Collect and connect ideas from the web and books with Findings.com
This post is part of “How We Will Read,” a Findings interview series exploring the future of books from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. Read our kickoff post with Steven Johnson here.
Richard Nash is the future of publishing. He’s been making waves for years in the publishing world, first at Soft Skull Press, an acclaimed independent publisher, and then with his online projects, Red Lemonade and Small Demons. If you’re interested in the future of books, you’ve probably heard Richard speak: In addition to being a prolific speaker, he’s an excellent one.
Richard is not just an entrepreneur seeking to reinvent an industry — he is also a reader who honestly loves books. Though perhaps he doesn’t get to read as much as he’d like, he talked to us about why reading matters, and why creating products that help readers matter, too. His startup Small Demons helps readers pin down details from books to share and remember later.
Pithy, eloquent, and eminently quotable, Richard demonstrated a deep belief in the written word’s power to shape humanity. He somehow managed to pair this gravitas with wit and insight. We don’t want to be too presumptuous, but every other sentence is a gem: You might want to load your Findings bookmarklet for this one right now.
How do you do most of your reading these days?
On my iPhone. Because It’s in my pocket. It’s just the sheer convenience of having it with me, wherever I am. Books have an immense number of positive qualities that they’ve derived over the course of 500 years from continuous contact with humans. (Talk about an iterated product. Books have been iterated for 500 fucking years. That’s a hell of a lot more usage data than pretty much any other media device human beings invent.) But there’s certainly limitations around books. Interestingly, one of the limitations is that they are too wide for optimal reading experience. We are used books being wide, so for cultural reasons we prefer width, but the reason for width in books is economic efficiency, not reading efficiency. It is easier to read in narrow columns. I can actually read more easily on the iPhone because my eyes spend more time going top-to-bottom than left-to-right.
I should also add that I’ve been reading in this format since about 2002. I have read on Palm Pilot. I have read on the Treo. And I have read on all iPhone systems, including the iPhone 1 — before there were apps, there was a little hack that allowed you to convert a Word document into a single HTML page. I read one manuscript in seven hours in a single sitting in a single scroll because the thing about the single HTML file, you couldn’t stop reading. Otherwise you’d have to go back to the start and flick through the entire fucking thing, which would be insane, so I read it in a single start-to-finish sitting, from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.
That’s kind of crazy, but also kind of awesome.
Books are attention machines. In web metrics, we look at average length of visit per use. I certainly remember when I was running Red Lemonade, I was struggling valiantly to get that up to ten minutes. Other content sites are probably doing the same thing, struggling valiantly for a five-minute average or a thirty-minute average. But look at the book. There isn’t an upper limit on the average time for a book. In a situation where you’re trying to get people’s attention, books are actually incredibly good at maintaining that attention.
There’s a certain strand of thinking around publishing which concludes that people’s attention spans are diminishing, and consequently books should follow that diminished attention span by becoming shorter, by adding more things — by adding links, by adding video, by adding audio. That is an enormous mistake, because it is undermining books’ greatest strength, which is their ability to maintain user attention over an extended period of time by requiring the user to use his or her imagination to interpolate the video and audio. To project what those five senses would be experiencing.
Has reading become more social for you?
Yes. It has become more social. I imagine when most people are asked that question they start talking about things like Findings, or about Twitter or Facebook. But I think that we overly confine the word social to talking about the Internet, and that’s unfortunate, because it confines both online and offline experiences to narrow behaviors. I will say that the Internet has dramatically increased the breadth and diversity of my peer group, and so I talk about books with a much broader and diverse group people than I’ve ever before been able to, and that’s very exciting.
I’m actually embarrassed by how little I read — it’s one of the dirty truths of my life over the last decade. I think you get the most amount of reading done in your teens, and then in your 60s and 70s. One of the reasons I’ve very optimistic about the future of longform reading is that the number of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s — and then 80s and 90s —is going to be increasing dramatically in the coming decades. One of the reasons I’m long on books, as the investment analysts would say, is that the demographics are in our favor — both in the sense of the aging of the West and also the growing middle class in developing countries.
What is the future of publishing, as you see it?
We’re shifting publishing from being a manufacturing business to being a service business. Essentially the model of publishing in the past was a kind of light manufacturing: We produced physical objects, and we shipped via rapid distribution systems to a large network of retailers. Publishers were in the bookstore supply business. The entire organizational structure reflected that. You had a sales department, a manufacturing and production department, a marketing department, you had elaborate employee management systems, and most of the resources of the company were devoted to maintaining and managing retail relationships. That’s a manufacturing business. If you look at how the value was apportioned within the product, the intellectual property markup on the book was quite small. Books really had more in common with cornflakes or cars than with pharmaceuticals, fashion, or cosmetics, where the value comes from the intellectual property.
Now, writers and readers are both part of the same universe of books. You can’t have one without the other. The notion of the writer and the reader as a different person is an artificial construct of the manufacturing business, when you had at the one end an input, a long supply chain, and then a consumer at the end of it. But the reality is that the consumer of reading material is very publicly a writer at some level, whether that writer is Jonathan Franzen or a person who writes tweets to their friends about reading Jonathan Franzen. Whether they write in the margins or whether they write something over at Findings, they are writers. One of the things I love about tools like Findings is that makes it makes a little more concrete and palpable the reality that we are all makers of culture through our reading. The process of reading and writing, those activities are states of being. As a friend of mine puts it: “Writer and reader are not roles, they are behaviors.”
Something that Findings captures is the opportunity to rapidly oscillate your behavior. If you look at lot of history of literary criticism, it has been a process of understanding a text as incomplete without a reader. The implication of the publishing industry was that the intermediaries between the writer and the reader exist to create value for the industry. The future of publishing has to do with creating value for the creator of the book and the consumer of the book by recognizing the consumer of the book is a creative person him- or herself.
I know that your startup Small Demons, like our startup Findings, are both about the metadata around books.
Yes, well, what we’re both trying to do is provide services. We’re kind of doing it simultaneously to writer and reader, though we both lean more toward reading-style behavior. Mostly we are trying to find ways to bring texts alive in a way that deepens the reading experience. And to the extent we do that well, we are helping the entire ecosystem, which in turn helps the original creator of that text, by allowing his or her readers to engage more fruitfully and more deeply with the text.
What can this enhanced interaction with the text do for the author?
Here’s what I would say: It’s about making readers. Our culture benefits from making better readers. Making better readers not only helps the writers by deepening the possible types of engagement around a text, I think it makes them better citizens. As the years have gone by, I’ve become more and more inclined to see what we do as culture-making as opposed to art-making. Culture is a conversation about art. Making culture is not a fixed thing. Making a canon is a process, not an outcome. Findings and Small Demons support that process of culture-making by rendering visible and apprehensible and communicable all those things that hitherto were just unsaid, unthought, unexpressed, or underexpressed, except by a tiny elite fragment of our society.
That’s a very nice way of putting it.
(laughing) It’s true, though, isn’t it? It’s not the type of thing one wants to put in a VC pitch, but it’s true. And does that mean that everything that is uttered is wonderful? No. But if we imposed that requirement on the human mouth, we’d all have to have our mouths sewn up.
If you could move one feature of paper books to digital books, what would that be?
I would probably go with the signaling aspect. How do we get digital books to function as a social signaling device? It’s the cover. A person you see reading the book on the subway. A person you see reading the book in a cafe. And the social transaction that occurs in that glance. “Oh, I meant to read that book.” “Oh, that girl looks really interesting.” Or, “oh, that guy looks really hot,” or, “Oh my god, they’re reading Foucault, and that makes me, you know, all warm and fuzzy inside.” That kind of stuff that goes on around books is something that we don’t presently have at all around digital reading. The first hint of trying to solve that comes, I think, from the music world. The iPod nano is a little screen. It has a “this is what I’m listening to” thing.
Books are quite interesting in that we have such intimate relationships with them, that we have a pretty good idea whether or not we want someone to know whether or not we’re reading a particular book. If we want them to know, we know we know, and if we don’t want them to know, we know that also. It’s never been very easy to reach out to people even in the print world — that’s why we have so many of those missed connections centered around someone reading a book — so it would be interesting to make that easier in the digital world. And you know, culturally, it probably wouldn’t be used solely for dating purposes, but it couldn’t hurt. God knows given the things we do use for dating, it couldn’t hurt to have books be a bigger part of them.
They’re our most heroic individual cultural act. Writing and recording a three-minute song, it could take weeks, maybe it could take months. It certainly doesn’t take years. Some very large-scale paintings maybe take a year, though that’s very unusual. The number that take multiple years is very, very few. Films are collective endeavors. And so is television, and so is theatre. So the closest thing that I can think of is the symphony, and you can count on the fingers of one hand how many of those are produced each year. But books — there are literally millions of people out there right now, spending two, three, four, five years of their life writing something. The vast majority of them have no confidence it will garner an audience of more than 10-20 people. But we do it anyway.
Anyone can in theory do one, it just requires such enormous dedication. And that to me is what is powerful for the book. You don’t need to learn to play the guitar, to operate a video camera. You don’t need to learn to sing. All you need to do is put one letter after the other. And when you’re successful with that, our society notices and recognizes what an immense leap of faith it represents.
It is a heroic cultural act, widely recognized — but not widely read. That’s the great challenge for the intermediaries of the book. To figure out how to monetize that enormous value, to support that process, without necessarily being able to do so by selling lots of numbers of books. That’s our duty, for Findings, for Small Demons, to recognize the narrative as the archive of the human race, and to make it searchable in a non-junky way.
(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)