Transcript: Books Invented Everything

Listen to Podcast Download Transcript PDF

Interview with Richard Nash

For podcast release Monday, June 15, 2015

KENNEALLY: In 1968, Andy Warhol prophesied that in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. The era of pop art and pop music saw the erosion of boundaries between high and low art, as well as the collapse of hierarchy in general. Warhol cannily recognized that technology and mass media would work together as the great levelers. Democratization came to books and journals decisively in the 1980s, when desktop publishing began to replace physical plants and industrial machinery.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for “Beyond the Book.” Digital media master Richard Nash says the digital revolution took many by surprise in the book world because it was a change in disguise. At first blush, nothing seemed to have changed at all. Today, though, we see change in every direction. An open network has replaced a closed supply chain of warehouses and bookstores. The bond that writers share with their readers is now the paramount relationship, and everyone is a creator. Richard Nash joins me now to explain why the business that gave birth to industrialism and the modern world has reverted to a pre-modern phase. Welcome to “Beyond the Book,” Richard.

NASH: Thank you, Chris, for having me. I’m excited.

KENNEALLY: So are we. Indeed, it’s a chance to speak with someone we’ve always enjoyed listening to at a variety of publishing conferences around the world. A recent feature by Chip Rossetti in Publishing Perspectives noted that Richard Nash thinks a great deal about the past of publishing as well as its future. He recently led partnerships and content at the culture discovery startup Small Demons and the story app aggregator Byliner. Previously, Richard Nash ran the iconic indie publisher Soft Skull Press, for which work he was awarded the Association of American Publishers Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing in 2005. In 2010, the UTNE Reader named Richard Nash one of 50 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.

Your particular interview with Chip Rossetti inspired us to be in touch with you, Richard, because it’s a fascinating argument you make. What you’re saying is that even as we move from the industrial age to this post-industrial age, you see publishing shifting back to its pre-modern state. Tell us what you’re thinking about there.

NASH: It’s something that I feel I can see in a variety of ways across the internet. Before industrialization, we all lived in a village, and that was our identity. In a certain sense, we were all creators. We all told stories and retold stories and heard songs and sang them. Cultural and civic life took place in that very closed environment.

With the Industrial Revolution, we all moved to the city. And with the Industrial Revolution, also you have economies of scale. No longer is everybody an opera singer, because there’s one opera singer who is the best opera singer, and you can get recordings of her performing. So why sing yourself, when you can listen to her?

Our identities changed. They shifted from a more small, tribal identity to much broader national entities. You went from being the resident of a particular town, probably perhaps with only one name, because you didn’t need more than one name (laughter) to be known. There was Little Jack and Red Jack and Black Jack and Jack Old and Jack Young, and so on and so forth. In the city, we had these more data-intensive identities, but largely as consumers. As creators, we were cogs in a machine at best.

What the various technologies, especially the internet, have allowed in the last number of years is for us going back to having more small-scale identities to go along with our national identity and for us to be able to create as easily and cheaply as we can consume.

KENNEALLY: Right. Richard Nash, before we speak about the situation today, I want to stick to the past just for a moment further, because you make an interesting point, that print capitalism, as you call it, really coincided with the emergence of European nationalism, and that this is a view that really sees the book as central, not only in transforming scientific transfer of information and the rest of it, but really as transforming the retail environment. It’s your argument that the printed book led to the arrival of bookstores, which was where retail itself was invented.

NASH: That’s right. Effectively, when you go back, you realize books invented everything. (laughter) Books invented the Industrial Revolution. For the first time, we were capable of mass-producing a perfect facsimile. Textiles, furniture were all pretty much hand-reproduced, and they varied. You couldn’t make perfect facsimiles. Books were the first time you could make perfect facsimiles. By the last 18th century, once they were attached to steam engines, they were doing so at tremendous scale.

Books were our first mass-produced object, and they were our first retailed object, in the sense in which we currently understand retail. The norm around selling things up until the invention of modern retail is you showed up at a counter and asked for two dozen eggs, five pounds of flour, two pounds of cornmeal, and you waited there, and somebody brought them out in a bag, handed them to you, and off you went.

When printers started binding books beautifully and putting them on shelves in the front of their operation, people were allowed to browse them. You could actually pick up something before you bought it and inspect it. That had never been done before. In a certain sense, it was the invention of the consumer, because it was the first time that the consumer really had some sense of choice in a transaction between you and the producer.

You mentioned European nationalism. You can not only attach books to the evolution of particular nationalisms, you can even attach copyright to it. Copyright notably begins in the UK first, and then in France and the United States, where there was a clear sense of a nation-state developing, because that nation-state was operating in a mercantilist sort of way, whereas Germany didn’t develop copyright until the late 19th century, effectively because there was no Germany. There were 900 different provinces and principalities, and for the most part, they wanted the local printer pirating the other guy’s stuff, because they didn’t want to be paying the other guy. (laughter) In many ways, books have driven very large-scale innovations – innovations we now completely take for granted.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. Richard Nash, I really love the idea that books invented everything, because what I think it means for us in 2015 is that digital publishing is reinventing everything. The point you make is that this was a change that was not immediately apparent to people who were involved in it, that publishing seemed to be pretty much the same as ever, even though it was moving into the digital realm. Today, obviously, it’s very clear that it’s nothing like it was before.

NASH: Yeah. One of the reasons I emphasized this particular framework for talking about publishing in that interview with Chip is that that interview was originally conducted for the daily newsletter for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. I was particularly interested in trying to encourage publishers there to not feel like they had to mimic the developmental process that had occurred in the West – that much as people are going straight from having no telephone to having a mobile phone without having a fixed-line phone along the way, there are certain aspects of supply chain publishing that had not really properly developed in the Arab world, but frankly didn’t need to develop, and you could skip past. Although then, you have to say, what does it look like now? What are the commonalities and the discontinuities in relation to the past?

KENNEALLY: So answer that question, then. What does it look like now? I think one of the points you made further with Chip is that today, culture is a conversation. It’s not a one-way proclamation. It is that conversation. Publishers need to participate in it and listen to it and respond to it.

NASH: Yeah, exactly. One of the things you get with the analog manufacturing economies of scale is you get increasing returns to scale. The first book costs $5,000 to produce. The 5,000th book costs $2.00 to produce. The millionth book costs $0.42 to produce. In that model, the most profitable form of publishing involves the entire world reading a single book. Maybe you could call it the Bible. (laughter) There is a tendency to want there to be the fewest number of titles so that you can have the most number of copies of the fewest number of titles, and that’s how you make money.

That tends to drive toward a very top-down model. It does help drive literacy, because it makes books cheaper, and that was a major factor in the increasing in literacy, the driving down of illiteracy over the last 150 years. But it is a one-way street. We are now at the point where literacy does not just mean the ability to read, but the ability to write, just as democracy, in a certain sense, is not just freedom from oppression, tyranny, and so on and so forth, but the freedom to do something. It is an affirmative freedom. It is an expressive freedom. I see that happening with publishing, too.

Many people thought, hey, there was no reason that – why does everybody need to write a book? It’s sort of like saying, why does everybody need to vote? In many ways, there is no point in any one individual vote. And in many cases, as democracy evolved, people objected to all these idiots voting – these stupid people, these uneducated people who don’t know, who are just sort of driven by mass appeal and demagogic populism, blah blah blah. But the reality is that the healthiness is not in how you vote, but it is in that you vote. I think the same has to do with the creative side of writing, which doesn’t necessarily always need to be everybody writes a book, but that you can have a writerly relationship to reading.

If you look at the world of literary criticism, as opposed to the world of marketing, you will hear literary critics say the reader completes the text. The text is a blueprint, and the reader’s imagination completes it. The more writerly, the more imaginative approach to reading, I think the healthier a society we have.

KENNEALLY: Richard, we may have a healthier society, but for people listening today, they’re thinking about the health of their business. They’re in publishing, and publishing certainly is challenged by all of these changes. I wonder if you can tell us, finally, in this imagination of a book world’s returning to its pre-industrial, pre-modern state, where is the revenue going to come from? For example, what happens to the book? What becomes of the book as object?

NASH: The book as object, I think, will be just fine, in the same way as the vase as object or the painting as object or the threadbare Grateful Dead T-shirt from 1972 as object remain revered. I think it would behoove publishing to work to emulate the world of bespoke, textured, layered, artisanal manufacturing and object creation as possible.

KENNEALLY: Richard, rather like we have craft beer today, you’re suggesting we have craft books.

NASH: Yeah, exactly. But I think that ends up just being – I don’t know what the percentage is going to be – 10%, 15%, 25% of the revenue. Unit sales-wise, it’s going to decline, and revenue-wise, I think we’ll be able to charge more for books, but we’ll be selling a lot fewer of them from a physical standpoint. I strongly doubt that digital objects, or services in the case of subscription-style setups, will even cover for that amount of revenue.

I think for additional revenue, we are going to have to be doing a lot of exploring at the top of what I like to call the demand curve. We need to find ways to incorporate books into all the other areas of social engagement. Eating is one that I am particularly fond of. Drinking, fashion, any kind of experience. Because the useful thing with experiences is that they are unhackable.

Unfortunately, you hear a lot of negativity around that kind of activity, which frankly drives me bonkers. There is a way in which at times I feel like we suffer from a little bit of Stockholm syndrome, where we assume that the book is the only legitimate way for connecting a writer and reader, that it is the only legitimate container in the writing/reading economy, when the manufacturing processes around books have a lot more in common to do with manufacturing cornflakes than they do with generating culture.

Our entire business model is a manufacturing business model. The amount of toxic materials, the carbon footprint, the number of trees chopped down has much more in common with the basest form of widget manufacturing than it does with the creation of intellectual property. So I celebrate, frankly, the idea that publishers can make money from dinner parties as effectively as they can make money from moving books around in 18-wheelers around the country, because ultimately the book is simply a means to an end, which is a level of mental, cultural, and emotional engagement between two people.

KENNEALLY: Thoughtful and thought-provoking observations on the future and the past of book publishing from Richard Nash. Richard, thank you so much for joining us on “Beyond the Book.”

NASH: It’s a pleasure, Chris. Thank you so much indeed.

KENNEALLY: “Beyond the Book” is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights-broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow “Beyond the Book” on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to “Beyond the Book.”

Share This