As a serial entrepreneur you’ve been asked many times what the “future” of publishing will look like. Are there any trends or developments that haven’t received much attention that you think will have significant implications for the future? Is the publishing industry uniquely hostile to change? What do you think have been the major obstacles or reasons that the traditional publishing industry has been slow to change?
I’m going to roll my response to the first three questions up into a long single answer, I think. I’ve argued in the past that the book business’s greatest legacy, the trait that has defined it for five centuries is its radical disruptive nature. The business of literature, I once said, is “blowing shit up.” Ha! But publishing, like most humans, has a hard time really looking at the past, and tends to think of the present as being the way things have always been. Moreover, it was only ever a tiny handful of people in publishing (or in any other industry) that were ever blowing shit up. Whether that was Aldus Manutius or Barney Rosset or Allen Lane (and we forget how much they were vilified at the time…)
“The business of literature, I once said, is ‘blowing shit up’.”
However, especially in an industry that was, in a sense, the first industry of any sort, the first sentence of the industrial revolution, the first thing we were capable of mass reproducing, it is attached to its industrial self. (Another irony: we believe we’re nostalgic about things like culture, whereas in fact we’re nostalgic for habits and structures of a manufacturing supply chain.) So that’s hard to mess with, especially because we’re in denial about it—in many ways, the operational delusion of publishing was that it wasn’t quite a business, whereas that’s exactly what it has always been. So adjustment is hard because you have to confront self-deception first.
“Another irony: we believe we’re nostalgic about things like culture, whereas in fact we’re nostalgic for habits and structures of a manufacturing supply chain.”
But I’m actually optimistic, because the underlying power of the writing-reading economy is so, well, oceanic. It’ll so easily generate useful innovation, as it always has. But we should remember that change often occurs through random rather than purposeful mutation, and publishing in particular, because of its scale and the very basic way in which “story” and “word” are integral to our species, is almost evolutionary in scale. It operates over decades and centuries, not years. So it’s hard to point to particular micro trend or particular start-ups, as they tend to be subject to the noise of good and bad luck.
“We should remember that change often occurs through random rather than purposeful mutation.”
That said, I think there are two key things that will need to develop in the coming five years, though I’ll acknowledge that currently there are barely any glimmers of them.
The first is that we’re too focused on filter, and not enough on map. That’s my pet framework for talking about the ways in which we need to organize all our cultural information. We’re blessed (yes, blessed, despite what the panicked patricians say) with an ever growing abundance of cultural production, but we’re not developing tools for engaging with that production with anything like the necessary sophistication. Largely we’re using filter—reduce the number of objects for us to consider either through algorithmic filtering, or curation. The hassle is that it isn’t really “discovery.” Yes, that abused term, abused like curation. Discovery should elicit joy, wonder, ecstasy. Not some damn list of five books from which you can pick one. It’s supposed to be “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” seeing the Pacific, looking through a telescope, or a microscope. The “Holy Shit” of actual discovery. Filtering hides too much, both in terms of process, as it’s a black box, and in terms of outcome—if you can’t be lambently aware of how you get somewhere, you can’t spontaneously choose a sudden diversion. So, it kills serendipity.
“Discovery should elicit joy, wonder, ecstasy. Not some damn list of five books from which you can pick one. It’s supposed to be ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, seeing the Pacific, looking through a telescope, or a microscope. The ‘Holy Shit’ of actual discovery.”
Map, on the other hand, is about finding user-friendly ways to display all the information, not a tiny subset of it. It’s about saying, we’ll show you everything, and give you the means to navigate towards it. Bricks-and-mortar stores partake of map, by the way. You see everything, and you follow visual cues to orient yourself. Part of the power of map is scale. Start with a globe, go to London, go to Camden, go to the Electric Ballroom. Like the famous Charles & Ray Eames Powers of Ten movie. Or fractal geometry. The closest two things we’ve had to this is the world cloud and my failed start-up Small Demons. I suspect VR or, better put, augmented reality, may offer some opportunities in this regard, because it allows greater dimensionality (as does a store, or a city). The “flatness” of most web browsing experiences, currently, is crippling. Ironic, given that the very word browsing comes from three-dimension retail experience, that in turns originates with the book store. Effectively we’re way too focused on processing data, and not enough on how to effectively render data for the human brain to process it itself. Moreover, and I can’t emphasize the significance of this: maps are fun in themselves. Filters are not. Map is where the cultural action is.
“We’re way too focused on processing data, and not enough on how to effectively render data for the human brain to process it itself.”
The second is the quantified reading self. We focus too much on data for producers, and not enough on data for the individual consumer. But it’s ALL the rage in health, with many different types of monitoring being used by people to improve their health and manage their illness—we need to offer the reader more awareness of their reading process as I believe most readers want to read better. But, as with so many different aspects of human life, when the benefits of an activity like exercise or serious reading are in the future, but the opportunity costs (I’d rather be eating ice cream or clicking on clickbait) are right now, people tend to defer what they know they should be doing. If we give readers more feedback, more visibility, I think we can grow the reading pie, and reduce the arguing over how to distribute it.
“If we give readers more feedback, more visibility, I think we can grow the reading pie, and reduce the arguing over how to distribute it.”
We have many freelancers (particularly editors and content creators) on our site, individuals who see their career as now being in a shifting industry. Do you have any advice for these freelancers? Do you think that freelancers should develop any particular skills to make themselves more marketable?
In terms of freelancers, what I would focus on is creating more context around what will alway be your core skill: writing and editing. So it’s less about learning to code, though if you’ve a yen to do it, by all means go do it, it may be helpful to you, although those skills, frankly, are being commoditized much more than writing and editing! Instead it’s more about understanding what writing does for audiences other than buyers of fixed books.
“It’s more about understanding what writing does for audiences other than buyers of fixed books.”
The areas I would focus in would be understanding the principle of search engine optimization, so that you understand how the words you write and edit function as velcro online; that you familiarize yourself with some basic principles of product development especially user interface and user experience since your words can be enormously useful in guiding, prompting, coaching, inspiring, anchoring readers; and that you explore subject matter areas in to which you could broaden your portfolio. Health, food, business, science are areas that need more words than ever. Becoming able to write and edit authoritatively around subjects of immediate significance in people’s lives is by far the best way to make yourself more marketable.
Richard Nash founded several theater companies in the 1990s, ran the iconic indie Soft Skull Press in the 2000s, where the last book he edited, Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He’s spent the last five years on several start-ups including Cursor, Red Lemonade, Small Demons, and Byliner where he has explored content, community and context as the three pillars of the cultural economy. In 2010 the Utne Reader named him one of Fifty Visionaries Changing Your World and in 2013 the UK’s Bookseller magazine picked him as one of the Five Most Inspiring People in Digital Publishing. His latest project is Sirens http://sirens.io, the news from seven years in the future.