Richard Nash's big bet: What if literature and Big Publishing must finally part ways?
Longtime friends and downtown literary fixtures Richard Nash and Lynne Tillman could hardly have seen themselves where they are today when they first met more than eight years ago at a book reading in an old combination publishing office-coffee house-bookstore in Boerum Hill.
Then, Nash was the quick-tongued, bespectacled, charismatic former theater director who for two years had been running Soft Skull Press, the cult indie house that was pushing the boundaries of publishing; Tillman was a fixture in the downtown scene, an edgy, experimental writer who defied conventional contemporary literature with experimental storytelling published by a downtown art house.
Now he's launched his new publishing project, Cursor—both a technical platform and traditional publishing model, a stand-in for a "publishing house" really—and Red Lemonade would be its first "imprint." Tillman is its marquee name. In April, Nash published her collection of stories, Someday This Will Be Funny and she will read her work tonight at McNally Jackson on Prince Street, with Paula Fox. And earlier this month, he launched the website for Red Lemonade, which publishes a selection of her stories online for free. Other writers signed with the label, including Kio Stark, who will publish her first novel, Follow Me Down, in June, as well as her readers, make notes on her work and share it with friends. They can also buy print copies of the books. Tillman’s back catalog of works, including Haunted Houses, Motion Sickness, Cast in Doubt and 1998 National Book Critics Circle finalist No Lease on Life, will be released this summer.
“When he told me what he was doing, I couldn’t believe it was real,” Tillman said, calling from her Manhattan apartment. “It just seemed in this publishing climate, it could not be possible. It wasn’t that I doubted him, but I doubted a system where a Richard Nash could flourish.”
“But as I often say about Richard,” she said, “I don’t understand what the hell he’s doing, but I just go along with it.”
Nash's relationships in New York literary circles is a big part of the strength he's drawing on for this project, including the relationship with Tillman. Now, Tillman calls it a "literary marriage." But it could have hit the rocks a long time ago.
When Nash first met Tillman at that book reading in early 2003, he was editorial director of Soft Skull Press, founded a more than a decade before by political activist and "punk of publishing" Sander Hicks. The press ran a bookstore out of its offices on Bond Street in Boerum Hill, and Tillman had shown up to read from her 2002 collection of stories, This Is Not It. They'd had a polite greeting, but the chemistry was clear.
Tillman was reading in support of another author's book launch; her book was published a year prior by D.A.P. She was accustomed to reading in strange surroundings, and though this place, with its coffeehouse trappings, office desks, and locked cages of books all sharing the space in a bit of a jumble, was among the strange ones, Soft Skull itself was ascendant. David Rees' brilliant series of political comics, Get Your War On, in which clip art was manipulated to create a cast of characters talking about the war in Iraq, was selling well. That April, Jenny Davidson's novel Heredity cracked The New York Times book review, a coveted placement and Soft Skull's first since its founding in 1992.
Two years after their first handshake, Nash recalls now, Tillman herself was quite ascendant.
“I couldn't move without someone coming up to me saying, Lynne Tillman's got a new novel,” Nash wrote in an email. “I hear her agent is going to send it to you, you must do it.”
“In a highly informal way, the community was telling me: publish American Genius, A Comedy.”
She signed with Soft Skull that same year, for her fifth novel.
“He showed up at my door and we spent seven hours sitting down on my couch, with his laptop, and we discussed sentences and word choice. It was so much fun for both of us,” Tillman said.
“I doubt very much changed, quantitatively,” Nash wrote of that first edit session. “But I realized what a deep master of her craft she is. She had a reason for everything. I was in awe of the discipline of mind that never glossed over a word. Everything was considered.”
Then, in 2007, Nash sold Soft Skull to a small-press conglomerate that would bring together the Soft Skull brand with Wendell Berry and poet Gary Snyder's Counterpoint Press. He continued to run the imprint for two years before leaving the company to start out on his own.
"He said to me that he still was going to bring my books out,” Tillman said. “Any author is very happy to have their work brought back from the dead. But at that point, I thought to myself, ‘This is fantastic, but how can he do it?’ I didn’t say that to him, but I was thinking, 'I’ll just maybe have a little hope, but I won’t think about it too much.'”
Nash called her last year. Send me your electronic books, he told her.
NASH QUIETLY LAUNCHED THE WEBSITE for Red Lemonade by sending an email to the network of friends and colleagues he'd formed in his years as a downtown publisher.
“Our goal is to make Red Lemonade a home for powerful writing and engaged reading," he wrote in the May 12 email. "And to make Cursor the best possible platform to power the world's next 50,000 independent publishers.”
He also wrote: “Sorry it took so long.”
The website allows writers to self-publish to the site right alongside the works of published authors, including Tillman, and get feedback from other writers, published and otherwise, on their work. They can highlight sections and make notes about passages in any of the work, sharing a kind of digital marginalia with their fellow users directly on the site. They can also buy each others’ work in digital and print form; promote readings at cafes and bookstores; and get advice and support from the online community as they write drafts.
In some ways, that downtown-and-Brooklyn avant-garde literary scene that introduced Nash to Tillman in the first place is fading, and in part that's because of the digital scene's capacity to erase geographic distinctions, and also a sort of geographic "specialness" that was once so integral to literary scenes. In Red Lemonade, Nash hopes to recapture some of that neighborhood magic but with a full embrace of publishing's inevitable digital future; to create an online gathering place customized to provide the kind of creative support, criticism and publicity network those regional and neighborhoods once did.
His intention is to embed the same platform into other communities of writers, and assign an editor to each community to help regulate the site. A, say, crime novelist will help run a community of crime writers and decide which of the posted works get published into bound books.
Nash envisions eventually allowing readers to sign up for digital “packages” with authors: a bound book, a digital version of their work, as well as, perhaps, an online chat via Skype or a workshop hosted by the author at the traditional shop.
Joining him to figure out the revenue side is Mark Warholak, who ran the digital content business for Fodor's Travel at Random House and has since spent six years living and working in China, advising and managing tech ventures.
Cursor also has an impressive roster of advisors: Clay Shirky, the New York University tech and media professor, author and “digital guru;” Craig Mod, publisher of visual iPad RSS reader display application Flipboard; and Angus Durocher, lead web developer of YouTube at Google.
Nash emailed me a memo about Cursor, which includes a section titled “Revenue and Engagement.”
“We make money both through the pilot publishing community we created (Red Lemonade) and by charging publishers a fee for the platform,” the memo says. “Publishers as far afield as Italy, Finland, and Australia have approached us about partnering; several universities have also contacted us about using the platform.”
Nash’s team predicts that Cursor will make $1.3 million in revenue by the end of 2012.
There’s also a section on “competition.”
“No competitor takes the approach we do—large publishers are focused on survival and topline revenue preservation and small publishers lack resources to solve their own problems. The would-be disruptors focus on 1. production (creating self-publishing tools that do nothing to ensure an audience is found for the book) or 2. consumption, via social discovery tools that help readers find books, a model which is entirely dependent for monetization on advertising from declining legacy publishers.”
Nash said that the germ of the idea for Cursor was already in his head when he joined Soft Skull in 2001. The picture for book publishing was arguably bleaker, or at least blurrier, then as it is now. So much less was known about what possible avenues of escape the industry might have to bring written material before readers in a new model.
He said he's been waiting for “a totally level playing field.”
“Time has been coming down the turnpike, when I could play on a level playing field, on the production side,” Nash said, calling in from a MetroNorth train. Nash was referring to the actual dollars and cents to print a bound book, but also the desktop publishing platform, an ability to gather writers to publish their work for free online, and an audience of readers more open to discovering work for themselves, not just what's reviewed in their newspapers and magazines or what's presented "facet"-style at their local Barnes & Noble.
And so in a way, a level playing field, for Nash, actually means lots and lots of competition, not less competition than before.
“It would be not just me and Random House, it would be me and everyone else who would be publishing houses," he said. "Me and 14 year olds are going to be on the same playing fields."
From that point of view, Nash might argue, his experience being a struggling, independent publisher with distinctly noncommercial and experimental tastes is an advantage, as long as a guy like him can see what he's got going for him.
"You get so used to being on the low end of the totem pole, you don’t notice how things are changing until they are there in front of you,” he said.
“Effectively, I started in publishing without knowing what I was doing, which with hindsight was incredibly fortunate because it turned out that what we were doing in 2001 wasn’t going to be telling us to much about 2021.”
“I was a performance artist, a theater director,” he said. “I didn’t know what galleys were, and all the procedural aspects of it. And I learned that stuff because I had to learn that stuff to do my job.”
And when he did learn all of the ins and outs, he found his outsider status made something obvious to him that wasn't always obvious to everyone who'd invested themselves in the business: This system was broken.
“Soft Skull was in extreme financial straits, there was an incredible sense of urgency," he said. "There weren’t very many sacred cows, we had to slaughter all the cows. So we weren’t very process-oriented, I mean to a fault.”
Nash found, after selling Soft Skull to Counterpoint, that he wasn't able to do what he wanted to create new publishing models for his writers.
“I was protesting on what was going to make the writers and readers happy and not necessarily doing anything to make it better,” he said.
While Soft Skull still exists as an imprint of Counterpoint, its base of operations shifted to Berkeley, Calif. last year. “It’s essentially the end of the line for a company born in 1993 at a Kinko’s just below Union Square that has, over the years, been one of the most provocative, daring, loved and hated independent presses in New York,” wrote Adam Rathe in New York Press last November, during Soft Skull’s last days in New York.
I HAD LUNCH WITH NASH LAST SUMMER in the leafy garden behind Le Petite Cafe at the bottom of Court Street in Carroll Gardens, where the owner's eccentric collecting and decorating tastes create a perpetually changing display of knombes, buddhas and dolls peeking from behind water fountains and tree branches. Nash chose the spot for its “theatrical feel,” he said as he discussed his ideas for Cursor. He often took off his glasses, and squeezed his eyes tight as he spoke, pressing his fingers into his eyelids. He struggled to explain his ideas; he was, back then, still months and months from launching.
He wasn’t completely sure what his new platform would look like, but he knew it had to infuse the do-it-yourself spirit of Soft Skull, where books sometimes came together via printing at Kinko's, with a PDF and a copy machine.
“At Kinko's, you were surrounded,” Nash said. “You also had record labels starting, people were designing the covers of their C.D.s, and flyers for their shows. That kind of D.I.Y. creativity, that sort of deep, deep, deep inside of Soft Skull’s D.N.A., that was really the first, kind of John the Bapist to the Jesus Christ of the web," he said. "While it might not be something that was making anyone any money, it seemed driven by people’s desire to communicate and to reach their audience directly, whether it was a two-dollar check going to the P.O. box or buying the C.D.s at the show.”
Nash is attempting to fill that gap between writers and readers in a more meaningful way, now that he can: Now that, to use a different biblical metaphor, the Goliaths are a little shorter and the Davids are standing a little taller.
Part of Nash's idea is that it's not just the economics of publishing that have changed in the new digital environment. It's the desires and motivations of American writers. Getting published was the golden ticket once: the bound book glaring at you and your friends from the shelves of bookstores everywhere, with its Chip Kidd cover design on the front and the contemplative author photo surrounded by blurbs from respected colleagues (and, if it was your second time round the post, the Respected Publication's positive review of Book 1). In other words, the difference between an "aspiring writer" and a "writer" was publication by a "real" publisher. All else was vanity.
It's not that writers in that position ceased to have a use for the literary scenes from which he or she might have emerged; on the contrary, that only made those scenes that much more gratifying.
“It was like being one of three guys in an all-girls school,” Nash said. “Now all of a sudden, it’s the other way around.”
Nash and his Kinko's colleagues have inherited the digital kingdom, and they're exploding that epithet "aspiring." Everyone is a writer; everyone is a reader.
Nash remembers this "aspirational" class of yore from his time reading unsolicited submissions (the industry term is still "the slush pile") for Soft Skull.
"If I looked at my submissions pile, the submissions included lists of things that they had read that I had already published, and words of devotion to those books," he said. "They were my best Soft Skull customers. These are people who are potential lifetime revenue customers.”
He loved them, but he had to reject them; there was no in-between, no way of inviting them into the Soft Skull universe. “They give us their heart and we send it to them back with a dagger through it,” he said.
“Even the writers I was agreeing to publish, being published was not the end in itself. And getting readers and money is just a lucky part in all that,” he said. “They didn’t want to be published, they wanted to be loved.”
Forming writers and readers into a community, giving them a platform that would connect them, allow them to support each other financially, emotionally, intellectually—essentially reforming the in-person downtown literary circles on St. Mark’s and KGB Bar and in Brooklyn brownstone living rooms, but in a digital form—is “it,” he became convinced.
“The experience of being actively engaged around the community: that is it,” Nash said. “And publishing is just kind of a river that runs through that country. But the country is the thing.”
THERE'S AN OLD FOUNDATIONAL TALE, POSSIBLY APOCRYPHAL, in New York publishing about James Laughlin. The way the story goes, Laughlin, an heir to a Pittsburgh steel fortune, traveled to Paris as a Harvard undergraduate in 1934, carrying an introduction to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas from a literature teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall, and rounded out his literary tour with a visit to Ezra Pound in Italy, who looked at his poetry and suggested that he concentrate on something "useful," like putting his fortune to work to create a publishing house that would promote authors the publishing establishment lacked either the guts or the money or both to support.
A few years later, New Directions was operating with money from his father out of offices at 333 Sixth Avenue.