SXSW 2011 Q&A: Richard Nash

Haven Thompson   February 11, 2011

The Breakdown: In the latest installment of this year’s SXSW speaker Q & A series, we talked to publishing innovator Richard Nash (@R_Nash). In 2009, Richard left his gig running Soft Skull Press to launch Cursor, a new publishing model that aims to bring communities into the publishing equation. He gave us his predictions for the industry and the scoop on his intriguingly-titled SXSW panel, “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted. Not!”

S/G: Tell us about your panel and what you’ll be discussing.

Richard: The genesis of this panel is in a joke, as is the case with most any idea I have. (Or at least, successful ideas—the serious ones never pan out.) I was editing a manuscript and the author asked me how things were going. Halfway through completely rewriting it I grasped that I just needed to flip two clauses and bingo, problem solved. So, I told the anxious author that I practice the art of the Minimum Viable Edit. But of course, I stole the phrasing from the Lean Startup concept of the Minimum Viable Product. I thought how peculiar that editing literary fiction and launching a tech/media start-up should share such structures.

So could we use SXSW as a suitable venue to begin to tease out where culture and technology might have some similarities, deep in each other’s grammar? I remember feeling, after Danah Boyd’s keynote last year, that we might be reaching the outer limit of what technology can do to change society without the engagement of the culture-makers, the people who deal with voice and character and emotion and joy and hate and beauty. And, vice versa, looking at the culture industries right now, it’s clear we cannot move forward economically or creatively without engaging with technologists more robustly. Hence this [panel].

S/G: Who is on your panel, and why did you invite them to participate?

Richard: Well, I wanted straddlers. Not stragglers! Fence straddlers. So Kevin Smokler is an essayist and CEO (of the Chris Anderson-founded Booktour.com); Joanne McNeil runs the blog TomorrowMuseum on fine art, technology and a wee bit of fashion; and Calvin Baker is a novelist who is also Chief Content Officer at the start-up ScrollMotion. Folks who deal with abstraction and the concrete, thinkers and implementers.

S/G: You left a well-respected publishing company, Soft Skull Press, to start a company called Cursor. What exactly is Cursor, and when will it be open for business?

Richard: Cursor is a model for a new publisher. It’s a community-centered one that combines the wisdom of the crowd with the decisiveness of the editor, from the start of the publishing process (editorial development and product acquisition) all the way through to connecting readers with the writers.

This model will work, we believe, not by creating new communities from scratch but by powering existing communities, existing informal networks of writers and readers. The first instance of this, our first community/imprint, is Red Lemonade which is currently in alpha testing but which should be public by mid-April, when the imprint starts to publish its first books, available in bookstores everywhere they’re left…

S/G: What trends do you see happening in the book publishing industry in the coming year?

Richard: One chain, Borders, will undergo a radical shrinking with the help of the bankruptcy courts. An ever-growing handful of mostly women-run independent booksellers will reinvent the bookstore as a cultural community center focused on the social connecting power of the word. The corporate publishers will focus on an ever-narrower group of titles that can provide them with enough volume to stay in business, just about. Independent publishers more than five years old will struggle as the print sales decline but they’ll be more than adequately replaced by thousands of tiny publishers.

The price of digital content will continue to drop, but we’ll start to see more evidence of a diversification of the print product away from generic 6 x 9 inch objects towards a more artisanal mode of production with higher prices and less waste. And we might see the glimmers of the post-eBook world.

S/G: What do you mean by the “post-eBook world”?

Richard: The eBook is quite transitional, a slavish mirroring of the physical book- not, I must add, because it is text-only. We are not on the cusp of vast quantities of so-called transmedia novels. We already have image-and-word-based storytelling: it’s called film and television. We already have interactive story-telling: it’s called video games. No, the way in which eBooks are slavish imitations is that they’re designed to mimic the print book business model, the single unit sold for some number of dollars. The business model of long-form text-only narrative delivered digitally will not be the downloadable eBook. Though I don’t know what it will be, I’ll confess. But there will be some type of cloud-based model that will be to books as Pandora, Last.fm and Spotify are to music.

S/G: What are you looking forward to at SXSW this year?

Richard: Turning on and tuning in…

Explore the rest of the SXSW 2011 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by tantek
Badge – by adactio
Microphone – by hiddedevries
iPad – by smemon87

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