We’re back! With our newest and semi-delayed installment of the Three Percent Podcast. This week, is a two-parter. First Chad and Tom run down the list of the fiction and poetry finalist for the 2013 Best Translated Book Awards. Yes, it’s true that these were announced a couple weeks ago, but, as luck would have it, today (Friday, May 3) happens to be the big awards ceremony, which is taking place at the PEN World Voices Festival in NYC (come one, come all!). So, what better time than now to brush up on the potential winners? Then, the podcast’s main event: Chad and Tom are joined by the one-and-only Richard Nash to talk about Richard’s recent article. The title and subtitle should give you a nice teaser to their discussion: “What Is the Business of Literature?: As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.”Read More...
The new issue of the Boston Review has an interesting interview with publishing visionary Richard Nash about the state of publishing and Revaluing the Book:
Matt Runkle: There’s a lot of worrying about the disappearance of the book as an object. Do you see the printed book in the same state of flux as the publishing industry?
Richard Nash: If people want something, why do they think it’s not going to exist? Not to get all sort of laissez-faire capitalist about this, but I’m going to have a moment of laissez-faire capitalism here and note that if people want to read the book in its printed form, then I predict there are going to be ways in which they can ensure that they will continue to get it in printed form because people are going to be willing to pay for it. [. . .]
MR: Will the failure of Borders change the way the book business thinks of books?
RN: What does a person do when they want something to read? One of the big mistakes that often gets made in publishing is we focus a lot on price. We focus on how much a book costs and we decide whether it’s worth it or not. Now we’ve got a lot more books that are absolutely impoverished. The reality is that people’s decision-making process has a lot more to do with time than with money. It’s 15 hours in the inside of your head. Books are so cheap compared to the hours of entertainment they provide. The problem is, do they provide entertainment? Is it in fact a book you want to read? If after four hours you hate it, what most people say is “I can’t believe I spent fifteen dollars on this.” But what they really mean is “I can’t believe I just wasted four hours of my life on this.”
MR: Red Lemonade allows people to view free of charge complete manuscripts of books you have for sale. You’ve mentioned that having access to the full text online will help readers make up their minds and commit to buying a hard copy. This view differs from a general reluctance of publishers to post complete works online.
RN: Exactly. With the vast majority of books, the problem that most people have is they don’t know whether it’s going to be worth their time to read it. There are a tiny handful of books, in the case of each person, where they can be sure they want to read them. The reality is that I don’t think, in fact, there are a huge number of people reading our books for free online that have made a decision about whether to buy it. I mean there is probably a small number that are doing it for that reason and that number may increase, but I believe the number is smaller than has occurred to people because publishers refuse to do it. But what we’ve very clearly demonstrated by putting it for free online is that reading the book online has absolutely no negative impact on sales. Why in fact would it?
In many respects we’ve got a real Stockholm Syndrome around the model of publishing as it’s existed up until now. We just take for granted that it is the way it is because that’s a good way for things to be. And when something diverges from it we look for proof as to why it should diverge. But I’m interested in trying to reframe questions. Why do we think that a person won’t buy a print book because in theory they could read it for free online? What is it that people are buying? What is it that people want? In many respects what people want is to read it on their own terms, so in many cases, people don’t want to have to read it on a screen. Then the other thing is that people want to feel like they are spending money. It is their way of feeling good about themselves. It is their way of voting for something with their dollars.
Read the whole interview here.
There are many reasons why the tiny, scrappy independent publisher I ran from 2001 to 2009, Soft Skull Press, became a publisher with a Pulitzer finalist and books on bestseller lists from the Singapore Straits Times to the Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times. Those reasons include the quality of the books themselves, the engaging authors, the supportive media (sometimes!). But the main reason people discovered our books, read them, and told their friends about them, is that thousands of people over the decade unpacked a box of books and, in the process of putting one on a shelf, got curious about it, decided to read it, and recommended it to friends, co-workers and, yes, customers.
This process replicated itself for hundreds of publishers and tens of thousands of books, numbers that grew as technology made it easier and cheaper to create traditional printed books. America’s book retail sector grew fast in the 1990s and 2000s (with hindsight, faster than the economy could sustain) to keep up with the growth in the publishing of books, enabled by cheap credit (again, with hindsight, perhaps too cheap). Superstore after superstore opened, offering customers more choice than had ever before been found in most physical bookstores.
But selection, whether of books or of music, was hardly a compelling reason to go to Borders, when Amazon had all the books you could want, and iTunes (or the file-sharing site du jour) all the downloads you could want. We have more culture, more media, than we can now consume in a thousand lifetimes — we don’t need any more choice. What we need is help in choosing. Borders was not offering that. [. . .]
Where will we find all the mini-Oprahs we need to connect writers and readers? Bookstores can and should be sites for this conversation. Increasingly, the good ones are places where people seeking deeper engagement with their culture and society choose to congregate. They are offering language classes, reading groups, singles nights, writing workshops, self-publishing solutions.
Not all bookstores have gotten on board with the transition from being a place where books await customers to being a locale of social and cultural exchange, which happens to support itself in part by selling books. The brilliant Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has noted that the less a retail experience is focused on selling stuff and the more it is about something else — an event, an occasion, a vision — the more a store will sell.
Read the whole piece here.
As I mentioned some time ago, I was invited to participate in this year’s Non-Fiction Conference sponsored and organized by the Dutch Foundation for Literature. This year’s focus was on “Quality Non-Fiction in the Digital Era,” so there were a number of presentations about new developments, the future of publishing and reading, etc.
Unlike some of the other digitally-focused conferences I’ve attended (such as TOC Frankfurt), this was less about “what’s possible” and more about “what this means.” Which was refreshing and very interesting.
The foundation did record all of the talks, and has made most (soon to be all?) available on YouTube. (I personally love all the stills . . . We all look a bit over-enthused with our hand gestures and what not.)
All of the speeches were great, and to make this even easier, here are links and quick summaries to the speeches that are available:
Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan gave a great overview of where we are in terms of ebooks and the digital market.
Richard Nash’s speech isn’t online (yet), but he talked about the coming Age of Abundance and how economic theory provides a basis for arguing that this abundance will force prices to zero.
Jos de Mul talked about the impact of technology on human imagination from a philosophical perspective.
Harry Blom’s speech isn’t up yet either, but he talked about Springer and publishing edatabase versions of journals.
Henry Volans from Faber and Faber talked about this as well, but from a publisher’s perspective.
Nicky Harman discussed the role of translators in this digital age.
Finally, I talked about reading and discovery in the Age of Screens. But I’ll talk more about that in a separate post . . . For now, I just want to encourage you to check out some of these videos. I think you’ll find them very interesting and enjoyable. (And we were all limited to 10 minutes, so they’re short.)
Laura Miller’s critique of the iBooks store is fascinating for about 10 million reasons that I don’t have the time or mental energy to go into right now.
The problem that she describes—how iBooks categorization is total trash, finding book and getting recommendations is hopeless, etc.—ties directly into the quote that I’ve mentioned on here at least 55 times (and which Richard Nash has theorized about quite a bit) that “the 20th century was about sorting supply. The 21st is going to be about sorting demand.”
Here’s Miller’s closing paragraph:
It’s become much easier and cheaper to publish a book in the past decade, but the explosion of titles on the market has its drawbacks. When faced with an overwhelming number of choices, most book buyers tend to become less adventurous, not more so. They have increasingly gravitated toward known quantities like bestsellers and widely celebrated or publicized books. The ideal guide to getting out of that rut is still a thoughtful bookseller, librarian or friend (or even critic!) whose taste you know and trust, but such people aren’t always easy to find, and even when found, they’re not omniscient. Good metadata, treated with respect and care, may be your only compass in some of the more exotic provinces of the vast world of books. It’s the little, geeky detail that makes sure a voice from the margins still has a chance to get heard.
Interesting . . .
Not sure how long this has been available online, but you can now download a lot of the presentations from the inaugural Tools of Change Frankfurt conference.
Lot of interesting ones, including:
The new issue of PW, has a lengthy article by Richard Nash about his new venture (in collaboration with Dedi Felman), which is called Cursor:
After months of work, with Dedi’s help I outlined my vision for a new venture at this year’s BookExpo America. Then called Round Table, now tentatively called Cursor, it represents a new, “social” approach to publishing. To call Cursor “niche” or another “independent” publishing enterprise would be a poor approximation, because those terms fail to capture the organic gurgle of culture at the heart of the venture, the exchange of insight and opinion, the flow of memes and the creation of culture in real time that is now enabled by the Internet.
My business plan is now out with investors—I will spare you the P&L numbers and just offer the broad strokes. Cursor will establish a portfolio of self-reinforcing online membership communities. To start, this includes Red Lemonade, a pop-lit-alt-cult operation, and charmQuark, a sci-fi/fantasy community.
The business will focus on developing the value of the reading and writing ecosystem, including the growth of markets for established authors, as well as engaging readers and supporting emerging writers. Each community will have a publishing imprint, which will make money from authors’ books, sold as digital downloads, conventional print and limited artisanal editions—and will offer authors all the benefits of a digital platform: faster time to market, faster accounting cycles, faster payments to authors. But the greatest opportunity is in the community itself. Each will have tiers of membership, including paid memberships that will offer exclusive access to tools and services, such as rich text editors for members to upload their own writing, peer-to-peer writing groups, recommendation engines, access to established authors online and in person, and editorial or marketing assistance. Members can get both peer-based feedback and professional feedback.
Other revenue opportunities include the provision of electronic distribution services to other publishers; fee-based or revenue-share software modules, especially for online writing workshops or seminars for publishers, literary journals, teaching programs; fee-based linking of writers to suppliers of publishing services, including traditional publishers and agents; corporate sponsorships and site advertising; and events and speaking fees. Yes, I envisage Cursor obtaining a larger basket of rights than is the industry standard, but that will be in exchange for shorter exclusive licensing periods. Our contracts will be limited to three-year terms with an option to renew.
The Cursor business model seeks to unite all the various existing revenues in the writing-reading ecosystem, from offering services to aspiring writers far more cheaply than most vendors to finding more ways to get more money to authors faster. It also will create highly sensitive feedback loops that will tell each community’s staff what tools and features users want, what books users think the imprint should be publishing, how the imprint could publish better.
It’ll be interesting to see what this looks like once it launches, and how it evolves. And I’m sure we’ll be writing more about the implications of this business model in the future. One thing that strikes me about Richard’s idea—and this definitely comes through in talking to him about publishing and the future of the book business—is that he has a strong interest in the social aspect of reading and believes that the primary value of publishing houses is their ability to connect writers and readers (through marketing, through distribution chains).
That’s not to undervalue the editorial knowledge present in publishing houses, but he tends to shy away from a publisher as a creator of a particular editorial vision. Or at least as the only player creating a particular editorial vision:
An indie press’s distinctive voice is a profoundly collective thing, set by its authors, its fans, its casual readers. The publisher’s role, my role and the role of the staff are to be conduits, advocates, enablers, to serve the readers and writers—to be the grease. Toward the end of my Soft Skull tenure, however, it occurred to me that we’ve all—indie and corporate—fallen victim to the notion of ourselves as gatekeepers. Perhaps that is to compensate for, well, the lack of other compensation. But in the past couple of years, sustaining the gatekeeper mentality has been hard as the pressure has grown from within and without.
This does seem to be a new model for publishing—one that might not replace all existing models, but will definitely complement them. As to whether it will “save” publishing, Richard has a nice bit about that idea:
Cursor is not designed to “save publishing,” but simply to offer the kind of services that readers and writers, established and emerging, want and the Internet enables. I believe especially strongly that the model must be viable in a world where the effective price of digital content falls to zero, and paper becomes like vinyl records or fine art prints. After all, the world is littered with things that people won’t buy at the prices their producers want to charge—like, say, the contents of remainder bins.
Very interesting speech from Richard Nash on the future of publishing and the need for publishers and readers to be more connected:
(Some Twitterer mentioned that Richard seemed a bit like Tom Cruise in Magnolia . . . I can see that.)
He may have resigned from Soft Skull, but as evidenced in a recent post, at his personal blog—always a source of great erudition and entertainment—Richard Nash still has a lot to say about the business of publishing, the so-called “death of the book,” etc.:
People, the book will live on with the publishing business!!! That is not really what is changing, and to the extent that it might be, it will only be because the writers and the readers want it to.
The book isn’t in trouble, it’s that everyone who takes some of the money that a consumer pays for an author’s content need to re-justify their share and not assume that because they used to get that % they still in fact deserve that %. And I sense too many people hiding behind the notion that this has something to do with grandiose cultural notions about the life and death of the book rather than more quotidian concerns about the vision and competence of individuals populating this business.
On one extreme, booksellers, wholesalers, sales reps, publicists, editors, and agents could all fail to make a good case for a piece of the action; another extreme is that they all succeed in making that case. Unsurprisingly, I think it will likely be somewhere in the middle—some intermediaries are likely to be necessary, others not. I firmly believe that people with the talent to persuasively communicate the merits of cultural content are going to do immensely well in the future (and, depending on their inclinations, immense could mean lots money, or lots high-brow authority, or both, or something else immense entirely) and I suspect that people who are now publishers’ sales reps, and indie booksellers, and publicists, and so forth will number amongst those.
Who exactly, and structured in which way, that’s what remains to be seen. But the book is fine. Focus on connect writers and readers and you won’t have to ask for whom the bell is tolling.
Right on. The problems the industry is going through at the moment isn’t due to the product itself (the book), but with the model.
Sad to see one of my favorite publishing people leave their job, but based on his post on Soft Skull’s blog I’m actually encouraged about his future:
When I explained to my colleagues yesterday that I would be consulting and freelancing, some were concerned this was a euphemism for leaving publishing. It is anything but. For me, my departure is actually about my passionate belief in the future of publishing, in the future of community built around long-form edited narrative texts, in the future of connecting writers and readers, in a Web 3.0 that’s about the filters. I’m going to take this opportunity to go even deeper into publishing, to double-down, to go all in . . .
Richard is extremely intelligent, and having talked to him at length about the future of publishing, I have high hopes for all of his future projects.
The latest entry in Scott Esposito’s fascinating series of interviews with independent publishers about publishing during a recession is now available online. This time he talks with Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull, and one of the smartest (and most articulate) people in the field when it comes to talking about the business of books.
Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?
Richard Nash: There are several distinct things going on at once. The first is the macro-economic problem which is indeed giving cause for gloom as it has caused a serious drop on aggregate adult trade book sales, greater than any recession heretofore.
The second is the shift on what media consumers purchase, and how they consume it, occurring for books, music, television and film—because it is the smallest of those industries, and because its technology—the printed book—was the most robust and fine-tuned of the analog technologies, it is only know we’re starting to see the impact. And the impact is currently less on the industry itself; it’s more that the cumulative effect of the changes from other industries, chiefly the amount of content consumed online, is drawing people away from the printed book format. The shift can be cause for gloom if you’re of the handwringing temperament, but it is far more an opportunity to rid the publishing business of a lot of cant and laziness and arrogance.
The third is the effect of all the other, non-consumer-facing change sin technology, especially that of supply chain management, in combination with the above two trends. Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they’ll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they’re printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title. The macroeconomic situation has made this worse, and the collapse in music sales (pace the second observation) has hurt retailers like Tower, Virgin, Borders, putting more pressure on the books to perform . . . This phenomenon is cause for gloom, though it has been going on for years and won’t stop really until there’s been a significant shift to digital download of books, and to subscriptions for direct-to—consumer physical books.
And his comments about Anita Elberse’s article on the blockbuster model and how this model will play out over time are both hilarious and accurate:
RN: Oh she’s really not done much research—she’s only looked at the corporate model, and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained. [. . .]
Corporate houses were already shifting to publishing fewer titles, and the recession will accelerate that process. They will continue to follow Elberse’s model, which will cause them to become smaller and smaller companies, since chasing blockbusters has never worked in books except one or two years out of every four or five, when they’re lucky. There will be layoffs in all the down years, which will be the majority, until they’re really just backlists with a sporadic hit factory attached.
All of Scott’s interviews are really interesting, in part because there does seem to be a greater awareness among independent presses about how things are changing and about what business models/strategies need to be instituted in order to survive and continue serving the reading public.
It’s probably not the best strategy to wait until things start to implode to talk about flaws in a particular business model (*cough* investment banking cough auto industry cough), but now that the publishing industry is falling apart it seems like there has been an enormous number of articles about what’s wrong with the system, what’s going to happen in the future, etc., etc. The latest is Lev Grossman’s “Books Unbound” summary in Time.
Pretty good overview, and when he puts it like this, it really does seem like our industry is totally back-asswards:
Publishing has deeper, more systemic problems, like the fact that its business model evolved during an earlier fiscal era. It’s an antique, a financial coelacanth that dates back to the Depression.
Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn’t “earn out,” in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. “They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back,” says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW. These systems were created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.
If you think about it, shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century.
I swear, the only ones who really wins in this game are UPS and FedEx. It’s not like stores make money by paying someone to order too many books and then pull them from the shelves and ship them back, and it certainly doesn’t help publishers or authors . . .
There’s a lot more that can be said about what’s wrong with the current model, but Lev goes one step further and paints a picture of what the “new publishing” will look like:
In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one—an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.
So if the economic and technological changes of the 18th century gave rise to the modern novel, what’s the 21st century giving us? Well, we’ve gone from industrialized printing to electronic replication so cheap, fast and easy, it greases the skids of literary production to the point of frictionlessness. From a modern capitalist marketplace, we’ve moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional. And in place of a newly minted literate middle class, we now have a global audience of billions, with a literacy rate of 82% and rising.
Put these pieces together, and the picture begins to resolve itself: more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City’s entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.
There’s more to this issue that I could possibly unpack in a paragraph, but it seems to me that the publishers most well suited to this sort of “riotous jungle” are the ones that have a particular vision, that inspire public trust, and that are most interactive with their readers. More crassly put—the publishers that have a strong brand. Which is funny since for years publishers have been claiming that books don’t work this way, that there isn’t a brand awareness or allegiance among readers. (And there probably isn’t when you’re talking about wide-and-low general publishers.)
This also represents the sort of paradigm shift that Richard Nash likes to talk about—that publisher need to evolve from the current business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model. I think that concept is at the heart of what’s going on in publishing these days, and although I don’t think publishing or reading or books will ever end, it’s easy to envision a time in which book culture has evolved in a way that’s not exactly like Lev’s vision, but is much more in that direction than how things function now.
Richard Nash is teaching a class with the above title at Columbia this spring. Sounds really interesting:
Forty years ago Roland Barthes announced the “Death of the Author,” yet not only are there more authors than ever, but more with more blogs, websites, and YouTube trailers. Now, it is the “Death of Print” that has been announced. Is this obituary greatly exaggerated? Or, if true, is print even mourned?
With the help of a tremendously eclectic reading list comprising philosophy, gossip, true crime, cultural anthropology, poetry, and fiction of all stripes, we’re going to examine the evolution of the book publishing industry so as to delineate the possibilities for the cultural and economic role of the writer and editor in the coming decades.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .