Richard Nash on the Future of Publishing

In What's the Buzz by Guest Contributor

By Michelle Jones

Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor, has yet to release it’s first title, but its already caused a quite a stir.

Much of what has been written about Nash of late has to do with his plans to overhaul the nature of author contracts. But shortening the contracts to three years and eliminating advances are just part of what Nash wants to change about the publishing industry.

“I don’t know whether this is grandiose or insane or whatever, but I am trying to change about 18 different things at once,” he says. “The whole thing has to be completely re-conceptualized and re-engineered.”

Cursor will launch next spring with three titles on its fiction imprint, Red Lemonade. First up is Lynne Tillman’s story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, followed by two debut novels: Zazen Vanessa Veselka and Follow Me Down Follow Me Down by Kio Stark.

The three books will be published in three formats, as will all of Cursor’s titles: a $15-$16 trade paperback, digital downloads and limited editions ranging from $40 to $400. If this mix of formats seems less than revolutionary, the difference is in the way Nash thinks of them. To him, trade paperbacks are “6-x-9-inch advertisements,” marketing materials; digital downloads are “cheap crack” to entice people who are only vaguely familiar with an author like Tillman.

Nash says he didn’t exactly steal Tillman from Soft Skull Press, which he ran for eight years, but she does represent the kind of midlist author his publishing model can help.

“The model of $15-$25 books is a radically insufficient way to capture all the value Lynne Tillman creates,” he says. “People pay tens of thousands of dollars to do an MFA where she teaches. To my mind that’s the top of [her] demand curve.” To capitalize on some of that and to strengthen the author-reader relationship, Nash will have Tillman teach classes and workshops based on her books. He’ll also publish four of her backlist titles.

Nash found Stark and Veselka through channels representative of the community aspect he hopes to foster through Cursor’s imprints. Veselka sought him out for advice soon after he left Soft Skull. She’d published excerpts of Zazen in literary magazines and was considering self publishing, online serialization, limited editions—all things that appealed to Nash and the spirit he wanted Red Lemonade to embody.

Though Veselka’s subject matter is not dissimilar to what Nash might have published at Soft Skull, he says he’s not out to create another version of that imprint or to compete with it necessarily. On the other hand, he doesn’t mind undermining what he feels isn’t working.

“I’ve used the term ecosystem when I’ve talked about this stuff. Part of what happens in ecosystems and forests is you sometimes need fires,” he says.

Nash says the publishing industry needs to learn from the entrepreneurial start-up culture of the technology industry. Take the concept of minimal
viable product, for example. “What’s the minimum required to make a statement about the kind of publishing we want to do?,” he says. “I felt it was three books.” Other lessons from tech start-ups? Be ultra-lean (never a problem for independent publishers, Nash jokes) and as a result, be able to make changes and adjustments on the fly.

The tech world is also where he found author Kio Stark. Nash likens the creativity driven by the Internet to the cheap real estate that drove New York’s avant garde art scene from the 1960s to the ’80s. It was that confluence of people and movements like John Cage, Andy Warhol, Merce Cunningham and Fluxus that lured Nash to New York in the first place; now he feels New York is where thinking about the meeting of technology and culture is happening in a big way.

“I realized there was this group of interesting people who are not quite of book culture in the narrow course, they are as likely to be teaching in an interactive telecommunications program as they are in a creative writing program,” he says. Tapping into that world, and others unnoticed and underserved by traditional publishers, is one of Nash’s goals for Cursor.

(This story originally appeared in the Publishing Perspectives show daily at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 6 October 2010. Download the complete, 32-page show daily here or click on the image to view the online version.)

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.