April 19, 2010
Utne Reader calls Richard Nash “One of 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Mashable.com ranks him him “The #1 Twitter User Changing the Shape of Publishing.” He 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. The last book he edited at Soft Skull, Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, was just picked as a Pulitzer finalist.
JM: A lot of people probably already know who you are, but just to give everyone an equal start, do you mind giving us some personal background?
RN: Well, I was a theater director and performance artist for most of the 90’s, and in 2001, for long and complicated and boring reasons, I ended up inadvertently taking over an independent press that had some reputation but was also more of a brand, called Soft Skull, and I ran Soft Skull for pretty much the rest of the decade. I had to sell it in the middle of 2007 in the aftermath of our distributor’s bankruptcy in late 2006. And so I ran it as an imprint of the acquiring company up until early 2009 and early last year when I left. I left largely in order to be able to figure out what the new model should be for being in the writer/reader connection business.
JM: Yeah, oddly enough we have two touch points through Soft Skull. One is, I wrote a forward for one of your books, and the other is that reading one of the Soft Skull books is what strongly influenced me to start my current venture.
RN: Oh no, really?
JM: I read the X Films by Alex Cox when I was directing and producing the podcasts for the Los Angeles Film Festival. I was reading that while at the same time watching the independent industry film implode in front of me at the LAFF finance conference last year. Everybody who came to the conference had always been able to get financing for independent film, and to a man they all said the same thing: “There’s no more money. The traditional sources of funding are gone, and the only thing we can imagine to save independent film at this point is this ‘Internet thing,’ but I don’t think anybody has figured that out yet.” In my mind I was thinking, Yeah, it’s been figured out. It’s just that you studio guys haven’t figured it out.
RN: You know, it’s funny. X Films and this other book we did called Putting The Pieces Together are similar. Alex [Cox] obviously is somebody who not only has done it multiple times and at a higher level than anyone else, but he also has a real philosophy or ideology about why doing things yourself really matters, both culturally and personally. So obviously that’s really bloody exciting. That means a lot to me to hear that.
JM: That book was a home run for me because I came out of independent film back in the early 90’s when it really meant independent. I used to be an art director on call for Henry Rosenthal out of SF. I worked on a lot of $30,000, $100,000 films. Some of them were spectacular movies that we all felt good about afterward, and there was no give and take with investors, or fighting with studios because Henry knew how to get enough money and keep them off our backs.
JM: And then more recently, as I was reading X Films, and I heard the finance guys going, “If only somebody could figure out this Internet thing” — that was the breaking point for me. The Internet thing was figured out a long time ago. It’s just that the people from the big media companies can’t get their heads around it, because you can’t make Batman-level movies and make the Batman-level profits to recoup your costs. It’s not that the Internet isn’t figured out, it’s that they haven’t figured out how to make massive profits off of it.
RN: In a sense, it’s the same problem with publishing. The big fight at the moment is what ought to be the retail price of books. Who should set this. The argument is partially about a question of power between the publishers and the retailers. But there’s a larger issue which is an endemic philosophy within publishing: you decide what your costs are, you give yourself a ten percent profit margin, and that’s how you set the list price of the book. Which is sort of delusional, really, because it’s the marketplace that sets the price. The readers decide how much they’re willing to pay for it.
The publishers are saying, “We can’t make money if e-books are ten bucks.” And I’m thinking, a) we have to figure out a way, and b) if you think it’s gonna stay at ten bucks you’ve got another thing coming; it’s going to be cheaper than ten bucks.
JM: Oh yeah. I get that.
RN: If raw digital content is basically going to be free, there’s going to have to be some other value that you’re offering, whether it’s convenience, or community, or a sense of belongingness, or a kind of empty arts style where we’re supporting this larger project kind of thing. Who knows what exactly, but the fundamental two things that need to happen are A.) the revenue side needs to be based on what people are demonstrably willing to pay for, and B.) the cost side has to be whatever it takes in order to be able to make this stuff happen.
The ironic thing is that independents — writers, booksellers, filmmakers — are typically much better about not wasting their money on things. I think in the long run this new business model will end up benefiting independents, even if in the short run you’ve got situations like the one you described, where they can’t get financing because the financiers haven’t figured out how to make money.
JM: Is it a concern of the publishing industry that with digital publishing there is no real cost of goods anymore? When you have a single file sitting on a server going directly to the consumer, you’ve now cut out the printers, the distributors, and the retailers.
RN: The publishers, in the abstract, see a value to an intermediary. But in practice I think they’re missing the boat. Now the reason I think they’re correct is that in a universe of millions of titles, and tens of millions of readers, publishers help readers sort through all the stuff that exists. Every publisher thinks they therefore deserve a slice of the pie.
But the reality is that a lot of publishers are useless at providing readers with tools to help sort. Random House is exactly what its corporate name suggests it is. You could basically throw 20,000 darts at the half-million books published last year, and you would get a description of a scatter graph of Random House’s output.
This to some degree could also be said for other parts of the supply chain: wholesalers, and the big retailers — Amazon, B&N, and Borders. Here’s where you get all the books in the world. That’s certainly true of Amazon. “Where do you go to find it? You come to us.” But, a file (laughs), a digital file eliminates all of Amazon’s logistical advantage. Anybody can run an e-book store, to a certain degree. And, with B&N and Borders, brick & mortar indie stores by comparison can only offer a very limited selection. However, the power of brick & mortar is the capacity to help a person sort through all the available books in the world, on a more personal, intimate basis. Going forward, that’s going to be their real value to a reader, to a consumer.
So how much value can we ascribe to that sorting process? Because that’s one of the only real values that you’re talking about in the e-book realm. The logistical stuff falls away. You’ve obviously got the editorial work, editorial and design, but any writer can hire a freelancer to do that work for them. Publishers might do it, and we might find ways to do it more efficiently maybe, or more intimately maybe, but that’s a marginal difference. Basically our real value is going to be found in matchmaking, in helping to match make writers and readers. If we can’t do that job well, then basically we have no value.
And here I’m reminded of what Amazon did when they bought Stanza a year ago. Stanza was an independently run start-up, with a staff of three of four who developed a really nice iPhone app, the first reading app in the app store, and they didn’t have a retail storefront at all. But they found certain workarounds to allow people to find places that were retailing the e-pub files that Stanza could read, and basically it was stealing a lot of attention from the Kindle. And so Amazon bought them, and have done nothing with them, best as I can tell. Amazon bought Stanza just to ensure that the Kindle would be the only game in town for as long as possible. I suspect that there may have been some level at which the company thought they could make money with it, but when it didn’t take off fast enough, it was easier to make money the old way and just wait for some future day of reckoning. And that day of reckoning is now upon us.
The simple act of having a chokehold over the supply chain, whether the chokehold is up at the publisher level or down at the retail level, that chokehold isn’t worth anything anymore because there are too many other ways for people to create and consume.
JM: The way you’re talking about the new role of the publisher, it almost sounds like what you’re describing is the role of “trusted recommender,” as they’re called in social media parlance.
RN: Exactly. That could be one person. But it could also be several people functioning as a business, and being able to do a little bit more aggregation within given areas of expertise, as with an indie press, or an indie record label, or it could be a more collaborative, community-style environment. The Nervous Breakdown is an example. It has a collective quality with different writers of different areas of focus and expertise, but it is true that you guys all found one another in a certain kind of way and you choose to do the work you do somewhat collectively instead of individually because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think there are going to be a lot of intermediaries, and they’re going to have lots of different business models.
JM: In talking about the world of the book, and the digital world of the book specifically, it brings to mind something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When you have books that not are only digital in format and downloadable — meaning instantly accessible — you also have the ability to derive content or search within that content. With the Stanford project and the Google project, and a couple of other similar projects, there is a future wherein I can see “books” becoming records in databases. The term “book” in that case becomes a unit of measure for information, rather than a description of an object.
In that future, which is not too far away in my view, the content of the book becomes the basis of a query, rather than this object that you pick up and read cover to cover to glean the unit of information that’s inside of it. It becomes accessible in an almost holographic sense, in all different directions. This changes the relationship of book to reader, and reader to book. Does it not?
RN: I think that’s absolutely right, and I will also say that this particular development does point to a greater level of interactivity that was always inherent in the book but was maybe less obvious to us when it was just considered a static piece of bound paper. That way you described it was really dead on. I’m going to re-listen to this transcript and steal it for myself for future use! (laughter)
I think in a way our notion that books are static and that reading and writing are highly solitary activities — I think this misses or understates how truly interactive even a dumb book is. Not because of the book but because of the nature of human beings. We love talking about books. We love interacting. Books are great ways for us to connect with other people.
JM: I recall doing research on the University of California research computer back in the late 80’s. They had a computer system called Melvyl, and I could do searches against descriptions, and I could do searches against authors, and I could do searches against titles, and even genres. Then I could find every book in the University of California library system that might possibly have the information I was looking for, and I could put an order in, and a week later these books would start to trickle in, and I’d have to physically go through the books to find the information I sought. It took a while, but it was effective.
Nowadays, I can instantly throw a query up and run it against a database and come back with an aggregation — literally assembling a “new book” if you think about it. If I throw out a cyber-query and say, “Give me ‘X’ content,” I can then pull together all relevant information and assemble an HTML page from the results, and suddenly I’ve re-contextualized the concept of the book. I’ve made it a little more active, and a little more of an assemblage. Does any of this tie into your project, Cursor?
RN: To a considerable degree, yes. I would say that in terms of the format and structure of the individual book, I’m philosophically open to any number of directions. I think that relatively traditional formats will co-exist alongside much more complicated and dynamic stuff. What I’m not doing is making bets on how interactivity and multiple modes of media within storytelling are going to evolve. I just don’t know; I think it’s going to be driven largely by the artist rather than by creating a platform. I do want to be as open as possible to ensure artists have the maximum latitude within the business model I’m trying to create to allow for exploration and to allow us to be able to assist in the writer/reader connection, which is the core of what publishing has always been a substitute for.
In my years working as a publisher, it became increasingly clear that my role was not to be some kind of magical reader of all the manuscripts that came in. It wasn’t a case where I was like, I have one manuscript and this is a Soft Skull manuscript because I love it and I am Soft Skull and therefore this is Soft Skull. What I was, was a conduit. I was basically paid by the Soft Skull community to help the Soft Skull community express itself. And that process, it was a clunky process. Writers and agents sent us things that they thought were Soft Skull and they provided lots of information, and I listened to that, and I listened to the “intrawebs,” and listened to people, and to reading theories and all that stuff. And then I tried to aggregate all the opinions that were expressed by the Soft Skull community about whether or not this was something that was a good expression about all that was Soft Skull, and then I went ahead and did it if it appeared that the Soft Skull community was telling me that I should.
That process, I realized, was what was readers and writers need to have. The way I want to structure this new thing is to make that process much more systematic, much better able to take advantage of Web 2.0 and whatever 3.0 may be, to basically create a platform that allows us to create/enable writing and reading communities. All of these communities of readers and writers exist out there, but they tend to be fairly incoherent until a couple of people take it upon themselves to organize what was formerly a more vague, accretive community. That’s what the independent publishers have been — Soft Skull, Akashic, McSweeney’s, Melville House, Maniac D.
The two key things that I think the new model should have in order for it to work for the community: 1.) a good ol’ fashioned editor — but a humble, self-effacing and community orientated editor, and 2.) a publicist, a good ol’ fashioned publicist — except a publicist who is much more about listening than talking. And these two people are there to help manage the community, provide services to it. And the next facet of the business model — and I could be right and I could be wrong — is a semi-conventional book publishing arm. You could call it the Merch Division. A lot of people still love the printed book. And a lot of people still discover things through booksellers. It seems like it would make sense to participate in that rather than reject it.
Obviously a lot of resources have to go into doing that. Perhaps only a very small amount of the work that the community creates online would be worthy of print. You have to make choices. So my feeling is that this is a process where the community points out what they want online, via reading and/or commenting. And in the end, the editors are going to have to make a decision in an old school fashion.
JM: To me, the best writing, especially fiction, comes from somebody who’s very clear about their point of view, and they’re not afraid to state it no matter how unpopular it may be. That’s probably what the hook was for me in Alex Cox’s book [X Films]. I’ve loved Alex’s film work from the beginning, but the book was just… he wasn’t writing like a man who was concerned about ruining his career in the film industry.
RN: No, he wasn’t, was he?
JM: Do you have any thoughts on pricing? Because I remember early on you mentioned that the consumer is going to set the price of the book.
RN: For print books, it’s that fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-dollar range. We haven’t magically changed the economics of that. But on digital downloads, I think we’ll start at the bottom of the current range, the eight- or nine-dollar range, but we’ll have a fair amount of the early promotional stuff. And that would be in, say, the three- to six-dollar range.
Most people value their time such that, if you gave them the whole book for five bucks, it’s not that much more of a commitment than asking them to download a single chapter for free. So my feeling is that a low price point, especially two or three dollars, it’s sufficiently low that I think people will pay. Rather than give them a free sample chapter, why not give them the whole book at three bucks, because if they like it, the odds are they could turn around and buy it in print, collector’s style, vinyl style. Then you may have gotten a new fan to whom you’ll be able to upsell the limited edition, or a class of some kind, and so on.
One of the things I want to be able to do is try to up the demand curve, too. The digital download is the cheap crack. And with crack, the addicts want more crack. The great thing with books is that you hook them on crack, and then they want cocaine, and then they want whatever kind of elaborate organic Humboldt County marijuana version of cocaine there is.
RN: You can loop people. You can get them hooked not just on the cheap stuff, but also move people up to the more expensive stuff. One of the many things that digital offers is that it takes care of mass distribution at low costs. And that then frees the physical object to become more physical. That’s an area in which I kind of want to do some exploration.
JM: When can we expect to see Cursor going live?
RN: I’m hoping we’ll be in beta by June. If you go to thinkcursor.com, there is a sign-up splash page so folks can sign up and be notified. The first community will be called Red Lemonade, and that will be pretty Soft-Skull-like: edgy, literary fiction, very much like the universe of The Nervous Breakdown.
JM: Sounds great. I know I’m signed up and will be looking for the roll-out in June. Many thanks for this wonderful conversation, Richard.
RN: It’s a pleasure.