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The Future Of Publishing Is Totally Okay: An Interview With Richard Nash

A few weeks ago the news swirled that Soft Skull Press–the most recognized name is DIY counter-cultural publishing–would be downsized dramatically and closing the doors to it’s New York office.  Meanwhile, the man who headed up Soft Skull for most of the last decade, Richard Nash, is about to launch a startup called Cursor.  As a result of his success at Soft Skull, and a number of speeches considered something of a “call to arms” by many in the book business, the entire industry is looking to Nash to see what kind of an impact he will make, hoping that it’s true what they say about a two doors opening each time one closes.

Nash speaks with an accent so slight, that it’s traces could easily be mistaken for a byproduct of his passion.  He takes long pauses when he speaks, choosing his words more carefully than people do these days and he may or may not stutter.  Like his accent, it seems that his tendency to stammer over the occasional word is only a byproduct of how excited he is about what he’s saying.  Nash is a master as the art of infecting others with his ideas and when he talks about his vision for the future of publishing, one is prone to believe him, not just because seems to know what he’s talking about, but because the man seems so focused and sincere, that he might actually be capable of creating the future of which he speaks.

I found my way to Soft Skull because I understood Soft Skull to be the DIY/Punk publishing house, and if this was your culture, these were the books you needed needed to find.  To me, that also meant a certain freedom of communication, that if I wanted to write Soft Skull a letter, I would probably hear back, or If I wanted to write one of the authors, there was a good chance they’d respond.  There wasn’t that unspoken barrier.

Exactly!  Exactly!  I mean, it was punk in the American sense, not the more kind of nihilistic British sense, but that intimate, personal, naked, exposed, DIY sense.  The sense that the way you stuck it to the man was not by flinging a bottle at him, but by making your own damn house, making your own damn world.  I think that was critical thing about Soft Skull.  I think that you just really identified what it meant in practice.  What it meant in its DNA… Soft Skull was amongst the first publishers that benefited from what I like to call “publishing 2.0” From the desktop publishing revolution…


Yes!  Exactly.  Pagemaker + Kinkos.  Pagemaker on it’s own required a 2 and half thousand dollar computer and either the capacity to hack a copy or 500 dollars, so that was three grand.  But at Kinko’s it was six bucks an hour.  So, Sander worked the graveyard shift at Kinko’s and he had a novel that no one wanted to publish, so he and his girlfriend laid it out on the Kinkos computer at night.

It’s interesting, because Kinko’s in a sense, became a symbol of the DIY punk scene in the early 90’s.  Anyone that was involved with a scene spent a fair amount of time at Kinko’s, either making zines, or flyers, or inserts.

Exactly!  I think that, because the web began in 93, it obscured to some degree how significant those years were.  It drew attention away from the fact that the moment when creating your stuff became possible, wasn’t’ about the web, it was about the moment when you didn’t need capital to create, and when something begins in that spirit, I think there’s going to be fewer airs and graces.  Now, I’m not saying the web wasn’t important, because one of the examples I like to give about Soft Skull and about publishers like Soft Skull is that our photo’s and bios were on the website.
You just said, you could write us and we would write you back.  You often knew what our names were and what we looked like.  If I was at a reading, which I often was, you could recognize me, and you could say, “thanks for writing that book, I really loved it,” or “I hated that cover” or “I sent you a manuscript three months ago, why haven’t you read it?”  And even if you didn’t bother to do any of those things, the fact that you knew you could, was powerful.

Navigating the etiquette of the book business is especially difficult.  I’d imagine your perspective on this is quite unique.

What I learned at Soft Skull was that we were stewards of the community.  That there was a Soft Skull community as it were.  That there was a bunch of people out there that could tag themselves, amongst other tags, with the phrase “Soft Skull” and we existed to serve them.  They were writers and readers, very often one and the same thing.
A friend of mine, Peggy Nelson, recently pointed out, writers and readers are behaviors, not different people.  When we would get a submission, it would have a cover letter and the cover letter would describe the books we’d published that the person had read.  I’m proud of a lot what we did, and I’m grateful that you perceived the important things of what we did because you just described them, but they weren’t nearly enough.  I mean, they were enough maybe at the time but they’re not nearly enough now.

What we did was this: we had one or two interns look at them [manuscripts] and if they both liked it, me or someone else would somehow try to find the time to read them, which as the years went by it got harder and harder to even do that.  So typically they were just rejected and this person who’d bought five of our books and had spent three years of their life writing this manuscript basically had it sent back to them with a dagger through its heart and we were forgiven.  To some degree I think we deserved forgiveness but to some degree, I don’t think we did.  Or certainly we are no longer as entitled to that forgiveness as we maybe once might have been.

When digital publishing first happened, by that I mean digital distribution and consumption, it permits sort of production, that was the digital production revolution and to some degree you could call the web the digital promotion revolution.  So it allowed you to create a book and then the next bit, printing the book was analogue, distributing the book was analogue, buying the book was mostly analogue, getting people interested in the book was starting to become digital.  So, the middle bit, the printing distribution and retail, when that was first started to look like it was becoming digital that was 1999, 2000, 2001, I was first starting to get involved with Soft Skull.  At that point, I was like, “Holy shit, this could change everything. Because the corporate publishers are able to get book printed much more cheaply than us, but a PDF costs them the same as it costs us. This could be amazing.”  Now that was sort of true.  Now, it’s certainly true because of e-pub files and Kindles and that sort of thing, there is actually demand for this stuff.  But, I was so used to thinking of myself at the bottom of the ladder, that I didn’t’ really realize that the ladder extended way beyond me in the other direction, to all the writers in the world that me and the rest of us were saying no to, these tools could work just as well for them as they could work for us.  Those tools I think, only have so much utility.  You can now build it, but will they come?  So, a lot more people are building stuff.

It’s not just because of technology, our whole society has become relatively less, sexist racist, classist, and has so dramatically opened access to third level education and given far more people the social intellectual and cultural capital, required to construct a long form narrative, that it’s increased the possibility for the number of books to be created.  Then there’s technology unrelated directly to books, but the technology that allows people to record songs and video, that allows them to blog. That I think has increased people sense of possibility, that “I too may express myself, I need not be a passive consumer.”  All those have resulted in people feeling like they can and should be able to write and reach some kind of an audience.

The word “intermediaries” keeps popping up when I read about what you’re doing with Cursor and I’m curious about the specifics of this.  Are you the intermediary?  How will it work?

I think it’s the whole community in a certain sense, some people will be more intermediary than others.  Within the Red Lemonade context, to start with, I’ll be the chief intermediary.  Over the long run though, Cursor is going to roll out a bunch more communities so someone else will be the chief intermediary at Red Lemonade although I won’t ever be able to let it go entirely since I was involved with it from the start.  But in a certain sense, even a casual participant who goes and re-tweets a link, is an intermediary, even if he only does it one time.

Are we talking about aggregation?

In a certain sense we’re aggregating intermediaries who’ve expressed interest of varying intensity in that community.  One of the hassles with words like “culture” or “community” is that things can be kind of circular.  “What’s the definition of the Red Lemonade community?”  The definition of the Red Lemonade community is that stuff which the Red Lemonade community likes.  That was the problem at Soft skull as well, there was certainly the punk/post punk thing but what did that mean exactly?  It could mean doing those kind of books, but we didn’t always do those kinds of books. We did fucking Echo and the Bunnymen, Jesus.  Good communities always have fuzzy edges, because it means they’re open and permeable and people should be able to come in and go out, otherwise they’re in prison.  I like the way you put it though, we’re basically creating a few magnetic poles around which intermediaries of varying levels of intensity are going to congregate and the ones who feel more intensely drawn to it will come in closer and they will probably comment more or write longer stuff, or you could have very passionate intermediary who never writes anything, but reads a lot and tells their friend about it in a bar that night.

The internet is a tool that co-exists with all the other tools that we have, like our mouths or our fingers on the keyboard.  I do think that there is a degree to which the Red Lemonade community is publishing, but it’s also a recommendation engine, much smaller than Facebook, but much deeper.  I think Facebook’s weaknesses are one, that it’s quite shallow, or maybe horizontal.  It’s defines everybody as “friend,” “corporation,” or “celebrity.”  The reality is the world is a much more nuanced place than that.  But its social graph is dependent on the connections between people only. Twitter’s social graph is dependent on people’s interests, it’s a more broadcast-y kind of thing.  Each is good at one thing.  As a recommendation engine, each has something to recommend it.  You friends may know you better on Facebook personally, but there may not be any experts on a given topic who you’re friends with.  So you rely on Twitter to get advice from some internet guru who’s never going to friend you on Facebook or from Susan Orlean, who’ll never friend you on Facebook, although she might, the writers tend to be kind of friendlier.

When is Cursor set to launch?

Our first print book is publishing April 22nd — that’s Lynne Tillman, then there’s two more, debuting, one is may by a woman Vanessa Veselka and one in June by a woman named Kio Stark.

How we deal with opening the website up is difficult to predict right now.  We’re a couple of weeks away from starting to work with Alpha testers.  Then we are just going to keep adding to that group of Alpha testers out of people who’ve asked to be able to look under the hood and kick the tires and at a certain point we’ll give them invitations to pass on to other folks.  We’ll do it incrementally because we want to be able to make something that works.  Exactly at what point will you be able to become a full member with out an invite, I don’t know, it will be at some point in the Spring.  Exactly at what point will we have some pages up for everybody without having to register, I’m not sure either but that too will be at some point earlier in the Spring.  I’d like to have some stuff up.

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