What does it mean to own a community?
This is something like the central question motivating a fascinating talk by Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press and founder of Cursor, a reading start-up that promises to "[t]ransform the social contract of publishing by restoring the writer-reader relationship to its true equilibrium," whatever that means.
I have a number of complex reactions to Nash’s argument. Many might object to the marketing-heavy language ("brand equity," etc.) here, but I have imbibed enough marketing theory to be convinced that Nash is basically right about the need for publishers to reimagine what they’re doing. Moreover, he is right to say that Oprah’s book club is more about injecting more Oprah into the heads of her viewers — should they consider wearing tinfoil hats, just to be safe? — than it is about giving an altruistic helping hand to a struggling publishing industry. As though James Frey needs her pity — I suspect he has more serious problems.
My main objection is that Nash focuses too much on the management of demand for literature, but says almost nothing about how that demand comes into the world. Who or what produces demand? Demand for what exactly? As I’ve argued elsewhere on Arcade, it is our educational systems, among other literary institutions, that produce demand. To be as clear as possible, it is not the market operating on its own that produces demand — including, especially, during the so-called golden age of publishing — but rather massive quantities of public money, pumped into literary education decade after decade, your tax dollars and mine at work.
Unless we again prime the pump of demand creation — i.e., fund humanistic education at all levels, provide a decent standard of living to every person — does publishing not risk riding the demand curve down the long tail of oblivion?