People are talking about this essay by Richard Nash, posted by the Virginia Quarterly Review and set to appear in the spring print issue. They should be. Nash made his name as the head of Soft Skull Press, and he has been actively working toward developing new publishing models with his start-up Cursor/Red Lemonade. Now he appears to be an executive, as well, at a social-networking lit site called Small Demons. At any rate, if you know who Nash is, you know that he has long had a reputation as the publishing insider with the best grasp on how the book industry might adapt to the digital age. Knowing these things, though, didn’t prepare me for this new essay, which mixes an economic history of publishing from the Middle Ages onward with canny theorizing about what it all means for publishers, writers, and the future of the book.
Here’s the short version: the publishing industry that we talk about, when we talk about the thing that is existentially threatened in the digital age, is not the same thing as the book. What is under threat is a revenue model that came into being around 1930, that for about fifty years made being an author not only a glamorous occupation but an occasionally lucrative one, and that began to fray not, as we all imagine, with the advent of blogging software and social-networking sites and e-readers but with the development of the humble old PDF file, which in combination with Kinko’s gave birth to desktop publishing, allowing independent outfits like Soft Skull to compete on the same field as the big New York presses. This threatened system that we call the publishing industry may have worked well for a time, but now, in Nash’s view (widely shared by many writers and indie publishers we know), it “produces great literature in spite of itself.”
Nash doesn’t offer easy answers. It’s not as though indie operators empowered by the internet will rush in to create a thriving market for books where the Big Six cannot. But he does make sense of a discrepancy that we at Submittable can’t help but notice. Even as the publishing industry keeps shrinking and threatening to collapse, there have never been more serious writers and readers out there. Abetted by MFA programs (and now, maybe, by the internet itself), book culture is thriving. If you were one of the fifteen or twenty thousand people at AWP in Boston a couple of weeks ago, you might have felt a number of different forms of angst, but worries about the imminent demise of literary culture couldn’t possibly have been one of them.
Now, even among the biggest-name writers at AWP, the ability to make a living purely by sitting in a room and putting words on a page is imperiled. Nash not only acknowledges this, he says we should dispense with the notion that there is any way of changing it. Which is not to say that writing cannot be a way of life anymore. As he notes, a major poet can make more money on a single multi-day campus visit than she can in sales of one of her books. But that hardly means the book is worthless. The book is the reason the poet gets invited to campus and is able to collect those paychecks. The book powers a whole complex of cultural value systems for which even poets, the least marketable of all writers, are able to command salaries, fees, and, in many cases, quite comfortable lives.
Nash foresees a future where the bookstore occupies a cultural space not unlike that of the art gallery or the concert hall, and where synergies between these outlets and the people who love to discuss them create abundant economic opportunities. Publishers can and should, in Nash’s view, monetize all sorts of things related to the singular physical product that has since the 1930s been their sole preoccupation. That product is under no threat of extinction, even though a number of companies historically affiliated with it may be. A company that hopes to make it as a publisher, though, needs to think of itself as capitalizing not just on the book but on the “swirl and gurgle of idea and style in the expression of stories and concepts–the conversation, polemic, narrative force that goes on within and between texts, within and between people as they write, revise, discover, and respond to those texts.”
Easier said than done, I realize. And Nash’s specific prescriptions–selling high-priced limited editions, partnering with wine merchants–don’t strike me as game-changers. But make no mistake: the book is alive and well. That swirl and gurgle surrounding it is what drives our business, here at Submittable, and it will continue to drive many more businesses for a long time to come. The swirl and gurgle motivated thousands of people to pay thousands of dollars in plane tickets and hotel rooms and registration fees in Boston. The idea that a force as powerful as this needs to be defended is, Nash rightly points out, absurd. Publishing should not be thought of, he writes, “as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up.”
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