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How to Get Love From Independent Publishers and the Future of Books: Richard Nash & the Book Doctors

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Richard Eoin Nash ran the independent publishing company Soft Skull Press from 2001 through 2009. He built a brand that embraced a community of writers and readers who were interested in the things he was: politics, culture, sex, money, and how all that, and all of us, are connected. Soft Skull was a lean mean machine, just a couple of people working out of an office, so Richard could do things quickly and decisively. Naturally he didn't have the resources of a large corporate publisher. But he made up for that by relentlessly connecting himself with this community of readers and writers, and with movers and shakers of new and traditional media. For the sake of full disclosure, it must be revealed that I was responsible for one of the very last books Richard Nash did with Soft Skull. And this illustrates the power of the tiny independent publisher. That book ended up on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

US (I and Arielle Eckstut):
So, let's jump right in, what do you think is the future of the future of the publishing business?

Richard: Well, I believe publishers will want to capture all the value an author or writer supplies, and match it up with the demand of the public. For example, let's say there's one reader who wants to pay $10,000 for something very elaborate and specific from a writer. And let's say there are 10,000 readers who want to pay $.99 to download a short story. We want to accommodate all those readers, and everyone in between. I imagine we'll have an imprint that will produce books in traditional ways. But we'll also do limited editions, enhanced electronic editions, workshops, speaking engagements, access to exclusive content, retreats, add-ons which give passionate fans the opportunity to do more than just buy a book from a writer. And of course since digital downloading is so much cheaper, or should be anyway, since they're no production costs, the idea is to let readers of all different economic realities interact with their favorite writers in whatever way they want to. I've seen over and over again that when people let a writer into their head for the 15 or 20 hours of time it takes to read a book, if they're truly captivated and moved, they will reward the person who created that as much as they can.

US: So what about connecting readers with writers?

Richard: Well, it's something we were doing in a much more informal way at Soft Skull. I'm all about creating communities that self organize. The idea is to seed those communities with editors and writers, and people will be able to submit their writing, where it will get read and critiqued by the community itself. At Soft Skull we found that our biggest customers were writers who were submitting to us. We were mostly interacting with them through rejection letters. It's a terrible way to communicate with your audience. We realized that if we could find a way to incorporate our readers/writers into the community, good things would happen. Because the community itself does a great job of sorting and filtering who should be published, just based on what people are interested in, what they read, what they like. Instead of relying on a few interns, or overworked, harried editors, or agents who can only read so much, and only take on projects where there's a very large and very obvious audience with mainstream publishers, writers and readers will be able to have a sense of belonging to community. Writers need community, they need connection. I don't know anyone who just wants to sit in their room for four years and write a novel. Nowadays writers do many other things besides sit at home and write. So we are looking to create very distinctive communities that are interested in specific things outside the mainstream of culture. It's really going to be like a super long literary journal.

US: The more we study what's going on with books and writers and readers, the more we come to the conclusion that it is in fact the greatest time in history to be a writer.

Richard: We've shifted from being a world with a few writers and many readers, to world of many writers and many readers. And publishers do a lot of complaining about this. It's an industry that suppresses supply. It's a terrible model -- especially given technological advances. We are looking to create a better way to allow supply and demand to meet, interact, and get what they want, when they want it.

US: So what advice would you have for writers approaching independent publishers?

Richard:: To simplify, but basically at the moment there are two types of independent publishers. One is still looking to make direct contact with writers and readers, through word-of-mouth, and online of course. Places like New York Tyrants, Featherproof and $2 Radio. The second has already established a reputation to such an extent that now the better agents are sending and stuff. I would say Soft Skull, Grove and certainly Workman fall into that category.

US: But we contacted you directly, without an agent, when we sold the anthology to you, when you were still at Soft Skull.

Richard: Yes, but you were recommended by Elise Canon, someone I trust very much. Someone who connects people.

US: God love her.

Richard:: Indeed.

US: How would you proceed if you were looking to get published by the independent publisher?

Richard: Research. The most important thing. You and/or your agent should be really plugged in to what the publisher/editor is doing. For me, and this is just me, the query is less about the book (the book is the book, I hae to read the book to see if I like the book) and more about the texts for you and your book. How do you conceive of yourself as a writer in terms of the cultural mishmash that we find ourselves in? What is your community of books, journals, scenes, zines, bloggers, websites? It can be good to have an agent -- if you have the right agent. An agent is a semi-arbitrary filter, it lets me know that someone I respect has taken this project on, on some level it helps me to know I might connect as well. But the biggest thing for me is cultural context, which means you need to be creating cultural context for yourself. Engaging with your peers, finding mentors -- this is the way it works in so many different cultures. I look at it as kind of an electronic tribal culture. When you have a whole tribe behind you it makes everything so much easier. A publisher shouldn't be the first step. It should be the last step. For instance, we did a book called Get Your War On. It was lightning in a bottle. David Rees was just in the right place at the right time, at the beginning of the War on Terror. At one point he was getting 40 million hits a month. That was a no-brainer, we published that book to great success. But then we started receiving slews of political cartoonists sending us their stuff. They were trying to short-circuit the process. David tapped into something so much bigger than himself. These other cartoonists hadn't -- they were looking for the book to break them out, instead of the book being the result of the breakout. It's very difficult to make the book be the talismanic object that allows for cultural transmission.

The real work is in the day-to-day writing and connecting with people. So you're continuously putting out the poem, the short story, you're doing a reading in a series, you go to your writing group, you show up at a writers conference, you study with someone you admire, you go to workshop, you're blogging, you're critiquing, you're putting your ideas out there, that's the true work of writing. There's something profoundly wrong about the model of sitting in a room for three years writing a novel all by yourself. Successes that happened with that model happened in despite of the process, not because of it. That whole writer in the garret cliché came out the Industrial Revolution, and it created an absolutely alienated producer, the writer. I'm not saying all you should do is sit around and shmooze and not write your book. Not at all. I'm saying engage with others who are doing similar things, and if you do it right these people will advocate and be your ally in making better art that means something to you and your friends. And in fact, agents and publishers are more likely to find you if you are actively participating in your culture. If you do it for your own sake, it will make you a happier and more fulfilled writer.

Richard Nash is an independent publishing entrepreneur -- VP of Community and Content of Small Demons, founder of Cursor, and Publisher of Red Lemonade. He ran the iconic indie Soft Skull Press and was awarded the AAP Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing. Books he edited and published landed on bestseller lists from the Boston Globe to the Singapore Straits-Times; the last book he edited there, Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys, was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist. The Utne Reader named him one of Fifty Visionaries Changing Your World and Mashable.com picked him as the #1 Twitter User Changing the Shape of Publishing. Twitter: @R_Nash Website: http://www.rnash.com/

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It... Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years at The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the author of seven books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 13 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. His new book, Confessions of a Sex Maniac, is a hard-boiled novella set in the seedy underground of San Francisco. They have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR's Morning Edition to USA Today. Twitter: @TheBookDoctors Website: http://www.thebookdoctors.com/.