Publish or Perish #2: Is Richard Nash Our Guy for Pub3.0?

By Shane Solar-Doherty

Richard Nash is an intelligent dude. There’s no other way of putting it. The guy played a major role in revitalizing Soft Skull Press, which had been “weeks from liquidation” before it merged with Counterpoint. At the time that he decided to resign from his posts and embark upon his own ventures in early 2009, Nash was Editorial Director of Soft Skull Press and Executive Director of Counterpoint. During his tenure, which began in 2001, Nash had witnessed Soft Skull in its days of greatest hardship, as well as in its flourishing times, and surely learned the intricacies and obstacles of the publishing industry in that span.

Since leaving both entities in March 2009, Nash has caused a big stir in publishing. With his creation of Cursor, he’s challenged not only what publishers have known for decades about creating and selling books, but also what publishers are just now adapting to and learning. He’s seen Publishing 1.0 (print) lose its grip, knows that Publishing 2.0 (e-books) isn’t the be-all-end-all, and is already on his way to leading the Publishing 3.0 revolution: tight-knit communities, centered around publishing imprints, where writers and readers can engage in dialogue with one another.

Ask me and I’ll tell you that Nash is on to something. It’s easy for me because I’m not working in the book industry, I’m just writing about it on a blog, so nothing for me is at stake. Like Nash, I’m eager to anticipate what’s coming next, or as he puts it, to forecast “where the puck is going two years from now.” Only I imagine it must be just a tad more difficult for Nash, who is actually trying to bring his ideas to fruition.

It’s clear that Nash has deep ties in publishing; he used to be in theatre, but left the stage for the page because he felt he could be more influential in publishing by “facilitating the spread of ideas” and “lubricating a conversation.” And to that effect he has been very influential, and it doesn’t seem like that will change. But as much as I admire Nash’s enthusiasm and innovative qualities, the businessman in him doesn’t sit well with me.

The publishing industry needs businessmen. It’s always had and will forever have men in suits who keep editors and writers on task, who set goals and talk money and woo investors. To that degree, Nash and those like him are absolutely vital for the survival of literature. What irks me though is that Nash is creating this community that is supposed to change the way we interact with books and each other, and which fosters and encourages dialogue between writers and readers, without truly having been engaged with very much material himself. What I’m referring to is the Publishing Perspectives interview with Chris Kubica, published online yesterday, in which Nash admits that he has not read a book for pleasure in eight years – indeed, it sounds as if he hasn’t read a piece of literature (namely he hasn’t read books; seemingly he’s read articles) outside of that which he received in manuscript form since he began with Soft Skull. When asked how he contributes to conversations about literary trends, Nash said that in those circumstances he acknowledges when he hasn’t read a book, and he simply listens to the conversation. His exposure to influential literature apparently starts and ends with “reading people writing about the books of the times.”

I don’t think editors have an easy job, and perhaps there are thousands of editors who don’t read a word of literature outside of the manuscripts they receive. If I was focusing on the state of today’s publishing industry in this piece, I would have done more homework to see exactly how much downtime editors have to read books published by other houses and imprints, which I imagine is extremely limited. But as I said before, like Nash, I’m concerned here with the future of publishing. Unlike Nash, however, I have difficulty connecting how exactly a businessman, who lacks first-hand exposure to nearly everything that’s been published in the last eight years, plans on creating a genuine community that’s supposed to lead writers and their readers into the next great phase of publishing.

I think that Nash truly does love literature. Few people would go into publishing, especially editorial, if they weren’t eager to read a shitload of manuscripts and to discover great writers. If Nash didn’t have a passion for impacting and improving the publishing world, he would have peaced out when Soft Skull was plummeting. What’s really at the heart of this, I think, can be likened to what John McCain experienced during his campaign in 2008 – he vehemently rallied for what he believed in, and he had what he felt were the best intentions for the country, but ultimately he appeared to voters to be completely disconnected – the media abused the term “out of touch” – with the audience that he was campaigning to serve. Of course, he wasn’t altogether naïve, and neither is Nash, who has been working with writers for years and certainly has their best interest in mind when designing communities like Cursor. But you have to ask yourself, what type of writer does Nash have in mind as he sets out to expand Cursor? What type of reader? Having been exposed to so little for so long, how wide is his scope? How much does he really know about the audience he’s intending to serve?

On the other hand, we readers and writers should be grateful for individuals like Nash, who have the gall to wade into the unknown to try and rescue the medium long before it needs rescuing (really, things aren’t so bad just yet). Innovators like Nash – I’m thinking now of Scott Lindenbaum and Andy Hunter of Electric Literature, and Jürgen Fauth of Fictionaut – will help to continue a long line of literary tradition that begins with storytellers. Opening the lines of communication between authors and their audience will lead to certain collaboration that we’ve yet to see the likes of, and refinement of the model over time will likely produce more and more communities that spark a dialogue around literature. For the preservation of the form, we’ll be thanking Nash and likeminded innovators for years to come.

I’ve barely begun touching upon everything that Nash intends for Cursor to achieve. It’s a large undertaking, which plans to change they way author contracts are composed and encourage readers to become, in a way, investors and curators of the authors they admire and the literature they appreciate. Both are intriguing concepts, each deserving of its own article. But at the heart and soul of Cursor is the community-building aspect. It’s that aspect that needs to be nurtured most, and tweaked at every bump in the road, for Cursor to be a success.

According to Nash, Cursor is set to launch its by-invite-only beta platform in 8-10 weeks. I signed up for their mailing list over a month ago and hope to receive an invite so I can check things out. I don’t think Cursor is a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s extraordinary. I believe it’s a fantastic opportunity for writers to connect with each other and their readers, at least for those who wish to do so, and I’m excited to watch the community develop over time. But I’m curious to see what kind of reception Nash and Cursor receive from both readers and writers. I think if Cursor is to catch on, Nash will need to invest less of himself in the towering concept of Cursor, allowing it to transform over time with its users, and invest himself a lot more in the writers who create the content and the readers who engage with it. User loyalty will be the name of the game for Cursor.

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9 thoughts on “Publish or Perish #2: Is Richard Nash Our Guy for Pub3.0?

  1. Richard Nash says:

    Agreed, entirely, you’ve outlined really well the standard to which I’ll have to hold myself, and the editors of communities to come. However I do think we should always keep in mind that writers and readers aren’t different groups of people, but rather different behaviors, to quote Peggy Nelson. By reading the manuscripts submitted by writers I’m also engaging with readers, both because I’m putting myself in their shoes, effectively aligning myself with them and because other writers will be reading them too. I’ll need to deliver on that promise, consistently, though I don’t think what I said to Chris is inconsistent with my intention to keep doing that? I do acknowledge a second potential problem which could be a lack of *diversity* in my reading but both Soft Skull and Red Lemonade are, and were, fairly eclectic so as long as I’m absolutely committed to reading and honestly responding to what the Red Lemonade community has to offer, I think I’ll be doing my job, yes? One way or another, I’ll be judged on what I actually do for the writing and reading, not on abstract statements about it!

    • Shane says:

      Thanks for stopping by Richard, it makes me really optimistic about your mission to see how invested you are in engaging everyone who has something to say concerning Cursor (which I know is quite a lot).

      Interesting point about readers and writers being of different behaviors, not different groups. And I see what you mean about engaging with readers and writers simultaneously by reading books before they’re actually books. I still feel, however, that along with every publisher’s job to serve their own community, they also have the responsibility to their authors and audience to expose themselves to a larger portion of the playing field. It seems to me that a limited scope would be detrimental to any publisher.

      Look at blogs for example (this may seem trivial, but bear with me): one of the most beneficial acts bloggers can do for themselves, other bloggers, and their audience, is to read others’ content, comment on the posts that resonate with them, respond to those posts on their own blogs, retweet posts, etc. Once this is done, a dialogue has been started, new content has been discovered and shared, and relationships have begun building. Those are all some of Cursor’s goals; they should be every publisher’s goals too.

      I think it’s up to publishers to establish a larger dialogue about the market, which involves reading books from other publishers. If publishers aren’t reading books from other imprints, how do they know that what they’re publishing is appealing to an audience at all? What do they have to compare it to? And how do they learn about the pockets of the reading audience that they’re overlooking? It’s certain that Soft Skull has been very eclectic, and I don’t expect any less from Red Lemonade. But Cursor and the publishing imprints that it umbrellas will do well to observe the world around them, so that they can better interact with those who have not yet joined their communities.

  2. Chase says:

    Recently I received “Look at the birdie” as a gift. A huge Kurt Vonnegut fan, I drove right in. Start, as convention would have it, at the start, a letter from Vonnegut to a friend in which he talks about the importance of being part of a school. In short, he says that artist can’t be great unless they are being told that they are great by their friends and these friends are what we call a school. Though Vonnegut might be a testament against this idea, Vonnegut’s point is that writing great books or painting great paintings takes an enormous amount of energy that no one person has on their own.

    So, why talk about Vonnegut today? Here? Because, the more I learn about Cursor the more I am reminded of the school, of how important it was for Ginsberg to have the Beats and Dali to have the surrealists and that if these communities or social networks hadn’t been in place, much of what we call great would likely have never been nurtured into being. So, though Publishing 3.0 has a nice “tech” sound to it that makes Nash sound like a visionary pulling publishing into the new millennium, we should take comfort in the fact that what he is doing is not authentically new, but rather, it is highly tested and greatly effective.

    That said, Nash, read more. Please. For example, you might want to pick of Freedom by Franzen. It might be the first great book written by an American-born writer since… Vonnegut.

    • Chase,

      I couldn’t agree more. I bought a collection of letters from writers to younger writers called “Letters to a Fiction Writer,” edited by Frederick Busch, (I talk about it here:, but the gist is that we’re all feeling around, trying to touch one another in a big and meaningful way. As solitary as the profession of writing is, there’s no doubt that engaging with readers – and as readers – opens up our sometimes blocked off world. I completely agree that communities such as Cursor aren’t authentically new in any way other than their medium and players.

      Thanks for stopping by and reminding us of this crucial detail.

      – Mel

      • Richard Nash says:

        Yes, I’m trying to support what’s already there rather than trying to create something from scratch. This ain’t at all about creating say, Facebook for writers—it’s about using tools that have been created for various reasons, and tweaking them to better support the existing communities of writers and readers. In fact, our powerpoint deck for investors has a slide that outlines exactly the history of literary movements you describe, Chase!

  3. Chase says:

    Mel, Thanks for the link. I’ll be checking that out.

    Richard, I would love to see that slide!


  4. Chris Kubica says:

    This is Chris Kubica, the dude that wrote the thingie with Nash. Small world!

    My take: I don’t give a crap how many books Richard has read, now or ever. It does seem to me that–based on his experience–he understands perhaps better than most about what a e-writer-reader community wants and needs. Because of that I trust him and will give Cursor a go, regardless of whether or not Nash himself even once comments on work I might post at Cursor. I’m interested in the community he’s seeding…not Nash per se. Though I do think he’s wicked sick or whatever the kids say nowadays for “super-duper”.

    On a related note, Evan Williams doesn’t tweet or post Facebook updates very much or on topics I find interesting. But I still enjoy the service he came up with. I don’t know how much Jeff Bezos shops online but I still shop the hell out of amazon. It is a nearly perfect store, IMHO. I also get the sense that Steve Jobs isn’t a techie geek himself but I think we’ll all agree that he really understands what his customers want in the form of digital lifestyle products.

  5. Interesting conversation!

    I, too, think that Web communities are going to become the key to media distribution in the future. Just think of what Amanda Palmer has done on the Web without a record label anymore. Streaming performances, spontaneous “internet parties,” transmedia storytelling with music and books, etc all while engaging fans on Twitter and her blog.

    In terms of literature, my participation on Infinite Summer was an amazing experience that luckily was able to spill out onto the Wallace-l mailing list

    I think the challenge with initiatives like Nash’s is that the communities mentioned above, and probably most other substantial Web communities is that they emerged from the users, not imposed from a publisher or company. It is very difficult to build a true “community” from the top down and it will be interesting to see if Cursor catches on with this dynamic.

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