image A couple of weeks ago, I saw a post on O’Reilly’s Tools of Change website that I wanted to cover, but it was so long that I never actually got around to looking at it in the detail I needed, until now. Fortunately, the article is still no less timely.

This piece is an interview with Richard Nash, a theater-director-turned-publisher who has now launched a “social publishing” start-up called Cursor. Nash talks about Cursor and its goals, then goes on to discuss some of the broader implications of publishing meeting the kind of “Web 2.0” interactivity that is a hallmark of today’s Internet.

It’s a fascinating article, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. After the jump, I will discuss it and bring up some supporting examples.

A Collaborative Cursor

As Nash explains it, the intent of Cursor is to create the sort of peer-review writing circles that should be familiar to anyone who has written amateur or fan fiction on the Internet. So far, these circles have more or less evolved naturally, when a ‘net writer finds a few fans whose opinion he trusts and starts circulating his material by them for opinions prior to releasing it. (I’ve been part of several such groups, as writer or reader.)

What Cursor plans to do is to make it possible to create that kind of collaborative environment—essentially, to identify or build a community around a writer’s work, then get that community as involved as possible in every aspect of creating that work.

There is scope, definitely, for more classic collaborative writing. We’ll certainly permit that. But our instinct at the moment is that most writers want to write what they write individually. That collaboration is certainly useful here and there. It’s a great writing workshop tool.

But basically, it’s designed to help individuals to write individual works. Part of what a lot of writers want is two or three or eight people, who they really trust, to be in an informal kind of writing group. We want to enable that for people. We see that as pretty key.

Monetizing Cursor

What the interviewer, James Turner, poses as the “$64,000 Web 2.0 question” is how to monetize this effort—and Nash points out all the ways that traditional publishing is failing to monetize what it is doing now, because they “capture such a limited amount of the demand under the demand curve.”

In other words, by selling only at the standard hardcover and paperback price points, the publishing industry is ignoring both people not willing to pay that much for what they see as disposable media, and people who would be willing to pay more for “special editions” and other benefits.

Though Nash does not mention this, and may well not even be aware of it, this lines up very well with what TechDirt calls its “CwF + RtB” business model, for “Connect with Fans (and give them a) Reason to Buy”. TechDirt lists a number of user donation tiers ranging from $5 to get a special badge on the user’s profile page up to $100,000,000 to “silence TechDirt” for a year. (I get the feeling they’re not entirely serious with the latter.)

A Reason to Buy

The model came about after observing similar practices that musicians Trent Reznor and Josh Freese used with releases of respective albums: tiered pricing schemes to purchase not just the music but a variety of extras (including, in Freese’s case, some rather zany ones). Checking Freese’s current blog entry (note: I couldn’t find a perma-link, so sooner or later that link will expire), it seems to have worked out fairly well for him:

I was having lunches, floating in sensory deprivation tanks, giving drum lessons, giving tours of Disneyland, writing songs/making videos about people, letting strangers take clothes out of my closet, giving haircuts, etc…

It really consumed me for a long time and got to be a bit much but just when I started to think "this is getting out of hand and why the hell am I doing this" I’d quickly remind myself that it was ME that got ME into this damn mess and that it’s actually a pretty cool job and worth all the hype and free publicity that I got while releasing my record (which was the whole point of it!)

So, getting back to Nash, there certainly is ample precedent for that kind of monetization scheme at the high end. And at the low end, as Nash points out, digital media has zero marginal cost, which means it is possible to make digital items available at a much lower price than traditional media.

And this, too, has been done before. The most obvious example is the way Baen prices most of its Webscription e-books at $6 each, or a whole month’s worth for $15—but a more recent, extreme example was DriveThruRPG’s giveaway of $1500 worth of gaming-related digital media in return for a $20 charity donation for Haiti.

Piracy and DRM

Nash has an interesting point of view on piracy, which would seem to put him at odds with a fairly significant portion of the publishing industry recently:

One of the depressing truths of piracy, in consumer books at least, is how little pirated our stuff is. I think it’s a terrible sign that there’s no piracy. It basically indicates there’s not much demand.

This reminds me of a piece that I covered a year ago—the Guardian technology blog suggesting e-books had not taken off yet because they had not yet had their “Napster moment”. In other words, there was not enough e-book piracy yet (though from the recent publisher uproar over piracy, I suspect they would beg to differ).

Regarding DRM, Nash notes that it is a problem when it causes hassles for the consumer—but if it doesn’t cause a hassle, the consumer by and large does not care.

So far, book DRM has been pretty crappy when you compare it to the seamlessness of the iTunes experience. The only people that really complain about iTunes, it seems, are people who have a deeper ideological position in terms of intellectual property, which I get, but it’s not shared by the average Joe on the street.

I have to agree. This is why I generally buy DRM’d e-books exclusively in eReader format—even when I know that I could (in theory) crack the DRM on other formats. I’d rather not have the hassle when eReader’s DRM simply does not get in my way.

Authors and their Fans

The next section of the article talks about how available authors should be to fans, and how much use they should make of fan assistance and collaboration. Nash feels that authors should pick one or two ways to stay in touch with fans and then draw firm boundaries, because it is possible to spend all their time interacting with fans but then not actually get any writing done. (Henry Melton would agree.)

Then he talks about “crowdsourcing” and to what extent writers should be influenced by reader feedback.

I think that the writers that are worth being passionate about, the writers that are worth being a huge fan of, are writers who listen carefully but not too literally to what their readers or editors are looking for. They respond to their readers out of some deeper personal instinct, that has a richer truth than the two-sentence comment that a reader or an editor like me might give them.

One thing I do note in all this is there is not any discussion of the sort of problem that can be caused by “listening too much” to the fans: most notably the cases of Marion Zimmer Bradley, who lost a book due to a conflict with a fan over fanfiction, and J. Michael Straczynski, who had to scrap a Babylon 5 script for a similar reason.

There seems to be a consensus among a number of writers that being exposed to a story idea from a fan opens you to a lawsuit if you should write anything in the future that happens to be similar in any way. It would seem that this would tend to put the dampers on much of that sort of “listening”. I wonder what Nash would say about that?

Disintermediation and Versioning

Next, Nash touches on one of the ideas (or perhaps pipe dreams) that has been getting a lot of attention: that authors could self-publish and be matched up with readers by recommendation services or critics rather than needing the services of a publishing house. Nash thinks that it could be possible, but there is not enough critical mass of books yet to give growth to the necessary ecosystem for those new recommendation services.

Traditional publishing, he notes, started out as a useful business of “putting books on shelves”. But as there became more and more books and less and less shelf space, it became much less effective and more wasteful.

So yeah, we have to figure out what it is that we are doing to deserve the reader/writer’s money. And fundamentally to my mind, that is about matchmaking. Okay, a chunk of it is editorial: developmental, copy editing services, classic old-school services. But those are basically services that I think of as being fee-based, rather than I-get-a-percentage-of-the-action based.

The conversation next moves into the possibility of pushing corrections and revisions to consumers even after an e-book has been published (which I touched upon here). It’s an interesting discussion. Nash feels there is value to preserving drafts of books so that readers can watch the evolution of the completed work. (Having read both the first draft and the completed versions of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Fledgling project, I definitely agree it can be fascinating.)

Beyond that, Nash talked about what he was expecting to see at TOC, and how exciting it was that we were finally starting to reach a point where people were beginning to realize that some kind of change is necessary.

The Anti-Curmudgeon

Here’s a four-minute video from the TOC site of Nash himself talking about the nature of publishing and the web community. You’ll soon see why TOC calls him “the anti-curmudgeon”.


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