In March of this year, a few weeks after I left Soft Skull Press—the independent publishing company I revived in 2001 and ran for six years before selling and semirunning it for another two—I was contacted by a journalist from the New York Observer writing a feature on my successor, the former FSG/Faber editor Denise Oswald. Did I have any advice for her? “Make a lot of friends. Go to a lot of parties. Reach out, online and offline,” I told the writer, “and keep accepting unsolicited manuscripts because the people who send unsolicited manuscripts are your readers.”
Initially, I thought my response was rather lame. I later realized, however, there was something quite powerful in my last phrase, because it embraced the most critical lesson of my Soft Skull experience: the people who wanted to publish with Soft Skull were as much a part of our community as those we did publish. They were as important as reviewers, bloggers and booksellers. Indeed, a sizable chunk of them came from those professions. They read our books, they loved our authors. They wanted to learn from those authors, to meet them, to share with them, to be among them. The writers who sent unsolicited materials, simply put, were valuable.
In the weeks following my departure from Soft Skull, I began thinking about my next move, considering my experience as well as what a publishing business of the future might look like given our evolving networked world. Print books are still selling, of course. But are they selling in a rhythm that will be sustainable over the long run? Digital downloads are selling, too, but are they selling fast enough, or well enough, to support the current editorial, sales and promotional infrastructure? Might the selling price of digital content in fact drop to zero? Agents and authors continue to license works to publishers. But they still require significant chunks of working capital at a time when publishers' own working capital is under major stress. In fact, the entire retailing and wholesaling side of the print book supply chain has been pushing inventory risk back onto publishers as fast as mathematically possible.
In my next venture, how would I reconcile the traditional author-agent-publisher-printer-warehouse-wholesaler-retailer-reader supply chain with the potential power of the Internet as a platform? I say “as a platform” to distinguish from how most publishers currently use the Internet—mostly as a logistics and marketing tool. Working with my friend and fellow publisher, Dedi Felman, what emerged from my research is a model that to some will seem unconscionably radical, to others unconscionably conservative: a business that properly avails itself of all the tools that now exist to enable the creation of writing and reading communities from which all else emanates—print books, downloads, marketing and publicity, editorial services—and, of course, revenue.
The Soft Skull Years
My resignation from Soft Skull was described by one blogger as “the beginning of the end of the first era of post-Internet publishing.” In other words, what might be called the “desktop publishing revolution” had run its course. We tend to forget these days that technological revolutions in publishing are not uncommon. Driven by PC software, hundreds of independent publishers were able to become part of the fabric of North American book culture—and Soft Skull was one of the earliest exemplars.
Soft Skull began at a Kinko's in 1993 courtesy of Adobe and Xerox. It started with fewer resources and far less maturity and experience than, say, Seven Stories, Arcade, Manic D or New Press. But we all benefited from the collapsing barriers to entry into the publishing business. Distributors like PGW, IPG, Consortium, SCB arose to service these publishers and in so doing engendered yet more presses—first Akashic, then Two Dollar Radio, Featherproof, Chiasmus. First, we were the barbarians at the gate. Then, we became the alternative establishment.
Personally, I was less the visionary and more the accidental publisher. A director and performance artist, I staged plays written by Soft Skull's charismatic founder, Sander Hicks, and was there to pick up the pieces when it imploded in July 2001 after the suicide of Fortunate Son author Jim Hatfield. I knew nothing about publishing. There was almost nothing in the pipeline, a tiny backlist, and a massive debt totaling some 150% of revenue. Our distributor, PGW, had almost no idea what to do with us. Then someone suggested I check out David Rees's Get Your War On, and bingo! That book went on to sell 35,000 copies in two editions.
More importantly, it became increasingly clear that our books really mattered to people, as ever more people sent us manuscripts and proposals. Matthew Sharpe's The Sleeping Father was selected for The Today Show's Book Club. Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart made 15 Best Books of the Year lists. And the manuscripts and proposals and internship requests just kept coming, replete with cover letters describing how a given Soft Skull book had changed one's life. Both the Association of American Publishers and Publishers Weekly gave me awards.
Even though the finances were a roller coaster, I was pleased. In 2004, a Google search for “Soft Skull” in the co.uk domain popped up a blog post on the Guardian's site asking readers to offer up suggestions as to “what books get you laid.” One commenter offered: “Anything by Soft Skull.” The thrill! The scope for a stressed-out, personally-bankrupted-by-funding-one's-press-with-one's-credit-cards, on-credit-hold-with-your-printer, late-with-the-royalties indie publisher to compensate by self-aggrandizing one's significance as an arbiter of taste cannot be underestimated. But while that may be understandable, it is also toxic.
In 2006, I had to find a white knight to save the company after PGW's bankruptcy. In the process it became clear to me that our biggest errors weren't financial. Once Soft Skull had halfway adequate capital, it flourished. No, the biggest error was more philosophical.
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.
Had I the resources, had I the presence of mind, I would have realized, then and there, that I needed to learn a lot more about what made Soft Skull so valued to its community. But the publishing feedback loop is terrible—and Soft Skull had one of the better ones! In general, publishing Web sites have almost no information about the people who work there and are largely designed to stop people from communicating with us. We often deny the general public access to our trade shows. And in an age when the Internet is fostering more and more direct interaction, our business still relies on an insanely elongated supply chain, dependent on 25-word exchanges, two or three times a year, a one-way street except for when it comes to unsold books.
The rest of the publishing business is no less stressful than indie publishing. The new barbarians are now at the gate, those who don't even bother with Quark or InDesign. Platforms like Blogger, Wordpress and Drupal, for example, are free to users, and the content hosted may be freely consumed by readers. Once a “barbarian” myself, I began to feel like a complacent insider. How could I find a way to better serve all the readers and writers who had been asking to be part of our community, sending us their manuscripts, reading our books, advocating for our books, interning for us?
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.
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.
If recent experience is any guide, there is little reason for me to think that people, given so many other options for their leisure time, especially in the wired world, will continue to give up hours and dollars for the sake of our industry, any more than they will for big cars or daily newspapers. We are going to have to find new ways to earn those hours and dollars, and at the prices our readers—and writers—set.
Certainly, the opportunity is there. In 1982, 11 million Americans were engaged in creative writing. In 2002, that number rose to 14 million, and the NEA's latest report suggests the 2007 number will be much higher. Consider this: in 2008 more than 275,000 new titles were published. Amazon, BN.com and other players will fight over the privilege of being the dominant horizontal player in the market for digital downloads, just as Google, iTunes, and PayPal dominate their respective markets. But as wireless broadband Internet access achieves ubiquity in the coming years and the social aspects of the Web continue to evolve, there is a still greater opportunity for books.
That's because reading, while a solitary experience, is also social. Reading—not just writing—is itself an act of self-expression, a statement of identity. One need only look at the the growth of the book group for evidence. Those who read the same books become like members of a tribe. Often, we display our physical books like plumage. And on Twitter, someone mentions the word “book” every second.
Were it not for the power of the Internet, all this talk of the social nature of reading and writing might remain just casual, useful little thought bubbles built around books. But especially in the Web 2.0 incarnation, which focuses on communication and sharing, technology has emphasized a simple truth at the heart of my new enterprise: we are what we read, we are what we write, and we organize ourselves around and connect with one another through what we read and write.
This is the foundation on which I hope to build a more robust, dynamic, creative, democratic version of the reader-writer relationship than what I once called publishing.