An interview with Richard Nash
Entrepreneur and consultant Richard Nash takes time out from his hectic schedule to talk to Simon Groth about the publishing industry and how books are opening up diverse and ever-expanding writing communities, both online and off. Nash began his publishing career in 2001, when he ran Soft Skull Press. He founded Cursor and is publisher of Red Lemonade. He now runs content and community for the new cultural discoverer Small Demons, and is currently promoting this enterprise all across the USA.
How did you get into publishing industry and what have been the most valuable experiences?
My leap into the ice bath of independent publishing was instructive in itself. I came into publishing without knowing anything about it. I was a theatre director. I was directing a play, and this playwright happened to run this tiny publishing company on the side called Soft Skull Press. The place was bankrupt many times over, so he did a runner. I’d become friendly with these two guys at the company. Even though I knew nothing about publishing, I offered to help out with Soft Skull Press—dealing with the printers and figuring out invoices. Out of that muck, I fell in love with publishing. But I had a super practical approach, so everything I was doing was figuring out ‘how do I sell books to readers?’ rather than worrying about how the editor deals with the marketing department or whatever. It was always: ‘how do I sell a book?’ In a totally perfect, serendipitous way, what I was learning was consumer-faced publishing, at a time when it didn’t occur to anyone that that was what publishing was about to become. They were about supplying books to bookstores. Our company was more direct.
What were the most important aspects of developing Soft Skull Press in the beginning?
We didn’t have many books—they weren’t on our contract. So an important aspect was to promote the Soft Skull brand, to get authors interested in selling their books through our site. Another important aspect was teamwork. We had a very collaborative approach to problem solving. You had deadlines that were happening, and you had to figure out a solution as quickly as possible. And the quickest way to figure out a solution is through collaboration.
With all the information available on the internet, how should writers and publishers deal with this in terms of subject matter and marketing trends?
No matter how hard publishers try, it is impossible to keep up with the constantly changing marketing trends and online news. For example, daily TV news can’t keep up with Twitter. So an essential element for the book is to create something that transcends the present, something that stands the test of time, without trying and keep up with weekly magazines and the like. That said we should still use the tools that we have at any given moment.
How has your theatre background helped in your current work?
From theatre, I’ve adapted the ability to re-evaluate a particular strategy—fail fast, we called it. You try something out, it doesn’t work; you try another thing. That willingness to test assumptions on an ongoing basis is a super healthy discipline.
Last time you were in Australia, you were talking about the growing number of ways readers and writers can interact with each other, beyond the book itself. Have you seen those ideas come into play since?
Yes. There’s nothing happening systematically but there are plenty of ad hoc examples. There is the LitReactor, a new online writing community with writing workshops, discussions and interviews with authors. In my vision, I would like to see publishers orchestrating the writing workshops. The best known publisher that is doing it is Faber Academy in the UK. This business understands the importance of orchestrating the writer/reader relationship by providing a valuable service, not just ‘products’ as a way of connecting the two. Other examples are certain types of events. Like, bookstores are starting to realise that if they just sell books—only books—they’re going to be in trouble. What a lot of bookstores are starting to do is create a literary meeting place, places where writers and readers can meet, hold forums and have book readings. So definitely, interactive writing communities are the way of the future.
How did Small Demons get started?
The idea for Small Demons began last decade with a guy called Valla Vakili. He’s a big fan of crime, so one day he’s reading a book called Total Chaos, and getting really into it. So much so, that he starts imitating all the things the protagonist does: he drinks the same spirits, buys jazz music (which the character likes). It got to the point that Valla even cancelled his trip to France so that he could go to Madrid, where the crime book is set. It was at the last minute, so basically he’s blown five hundred dollars as a result of his immersive experience in this book, and he begins to think that “if I feel this way, surely others feel this way, and perhaps I should make this easier”. Years go by and he continues to see this, and you’ll see it all around you. There are tours in Philadelphia to see the locations in Jennifer Weiner’s novels. There’s the Dan Brown tour of Paris to see all the tombs and catacombs from those books. You’ve got people creating these huge websites, annotating and editing major books. People live out the lives. Cast play, dressing up as manga characters. It’s as William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, in order to understand the essence of something, you don’t look at its main stream, you look at its exaggerations and perversions. That’s the genesis of Small Demons. It creates a way to dive deeper into the details of novels and non- fiction stories (without having to buy those costumes!). The way we do that is by machine processing digital files to find reference to people, places, and things—music, TV, gadgets—letting you see the entire “storyverse”, as we call it, and navigating from one book’s storyverse to another.
Where do you see Small Demons in the future? Any plans?
If we can aggregate interesting information about user patterns, we would like to share that anonymously with our publishing partners. Then they will see that people who read a book by a given author, for instance, are usually a fan of a particular musician. The publisher might get in touch with the musician and organise a gig with that author. Our users would enjoy it, the musician will enjoy it, the publishers will enjoy it… it’ll be a win-win.
Interview transcribed and edited by Sophie Tarrant, an award-winning author of short fiction and poetry. Sophie is currently studying Creative and Professional Writing at QUT, but dreams of one day being the ideas creator and artist for Pixar, a children’s book author and illustrator, and of owning a house with a goat.