Last night, AELAQ held a seminar conducted by Richard Nash, a visionary in the world of publishing. An editor gone rogue, though he himself doesn’t like to use the word anymore since Sarah Palin appropriated it. “Words are poisoned chalices,” he said before jumping into his presentation.
A lively and engaging orator, Nash didn’t beat around the bush. In a nutshell, and to repeat a quote he used: “The 20th century was about sorting out supply, the 21st is going to be about sorting out demand.” (Gavin Potter, quoted in Wired Magazine).
At the moment, Nash explains, product suppliers are relying on three types of algorithms to figure out their demand: consumption behaviour algorithms (think of Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought…,” the social graph (“like” on Facebook), and the taste graph (star ratings on Netflix). But as with any type of algorithm, the output is only as good at the data inputted. With 2,8 billion likes per day and a Netflix account used by an entire family, how can suppliers really know what you want?
That’s when Nash announces that “novels break algorithms” and turns to his own pet project: Small Demons, a site that lists all the songs, products, historical people, etc., mentioned in books. That way, if readers are interested in books that take place in Montreal, they can search for “Montreal” and find all the occurrences of the city in the books indexed so far. Instead of looking at the aforementioned algorithms (that don’t work), he wanted to look at the text itself. He wanted to create an algorithm that wouldn’t tell readers what to read, but what the authors had written about. “An opportunity for serendipity,” he called it. He did admit, though, that while it did innovate, it was not the solution to figuring out the demand.
So how should publishers look at their business model? In Nash’s opinion, they should look in the place they least expect: the slush pile. Of course, he quickly adds, he doesn’t mean to say that we should publish everything we receive, but that people in the slush pile are publishers’ best customers. “Don’t look at your audience as a nuisance,” he explains. “But as a group of people who are the most passionate about what you do.” Find ways to create a “club” that they can be part of because a writer, above being published, really wants to be loved. Which introduced another one of Nash’s projects: Cursor, a social platform that enables people who upload manuscripts to get feedback from other writers. Readers and writers, Nash explains, don’t have the traditional producer-consumer relationship; rather, all writers are readers and all readers are writers.
“Content isn’t king,” he says. “Culture is,” and we have to figure out how to make money by making culture. We have to create value for our culture. “Use tools for discovery,” Nash concluded, “but think beyond the manufacturing part to the ‘making culture’ part of publishing.”
The well-attended seminar lasted about an hour and a half and was jam-packed with information. Though I gave you the essence of the presentation here, there’s nothing like hearing Nash talk about books and publishing. Even when he creeps the audience out with images of Oprah sneaking inside our heads 24/7. Eek!
The AELAQ’s professional development seminars are done for the 2011-2012 season, but we’ll let you know about the next season as soon as we’ve organized it.