Cursor: Next Generation Book Publishing

July 6th, 2011

This guest blog entry is by Samantha Pritchard. I met Samantha this past May at the BEA Expo in New York. She had written a paper about book publishing start-up Cursor. I was at BEA in part to meet the company co-founders, Richard Nash and Mark Warholak.I asked Samantha if she would adapt her paper for publication on my blog. I’m very pleased to offer her insights.

(Keep in mind that the paper was first written before Nash and Warholak launched the publishing imprint Red Lemonade as a “proof of concept” for the Cursor approach.)


According to Richard Nash, founder of Cursor and former editor-in-chief of Soft Skull Press, the current publishing model is lacking in significant and detrimental ways: it operates on an outdated supply chain with a terrible feedback loop which encourages author-reader isolation, and requires authors to enter into long, irrelevant contracts of copyright. With this in mind, Nash and business partner Mark Warholak, launched Cursor, a “new ‘social’ approach to learning”. Ranked as #1 of the top 15 Twitters users changing publishing, it is no surprise that Nash is evolving the way publishing companies interact with and sell to readers by utilizing the Internet as a social forum.

In an article for Publisher’s Weekly Nash defined Cursor as “a business that properly avails itself of all of the tools that now exist to enable the creation of reading and writing communities from which all else emanates – print books, downloads, marketing and publicity, editorial services – and, of course, revenue”. Classifying its imprints (such as Red Lemonade) as communities, Cursor consists of multiple “self-organizing, self-selected, self-perpetuating communities [created] around a reading-writing platform that allows people to discover like-minded people across the planet”. Each imprint will publish one to two books per month using the Cursor software platform, with staggered release dates, in order to maximize profits within the demand curve. Cursor will also operate peer-to-peer editorial workshops and forums within their social platform for authors, readers, and writers to connect.

Most of Cursor’s revenue stems from the community network that it is built upon. The community memberships exist at various levels which provide members with differing access and capabilities “including paid memberships that will offer exclusive access to tools and services, such as…peer-to-peer writing groups…access to established authors online and in person and editorial or marketing assistance”. Nash’s familiarity with social media, and his ability to use these outlets effectively, will help to organize the imprints/communities in a way that allows for the most revenue stream, as well as a way that suits the needs of the customers. The other important factor that will benefit Cursor’s community format and allow for success is because of the “highly sensitive feedback loops that will tell each community’s staff what tools and features users want, what books users think the imprint should be publishing, how the imprint could publish better”. This allows Cursor to adapt its model more quickly and efficiently, and therefore, generate more revenue and a larger consumer base.

Probably the most radical and interesting change that Nash’s advocates for Cursor imprints are three years contracts with an option to renegotiate at the end of the term. As Nash explained during his Rights, Royalties, Retailers: What Works presentation at BookExpo America (2010), there will be “no more life of a meaningless copyright contract, no more life of the author plus seventy years.” At the end of the three years, the author can choose to leave the publisher, but Nash does not believe that this is likely to happen. According to Nash, this complete overhaul of the copyright will actually attract more authors to the company from the large corporate houses. Authors will want to stay for higher royalties, better marketing, greater licensing and possibility for a movie.

Instead of strict copyright of life of the author plus seventy years, Nash seeks “a fairly broad basket of rights in the license”. Additional revenue will come from licensing of the texts for translation, use in magazines, print in other English-language countries, and in audio. Much of Nash’s revenue model is built upon fee-based distribution of content or services such as linking authors and agents, writing workshops, events and seminars through the communities Cursor provides, as well as advertising on the site and sponsorship. By licensing with multiple channels, Cursor is able not only able to promote the product and its company in more ways, but is able to increase the opportunity for revenue. Nash says that Cursor’s goal is to “actively connect [its] authors with readers” by licensing the text to as many outlets as possible.

Members of the Red Lemonade community include writers & readers.

But, with a copyright of only three years, what becomes of the backlist and copyrights that publishers largely depend on for their revenue? Cursor’s move to a three year contract is shocking and will shake the structure of a publisher’s perception of value and assets to the core. Instead of placing value in the intellectual property of a copyright, hoping for the title to garner success over time or make a bestsellers list and attract a large readership, Cursor places more of its stake on the social nature of its business model – the communities and their members. Cursor’s model builds backlist through hard work, negotiation, and author relationships. And, with the strengthened ability to license the book in various platforms, the author will benefit through a larger audience and added publicity.

This new, social approach that Nash has developed is a large part of the draw towards working with Cursor and joining their communities as a writer or fan. Cursor is able to target its customers, using the communities as both the product and a means of marketing. To Nash, “the act of publishing is the act of marketing”. Cursor successfully combines both aspects, publishing and marketing, into a format that readers of this generation will appreciate and thrive off of. The changes implemented to copyright and contract will allow authors a chance to experience Cursor without feeling locked in to a new model of publishing; and once they have seen all that Cursor can provide to them as a publisher, they will renegotiate a new contract. With Cursor, Nash “hopes to build a more robust, dynamic, creative, democratic version of the reader-writer relationship than what [was] once called publishing”. And with the innovations that Cursor will implement to the business model of publishing, Nash just may live to see the wheels of change, or perhaps more accurately, the communities of change, working.

Samantha Pritchard is currently an editorial assistant at Pearson Education and a candidate for a Masters in Publishing at Pace University.


July 13, 2011:

The New Yorker on Richard Nash and Cursor (and more):

October 31, 2011, From Guy LeCharles Gonzales: Richard Nash on Cursor and the “F” Word