6Qs: Richard Eoin Nash, Social Publisher

BEA: Richard Nash by cgkinla
BEA: Richard Nash by cgkinla

“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.”

About Richard Eoin Nash

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?

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.

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25 thoughts on “6Qs: Richard Eoin Nash, Social Publisher

  1. I appreciate the work you are trying to go, Guy, but I am tiring rapidly of the progression of polite Americans in nice suits saying the same thing over and over in different terminologies. It's perfectly clear they have nothing new to offer are primarily interested in attracting attention to themselves for the usual American reasons.

  2. For instance, he, like Bob Stein and all the others, is unable to answer Question 2. He has not answered it because there is no answer to it and that is their primary problem. Communities on the internet are informal, organic and anarchic and no amount of branding with boundaries will change that.

  3. OK, so given Nash's new model, it would be great to think he's going to stick around to answer follow-up questions (btw, what only really struck me a couple of days ago, in all this 2.0 interactivity evangelism, is just how impossible it is to interact with Seth – I mean, he's got 10,000 followers on twitter and he's following NO ONE. Compare that to Chris Brogfan who has 99k of each AND answers comments on his blog) Anyhoo, back to Richard.

    Q1 – you don't really tell us about the “publishing” bit of social publishing. As a writer, I know what I mean by social publishing (I mean putting ALL my work AND myself out there in the digital domain for people to comment on; I then expect social reader groups to take up the work they like, having been seeded by “early adopters” coming from direct contact with me – who will then bring my book to a wider audience and the wider audience to me), but it's not clear what you have in mind for me and my book. I don't feel the mechanics.

    Q2 – I think you've got that wrong, as I've said elsewhere. It's NOT authors who build communities around themselves, it's readers, and it's the early adopters who bring those readers. For me THIS community is fundamentally different from the author-driven 1,000 true fan community. I can see “business cases” for both, but I think you've fundamentally conflated the mechanics – as I feared from Q1

    Q3/4 there's just no content here, I'm afraid

    Q5 this sounds like a fluid idea that's becoming solidified – and that's the start of the death of things like this. If a community can't overthrow its king and its king's ideals it's gonna just up sticks and move

    Q6 I'm afraid I don't see why that applies to Cursor and not any other model – you've made a case for the TYPE of business, not the SPECIFIC business.

    Richard – this seems really harsh, but only because I believe 100% in the social culture production and consumption model, and so I want to see its spokespeople articulate the case exceptionally. Sure, we need to motivate – but behind the motivation there has to be content and rigor, and THAT is what I don't feel here. I also thinkthe way you're monetising is wrong, and in danger of killing the great thing you're creating. Limited editions YES. The rest – well, for me the community has to come first, and any thoughts of monetisation comes later – communities have a real knack of calling you out and plain up and leaving if they sniff capitalism, so I think the one thing I'd say to you would be: facilitate the community – and let them decide HOW and IF and WHERE money will flow.

  4. I'll have to disagree with you on this point, Paul. While there's plenty left unsaid in Nahs's response to #2, his fundamental point is that the tools don't mean anything without the people, and Nash is focusing on bringing people together around common interests. While that often happens organically online, it can also be done by someone with a specific vision who's willing to take the lead. Most people online are spectators and joiners, not creators, and they will gather wherever they find their interests and needs are being served.

  5. “Most people online are spectators and joiners, not creators”

    That's actually a really good point, Guy, and one that's often overlooked. There's a myth in some parts that everyone who uses the internet is a dynamic revolutinary – I think it's a hangover form days when the internet was new and not everyone used it. As more people do more things online, I think we may see minor modifications in their behaviour, but they're pretty much the same people online as offline

  6. I'm curious to watch this whole experiment play out. I think one of the problems Richard is going to face is finding talented editors who are also effective community managers because that's a real balancing act. I know many other communities that have experimented with similar models, Harper's Authonomy for example, haven't effectively managed their communities and that creates a lot of resentment. And of course, the stakes will even be higher for Cursor since its a paid membership model. The problem is, most editors are used to working behind the scenes and aren't accustomed to putting themselves out there and managing communities. Most editors are used to working in a more linear fashion. But I do wish Richard all the best and hope he achieves his vision.

  7. I'll answer Maria right now because it is a single question comment, and Paul, I'll respond as best I can over the next couple of days. Maria, I've my eye on about ten folks who I know are well able to balance—I'm just not really in a position to tip my hand on that quite yet, you'll understand! Effectively, you see, independent publishers have been doing this all along, functioning as community managers, we just didn't use that terminology. Harper could never run a community, it never did offline so it's bizarre they think they could do it online. Cursor is simply about rendering explicit much of what has been implicit in independent/small press publishing for a while, so the personnel are already out there with the right temperament.

  8. I'll make one quick observation toPaul, having quickly re-skimmed. A tremendous amount of existing publishing is already social. There is a Soft Skull community, an Akashic community, an AK Press community, a McSweeney's community, a Featherproof community, a Two Dollar Radio community. Communities that are organic, informal, anarchic. In the case of AK Press, quite literally anarchic. Not only is there an answer, there is in fact evidence.

    And I'll also say: when I ran Soft Skull Press, info@softskull.com always forwarded to me. It did so beginning in 2001, before Web 2.0. Long before “trust” was a buzzword, Soft Skull was an open and engaged enterprise.

  9. Hi Richard, thank you for engaging! I know you haven't said you'll get back on my questions, probably because there are so many (apologies, it's just such an important topic and one I want to see got 100% right – I'm 90-% with you which is why the questions – if I were only 30% there, I'd have said I disagreed or not commented at all). If you WERE able to answer just one of my points, it would be on Q2, because for me that's the biggie. I'm not clear – at least from this post – that I understand that you understand (if you get me) that there are two very different types of community – the author-engagement-driven one (1,000 true fans) and the early-adopter-facilitated one that's much bigger, and contains engagement elements and an equally respectful author-reader relationship but in which the mechanics are diffeernt (I keep coming back to that word).

    Of course, it could be you're not answering my questions because I'm on your secret list of ten. In which case, your e-mail is anticipated with joy and with glee 🙂

  10. Seriously, will respond to them all, Dan, just need a little time
    because of a bunch of deadlines I have this afternoon! And that I have
    a 2 year old to pick up from daycare…
    twitter: @r_nash

  11. Q1 – you don't really tell us about the “publishing” bit of social publishing. As a writer, I know what I mean by social publishing (I mean putting ALL my work AND myself out there in the digital domain for people to comment on; I then expect social reader groups to take up the work they like, having been seeded by “early adopters” coming from direct contact with me – who will then bring my book to a wider audience and the wider audience to me), but it's not clear what you have in mind for me and my book. I don't feel the mechanics.

    A1 – It is a commonplace that the word “publishing” has a vast array of meanings, as does “social.” I can say that what helps a given book find its audience varies greatly, and if by “early adopters” you mean people who are already familiar with your writing and are evangelists for it, yes, sure, that's part of what we do, in fact, we've been doing it for a while. I suppose I'd add, for clarification—though this is explicit in the article that Guy originally refers to—is that it is up to the member how public the permissions are set for his/her work and for those writers whose work will be invested in in other formats like limited edition print, and print going through the traditional supply chain, “publish” will mean all formats, continuously…

  12. Q2 – I think you've got that wrong, as I've said elsewhere. It's NOT authors who build communities around themselves, it's readers, and it's the early adopters who bring those readers. For me THIS community is fundamentally different from the author-driven 1,000 true fan community. I can see “business cases” for both, but I think you've fundamentally conflated the mechanics – as I feared from Q1

    A2 – I'm not sure what community you're referring to by “THIS.” I mean that on a syntax level—is this community you mean one of the Cursor communities, like Red Lemonade? I don't think we can really prove one another right or wrong here, until it actually happens, but I know that the Soft Skull community consisted of people attracted both to the overall idea of Soft Skull, and of people exclusively interested in one or more authors, and both. This is just plain fact, that it was a combination, not me conflating two abstractions. Just as Kevin Kelly's 1000 fans has historically applied to quite a number of record labels.

  13. Q3/4 there's just no content here, I'm afraid

    A3 – Both the questions and the response are quite specific from a business model standpoint so I'm confused as to your assertion there's no content.

    A4 – Well, sure, it's very broad, but the question was designed to elicit pretty broad answers.

  14. Q5 this sounds like a fluid idea that's becoming solidified – and that's the start of the death of things like this. If a community can't overthrow its king and its king's ideals it's gonna just up sticks and move

    A5. Well, that's another time-will-tell. My experience having done this already is that you must be attentive to a community's needs and desires or you will fail, sure. That's always been the way, though. Community isn't something that Web 2.0 brought into being, it's something that existed long before, and the various methods of orchestrating and responding (exit, voice, and loyalty to use the three categories offered by Albert O. Hirschmann in the 1970's when exploring membership organizations) are still with us.

  15. Q6 I'm afraid I don't see why that applies to Cursor and not any other model – you've made a case for the TYPE of business, not the SPECIFIC business.

    A6 – I'm not aware of any existing business that currently deploys or intends to deploy all these revenue streams. Could anyone choose to do these things, yes, absolutely, anyone could. They're just not choosing to. The publishers operating a tradition print supply chain business are doing digital download and few have a subscription and a few have tried limited edition, but none except a couple horror and SF publishers have done all those, and those guys haven't done education. And their subscription model is pure content, no services.

  16. And regards Dan's final graf. I don't mean to sound sanguine but I'm nevertheless sanguine. My experience over the past decade in indie publishing, and over the past nine months of having a lot of explicit conversation on this topic suggests the many writers and reader do in fact wish that some people, inter alia me, would take the initiative, and propose and begin to execute some business models. It is unreasonable to throw the process of creating a business model onto customers—part of what they will be paying us to do is come up with a damn business model that allows the writing-reading relationship to function economically. If I can't come up with a business model that generates value for reader and writer then I shouldn't be operating the damn community!

  17. Thank you SO much for taking the time with all of these, Richard. To take this with A1, I guess by early adopter, I'm talking about those people at the top of the cultural dissemination pyramid – the kind who seek out new talent, and then spread it to a large number of fans (a bit like swine-flu “super-transmitters”) They're not already fans – but they're the people who, if they become fans in sufficient numbers, will create success – so take a high school class – they're the ones who go to watever's on on a Friday night and come back on Monday morning and tell 20 of their mates to download the music – they're the ones you go TO for your file-share advice – they're the pushers and dealers of the cultural world (they're NOT pundits, though – that would be “uncool”) I think of the communities THEY start as working very differently from the communities the content-creators start, whcih are smaller, and thrive on direct engagement rather than “buzz”. They hear about the writer from the writer, not from their cool friend. My intuition is these are very different types of fan-community, but I'm not 100% sure you're sure which Cursor is – and I guess what I'm saying is I think it probably matters knowing which you're part of (largely because of perceived authenticity issues from fanbases)

  18. A4 fair point
    A3 I guess, as someone who would think about being a peripheral to the community you're huilding, I didn't get a picture of what you had in mind for me 🙂 It seems you are envisaging a two-tier system. Is that right? I think what Guy was asking (I may be wrong, Guy) that Iw anted answering was – would you be prepared to let your community decide which of the periphery ot let IN to the central group – possibly at the expense of those already there. It's a question of the porosity of the borders, rather tahn what happens either side of them – in other words, a quetsion of the element of devolution of control To the community

  19. Point taken entirely. I guess we have some differences on the business model to adopt, but we're both essentially trying to do the same thing, which is bring readers and writers together directly for the benefit of both.

    Thanks again, Richard, for taking the time to answer the comments, and Guy's excellent questions. And good luck! And if you ever want to write that e-mail…

  20. Gotcha. Pretty porous. In fact, it is my contention that there was
    always a level of porosity, especially amongst independents. With
    hindsight, while I was making the decisions about what Soft Skull
    would publish, I was really more of a conduit through which Soft
    Skullness expressed itself. I never read a manuscript in a vacuum, it
    always came with context, what other folks thought of it, where else s/
    he published, studied etc. Interns and volunteers commented on it, etc
    etc. My job was to interpret and channel all this opinion, since raw
    voting just doesn't work with art & culture. So, in a sense, all this
    does is make that process more efficient and systematic and
    transparent. The editor and publisher and staff, their/our role is to
    listen to and help express the will of the community… Ideally, in
    fact, agents and established authors would submit through the
    community but that just ain't gonna happen to start with, so we'll
    have to have these two tiers, otherwise we'll lose writers I'm certain
    the community would want us to be publishing…
    twitter: @r_nash

  21. Aha, I see what you're saying. Hmm. To be perfectly candid, what
    you're describing is a process that has less traction with books than
    with music. I'd love to see it gain more, but the reality is that the
    ease of music sampling (30-60 seconds, 4 minutes at most) compared to
    book sampling (an hour or more to get enough read), combined with the
    equally radical difference in the overall amount of time require to
    consume it, means that most readers look for a more intense and
    reliable type of recommendation than what the cool kids are reading.
    It's more about what your friend, whether s/he is cool or not, is
    reading. Now, definitely, some books flow the way you describe—
    especially ones that involve sex and violence, but most flow the way I
    describe. And nothing I'm doing precludes the development of either,
    and certainly we would do everything we could to get super-
    transmitters to read and talk about the books—at Soft Skull I spent as
    much time doing that as I spent pitching newspapers. Think of the
    greatest super-transmitter int he area of books—Oprah. Her genius is
    not that she's cool, it's that her audience connects to her as if she
    is one of their closest friends. Or take Chuck Palahniuk—subject
    matter and style a little closer to the kind of stuff you'd get music-
    and fashion-esque dissemination of the type you're writing about.

    I guess, basically, that I see the phenomenon, but I see it more as a
    part of culture, rather than as a part of a business?
    twitter: @r_nash

  22. I saw Mr. Nash speak recently at the Decatur Book Festival here near Atlanta, and one thing that stuck out to me was the disparity between the audience's notions of what publishing is and the rather simple assertions that Nash was trying to get across. People find publishing much more mysterious and secretive than it actually is, and I think they want it that way because it is somewhere in that mysterious back room of the publishing operation that the validation of one's work takes place. When publishing is revealed to be simple choices (made in complex circumstances), the illusion fades and it becomes clear: anyone can be published, depending on the publisher.

    The question, to my mind, is how to maintain the prestige of being published when the mystery is swapped out for community. Will communal approval and praise fulfill the same validating effect? I'll be watching for Cursor to find out. Good luck, sirs.

  23. So very true, Will. I've certainly tried for years to demystify the
    process, trying to help the writers I was publishing understand the
    economics and politics of how things went from the editorial process
    through to a customer buying the book. It was mind-blowing how little
    my authors knew, even (especially?) those previously published. They
    were really kept int he dark, in part because within corporate
    publishing, few employees even had the big picture and could explain
    to authors how things worked.

    What'll happen when the veils completely lifted? I don't know. The
    prestige may vanish. I'm mindful of how a brand like Red Lemonade or
    any of the Cursor brands may be transitional. The consensus I've seen
    so far is that most (though not all) people don't want to see it
    vanish, providing they can be part of it. They want the VIP category.
    But mostly so's they can be in it. That impulse might not hold up in
    the long run. The consensus may drift away from that type of
    validation…we'll see!

    twitter: @r_nash

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