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People of the Book: Richard Nash

Abridged

Bio:

Born in Ireland, spent many years as a New York theater director and performance artist, ascended through the Oxford University Press ranks, took over as editor of Soft Skull Press in 2002. He left Soft Skull in early 2009 to consult for authors and publishers. He is developing a start-up called Cursor, a portfolio of niche social publishing communities, one of which will be called Red Lemonade.

Online:

rnash.com

University:

Graduated from Harvard University.

Highlights:

Rescued independent publisher Soft Skull from dire straits. Received the 2006 Association of American Publishers (AAP) Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing.

Hobbies:

Collects antique cut glass, primarily ponies from the American Brilliant Period

Introducing Richard Nash

When Richard Nash took over the struggling Soft Skull press in 2002, no one knew quite what to expect. However, with the development of a uniquely courageous catalogue and a stable full of brave new voices, Nash built Soft Skull into a press worthy of what on some days could be considered more valuable than profits - respect. As the industry continues to buck those too timid to weather strained finances and the digital revolution, Nash forges ahead, recently saving his press and his livelihood by spearheading the sale of Soft Skull to the new and equally courageous publishing venture Counterpoint. As long as Nash and presses like Soft Skull can find the moxie to survive, independent publishing will remain alive and well.

In His Own Words

An Interview with Richard Nash
conducted by David Nance
April 2008

On determining what the next book will be ...

Nonfiction is much easier to figure out what a book can do and help it get there. In fiction, at least for me, it's virtually impossible. Because the process of creating fiction is so emotional, personal, idiosyncratic, that there is really just no way to know what else can happen. I know that agents do it and editors do it, but I just don't buy it. If you start trying to restructure a novel as an editor, as an outsider, you can just cause havoc. This whole Gordon Lish school of rewriting novels: I'm not a part of it. It's not fair for me to say what others can and can't do. I know how I operate, and how I operate is: if I don't know exactly what it is the author wants to do then I'm not going to be able to edit it.

I feel my job as an editor is to maximize the authenticity of the author's voice. If the voice is "blue", I want it to be the bluest blue in the world. That's really how I approach editing. I can't make something from blue into red, and certainly don't want to.

I have a finite amount of time to work on a project. Eighty-five percent of what I do in a book is completely unrelated to the editorial. It's dealing with the cover, dealing with marketing points, dealing with positioning it in the market place, dealing with talking to sales reps about it, dealing with writing letters to book sellers about it. There's so much more to do with the book beyond the editorial that it's just not realistic for me to engage in a kind of "rip it up and start again" sort of editorial process.

But you're also in a situation where either you put a book under contract or you don't. And it's very risky given the number of incredibly good books that are out there. It would be bizarre to put under contract something that you're not sure about, and not put under contract something you are. For better or for worse, it's not as if we're sitting around with an empty pipeline of novels to publish, and so when something comes in that's not really there, you're not going to put that under contract when there's people who do have something that's really there. Otherwise you're getting into a process of editing something when you're not under contract. And that's taking away the amount of time from the people whose books are in the schedule.

My ultimate responsibility is to do the best possible job with the books that I have. I would be stealing away my powers to my existing authors if I were to devote it to something that isn't there yet.

On publishing authors, not books ...

The time might yet come that an author I've published before sends me something and I say "we're not going to do it." That hasn't happened yet. Literally every author with whom I've had a previous relationship, we have published their next book.

I just published Lydia Millet's third novel (with Soft Skull). One was an older manuscript that had never been published before; she sort of shelved it and went on to other books. She did three novels with other publishers, and then she came to us with what was an earlier unpublished manuscript and her next manuscript, and we did both of those in 2005. I just did the most recent book two months ago. I'll publish Lydia Millet till I'm cold in the ground. I'll publish Matthew Sharpe till I'm cold in the ground. I'll publish Lynne Tillman till I'm cold in the ground.

That's not necessarily an absolute; it's kind of a default. We're going to commit to the author's career. Individual editors and corporate publishers would like to able to do the same thing. But their hassle is that their overhead is now so high, books are expected to clear much larger number of units and sales. It makes it harder for them to keep backlist in print.

It's becoming a bigger and bigger challenge for agents. I was just chatting a few weeks ago with Ira Silverberg, a wonderful agent. Particularly wonderful in that he's represented a number of more experimental writers. Ira was saying that it's getting harder and harder for them to have their author's backlists in print. Because a steady 2000 copies a year, which we would consider a reasonable number; especially in an author that had had two or three of them at that point. That's good business for us, but it's not thick enough revenue for the corporate publishers.

On "being under the wing, but not under the leash" of Counterpoint ...

Did I say that? That's pretty good. That sounds grand to me. But, yeah.

The kind of books that we can do has not changed at all. We're absolutely still publishing the same kinds of books. A nice difference between where we were before and where we are now is that we can publish those books on time. And we can make sure- that we know- the author is going to get paid. We know that the author is going to get paid on time. We know that he printer is going to get paid on time. Not that we necessarily love the printer like we love the authors, but you don't pay the printer on time, they don't print the books on time. When your books are late, and fall behind schedule it gets really messy. And when it gets messy, that's not pretty, and it's not good for the authors. So that's my take on the situation, at least for the moment.

One thing I would certainly say is that publishing is in a real state of flux right now. And independent publishing, because we're not a bunch of people with deep pockets. We're corks bobbing on the wave, and we just have to be the smartest corks we can be. It's definitely an industry that's trying to figure out the future as quickly as it can. And it's not an industry that's known for its ability to change quickly. The music industry is obviously changing most of all. So we don't want to go the way of (some) record labels.

On the digital revolution in publishing ...


Yes: how soon is kind of hard to know, and how quickly. I would say this calendar year, a good 5% of our revenue would come from digital downloads. Three years from now it could be as high as 30%. Or it could take ten years to get to 30%. I don't know. It's hard to predict, but it's happening.

In the long run, independent publishers, I believe, will benefit from it more than corporate publishers. Self publishers or really tiny publishers will probably benefit from it the most. It's all about the barriers from entry dropping. You know, what are those things that stop you from being a publisher? The first barrier to entry dropped maybe ten or fifteen years ago with software like Adobe Page Maker and Cork. It basically meant you could create the thing that you needed to send to the printer for almost no money. It used to cost an enormous amount of money to deal with typesetting, all that sort of stuff. Then all of the sudden almost anybody could do it. Out of that was born a lot of independent publishing. Like Soft Skull and Akashic and zine culture.

At the moment what you've got is another barrier which is that it used to be the only kind of way in which you used to print a book was using off-set printing, big printing companies, where the cost of printing 500 books was the same as what it cost to print 1,500. It just wasn't cost effective below 1,500 copies. Now you can get the unit cost of say two dollars a book to print for as low as 300 copies. Which basically means you can design and print 300 copies of a book that looks like any paperback for the cost of illegally downloaded software plus 600 dollars. Whereas 15 years ago you were looking at 5,000 dollars to be able to do that. So that just really takes the democratization of publishing up another notch.

And the third thing is going to involve, and it's probably going to be the longest and most complicated and the sloppiest and the most froth, and that's going to be "Well, do we even need to have the book to be a physical printed object?" What I believe will evolve is something approximating the Radiohead model of last year. Where independent publishers will adopt two or three simultaneous formats: one will be a limited edition, high end, fancy-schmacy version of a book. Then the conventional trade paperback like we have right now. And then a digital download that could vary from being free to maybe four or five dollars. In that situation, what also happens is, you're less dependent on national retailers like Borders or Barnes & Noble. Not that they're necessarily Satan's evil minions or anything. They're not. But it's very difficult for independent publishers. You're in a situation with the problem of returns where you're printing 5,000 copies of a book just to sell two and a half thousand. That's not good for the environment for one. If you're in a digital download universe, it's just a question of you promoting the book effectively as possible. Getting links to where the book downloads from. And those links could be independent book sellers where they get a percentage, basically an Amazon referral fee. Or they could be bloggers. They could be anyone. In terms of the limited edition sort of thing, that's sort of like you're building a relationship, like a literary journal has a subscription. I could see a lot of the limited edition type things being sold on a subscription basis. Which is fantastic because it helps the publisher know how many to print. I'm very optimistic about the long term, it's just a question of getting there.

On budgeting for promotion and marketing ...

There's a fairly straightforward rule of thumb on marketing in publishing, which is that you spend 8% of the net revenue. "Net" in publishing means net of the bookseller discount. So a $15 book, you'd be getting $7.50. 3,000 books at 7.50 is $22,500. A marketing budget for that book should be 8% of $22,500, so about 1800 bucks, let's say. That has to cover mailing review copies, printing and mailing some galleys, a tour if that means helping the author with a couple hundred bucks toward a tour.

One thing that can come up is co-op, payola basically. Payola to the chains or the independents. If you're going to sell 3,000 copies of a book, odds are you're going to need Borders and Barnes & Noble to take a thousand copies each. And for Barnes & Noble to take a thousand copies they are pretty much going to want money for that. 1000 copies equals what's known as a two week A-Store new arrival, which is their kind of entry level co-op marketing payment which guarantees you face out in a new arrivals section in their top 100 stores in the United States. That's going to set you back. And the number varies according to all kind of different things: the time of year, the kind of book, the price of the book, you know, but it's going to be in the ballpark of a thousand bucks. So right there, on a book, where you're planning on netting 3,000 copies, you could spend 55% of your marketing budget just on the Barnes & Noble co-op, leaving you 800 bucks to print galleys, mail galleys, mail out review copies.

So that's a reason why independent publishers are never going to engage in advertising. Why it's becoming increasingly difficult for a publisher to put any kind of payment towards an author tour.

It's not just Barnes & Noble: if you want to do an event at an independent book store, what they'll often want is to do a co-op to help promote the event. So you give them $150. In exchange you get your author mentioned in an ad or listing of events on a three quarter page ad of the local alternative weekly. Maybe a 25 word blurb on the local public radio. And a poster in the store. If you do three of those, that's 450 bucks. That's a quarter of your marketing budget. That's why I say that publishers are so interested in books that sell for three years after they're published. They don't require a co-op anymore. They're just selling without you having to spend marketing dollars. That's what's paying for...well, in effect, those sales are what's paying your salary. But it's paying for marketing that's unrelated to a particular title. Like the $4,000 it costs to be at Book Expo America. Or however many thousand dollars it costs you to print your catalog, whether you print two catalogs a year, or one catalog a year. That sort of thing. The money, the 8% number comes from your backlist. It's what you're using to do all that marketing cost that doesn't relate to a frontlist title. And obviously that's guesswork. You're basically spending the marketing dollars before you know what the book's actually going to sell. Ideally what you're saying is "by spending these $1,800, I will therefore sell 3,000 copies of the book." The reality is that how a book actually sells can be a real fucking crapshoot.

That's where the sort of scariness of the process happens. What if you've too many books that you weren't lucky with? That you've spent the marketing dollars and not gotten the commensurate net sales? If the returns instead of being 40% like you budgeted on, are instead 47%. The difference between 40 and 47%, which can happen very quickly...can be the difference between losing your shirt and breaking even. It can be quite intense, but it's fucking thrilling, too.

On giving advice to emerging writers ...


Well, my advice is something along the lines of: write because you love it. Don't make writing be what you do in order to make a living. If that happens by some stroke of luck, all well and good. Organize your life as if writing is a vocation, but it's not going to be how you pay the rent. Organizing your life as if writing is going to pay you rent is just going to generate a lot of fear and anxiety and probably bitterness. But if you're in a situation where your writing is free of the pressure to be commercially successful then you're probably going to write a little better and probably going to be a happier human being. And those are two very important things.

If your writing does in fact turn out to be the thing that pays the rent and pays for the health insurance... then that's what it's like to win the lottery.

Find Richard Online

Soft Skull website

A KGB BarLit Profile

Library Journal.com Interview

3:AM Magazine Interview

Publishers Weekly Interview

Interview Magazine Interview

Bibliophile Stalker Interview

Researched by James Lower


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