An Interview with Richard Nash: The Future of Publishing

Richard Nash

Note from Jane: I conducted this phone interview with publishing industry leader Richard Nash in 2014.

When I hear Richard Nash speak, I always remember it long after: the way everyone in the audience is completely alert from beginning to end, how his energy fills the room and crackles, and the way he gleefully uses a series of F-bombs to emphasize key points. After listening to Nash, I immediately feel smarter as well as more confident that publishing will be all right as long as he’s somehow in it.

Nash is the former publisher of Soft Skull Press, for which he was awarded the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing by the Association of American Publishers in 2005. Over the better part of a decade, he shepherded books onto bestseller lists across the globe, and Utne Reader put him on its 2009 list of fifty visionaries changing the world. It’s hard to attend any publishing industry event without seeing him on the agenda. Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson called Nash’s “Publishing 3.0” talk “the best I have ever seen.”

While I was at the Virginia Quarterly Review, assisting with the planning of an entire issue focused on the business of publishing, I immediately suggested Nash for the cover story. I wanted to challenge him to turn one of his famous talks into essay form. To my delight, he agreed, with the slight warning that it might be akin to transcribing a “fever dream.” In Spring 2013, VQR published Nash’s long-form essay on how the book-publishing industry must evolve in the digital era, “What Is the Business of Literature?” It became the most popular article at the VQR website for the year, and was later translated into several languages.

Over the last several years, since his departure from Soft Skull, Nash has worked at a series of publishing startups, including Cursor, Small Demons, and Byliner. Last year, he transitioned to being a full-time consultant (at about the same time I did!).

Jane Friedman: So how is your transition going to full-time consultant?

Richard Nash: I have to find out what my business model is. Basically, it’s a freemium business model. [Laughs.] That’s what I have: I am a one-man freemium operation. I now have four or five clients that pay me real money by the hour or day, and then about ten or twelve startups that pay me in equity—you know, Monopoly money. And then I do a bunch of favors. Not probably dissimilar from your business model.

Yes, that well describes where I’ve ended up myself.

I could turn around and have another startup in six months, but I’m setting the threshold higher than I once might have. You really have to go through a few of these startups to grasp what it means that most startups fail. You always think your startup is the special snowflake. [Laughs.] Oh, look at all those snowflakes falling on the ground and falling in some undifferentiated mush and slush. My special snowflake will appear under the magnifying glass of some Nobel Prize–winning physicist! And everyone will be awestruck and bank-account-emptying in response.

You usually need [to experience] more than one startup to realize that doesn’t happen. So I’m just trying to be more pragmatic. The reality is that a single startup is one Powerball ticket, whereas what I’m trying to do with advising a bunch of early-stage startups is get ten Pick 4s. [Laughs.] And then, with more mature companies, pay the bloody rent.

I read a write-up of your talk at The Next Chapter in Stockholm, where you were invited to talk about the future of the book. I’d like to probe a little into something you said, where you discussed how the book has been limited in its ability to turn culture and creativity into money, and how important that is for us to see. This idea of thinking beyond the book when it comes to business and income—could you elaborate on that?

I don’t mean multimedia. There’s a tendency to say, “Oh, here’s all this new technology, which means the book is becoming something else.” The book isn’t becoming something else any more than plays became something else when film came along. Today no one runs around saying publishers should start Hollywood studios and the book is over, like here’s our Film-O-Book! [Laughs.] The Book-O-Vision.

Technology will continue to permit new modes of storytelling, but it also permits new modes of cultural engagement. For a couple of decades now, perhaps longer, the main thing that management consultants and poets had in common is that they made far more money giving a talk for a class than they did in royalties from their books. In both cases, the book served as a verification, validation, a hurdle. The book is sort of like a marathon—we venerate the person who finished it. So the book is useful in that regard, and you can sell it at events and increase the revenue that event creates—but at that point it is functioning more like a T-shirt after a concert, a souvenir of the experience of having encountered the famous poet or the iconic business figure.

I’m less interested right now in exploding the book, or what kinds of book-y container-ish things writers can create, than in understanding their whole mode of cultural engagement more holistically. And looking at it from a freemium standpoint.

You’re not suggesting that writers give away their work, though?

Certain activities you engage in, you may do for free, and certain activities you engage in are going to be very, very expensive. It’s free to walk into the Prada store at Broadway and Prince, but it is extremely expensive to buy a dress. It is less expensive to buy cufflinks or a blouse. It tends to be that most people who go in there buy nothing—which is also true of the Apple store.

What are some examples of more expensive activities writers could engage in?

Work with your local restaurant and do four events a year where you converse with ten people who are paying $150 to have a dinner party conversation with you.

Take the novelist and poet Jim Harrison. Harrison has had a fairly steady hardcover and paperback sales track record over the last twenty to thirty years. I know Grove is always trying to figure out, “How are we going to sell more Jim Harrison copies?” And the answer is: it is really fucking hard to bend a demand curve for somebody who’s been in the culture for thirty years. [You can’t expect] some deus ex machina to descend [and move] the point along the demand curve for Jim Harrison-ness—where there are twenty thousand people who want to engage for fifteen dollars—to where there are suddenly forty-thousand people who want to engage.

But the thing is, there are all kinds of other places on the demand curve that are completely underutilized. So in the case of Harrison, I remember several years ago Googling him, and the second entry was a Wine Spectator article, which I read and I discovered that he is an epic gourmand. He has arranged these four-day bacchanalian orgies of food and wine in Florida in the winter with a bunch of food cronies.

If Jim Harrison picked a bottle of wine for you to drink while reading the beginning of his next book, you could get one of those wooden unvarnished boxes, stick the signed hardcover of the book and a little explanatory note from Jim in there, and sell each one of them for three hundred dollars, easy.

You can also have a ninety-nine-cent download, and you’re going to get more people to read him. Are you going to cannibalize a little bit of paperback sale? I don’t think so at all, actually. Even if [you do], from a revenue standpoint and from a readership standpoint, both numbers have gone way up.

I’ve been trying to advocate for this with publishers for years, but basically they just don’t seem able to handle it—not at scale. On an ad-hoc basis, you’ll see a few publishers trying a few things.

I wonder if you’ve noticed Coffee House Press and some of the things they’ve been doing? They did a blog post for VQR this spring where they discussed their switch from “we publish books” to “we connect writers and readers and produce literary experiences,” and so they’re doing things like putting writers in residency at libraries and museums.

Philosophically, that’s exactly what I’ve been preaching. Practically, that’s definitely one of the things. I think partnering is critical, because there’s only so much time in the day. And there’s only so much expertise that you can have in-house. And nonprofits to some degree have always been doing this. They’re the classic example of tiered participation.

Let’s talk about the issue of a book’s value and pricing—not necessarily ebooks and the Hachette-Amazon dispute (we’ll get to that later), but what you call the commodification of the book. You’ve had a lot to say on this topic that I think authors should know about.

All the research that’s been done in the last twenty, thirty, or forty years around decision theory and behavioral economics has exemplified that nobody knows what anything is worth. So everything is about signaling and manufacturing the appearance of value. But the book business does a terrible fucking job of doing it.

We have all these weird, different, hybrid, and crazy fruits—Neil Gaiman fruit and John Ashbery fruit and Philip Roth fruit. And what do we do? We put them all in this one little rectangular square sort of thing and charge almost identical prices for it, begging people to do price comparison, because what else do they have? You don’t know what’s inside the book in many cases.

So part of why I’m saying “go beyond the book,” is that there’s a whole universe of ways you can engage with your culture. Some of those can and should be monetized, and anyone who thinks, “Oh, well, gosh, how tawdry to charge for that,” I’m like, have you looked at the book? Everyone’s like, “The book is getting commodified by Amazon.” No, it fucking isn’t!

If the human race ever created a commodity, it was the fucking book. It was the first time we mass-produced facsimiles. The fundamental business model of the book as a physical object is identical to Corn Flakes and tires and two-by-fours and sneakers. The entire industry has the shape of a manufacturing industry. And that problem was solved up until the last twenty years by simply not creating that many products.

Today, it’s a miracle anybody is making money with a quarter of a million SKUs going into retailers every year. The book has become a not necessarily good way to capture the value that you create by telling your stories. And so authors need to find other modes of engagement, and especially those modes of engagement that are uncopyable, because the value of copies is just declining.

It reminds me of Kevin Kelly’s post, this was many years ago—

1,000 True Fans,” right?

That too, but he also talks about all of the things that are better than free, like immediacy, personalization, authenticity. So he talks about all these ways to add value to something.


It’s definitely the area where I see the most pushback from writers—like this is not what they signed up for. They just want to write.

And some people would say, “I’m shy.” And it’s sort of like, not all this stuff has to be public. There are all sorts of ways—you could create personalized postcards that you mail people.

I’m not sure all writers are capable of these things.

For people who are like, “I don’t know how to do that,” the answer is “You gotta fucking figure it out.” Years ago, you didn’t know how to write a poem. Ten years ago you didn’t know how to write a novel. And you went to a lot of effort to try and figure that out, you did a lot of research, so that’s what you gotta do in these situations.

No one wants to just sit and write! Not even Beckett wanted to just sit and write. Seriously. Beckett acknowledged that one of the reasons he did those TV plays for German public TV stations in the 1970s was to get out of the fucking house. If Beckett can’t abide just sitting down and writing, then any writer can find emotional and cultural stimulation by engaging with society. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Why is it that you want to write? Because you have something you want to say on some level. On some level you want to be loved by some percentage of the world. How about you get out there into the world and feel it? Do chefs say “I just want to be left alone and cook”?

I find that writers can lose all creativity and imagination as they think through how they’re going to charge for premium experiences or make money aside from selling books. They have a narrow idea of what engaging with readers or society looks like.

I blame publishing. I feel like we’re in this Stockholm syndrome. Publishers really were the manufacturing business, and the last thing you want is a couple of the guys in the assembly line running around and talking to the retailers and fucking things up. So writers were typically told, “Look, don’t worry about all that crazy stuff in the sausage factory, we’ve got it all taken care of.” Writers were infantilized and told, “Go do that weird little thing that you do.” So these false narratives evolved around the writer.

Could you provide some words of wisdom or calm regarding the Amazon-Hachette dispute? You probably noticed that Authors United released a new letter this morning, directed at the Amazon board members. It felt futile.

It is futile! Everything I have described is the reason authors shouldn’t be worried about this Amazon business. Every other dimension of the revenue-generating activities an author can do, that we have discussed, Amazon is incapable of helping with.

Publishers are completely foolish to be taking Amazon on regarding price. Price is existential for Amazon; it’s the only thing they know how to do—make things cheaper and more convenient. Trying to tell them “Oh, stop making them cheap and convenient” is like telling the scorpion not to sting you while crossing the river. It’s just what it does.

Amazon should be left to do what it does, which is be the Walmart. Focus your efforts instead on high-value experiences rather than on commoditized products.

It’s refreshing to hear you say that.

You don’t persuade people to pay more in a price-driven environment. And bookstores traditionally have been price-driven environments. Amazon is a price-driven environment because Amazon fucking learned from the book business!

Again, it’s this fantasy we’ve had that we’re in the culture business, when we [publishers] are in fact the structure of a manufacturing business. And Amazon came in. What was attractive to Bezos was how uniform our pricing and packaging was. Here was a market with a large but not insane number of suppliers; a large number of SKUs, all of which were virtually identical from a physical standpoint; and a distributed warehousing system. He wanted to get into e-commerce in a big way, and the easiest, the most commoditized business he could go for was the fucking publishing business.

So it’s just insane to be claiming that he’s commoditizing us when we were the commodity business that he just took to its logical conclusion. Trying to walk him backward, and trying to walk the industry back into the 1980s, is ludicrous when we have all these opportunities to walk our business forward into the twenty-first century, using Bezos as fucking UPS. Let him be the guy responsible for shipping $15 books around the country, and let him be the guy with the $9.99 download.

So what’s ahead, assuming we can stop moving the industry backward?

The stuff I’ve been talking about until now I have immense confidence about because I’m not the only one saying this stuff. It’s basically empirical; it’s out there. Now, I have no clue what it means to go on to the next step. All I know is that it feels really important.

The two analogies I’m able to come up with are health and education. What they have in common with long-form reading is a cost-benefit profile that skews the costs toward the short term and the benefits toward the long term. Most of the value of reading long-form narrative is that stuff tends to have a fairly high cost in the short term, as far as the amount of time taken to engage with it, but tends to have a significant amount of value over the long term, in terms of how it helps our understanding of emotion, personality, and character; how we’re able to follow extended arguments; how we’re able to move backward and forward across time.

We’ve seen a lot in the area of health that is being called “the quantified self.” This comes out of a lot of research around feedback loops—that when the brain is given feedback it is better able to make better choices. What the quantified self says is: you don’t even have to be harangued into sleeping more. If you have a device that measures how you sleep each night, the mere fact of being confronted with the actual evidence of what happened last night will change your behavior. It’s these nudges. One of the classic ways of giving nudges is just giving people information about what they’re doing.

So how do we easily acquire information about how we read?

Obviously Amazon is a bit of an impediment to that, but the reality is that no one’s going to just be interested in an app that only tells them about book reading. They’ll be interested in apps that tell them about all their text reading, and that includes the web. Over a period of time, we will find ways to allow our reading to be trackable.

Over the long run, this approach to services—I feel like that’s where the money is going to be. It’s very hard to make money at selling digital things, but it is much easier to make money out of renting digital services, and I suspect that the power of digital is going to be much more around the ability to get people to read more and have really cool ways of monitoring your reading that you’re willing to pay $2.99 a month for. And most of the value being created from stories is going to be through physical objects that are up-priced and via experiences that will be priced all over the map.

Some of the pushback in the area of quantified self has to do with privacy, so the trick is to focus on the user owning the information. Most of the conversation that has gone on with reading has focused on giving that data to the producers—that the producers will write better books if they know how people are reading them. Maybe, I haven’t seen evidence of that, maybe a little bit of evidence in the narrow world of pedagogy. I am deeply skeptical that that data is going to be useful around anything other than the most practical how-to areas [of the book market]. The value in data around reading is for the reader, not the writer.

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