08/23/2011 03:35 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

Exclusive Interview With Publishing Visionary Richard Nash: Writing And Reading In The Digital Age

I've been intrigued by Richard Eoin Nash since the time he ran the indie press Soft Skull Press in the 2000s. His new enterprise is Red Lemonade/Cursor, a reader/participant-oriented publishing venture hoping to take full advantage of the social potential of new media. I recently had the opportunity to talk to him via email about the future of publishing in a rapidly changing landscape.

Shivani: Let's speculate about a revolution in publishing. Scrap the existing model. Is the technology already there to do it? What further technological advances are required? What would such a revolution mean in practical terms?

: Well, certain aspects of the existing infrastructure are ideal for certain purposes, so what I describe will partly sound like the old system.

OK, so what we need to do is have a large ecosystem of publishing communities (large = 100K+ worldwide). Each community ought to operate by permitting people to upload their work to the publisher's website, subject perhaps to some conditions, which should be spelled out transparently. Users can designate their work for review whereupon the entire community can respond to the work.

By some reasonably transparent mechanism, one or more of the site's operators makes a decision about one or more projects to get behind, to "publish." The site's operators, aka the Publisher, or Editor-in-Chief, or Community Moderator, or Mayor give the project editorial resources and marketing resources--they invest time and money in it. They use a reasonable array of best current practices to hustle the book. In particular, by having already engaged the community in selecting the project for support, they engage the entire community in the process.

This is part of the implicit social contract in publishing--you give us your feedback, we use it to help make decisions and pick dynamic writing that best expresses the vision of the community, you give the writing your support in the larger world (via your on- and offline voice) because the writing is a powerful representative of the kind of writing you believe in. That hustling involves the social media we currently know of, and stuff to come. You just use all your tools, your voice, your texts in all senses.

One thing that that happens to still entail, though, is bricks and mortar bookselling--as we see in fashion, in pharmaceuticals, in furniture, the ability to showcase product and gather experts on products under one roof is very important. Bookstores and libraries are hotspots of the kind of knowledge contained in the staff and in the regular customers.

That system is not a way for a publisher to make money, but it is a way to market your products and your vision. Bookstore clerks and readers' advisory librarians are critical components of the total book ecosystem--we have to stop thinking of ourselves as their suppliers, and instead look at them as contributors.

The technology for the forgoing all already exists (as one of our team remarked, not only is there a lot of writing out there, there is a lot of code out there too...). But not much of it has been orchestrated in the way I describe. There are tweaks to be done, and a lot of streamlining to be done, and a lot of integration to be done. And the target will always be moving as more technology and more uses of technology arise. (In practice, when we talk about technology, we're really talking about new uses of technology.)

And Cursor will be a leader in doing all of this.

The implications? Most writers will want to be a part of these kinds of communities because they will grow as writers and grow in their readership by working alongside writers who inspire, support, and sometimes challenge them, and will gain the readerships of the fans of their fellow writers.

This means that those writers will leave those publishers who reply mostly on scale of distribution infrastructure, rather than in intimate communities to grow their readership. Writers with very large established readerships will likely remain with big publishers since what they need is infrastructure to deliver their work to existing readers and fairly mass medium methods of informing and galvanizing that readership.

: How should publishers think of readers? How should they reorganize themselves to come closer to readers? Can you be as far-fetched as possible in pursuing this speculative exercise?

: Publishers need to not even think of readers as readers. We need to go straight from recognizing their existence to recognizing that they are active participants in the making of culture, not just passive consumers, and the publisher needs to actively engage them in that, not just finally grasp they're important and start grabbing their email address.

Engaged reading, after all, produces writing, like your criticism, or like anyone tweeting a book rec, and doing #FridayReads. We should support reading, but I almost think we need to skip right past recognizing readers to recognizing we're facilitating engaged writing and reading coming from an array of creators, some writing books, some trying to write books, some writing about books, some writing literally and metaphorically on books, etc.

A publisher should be convening them all, not merely selling the work of the few to extract money out of the pockets of the many.

Shivani: How about readers? Do they have a new role and responsibility in finding good books?

: Yup. No one gets a free ride in this system. I'm deeply influenced by Clay Shirky and am very lucky to have him as an Advisor for Cursor. Clay is mistakenly viewed as a techno-utopian whereas in fact Clay merely notes that the internet helps solve collective action problems. Just like nuclear physics, that can be used for good or ill.

The internet enables participation but if you don't participate, you gain nothing. As in any civil society, you have to read, you have to speak, you have to vote.

Shivani: How should books be priced? Is there something wrong with pricing today?

: Everything is wrong, with the pricing and the product. All kinds of things need to happen at once, above all to diversify the product range. Not just hard, and paper, and digital, and not just books. To start with, we need options that allow people to buy at very limited risk, that is, for free or close to it. The reason being that the reader has to pay with hours of her life just to sample the book. Once a reader is hooked on a writer, the fear of wasting one's time is gone.

The notion that we're "devaluing" a product by charging less for it is hokum--we do far more devaluing of books by publishing sequels, knockoffs, celebrity memoirs etc. People pay $25K/year to do an MFA--I don't think there's a problem with the loss of cultural value around books. So limiting the range of means by which writing and reading connect to books priced $15 to $25 is economic and cultural suicide.

Already in music and in journalism and in non-profit publishing we're seeing participation through cruises, conferences, cocktail parties, foundations, patronage, dinner parties, seminars, limited editions, festivals--things that are unhackable, things that are priceless to some, things that collapse distance, things that bring you closer to your peers.

A quick glance at Kickstarter will show you the kind of diverse products and pricing that is not just possible but necessary.

Shivani: Will present distributional methods completely collapse as a result of new technologies?

: Not completely, but there has been some dramatic shrinking and that shrinking will continue. However other channels are arising, for the various products and experiences I described above. Bricks-and-mortar stores still serve a valuable marketing force and we will still need some infrastructure to effectively supply them.

Shivani: Do you have a grand theory of how publishing has shaken out in response to economic change over the last four decades, and how continuing economic change will push the model toward further change?

: Well, the supply chain as a method of connecting writers and readers is an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. And it will prove to be an anomaly.

We are returning to something like the coffeehouse culture of the 17th and 18th centuries, to the culture from whence the novel, the pamphlet, the newspaper arose. In my lifetime, changes in manufacturing technology has already started to bring about a less uniform, more customized approach to supplying goods and services in a lot of sectors. The book industry lagged greatly here--brands proliferated across retail capitalism, but not in books.

The areas of capitalism that maintained the Industrial Revoluion focus on economics of scale--in the US WalWart and Costco, in the UK, Tesco, Sainsburys, those were whom publishers focused on, places that were relentlessly focused on cost, on making things cheap, instead of focusing on the fashion sector, say, which focused on identity, story-telling, difference. Manufacturing is about to enter a golden era of customization though 3D printing like MakerBot. The publishing industry, as it diversifies into a service business (serving writer and readers) will still do some manufacturing but it will be much more bespoke.

: Is there anything in the present publishing model that you would like to see retained? Can there be substitutes for those functions nevertheless--cheaper, more efficient, more responsive substitutes?

Nash: I don't see much substitution going on in our society. Things mostly co-exist. The world is a pretty Creole place, we have wheelchairs to take people onto airplanes, we have bicycles and motorized rickshaws, we have knives and rifles and lasers all co-existing.

Most of what needs to change isn't the thingness of publishing: the books, the design--or the social dimension: the editorial, the parties, the readings, the Twittering but rather the mentality. We're all making culture together, and our job is to serve.

Shivani: What will be the most surprising thing about publishing in the near future that none of us is thinking about? What has already surprised you most over the last ten years?

Nash: Lordy, that's hard to say. I think it'd surprise people if Cursor became a billion dollar business, but it will, over seven years, though, not three. (If it doesn't, then someone will be making a billion dollars doing something similar to what Cursor would have been doing.) I also think some people will be surprised by the rate at which the book business will grow in the developing world.

Novels are critical to an emergent middle class, and at least a billion people are entering the middle class worldwide, and their kids will be writing the great novels of their respective cultures as their leisure time and access to intellectual capital increases. In the West, we'll see the aging of literature as society itself ages and as leisure time grows primarily amongst the over 65s as life expectancy heads towards 100 and over... Demographics are on our side.

Of course we'll produce ever vaster quantities of shit, but we always have, and we always will. What has surprised me? That indie publishing works, albeit for reasons I didn't understand at the time.

Shivani: What are the institutional factors you hold responsible for the cultural irrelevance of literary writing today? How should publishers at different levels of size and reach correct these factors?

Nash: Well, it begs the question: compared to what. All cultural forms struggle with irrelevance, ditto their individual practitioners. Network TV, newspapers, arena rock bands, AOL, MySpace, all fret about cultural irrelevance.

I actually don't think literature has that much to worry about. The time you fall into cultural irrelevance is when you stop worrying about it. You're a Cassandra, Anis, you act to ensure we don't stop worrying :-)

Anis Shivani's selection of reviews and essays of the last decade, Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies, is out from Texas Review Press/Texas A&M University Press Consortium in November.