up their minds and commit to buying a hard copy. This view differs from a general reluctance of publishers to post complete works online.
RN: Exactly. With the vast majority of books, the problem that most people have is they don’t know whether it’s going to be worth their time to read it. There are a tiny handful of books, in the case of each person, where they can be sure they want to read them. The reality is that I don’t think, in fact, there are a huge number of people reading our books for free online that have made a decision about whether to buy it. I mean there is probably a small number that are doing it for that reason and that number may increase, but I believe the number is smaller than has occurred to people because publishers refuse to do it. But what we’ve very clearly demonstrated by putting it for free online is that reading the book online has absolutely no negative impact on sales. Why in fact would it?
In many respects we’ve got a real Stockholm Syndrome around the model of publishing as it’s existed up until now. We just take for granted that it is the way it is because that’s a good way for things to be. And when something diverges from it we look for proof as to why it should diverge. But I’m interested in trying to reframe questions. Why do we think that a person won’t buy a print book because in theory they could read it for free online? What is it that people are buying? What is it that people want? In many respects what people want is to read it on their own terms, so in many cases, people don’t want to have to read it on a screen. Then the other thing is that people want to feel like they are spending money. It is their way of feeling good about themselves. It is their way of voting for something with their dollars.
But to go back to your question, certainly, I hope that posting this stuff online has a representative effect. Because the thing that doesn’t change is that word of mouth is why people buy books. That’s always been the case and will always be the case. Because you trust friends with the inside of your head more than you trust the media.
MR: Is there something about allowing readers to react to the text online that might make them want to see the final product, to see how their feedback may have shaped the book?
RN: I think a person who gives feedback on a particular book is much more likely to buy it. Expressing it that way doesn’t feel like getting at the nub of it, though. My feeling is that what we have to get at is not a process of thinking, “How do we sell more books?” I mean obviously it’s how we’re making money at the moment. But if you look at the world of video games, people aren’t buying video games by downloading video games, necessarily. I mean, some are, but an enormous amount of the video-game business is a virtual-goods business. I don’t think we should assume that the model of connecting writers and readers is that a reader purchases a unit of something from an intermediary, and that’s how they connect. So I think part of the reason a person goes online to give us feedback about a book is that they care about that writer. So of course they’re going to buy that writer’s book. But it’s not like they’re more likely to buy the book now because they gave feedback on it originally.
What we’re doing is recognizing the tribal nature of culture.
I think what happens is you feel like you’re a part of something, you feel like you belong, and there are a variety of products and experiences that are central to that sense of belongingness, and people will pay for that. So what we’ve seen in the music business is a tremendous diversification of the types of products and experiences that are being sold, and that is because what is central is not even the music, which has varied from the songs of the album anyway. Albums existed because it was cheaper and more profitable to sell ten songs on a big thing for ten bucks than to sell them individually. Now the music business is producing T-shirts and vinyl and CD’s and downloads, and there are house parties and private concerts and arena things, and there is an incredibly diverse set of ways in which musicians connect with their audience. We have to absolutely think of what we’re doing as connecting writing and reading, not selling books. The selling of books is just going to be one part of the merch division of the economy of writing and reading.
MR: And so Red Lemonade is kind of broadening the way readers and writers interface?
RN: It’s a very crude model done to test out a bunch of the assumptions and figure out what are the most efficient ways to create tools, products, and experiences that help writers and readers.
MR: And what have you learned from this model so far?
RN: I suppose two broad things. One broad thing is that I’m basically right. [laughs] The other is that it is incredibly hard work, and there’s an enormous amount of work left to be done in order to build those tools, products, services, and experiences to their fullest potential. The broad concepts have been pretty well borne out by the Red Lemonade experience. To quote Brian Joseph Davis, who is one of the authors on the site, “It may be a mob, but it’s my mob.” And when I posted that on Twitter, somebody responded, “A mob is never your mob.” Which I thought was right. They’re making the point that mob rule is kind of de-individuated, right? And I was like, “You know what, you’re right, but on the other hand we’re all part of mobs.” What we’re doing is making it transparent. The reality is that there have always been sort of insiders in the publishing business, but they pretended not to be. What we’re doing is recognizing, I think, the tribal nature of culture.
An important thing for that to work its best is that it has to be a tribe that is porous. An entity that only looks inward, that preaches to its own choir, inevitably will die off because there always needs to be a constant flow of newness, whether you want to use the metaphor of the ecosystem or of evolution. Or language. I think it is ironic, the obsession in the United States with defending the English language. The rest of the planet is like, “The English language is taking us over.” And why is the English language taking over? I think part of the reason why the English language is so effective is that it is the most porous language. It is the language that is changing and is most open to the rest of the world, for reasons that have to do with, sure, British colonialism. But English, for a variety of historical, geographic, economic, and political reasons, is a very open language, and that’s why it’s been so powerful and so widely adopted. So anyways, when I’m talking about the tribalization of culture, I recognize that there are dangers inherent in that, and I think good communities have to be mindful that they be open to change and outside influence.