April 24, 2011
If you have any interest in publishing, you’ve heard of Richard Nash—you may count yourself among his more than 70,000 Twitter followers . . . which can at times make him seem more like a popular guitarist or actor than, you know, an indie publishing dude. In fact, giving an account of Richard’s career—most notably his distinguished stint running Soft Skull Press, during which time he transformed it from a small cult-fave to one of the most formidable indie presses in the country—can’t really begin to address what it is about this guy that has the entire publishing world sitting at attention. By his own admission, he doesn’t tend to be where the big money’s at—Soft Skull had infamous financial difficulties that partially led to its acquisition by Counterpoint (a move that failed to solve the problem), and now Nash is involved in a highly ambitious start-up company, Cursor, at a time when most people are crying Armageddon in terms of the literary economy. Yet when Nash talks, people listen—perhaps precisely because of the fact that he is one of the few in the publishing industry to embrace change and upheaval with an unbridled enthusiasm rather than with fear. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Richard about Cursor’s pioneering “community based” publishing arm, Red Lemonade, which is currently an invitation-only site, not viewable by the general public. If Nash’s popularity—and enthusiasm for lit-based community—are any indications, however, Red Lemonade will not be under cover for very long, and soon everyone will be talking about its visionary role in the Brave New Publishing World.
TNB: So let’s talk about the concept of community based publishing. A lot of different communities are launching their own book imprints these days, TNB Books among them. The Rumpus, Five Chapters, Dzanc Books and its imprints, Fictionaut . . . many different forums are popping up that could be considered “community based”—but not in the same way as Red Lemonade, where the community is literally deciding what submitted material gets published as a book. Can you talk specifically about how Red Lemonade defines “community” and the process by which projects will be selected for publication?
RN: First off, community in the end is always self-selecting. We’re seeding it by inviting in alpha and beta users (tech speak for gracious guinea pigs) who had expressed interest in what we were up to, and by picking three books that had a certain cultural commonality. The gravitational pull of that will attract users, and the users then—well, they take over the asylum. Partly. I say “partly” because I think accountability is necessary. So users weigh in and then the editor, me to start with, makes a decision based on all the commentary. So we don’t have voting, and we don’t have ratings, but we’re reacting to the community. I was going to say, to the voice of the community, but the community consists of every individual’s voice and so the challenge is in distilling those voices down to a decision. That’s what I see it being a combination of the group and the individual intuition.
TNB: So will manuscripts that get posted up on the site ever be officially “rejected” by Red Lemonade, ala traditional publishing? Or is it more like you get tapped on the shoulder if RL wants to publish you, and otherwise there’s no formal response, just community feedback, so that writers can use the site almost as they would a writing group, irrespective of whether or not they acquire a book deal with RL?
RN: Exactly. You answered your own question. That’s going in the website’s FAQ. Thanks!
And to that end, how will RL as a community deal with the intense time commitment necessary to read and discuss loads of manuscripts.
I don’t know. We’ll need a lot of people and we’ll try to find ways to make it easy. Though in the end, you can only make it so easy. We’ll find ways to make it rewarding. With the help of the community. I want folks to tell me “You know what would make me feel good about spending time on this? If you did: xxxxxx.” And we’ll try xxxxxx! In general, I don’t think we’re building the Answer. We’re building a machine to help ask the right questions and give useful answers. If we can do that consistently on an ongoing basis, we’ll be a kind of Answer.
TNB: What if a manuscript on which the community has spent a lot of time is suddenly bought by another publisher before RL makes an offer? Is that all considered just more positive buzz for the larger community, or can it also be considered a time drain for RL’s community editors?
RN: Here I’ll first offer a bit of pedantry. Manuscripts aren’t bought, except by archives. Publishers license. It might be exclusive, and it might last 150 years (life of the author plus 70 years), but it’s a license. Not an outright sale. And, pedantic as that distinction is, it suggests a larger philosophical point. The book is always the author’s. Some credit for helping it be good and popular and discovered belongs to the community and that can never be taken away. It has no legal meaning of course (and our terms of service are quite clear on that, by the way.) But speaking for myself, I know that we’ll attract more good projects than we can publish, and I’ll be proud when others find value in what our community helped spawn. Though I might also chastise myself for being too slow!
TNB: Talk about Red Lemonade’s debut season—its first three books—and what drew you to these titles to showcase RL’s mission and start creating its “brand,” if you will.
RN: Lynne is Lynne is Lynne. If your role as publisher is to expand the boundaries of storytelling while respecting the experience of craft and without self-congratulation of popularity or unpopularity, then Lynne Tillman is a great place to start. Then your role is to help channel new voices—in other words, easy as it might have been to launch Red Lemonade with the established writers I worked with at Soft Skull, I knew I wanted to support a community with some biodiversity. Kio and Vanessa, while being utterly their own writers, also evoked two styles that feel compelling in contemporary fiction. The one being very much about the unsaid, the unknown, the silences, the space between the lines. The other, more maximalist, maybe more clearly comic and/or satirical. Writers with a real seriousness of purpose. Who do it because they have to.
TNB: All three titles are by women. Strictly coincidence, or is this any effort to address some of the recent controversies about women being under-represented in literary publishing?
RN: At the time, the former. I’d decided in my head who it would be almost a year ago now. But the data that VIDA produced, along with the data their research spawned, that data was all happening a year ago and it was pretty obviously anecdotally, it has been for years. I talked about this a little with Jessa Crispin and said, “I honestly believe that if you’re trying to pick the best stuff, you’ll pick more stuff by women, because good old-fashioned societal sexism simply means that B+ men get published ahead of A- women. Same would go for any minority, really, all other things being equal.” So when you’re an indie press who isn’t publishing Lethem or Shteyngart or Hemon, because that stuff is going to sell, no argument, you’re left with a universe of literary fiction that’s not already pre-ordained to sell well in the commercial market. And if you were to choose from that, you should be picking the “best of the rest” —and that inevitably, will consist of more women. Basically my observation was just statistics. If there are 100 great men writers and 100 great women writers, and Big Corp Pub pubbed 70 of the guys and 30 of the ladies, then Cool Indie Press has 70 great ladies and 30 great guys to choose from. If you’re getting second pick when choosing sides in pick-up basketball, all other things being equal, in this unequal world, you’re getting more ladies.
So, did I try? I sorta tried. The explicit sexism is (mostly) gone from publishing, but stereotypes are subtle and persistent and you just need to keep an eye out for bad social habits.
TNB: You’ve developed a reputation as more than an editor or publisher, but really an industry tastemaker and pioneer. What experiences and successes do you think helped you to read the pulse of such a fickle industry, and attract the attention of your colleagues?
RN: Well, thanks, first off. I’m going to deny the tastemaker thing, though. I’m going to say, my role is to channel the genius of the community. In fact, here I’m drawing on what Lynne Tillman pointed out when discussing the title of her 2006 novel, American Genius, A Comedy. Genius doesn’t just mean “brilliant”—it means the guiding spirit of a person, family, or place. And that part of genius is what I’m talking about here. Soft Skull in its time, Red Lemonade in its, has a genius that is something collective, contextual, cultural. My role is to manage it, like the mayor of a city, to manage and to be an advocate for the city in a practical and hopefully inspirational way. If I do a bad job, I get turfed out, or the citizens move to the burbs. I’m a creature of my culture and my talent, if I may assert it, is to listen carefully to the genius and help it express itself. I generate visibility, I think, because I’m a good advocate for that community’s genius. And because I think there’s plenty of genius to be found out there, I’m focused now on abstracting the principles of good community management and good community advocacy to see if we can’t use the technologies of the present to help other communities, other mayors, other city councils, create more connectedness, more quality, more intensity, more value.
TNB: How large do you want or expect the Cursor/Red Lemonade community to grow? I’m curious about this for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons is this: at what point does a “community” become a publishing forum in its own right? So, for example, if Red Lemonade ends up having more community members than some small, print literary magazines have readers, is it possible that manuscripts posted up on the site will start to be considered “previously published” by other editors, so that even those that Red Lemonade doesn’t offer to turn into books would be less viable to publish with other presses?
RN: Interesting! That’s a question that I didn’t see getting from where it started to where it goes. OK, the way I address that is by saying this. The notion that something is less viable because there’s an audience for it is a dead notion. In a universe where quality content was scarce, having a monopoly on that quality content was valuable, especially since there was only one method to disseminate it, and that method required capital. That world is utterly gone. So the “previously published” thing is going to have to die off too. We’re in a world of abundant culture, not a world where culture is scarce. Contriving scarcity by forbidding writers to seek an audience helps no one. Part to what this implies is that we get beyond being “published” or “not published.” There’s a continuum, and that continuum isn’t even along a single dimension, I think, there are multiple axes, degrees of visibility in different forums. Those entities that eschew those writers who’ve demonstrated that readers are moved by the work are going to be left with writers who have turned their back on readers. Academic and scholarly publishing recognizes this, the music business recognizes this. If an entity can’t offer a writer what Red Lemonade offers that writer even though Red Lemonade is only offering effectively a public workshop forum then it is not going to be long for these parts. A writer who might feel that Damn, this publisher isn’t interested in me because of all the attention she’s get on RL, is going to quick find other publishers interested in her…because of all the attention she is getting on RL! What they would do is see the kinds of writers responding, the kinds of commentary they’re making, and think, I know how to get that writer a lot more of that, I know how to build on that, that Nash guy might be good at X but he always misses the boat on Y. That’s what could and should happen. And I think I can help that with our web platform, with our community management practices. So I’m mostly interested in persuading other literary ventures to adopt our model or some variant on it, not in stealing away their writers or readers. Cursor is a platform that I want to see powering 50,000 writer/reader communities, of which Red Lemonade will be but one.
Basically, while Red Lemonade is my baby, I really see my job as midwife, helping many more babies come into the world.
TNB: The past few years have seen book tours ala Stephen Elliott sleeping on couches all over the country and sending out free books to people who promise to pass them on, all the way to zero-emissions book tours that landed James Kaelan shirtless on the cover of Poets & Writers . . . these days, some writers complain that they are expected to be performance artists with no other responsibilities besides promoting their books in new, exciting ways. Is that, indeed, a fair assessment and expectation? How innovative and wild do publishers and writers need to be these days to attract attention? What is the fate of the more “reclusive” writer of a previous generation? While “the book” may not be dead, is that type of writer now extinct?
RN: Thirty years ago, the vast majority of writers were just rejected outright. The ones that weren’t were even more disproportionately white male than they are now. Their performance art involved different stages, smaller audiences of way more homogenous people. The whole thing was a stitch-up. In the decades before that, even more, pace Mad Men. The fact that there’s more hustling now is that far more books are published, giving more writers a chance, but also at a time when there is vastly more culture, more music, more video, more burlesque, more radio, more images, and way more books. This is an amazing and wonderful thing—the tradeoff is trivial.
Also, everyone knows the writing comes first. Remember, first you spent 10 years of your life or more, learning the craft doing nothing public because no one gave a shit. Then you spend 2-3 years writing a book. If you spent a whole year doing nothing but writing, and disregarding any cultural value produced through the conversations, essays, encounters, discoveries and sundry activity produced through that activity, you’re still talking 13:1. After five books, you’re talking, say, 5:1.
I mean, before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the advertising-driven, mass-market, any-color-so-long-as-it-is-black culture, writers always had to sing for their supper in some fashion. It could be a patron, it could be travelling town-to-town, that was culture; that was how it worked. The “reclusive writer” idea strikes me as very convenient for some faceless corporation to just, through its massive distribution tentacles, shove your product down the gullets of the hapless reader who had few choices on what to read. I think the “reclusive writer” is a social construct that’s pretty infantilizing really. Fuck, Beckett did all the TV that he did for the Germans in the 1970s so he could get out of the house! And that’s one reclusive misanthropic writer. His theater, his film work were in part about craving human connection, to be creating live, with others. Folks will find a spot they can thrive in, whether artisanal reproduction, virtual communication, in-person connection, teaching on- or offline, overlapping with the music world, or the art world, or the film world, or sports or what-have-you. No one’s telling Lydia Millet to go do what Stephen Elliott is doing—she wouldn’t. But she reviews. She does interviews. She engages with environmental non-profits. Are there complete shut-in types in writing? Sure, as they are in all walks of human life, but I’m not sure why we should lionize them, they should probably be in therapy. The Industrial Revolution, not to get all Marxist here, but the Industrial Revolution was about alienating the creator from the product, and the consumer from the creator. The fact that that long alienating supply chain that separated writer from reader is compressing and collapsing and becoming less salient should be a cause for celebration.
TNB: You and I recently talked about ebooks for a piece I did on Kassia Krozer’s Booksquare. In it, you and many other publishers candidly admitted that, despite the talk about electronic books, the percentage of sales indie presses are seeing from ebooks is extremely low compared to sales at bricks and mortar stores. If this is true . . . well, what’s going on precisely? We hear about nothing else in the industry except how technology is changing the entire book world–break down for me the difference between the reality and the hype.
RN: Well, 60% of recorded music is still sold in CD format by WalMart and BestBuy etc. And 94% of trade books are still sold in print. And the global temperature is still only a couple degrees higher than it was 100 years ago. The significance, in other words, is in the trend lines, not in the absolute numbers. I’m not privy to everyone’s data, to knowledge about which books are available digitally and which aren’t, so I can’t give indie publisher details, but I know that as publishers make more work available digitally, it is selling more, as the readers of literary fiction begin to notice that a critical mass of lit fic books are available that process will accelerate. It’s also the case that relatively small changes can be amplified quite dramatically in systems with a long-term stable equilibrium due to feedback loops and due to tight margins. Borders sales didn’t drop 50% for them to end up in bankruptcy. It dropped 15%.
TNB: I see that some of Lynne’s books that are up on the site have already been published years ago elsewhere, here and in the UK. How is RL handling already-published books, and what role do they play in your mission?
RN: Where there is a compelling logic for them to be brought back into print, we’ll listen to the community as we would with a completely new project. Ditto for translations actually. I’d like to see international publishers and translators offer excerpts for the community to check out.
TNB: Can publishers expect to make money on literary fiction? Does Red Lemonade absolutely demand to, or live and die by the need to make a profit? After your experiences at Soft Skull, you know a great deal about how economics can impact artistic goals—where are we, as a literary culture, in terms of the role of profit in publishing?
RN: Well, money has to come from somewhere. So for-profits always have to at least break-even, and non-profits must always also—when they bring in more money, it’s called a surplus, not a profit, but they’re supposed to break-even too and it’s permissible for them to run a surplus so long as they don’t pay dividends. Otherwise you go out of business—that’s not a business’s choice, it’s the law. But profit/surplus is just revenue minus costs, so there’s all kinds of ways to figure out how one increases one and reduces the other so that there is a financial equilibrium, one that also has to take in other balances, human/emotional ones, and ecological ones especially. So one really has to look at the whole ecosystem of literary fiction, and figure out how to create the most value for the most writers and readers. Intermediaries, whether publishers or agents or retailers or whatever names we’ll have for intermediaries of the future, they need to create more value for the literary fiction ecosystem than they take out. I don’t think we should be thinking in terms of publisher making profits or not, because the intermediaries who make money will only be making it because they’re helping writers and readers exchange the value they create and enjoy more efficiently. That, obviously, is Cursor’s goal, to help writers and readers more efficiently exchange the value the writers create and the readers enjoy (and sometimes, with their responses to the work, the value the readers create and the writers enjoy). We make money if we help lots of intermediaries create all this extra value. If we don’t, we go out of business. If we do, we’ll be profitable. But that’s my problem! Literary culture will thrive one way or another. I just think we can help it thrive more…
*Interviewer’s Note: This is the first interview in a series on “New Directions in Publishing,” so stay tuned for future interviews with David Daley of Five Chapters Books, Alice Sebold of Europa Editons’ new Tonga imprint, and others to come.