By Chris Kubica
Last week, I asked my colleague, Richard Nash, founder of Cursor — a “Publishing 3.0” startup based in Brooklyn, New York, publishing consultant, and former editor and chief of Soft Skull Press — if I could have a public conversation with him about himself, his work and reading habits, all things publishing, and about Cursor. Graciously, Richard agreed, and so during Halloween weekend we had the following conversation over the course of about thirty back-and-forth e-mails. He also offered these two exclusive, never-seen-before screen shots from the upcoming Redlemonade launch.
CHRIS KUBICA (CK): In this interview, you said that you originally helped out Soft Skull Press to get health insurance and that you had no interest in a publishing career. You also said that over the course of that first year you fell in love with publishing. What specifically did you fall in love with?
RICHARD NASH (RN): Ah, the text is confusing there. I was working at Oxford University Press for the health insurance. Soft Skull didn’t have health insurance (never did, actually…). But I was just helping Soft Skull out for what I thought would be a short period before getting back in the theatre saddle…but fell in love with the possibility of actually making an impact in the world through literature. The theatre I was doing was a closed network. The audience was one another. I would scan the seats each night, and could identify most of the people there. But books?! You could publish a book that might sell 2,500 copies — or 15,000 copies — and the book could be quoted in a newspaper with a million subscribers, or on a radio show with five million listeners. That’s impact. I wanted to be a part of that cultural and social dialogue. Books are the single best way to do that. The notion that I could contribute to that happening, to facilitating the spread of ideas, to lubricating a conversation, that was just intoxicating.
CK: Is what you fell in love with in 2001 still what you love about publishing now?
RN: Yup. That’s why I’m doing what I do now, because what got me hooked is central to what this is still about. What has changed is only that it has in fact become easier to do those things!
Now, of course, other things have changed. The means we used to the end of stimulating that process, viz, shipping books to retailers and getting newspaper book review sections to write about them, those means are far less effective. But they are not, of course, the only means. Not at all.
CK: Right now, when you read for pleasure, what percentage of the time do you read something on paper versus as an eBook?
RN: I don’t read for pleasure. Sadly. I haven’t in 8 years. I only read manuscripts in relation to publishing them or editing them. And yup, I read them on-screen; been reading manuscript submissions on-screen since 2002 (on a Palm Treo, now an iPhone).
CK: No books for pleasure? Seriously?
CK: Oh, Richard. If we both are at Tools of Change in 2011, will you allow me to pay whatever your hourly consulting rate is so that you can read for pleasure for an hour?
RN: Well I like, indeed love, reading many of the books I edit. I think I probably would not derive pleasure from just an hour, though. Getting to read can be one of the motivations for making Cursor really work.
CK: Do you mean that Cursor is, for you, partly a quest to get yourself and others a steady stream of high quality reading material? They say some of the best inventions have been by people motivated to solve a problem they themselves have.
RN: Well that’s a bit of it, but really the pain points for me have been how do I help peoples’ voices be heard better. Because I’ve witnessed voices not be properly heard: established writers not being able to find their audience, emerging writers shit-outta-luck 9,999 times out of 10,000; readers with something to say about the books they were reading not being able to say it. Again and again I felt my failure to help them. And they felt my failure to help them.
CK: Really, though, if I buy you an hour of your own time to read a book for pleasure, what book from the past eight years would you spend that hour with?
RN: Lordie. I think my reading habits are likely to be highly contextual. I don’t know what my life will be then. Maybe David Markson, maybe Thomas Bernhard, maybe Murakami? I’ve never read any of them, and so many folks I admire like them.
CK: If you are at a conference cocktail hour and talk turns to Franzen’s latest, or Margaret Atwood’s, or whatever the book du jour is, since you haven’t read any of those books, do you quietly excuse yourself to get an hors d’œuvre? If not, what do you do within the conversation?
RN: Well, I acknowledge not having read it if it came up, but likeliest is that I would just listen, since most everything I learn, I learn from listening to others.
CK: But if you really aren’t reading what is getting published elsewhere, how do you know what is trending? How do you keep yourself au courant (Sorry for all the French. I don’t even speak French outside of catch-phrases such as these)?
RN: To be au courant, I listen. And read people writing about the books of the times. To be frank, I’m not much concerned with what’s trending since usually I need to be focused on where the puck is going two years from now. Which is as much about the past as it is about the present.
CK: So where will the puck (the how-we’ll-be-reading puck, not the what-we’ll-be-reading-puck) be, specifically, in 2 years’ time? Predict! Then I’ll ping you again in October, 2012 with my report card. 🙂
RN: Well in one sense that observation was really prosaic—most acquisitions editors are presently acquiring manuscripts for 2012 publication. But, sure: the key is that I believe the digital download will peak in 2012 and we’ll start to see new, non-file-download-based business models. Which means that the #1 bet of publishers right now — that if they get e-books right, they’ll be OK — is wrong. The problem they face with e-books right now, in terms of adjusting to their effects on the print business, adjusting the P&Ls, figuring out how to deal with companies like Google and Apple with radically different visions of how value is made, it’s nothing compared to what’s coming down the turnpike.
CK: And how about content (the what-we’ll-be-reading-puck)? In 2012, what will be hot? What not? Will we be collectively over zombies, vampires, etc yet?
RN: Oh, no clue. I think readers tastes evolve far more slowly than publishers think.
CK: For e-books, what devices and/or eBook reading apps or software do you use the most?
RN: Stanza, since it’s easiest to convert Microsoft Word docs.
CK: Earlier, you mentioned your iPhone. Do you read everything nowadays on your phone? No iPad or laptop reading? Why not?
RN: I don’t have an iPad. And a laptop is too wide. Absorbing text is best done in relatively narrow, single column — there’s a reason newspapers are the way they are.
CK: So is Cursor being designed to specifically work well on a tiny screen?
RN: Well, that’s reading. Editing I do on my laptop. So Cursor books (be they Red Lemonade books or books by communities to come) will be available to be read in any damn form factor that exists. But the editorial activity around manuscripts will most likely occur with larger screens and keyboards, at least initially.
CK: So Cursor. I’ve been hearing about this damned thing for a while now. When do you realistically feel like I’ll be able to create an account on it?
RN: An invitation-only beta should open in 8-10 weeks.
CK: I can’t wait to try it out. How do you plan to keep the overall quality of the content high? Is there a screening process? Or is it a free-for-all?
RN: Oh Lordie. Well, to start with, remember that we’re publishing print books, one to two a month, and our editors choose those, though with great attentiveness to the community. Also, remember the first community, Red Lemonade, has a highly distinctive aesthetic, one that will not appeal to everyone.
CK: What basic principles guide the basic design/usability of Cursor’s first writer/reader community, Red Lemonade?
RN: Tangy and effervescent.
CK: At some point, a writer who starts out in Cursor will break out with a best-seller. Will this writer still find value in Cursor as a tool and community at that point by perhaps “graduating” to a different role/level within the community? Or is there not really a planned-for place for “big- timers” in your vision?
RN: There will be a range of critical and commercial appreciation for various authors within various Cursor-powered communities. “Best-seller” also is a term that can mean as little as moving 2,500 units of hardcover fiction in one week getting you onto the New York Times extended bestseller list. Books really aren’t bestsellers or not, there’s a continuum. We’re not a business that is dependent on generating volume on individual titles to be profitable. However we’ve all the infrastructure one needs to set books up to sell extremely well (a.k.a. “sell-in”) and to generate and respond to sudden increases in demand.
CK: You mentioned earlier that you hope that Cursor will allow you to help/engage with more authors and readers than perhaps you were able to do as Editor at Soft Skull. How many authors will you need to help before you feel like you’ve succeeded?
RN: Every last one. That sounds, I know, grandiose. But that’s the motivation.
CK: Richard, this is very noble. Truly. And that’s how I feel, too. But you will allow yourself to feel satisfied at what you’ve accomplished after you’ve helped 100 writers? Or 500? Or 1,000? Give yourself a few hours of read-for-pleasure time at each milestone perhaps?
RN: Oh well, I realize it ain’t noble, it’s pathological. But I’ll harness the compulsion. And sure, we’ll have some objective milestones along the way, I’m sure. But those’ll be set by others. My own milestones are a million miles away.
CK: Speaking of succeeding, someone recently tweeted, Peter Brantley I think, that this e-reading thing won’t completely succeed until a non-profit steps up with a solution. Wouldn’t the best way to make sure readers’ and writers’ best interests are always Priority 1 be to do Cursor as a non-profit? I’ve been struggling with this thought with neverend books.
RN: Yeah, I know what you mean. I suppose I’ve a couple thoughts. One is that non-profits are never pure either. They have to weight priorities as it relates to their funding. So even there it’s not
just readers and writers in the room. Foundations are in there, too. So I think the ideal is to have as many people as possible working on it.
My other thought is that it’s a different management skill set (I ran a non-profit theatre company before I was in publishing) and I know I’m better at the for-profit model. So given that we’ve got both categories working on it, it makes more sense for me to use the vehicle I’m using.
CK: What does your wife think about all this e-reading business?
RN: From a business standpoint, she basically thinks publishing is entirely done for; there’s no money there at all. From a personal standpoint, I sense she’s quite amenable to reading on a iPad (which she just got for herself) or a Kindle. She just hasn’t started quite yet.
CK: So does she think that her husband and Cursor have the “secret sauce” to make money in publishing when it is one of the most trying times to do just that?
RN: Actually, no. She doesn’t. She’s very anxious about this.
CK: And how about you? Do you feel confident that Cursor has some kind of unique Mojo that no one else has tried yet that makes it a sustainable business model? If so, generally, what is its secret sauce? Or do you see it as yet another noble experiment that you are simply enjoying the ride into the unknown on? Or something else?
RN: Yeah, I do actually. I can’t really say yet what the secret sauce is (in part because I don’t really know) but what we’ve got is the grassroots exposure to the users. Put another way, I feel their pain. You pointed out the innovation often occurs when a person tries to solve a problem they encounter. In our case, I’m trying to solve the problems of all the writers and readers I encounter. I know what they want. But we don’t yet know how to give it to them — we’ve some ideas, and we’ll try them out and we’ll fail, fail again, fail better…
CK: Who do you admire? Who do you look up to and/or are inspired by? Perhaps someone/some company who has done in business or books or design something you hope to channel a bit of for Cursor?
RN: On the publishing side, Barney Rossett and Grove Press. On culture and technology: Clay Shirky and Bob Stein. On design and technology, with some ass-kicking thinking, too: James Bridle and Craig Mod.
CK: OK, now before we wrap up I’m going to ask you to fill in some blanks. DRM is _________.
RN: …pointless. Cursor eBooks will have no DRM restrictions in them.
CK: The idea of ads as part of the reading experience in Cursor is __________.
RN: …unlikely in the short-to-medium term.
CK: The first impression I want writers to have when they visit Red Lemonade or any Cursor site on the Web is ______________.
RN: …that they’re home.
CK: If Cursor fails, next I’d like to _______________.
RN: …try again!
CK: One writer that I’ve not been in touch with that I really, really would love to make a Cursor user is ________________.
RN: …Haruki Murakami.
CK: OK, I’ll admit it. I’m officially freaked out that you haven’t had time to read for pleasure for eight years. What was the last novel that you actually did read for pleasure?
RN: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Reading Beckett makes me unconscionably happy. Also, I get to read my friend Colson Whitehead’s novels in manuscript because I’m lucky to be one of his pre- submission readers.
Chris Kubica of Chapel Hill, North Carolina is the founder of neverendmedia.com. He is a software developer by day, author by night, reader always. He can be reached via e-mail, phone at 1-919-259-8023 or Twitter @chriskubica. You can read his earlier series of articles for Publishing Perspectives “Your Book As a Database: A Primer” here, here and here.