“Basically, the best-selling five hundred books each year will likely be published much like Little Brown publishes James Patterson, on a TV production model, or like Scholastic did Harry Potter and Doubleday Dan Brown, on a big Hollywood blockbuster model. The rest will be published by niche social publishing communities.”
Richard Nash, former publisher of Soft Skull, has been making waves ever since stepping down from the acclaimed indie earlier this year to “go all in” and pursue his vision of the future of publishing. Equal parts philosopher and raconteur, his over-the-top performance at BEA’s 7×20×21 panel reminded me of Frank T.J. Mackey, Tom Cruise’s motivational speaker in Magnolia; I fully expected him to start yelling “Respect the READER!” at one point.
He caught some flak as the focal point of my post asking “Is Social Publishing simply Vanity Publishing 2.0?“, not so much because I think he’s actually going into vanity publishing, but because of the various social/digital/ePublishing initiatives I’ve seen popping up lately, Cursor seemed to have the closest thing to a viable business model worth critiquing.
After doing exactly that backchannel, he graciously agreed to a brief interview to shed some more light on the subject and I’m thrilled to have him as the second in a sporadic series of interviews with insightful publishing and marketing professionals – Richard Eoin Nash, Social Publisher.
1) Define “social publishing” in terms the average book reader would understand; no buzzwords, no “organic gurgle of culture”. What is it, and what’s in it for the reader?
For the reader-as-reader, what “social” means is that there’s going to be more information about books, more scope to interact with the books (your own commenting & annotating and reading others’), more scope to interact with the author, more scope to interact with one another. (This latter item, to get semi-techy for a sec, is something that the broad horizontal book social networks—Goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari—do well, though, so we’re likely to focus on using their APIs rather than asking people to build their own bookshelves anew.)
“Social” is taking the book and making it much easier to have a conversation with the book and its writer, and have conversations around the book and its writer.
2) Your collaboration/engagment tools are fundamental Web 2.0 technologies, much of it available elsewhere, often for free. Their value ultimately lies in the community that gathers around them. What advantages will Cursor offer authors and readers that WordPress, Twitter and Goodreads don’t?
They’re tools, really, especially the first two. Tools that allow one to build a community. We’re going ahead and building the communities — certainly incorporating Twitter, and using Goodread’s API as much as we can — by bringing the people together. So effectively we’re focused on people.
3) Will a Cursor community be defined by its own borders, or will it be open and welcoming to the larger community it serves (ie: Tor.com)?
To the extent possible, we’ll go the Tor route. Meaning, from the magazine and education standpoint, we’ll have like-minded authors writing about books, and teaching classes, whether or not the community imprint in fact publishes their books.
To the extent we’re able to sell others’ stuff digitally, as a marketplace, we will. Not for the sake of being an aggregator, but just so as not to needlessly exclude. And, over the long run, we’ll certainly try to find ways for our premium membership options to offer access to other subscription structures, too.
4) Other than writing in the genres you’re looking to serve, what three critical traits define the ideal Cursor author?
Well, we want folks who want to be good citizens. Which means engagement—being willing to participate in the community. Respect—for others’ work, but also the respect that means you give criticism well, and you take criticism well.
God, a third is hard. I sorta want to say Curiosity. Except that that might just be one amongst other qualities that might motivate One. I guess it’s my way of sayng, I hope that Engagement comes from more than just a sense of duty. But a sense of duty ain’t such a bad thing, in moderation…
5) How difficult will it be for a brand new author to be accepted by Cursor? Will the “community” dictate what you publish, will there be some form of a traditional gatekeepered process, or is there a realistic hybrid?
Basically, the community has always dictated on some level what is published. What happened at my old company, Soft Skull, is that it attracted certain types of projects, and I took the temperature of the community about those projects, by talking to people, seeing who had recommended it, seeing where else that writer had written, how they fit into the world they were writing for. An agent’s query letter typically contained a whole bunch of social information, and I would go out a find a whole bunch more. And that would be an enormous part of the decision-making process.
My role was to be a conduit whereby the Soft Skull community decided what it wanted out there as a printed representative of what the community likes. It takes a lot of skill and hard work to do that, to learn how to listen, how to weigh comments and judgements from very disparate sources. All a Cursor community is doing is making that reality more specific and formal and transparent. The digital/online dimension makes some aspects of it easier, but in the end, it takes a lot of skill and experience to convert all that information into decisions.
6) Besides speed-to-market, what other advantages will Cursor offer established authors that make it either a better option than, or viable alternative to, traditional publishing?
— Much advance generating of interest in/discussion about the project.
— Additional revenue from 1. limited editions, 2. a share of subscription revenue from the time spent reading their work online, 3. the online classes.
— Speed-to-royalty, meaning royalty payments for all the traditional print supply chain are paid far more quickly and without reserves.
BONUS Q: 7) What will your first community, Red Lemonade, look like, and who are some established authors and/or editors you’re looking to work with?
I’m in the process of incorporating right now, so there are no contracts as yet, but I can say that Lynne Tillman will definitely be Exhibit A in terms of showing how this structure will work for a writer like her, in terms of frontlist, backlist, teaching, limited editions, etc.
Broadly speaking, though, my focus in terms of people is getting the infrastructure set up and as integrated as possible. Then I figure out who are the most talented folks available at that time. I want to move quickly, yes, but it’s going to be about having the right people, so the sequence in which the communities will be set up will largely be dictated by who is available at that time.
I don’t want to make job offers until I know what our timing is in terms of the infrastructure. Also, in the spirit of that, I will be working with PGW/Perseus on the traditional supply chain and book retail side of the business.
I’m hoping to have a private beta going by the end of the year, and I’m expecting that the first community, Red Lemonade, will have 4-5 books publishing into the supply chain in Fall 2010, with classes and limited editions and digital downloads over the Spring and Summer.
I’d then like to see us adding communities at a rate of about one every three-four months.
BIO: Richard Nash ran Soft Skull Press, now an imprint of Counterpoint, from 2001 to 2007 and ran the imprint on behalf of Counterpoint until early 2009. Here’s why he left. He’s now consulting for authors and publishers on how to reach readers and developing a start-up called Cursor, a portfolio of niche social publishing communities, one of which will be called Red Lemonade.