The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode II: "And we oiled each other up and ran naked in the dust of Sparta."
In the second installment, I speak with entrepreneur/publisher/digital visionary Richard Nash. Topics include author contracts, the term ‘self-publishing’, filters vs. maps, books in 2025, bestseller monopolies, textual immersion and more.
(Andrew Lipstein) I’m here with Richard Nash, a “serial entrepreneur”, currently the founder of Cursor and an all-knowing man of digital words. He’s formally with Byliner, Small Demons and Soft Skull Press. We’re currently 1,000 miles away. To bridge the digital divide, would you kindly describe your current environs?
(Richard Nash) I’m at home. In Brooklyn. In my living room. Lavender walls. Facing the windows to a wintry wintry world.
Excellent. Mashable listed you #1 on their list of “Twitter Users Shaping the Future of Publishing” because you “consistently offers a contrarian point-of-view and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to challenging traditional publishing.” Can I be sure you won’t pull any punches here?
Ha! Well, I won’t pull, though I don’t throw all the punches all the time.
Great, could you also save my clumsy introduction and clarify what you do for readers?
Oh gosh. What I do is becoming broader and broader by the day. At the moment, you could say that I help publishers take better advantage of all the affordances currently available to them, and I help non-publishers deploy the tools of publishing to better do the stuff they do.
Something that interested me greatly, is that you’ve proposed the baseline of the publisher/author contract to be only 3 years (as opposed to 70 years after the author’s death). Why is that?
Oh yes. Well, my wife is an intellectual property lawyer. At a previous gig, at a law firm, she worked on a lot of fashion/cosmetics deals. Big-name designers do deals with manufacturers for a jeans line, say. Or a celebrity doing a new perfume. And the deals were typically three year deals. Why? Because why continue a partnership that’s not working?
I used to be fond, when I was more pedantic, of reminding writers, agents, and editors that the editor was not, in fact, BUYING your manuscript. It was a LICENSE. It was the beginning of a partnership.
A license to sell you mean?
A license with a limited grant of rights. Which include the right to print and sell the work in volume form. etc etc. A purchase would be a work-for-hire agreement, or a copyright assignment. Like writing marketing copy. But the writer/publisher relationship is an ongoing one, not, OK, here’s my words, see ya.
Do you think that would result in a greater investment in the project by publishers, or a lesser one?
It shouldn’t affect the investment at all. (It didn’t affect these big IP license deals in fashion.) The biggest question a publisher should be asking itself is, Which book should I be publishing, and how best publish it. If the investment is paying off, you both keep investing. If it doesn’t you both cut bait.
What you otherwise have is a situation where the publisher is sitting on vast amounts of almost valueless stories, waiting for some deus ex machina to buy the film rights.
Do you think that’s possible? For a book that isn’t working with one publisher to be revived by another? Doesn’t the success of a book largely depend on the reviews that come along with its release?
It’s not super likely, no. Which is why, in most cases, it makes sense for both parties to renew the contract. But that should be by mutual agreement, not by lock in. Rights reversion negotiations are one of the most toxic moments in publishing, typically people arguing over something that has no value any more. Letting agreements expire produces much less drama. In fact, most translation deals are 5-7 years. Film options are 2-3 years.
Your idea of leaving more rights on the side of the writer (or at least giving them the opportunity to reconsider) might imply a positive view of self-publishing, but I have the feeling your thoughts on the subject are more complex than that.
Yes! I’m rather hoping the term self-publishing disappears, in fact. Since the degree of internal variance in the different circumstances of different self-publishing scenarios is far greater than the variance between self-publishing and other-publishing.
That’s a great point.
Plus many indie presses began by publishing the founders’ first books. Or their friends.
Very true. Well, ignoring whether the name sticks around, what are your hopes for the concept moving forward?
I believe in more publishing, not less. The more tools for creations and dissemination, the better.
Which, in turn, puts more of a stress on curation, no?
I believe that culture is like democracy, that for all the problems of letting any old idiot vote, it’s better than not letting particular people vote because you don’t think they’re voting the right way, the best way, etc. Yeah, though the word “curation” is being asked to do way more than it can do.
How do you mean?
It’s a catch-all phrase, a sort of wand we wave over the chaos.
What’s a better phrase, or a statement for what’s needed?
I think of there being two models for organizing information (but I’m more than willing to entertain others!) One is filter. The other is map. I lean map, for the most part. Though filter can work, under the right circumstances. Map aids serendipity. Filter reduces serendipity.
What are tangible examples of each?
I think of filter as being useful for people who have a high degree of familiarity with the variables within a given domain. A bookseller, a librarian, in the case of books. A filter reduces choice, according to some parameters.
Classic example, Amazon’s people who bought also bought. It’s a collaborative filter algorithm. It seeks patterns in behavior and infers conclusions from those patterns. It doesn’t seek to understand the pattern, though. It’s like the Black Box algorithm in high-frequency trading. It’s an extreme case. But pervasive case.
Very interesting. And real world examples of a map?
The most basic would be a word cloud. You see all the information, but it is organized.
Kind of like literature-map.com.
So, to go back to filters. If a librarian is asked, what should I read after Gone Girl. Thirty years ago, the librarian would know most thrillers with strong female protagonist and family context. Nowadays, that’s impossible.
BUT that librarian could use filter-based tools to eyeball 200 candidates, and then use her judgment to pick out a few. And there could be scope for some interesting range within those few. Whereas collaborative filtering will aim for a very very tight correspondence. And when it gets it wrong, it’ll be stupid wrong, rather than interesting wrong.
literature-map.com isn’t a bad start, yup. Naturally I’m fond of the work we work doing at smalldemons.com. Though all thats’ left at that URL is now the video. But this article gives a good sense of it.
Can I ask why, when it gets it wrong, it gets it very wrong?
I’m looking up an anecdote to illustrate the very very wrong. I’ve not found it yet. But an explanation can be inferred from Netflix abandoning collaborative filtering in its recommendation fine in favor of micro genre.
You’re giving us some great reading material in this talk. Moving forward: let’s now assume we’re now in the year 2025. Someone is dying to read something, but they have no idea what. How will the average person find their next book?
I actually don’t think such a use case exists. It’s an abstract question we ask ourselves in order to hypothesize discovery protocols, but I think it’s the wrong question, because I don’t think that in practice that happens any more. Not in the era of super abundant culture, where we’re inundated with media.
Instead what I think happens is that as we’re breathing in all these cultural artifacts we sometimes become dissatisfied. And we, with varying degrees of self-awareness, ask ourselves how can I change my life up. We seek to rut bust.
Okay, well deflected. From a less abstract point of view, what will be the biggest differences between how the bestselling books in 2025 will be marketed and how today’s are?
Well, I think what happens is more subtle than that too. I think the key tools of the next decade will be tools that allow people to better understand their consumption habits, and that offer alternatives. And amongst those alternatives are ways of browsing our culture that make the browsing experience itself pleasurable. We’re likely to see even more extreme bestseller, tentpole franchise consumption patterns. Where people read what everyone else is reading, simply because everyone else id reading it. Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, 50 Shades. But outside of that massive meme dissemination, culture will be tribe surfing.
Okay, this brings up a great topic—and something quantifiable. You think we’ll see more “monopolies” in bestsellers?
Bestsellers will be like Gagnam Style. Massive memes that surge and ebb. And some amount of activity chasing manufactured versions of that.
So the Herfindahl index of New York Times bestsellers will be greater in 2025 than it is now?
Oh it will be in every aspect of our lives. But to my mind that’ll be a less interesting phenomenon than outside of the bestsellers, where people will tribe surf.
How do you mean?
We see people trying on identities. And the number of possible available identities increases. And the availability of simultaneous identities too. And amongst the cultural artifacts that reflect, absorb, inform, inspire those identities will be books.
This is incredibly fascinating, and that’s unfortunate because I want to ask about ebooks, and we’ve got limited time left.
I’m going to guess you have more than a handful opinions on the usefulness and future of ebooks, but I want to know how you see the future of ebooks in terms of market share.
Oh. Hm. Well, in the short run something like 35%.
You’re not here to tell me about the short run Richard!
Ha, ha, ha!!
I’m talking market equilibrium long run!
Over the long run, I think the dollar value of ebooks from a standard of maret share will actually decline. As we’re already seeing with MP3. The digital reading experience will be less about the consumption of discrete digital artifacts, and more an environment, most likely SaaS subscription-based although at what level of granularity, I really don’t know.
The key thing around those reading experiences will be that the process of flowing from book to book will be the pleasurable process.
From a literature perspective though, doesn’t that sort of ruin the whole point? Or am I just old-fashioned?
Well, I think it’ll be something like the experience of going to AWP. Which I think is a pretty great way to experience literature…
To “experience” literature yes, but in my mind literature has to have undivided attention.
Oh sure. But we all already know that. That we take for granted.
Well, like all things we take for granted, is its nature threatened?
I doubt it. Group sex doesn’t threaten masturbation.
Can I quote you on that?
Totes. We all seek, at varying moments in our lives, different modes of living. Longish immersion in layered textual creations won’t disappear, it’s more that the ways we flow into them will become more various.
Look at the ways in which we’ve changed how we exercise. Once, we just ran, to or from the mammoths or tigers or such. Then we cultivated physical prowess. And we oiled each other up and ran naked in the dust of Sparta. And now we might do ultra marathons in the desert, or treadmills, or all the other running affordances. But we still run, frequently solo. So I think we’ll still read, frequently solo. It’s a muscle, and the smart humans won’t let that atrophy.
The bad news is we’re over time, the good news is you’ve been able to tie it all together with an evolutionary metaphor—which I think is really the best way to go out. This has been frustrating only because we had to pass by so many doors without really taking a look around.
I’m a longue durée guy, as you had to remind me.
I hope to have you on again down the road, Richard.
Any parting words?
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