Traditionally, writers wrote, editors edited, publishers published, retailers sold, and reader read. But in the age of the Kindle, ebooks, author websites and comment boards, all the roles are becoming fuzzy. Richard Nash has started a company called Cursor, which is trying to pioneer the idea of social publishing, specifically to try and address some of the changes that technology is bringing to the industry. He’ll be speaking about Cursor at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change in Publishing conference later this month.
James Turner: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
Richard Nash: After graduating from college, I embarked on a quixotic career as a theater director for the best part of a decade, until I embarked on an equally quixotic career as an independent publisher, running an indie press called Soft Skull. I worked my ass off to get it to where it was functional, and I bumped up against some hard realities of conventional supply-chain book publishing, which is that it is a rough business when it comes to cash flow.
Early last year, I decided that, basically, the rest of the world was too damn interesting and that, as the entrepreneurs like to say, there were some inflection points that looked to be looming. I didn’t want to be operating with my head, if not in the sand, at least deep within a legacy organization putting out fires on a day-to-day basis, when the world was changing all around me. So I’m now in the middle of launching a startup that I’ve been fine tuning with the help of a lot of people over almost the past year.
In some respects, you could argue that the startup seeks to apply to long form narrative what O’Reilly’s and Pearson’s Safari has been doing in computer books. By which I mean to identify a given community and publish for that community and get that community involved as much as possible in every aspect of the publishing activity. Or I could even say to make it larger than just the publishing activity, to be involved in every aspect of the reading and writing experience.
James Turner: There have been things in the past, such as communal writing activities, or even everyone-writes-a-chapter kind of activities. This sounds much more like the kind of thing where I’m going to be writing my novel and people are going to be coming in as I do that and seeing it being written.
Richard Nash: Correct. There is scope, definitely, for more classic collaborative writing. We’ll certainly permit that. But our instinct at the moment is that most writers want to write what they write individually. That collaboration is certainly useful here and there. It’s a great writing workshop tool.
But basically, it’s designed to help individuals to write individual works. Part of what a lot of writers want is two or three or eight people, who they really trust, to be in an informal kind of writing group. We want to enable that for people. We see that as pretty key.
James Turner: Do you also see a model where someone is just putting a chapter at a time out, and is getting open comment back from the readership?
Richard Nash: There are, in a certain sense, three settings. There’s completely private. There’s completely public. And there’s selected readers. What you just described, making it completely public and getting feedback from everybody, is something that we would want to enable as well. It could be for the purpose of fine-tuning something for us to publish, or it could be fine-tuning for some other purpose, somebody else to publish. We’ll never be able to publish all the work that we host. But we certainly want to be able to engage as richly as possible with all of the work that we host.
James Turner: So the $64,000 Web 2.0 question: How do you monetize it?
Richard Nash: Well, broadly speaking, we think that writers create a lot of value. You describe it as the $64,000 Web 2.0 question, but I could also say well, the book industry is actually doing a really shitty job of monetizing writer/reader relationships already, even though it has a a barely profitable $14 billion industry around it. And that’s basically because we capture such a limited amount of the demand under the demand curve. If the demand curve is a reader’s desire to engage with a writer, then the way we monetize that is by taking the writing of a few writers, we physically package it and sell it through retailers for between $12, or if you do it mass market $7, up to $30.
Below that, we capture no value. Above that, we are giving up most of the value. So our philosophy is to establish what readers want, what they value, what price they’re willing to pay for that value for everything under the demand curve, which could evolve in a similar way to the contemporary evolving indie music scene. The $300 limited edition vinyl, or the book equivalent of limited edition vinyl. But finding ways to generate value in the three- and four-digit range.
We see limited editions as one way of doing that. We’ll explore a bunch of different ways of doing that. It is also true that the publishing has done a crappy job down at the $1-5 range. Digital downloads and books in the cloud and subscriptions and so on are very good for giving readers as many options as we’ve seen them wanting, at least so far to engage with read, consume — whatever verb you want to use — the writer’s stuff down in the low-single-digit dollar range.
James Turner: Audible has a very compelling subscription model where they’re essentially saying every month we’re going to give you two books. We don’t know what books you’re going to get. You don’t know what books you’re going to get. But we’re giving you this stash of books to build up and you’ll find books you want to download that month.
Richard Nash: It’s ironic that the old-school book club went out of business over the last 10 years, just as it was getting interesting. Just as the web began to offer very cheap ways to make offers, like what you just described. Offers that are really based on marginal cost of reproduction being zero. It doesn’t cost them anything to give you that book, other than the opportunity cost of what they think you might have bought it for had you really wanted it.
It’s one of the ironies of piracy, a classic Cory Doctorow-ism, that the enemy of the writer isn’t pirates, it’s obscurity. One of the depressing truths of piracy, in consumer books at least, is how little pirated our stuff is. I think it’s a terrible sign that there’s no piracy. It basically indicates there’s not much demand.
James Turner: There’s others issues. Until recently, you tended to hear about piracy in the context of rogue countries that didn’t respect copyright. You used to hear that Russia would have editions of things. But realistically, you always ran up against the photocopier problem, unless you were going to make 10,000 copies of a book.
Richard Nash: Copying was a pretty ugly activity.
James Turner: The only real reason Audible can succeed in this model is that they do have fairly reasonable digital rights management [DRM]. I’m not a fan of DRM, but I think they’ve done it pretty close to right. If they just put them out as MP3s, you have to wonder what would happen.
Richard Nash: It’s also true that it appears as if everybody’s been able to figure out a way to hack things. I am also no fan of DRM, but it is clear that DRM is a problem to the extent that it makes things difficult for the consumer. If the consumer is not having any difficulty, then they don’t give a shit about DRM. So far, book DRM has been pretty crappy when you compare it to the seamlessness of the iTunes experience. The only people that really complain about iTunes, it seems, are people who have a deeper ideological position in terms of intellectual property, which I get, but it’s not shared by the average Joe on the street.
James Turner: Can you talk about the author-reader relationship, because it has drastically changed in my lifetime and probably certainly in yours. When I was growing up, if you really liked an author’s work, if you were a science fiction fan, you went to a convention. But otherwise, you wrote them a note. Now authors have websites. They have blogs. They have comment boards. I’m wondering is that an entirely healthy thing.
Richard Nash: That’s a good question. Ultimately, I come down on the side of availability and accessibility, but with caveats. Writers should find one or two ways to engage with the fans. They need to be able to set boundaries. The boundaries of the Salingers are just completely unrealistic, but if you look at Neil Gaiman’s website, he has a nice explanation there about what he can and what he can’t do in terms of engagement.
I think the setting of boundaries is important, because otherwise the writer will never be able to write. You can’t be a fan of a writer if the writer’s not writing. Does it also create a little mystery, which I think is partially what you were alluding to? Yeah. I think the writer should be figuring out what’s the stuff that I feel comfortable about or I feel interested in telling people about, and what’s the stuff that’s my own damn business.
I think the trick in the future is going to be to try to find ways to balance that. I’m sure it’ll be a bit of a struggle at times, there’s going to be pressure to disclose more. But I think if the writer is respectful of his or her fans, since they’re paying his or her rent, the writer will be able to cordon off enough personal space for his or her sanity, productivity, and mental health.
James Turner: I’m curious about the other direction though, too. You certainly see a lot of works these days where the author is, in the footnotes or in the forward or in the afterward, acknowledging that Fan X helped me with this map he did of my world and Fan Y had a database of every character who had ever been in my books. But also, just as nobody who doesn’t have a thick ego should ever read the comments for his articles, I’m wondering if you can get the same effect with authors, who could start to try to please the fans too much in terms of changing something that everybody said they hated.
Richard Nash: That’s the artistic side, I think it’s interesting. There are terms that have cropped up in the last few years that help us talk about more democratic approaches to culture, and one of those is crowd sourcing. You use it and you realize: “Okay. Well, crowd sourcing can mean ‘American Idol’-style voting, or it can mean a whole bunch of people throw in a bunch of ideas, and eight people look at those ideas and pick one.” One will work for a given situation, for example, “American Idol” really is about what’s the most popular. Raw voting is a good way of dealing with what’s the most popular. But it’s often a pretty shitty way of figuring out what am I personally going to want to spend 15 of my precious leisure hours doing.
Therefore, to get closer to your question, a writer responding to raw comments about what a reader wants is not necessarily the way to the reader’s heart. I know this gets close to suggesting that the writer is always right and the reader is an idiot, and I’m not saying that. But I think when you’re engaged in making culture, you have to listen in ways that sometimes go deep.
I know as an editor, for example, that when I was just doing the old-school editing of the books of the writers I was publishing, I always said to them, “I’m the canary in the mineshaft.” I get to a paragraph, there’s a sentence. It’s not working for me. I tell you, “It’s not working for me.” I make a hazy guess as to why, and maybe even I make a very specific guess as to why, but I recognize ultimately my job is to tell you as the writer when something isn’t working, not to tell you what the answer is. You understand your book better than I do. You go fix it. And ideally when I look at it again, I forget it ever happened.
I think that the writers that are worth being passionate about, the writers that are worth being a huge fan of, are writers who listen carefully but not too literally to what their readers or editors are looking for. They respond to their readers out of some deeper personal instinct, that has a richer truth than the two-sentence comment that a reader or an editor like me might give them.
James Turner: A while back there was this great model, at first, it was about publishing on-demand, but now it’s moved more into the ebook space. It’s the standard disintermediation thing where publishers are going to go away. There will be these people who we trust, that are like reviewers or critics, who are going to say: “I found this neat guy here. You should read his book.” Maybe there’ll be freelance editors who help them polish the books, but essentially, the author would be directly selling to the readership. And self-publishing wouldn’t be a stigma anymore; it would be just the way everyone did everything.
Richard Nash: It’s probably a critical mass issue. I think we’ll get some of that in the coming decade. It won’t be the default model, but I think in most cases, there’s going to be more than a single intermediary between writer and reader. I feel like there’s going to be a couple. What you call them, publisher and retailer, publisher and reviewer, community and retailer, I don’t know what you would call them. You’ve got a universe where, in 2008 there were 550,000 books, if you include the self-published stuff. Let’s say last year that might’ve gone up to 3/4 of a million. Let’s say this year it’ll be a million. God only knows five years from now — three or four million. So that’s a lot of supply. The demand’s probably not going to increase that much. Let’s say 30 million readers. Three million titles chasing 30 million readers. That’s a real match-making challenge.
You can even picture some of that working directly and some of it will work with one intermediary. But I feel like it’s going to require a real ecosystem, a pretty complex ecosystem with a fair number of people in between. I do think that that’s not a bad thing. I think a lot of the drive, a lot of the vision, that powered disintermediation had to do with taking the money back from the assholes. But if the intermediaries are really creating value and not just collecting tolls along the supply chain, then the desire to kill all the intermediaries will probably drift away.
I think, to give maybe a glib answer to your question, what happened to that fantasy, it would be to say that the critical mass wasn’t there yet. And by the time the critical mass is there and the technology is all there, the intermediaries won’t be greedy, money-grubbing assholes the way they used to be. The way I sort of think about this philosophically is that the reader pays a certain price for something. And everybody who takes a piece of that on route back to the author has to justify it. A lot of us have been failing to justify that big chunk of the reader’s money. It’s partly the reader’s money and partly the writer’s money. It’s the money the reader wants to give the writer for that experience. And typically, 10 to 15 percent of it actually makes it there.
James Turner: Certainly, when I talk to publishers, the challenge is that as you start to think about things like the Kindle and ebooks, five or 10 years down the road we’re not doing dead trees anymore. The normal value proposition in the author contract is that yes, you’re going to edit; yes, you’re going to do a table of contents or an index. But the main thing I’m paying you for is to take your very expensive printing press, print a lot of copies of it, put books on trucks, and send them to stores. Have half of them sent back and you’re going to eat all of that cost. And suddenly, as an author, you start to say: “Okay. So I’m giving you 85 percent of my royalties for what?”
Richard Nash: Exactly. Basically, publishing became a business of putting books on shelves. And that served the writer because readers didn’t have anywhere else to go to get books other than those shelves. But as more and more books went out there and returns went up, and the churn was faster and the money had to get paid for co-op and shelf space and that sort of stuff, it started not serving the writer quite as well anymore. It started to just look like a real waste.
So yeah, we have to figure out what it is that we are doing to deserve the reader/writer’s money. And fundamentally to my mind, that is about matchmaking. Okay, a chunk of it is editorial: developmental, copy editing services, classic old-school services. But those are basically services that I think of as being fee-based, rather than I-get-a-percentage-of-the-action based.
James Turner: I’ve seen contracts where they say, “We’re going to charge you back for the indexing.”
Richard Nash: I think trade publishing pinched that idea from university press publishing. But to finish responding to what you just said, I think to earn a percentage sale in and sale out, you have to be matchmaking. You have to be connecting writers and readers together. You can maybe be entitled to charge $2,000 or $5,000 or $25,000 to copy edit or ghost write or whatever. But basically, you’re just going to get paid a fee. To get a piece of the action, you really have to be facilitating the action. And in my mind, facilitating the action has to do with putting the writer and reader together.
I think that that’s going to be a team effort. It’s going to require a group of people that are fairly writer-facing and a group of people that are fairly reader-facing. You could call them publishers and retailers, but maybe not. Maybe that’s not how it will roll. But people who have a pretty good sense of who their reading community is and people who have a pretty good sense of the intricacies of the writers, and they share and exchange as much information as possible. The reader facing people really have to know the writers better, and the writer-facing people have really got to get to know the readers better. They can use one another to make each other smarter about this stuff.
That’s, I think, a basis on which we can take some money. Not as much as we used to take, definitely not as much as we used to take. If Apple can take 30 percent on the iTunes store, and they’ve actually created a real retail environment where people buy stuff, then retailers can’t be taking 50 percent of digital product.
James Turner: I had one more question about the brave new world of ebooks. We already saw a situation where Amazon temporarily revoked people’s privileges to some books with rights issues. But I’m wondering, people have the first edition of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, that’s the one where he had the world turning backwards because he made a mistake. In this new world, are you just going to wake up one day and your chapter one got patched?
Richard Nash: [Laughter] I know what you mean, right? The most valuable stamps are the ones with the mistakes. It probably will be, and I think there is a little bit of loss there. As a publisher, or whatever I’ll call myself in the future, my instinct is to want to be transparent about that, so that reader and writer both have a feeling for the history of the text. You see how much value university archives place on having all the old drafts of the famous writers, and how much value even your average young up-and-coming writer would place on the opportunity to see a few drafts of how a writer she or he really admired decided, “Holy shit, this isn’t going to be a first-person novel; this is going to be a third-person novel.” They could watch how that writer did it.
So I think we should try to find a way to preserve some of that feeling of history. History may be the best word, because it’s almost like a private joke between you and the author, and kind of a statement of how passionate and committed you were to that author to have a version early enough that they’re still in that state.
James Turner: You almost can imagine you’re going to need something like the Internet Archive, that has the snapshot of that webpage before they removed the embarrassing photo.
Richard Nash: That’s right. I think that’s respectful of both writer and reader to acknowledge the history of something and still respect the writer’s choice. That’s probably going to be contested at times. Some writers, in some instances, will be so embarrassed by the mistake that they want it to vanish. Then we’re going to have to, as a culture, as a society, think about what that means. How do we handle that thing with Nabokov? There’s some novel that was only on index cards, it was supposed to get thrown out and it wasn’t. So they published the index cards, which was kind of a fun solution.
But I don’t think there’s a single answer. I think it’s going to be contested. The idea of things being contested appeals to me. You don’t want the situation that you’re hinting at, where everything gets made perfect.
James Turner: I just got this really bizarre image that you fire up your Kindle and you get this little notice, “There is an update to Grapes of Wrath.” And it has release notes, “The character in Chapter 2 has been replaced with …”
Richard Nash: Something like that, something like release notes, release 1.1, 1.2. I think that’s a fun, nice way of talking about iterations and corrections that software has bequeathed the rest of our culture.
James Turner: You’re going to be speaking at TOC. What do you want to see and who do you want to talk with at the conference?
Richard Nash: I’m really excited to start seeing people take a glass-half-full approach to what’s going on. I’m looking forward to people saying the risk of not changing is now greater than the risk of changing. I recognize the very large companies are not going to be able to blow themselves up and start over again, but I would like to see the smaller companies really grab the bull by the horns and start to reinvent themselves. It’s obviously hard for a 1,000-person organization to reinvent itself, but a five-person organization should be able to reinvent itself, because ultimately you don’t have to change that much.
It’s still about the writers and readers. And if you remember it’s about the writers and readers, then the changes you have to do, as the people in between, aren’t nearly as great as it sometimes looks.
I’m just looking for the green shoots. Both Clay Shirky and Steven Johnston wrote pieces about the newspaper business a day or two before South by Southwest last year. One of them, I’m pretty sure it was Johnston, used the metaphor of old growth media and new growth media. That in order for the new stuff to arrive, the green shoots, it needed to get the chlorophyll, it needed to get the sunlight that was getting blocked out by the old dead media companies. He was recognizing that there could be a bit of an ugly gap between the new stuff and the old stuff. I don’t need to see the old trees falling down. I’m just anxious to start seeing those shoots so we can start to kind of prioritize.
We can start to figure out what the top five things we should be doing are. Is it about multimedia and books? Is it about lower costs, $2 ebooks? Is it about highly interactive stuff? That’s what I’m anxious to see, the green shoots, the speakers who you have no idea who the hell they are. Where did this guy come from? Where did this lady come from? I’m looking for the new new thing, I guess.