Cursor: a community-based fiction publishing business model

No idea how I managed to miss this one before, but Richard Nash – founder and former head honcho of Soft Skull Press – is starting a new publishing venture called Cursor which promises (among other things, like a strong focus on niche community-building) to do away with the exploitative life-of-the-copyright contracts with which authors are traditionally saddled [via Damien Walter]:

… the tweak is pretty radical. It’s not really a tweak at all, it’s a complete break with publishing norms. […]

No more life-of-the-copyright contracts.

Instead: three year contracts.

Yup, from a contract that locks you in till seventy years after you’re dead, to a three year contract. Renewable annually thereafter. Which means after three years you can walk. Or stay, but stick it to us for better royalties because there’s gonna be a movie. Or stay with us because with all the additional formats and revenue opportunities we’re creating above and beyond what any publisher has to offer, you’re making more money than ever before.

You see, most publishers have accepted they’re not going to make money publishing your book. They’re publishing your book and a bunch of other books like it so they can have exclusive rights over as much intellectual property as possible. Such that if, three or five or nine years down the road, you win the NBA, or the Orange, or there’s a movie, or an Oprah pick, your whole backlist starts to sell but they don’t have to pay you one single extra red percent in royalties.

That’s where their profits come from, from being able to NOT have to renegotiate royalties when your books start selling better than they expected.


The publishing industry is in a state of turmoil. New sales channels are arising, new formats, new terms of sale.

Authors deserve the chance to renegotiate as the industry evolves.

The number of books published has increased forty-fold since 1990, the number of readers has remained broadly static.

Authors deserve to be actively connected with readers, not just be made available to readers…

Well, you can colour me intrigued – that’s a project to keep an eye on. Much as it’s been good to see the big houses looking at new ways of doing things, their responses to the times have been as small and grudging as they think they can get away with (e.g. Orbit’s digital short story publishing plan); Nash’s decision to empower the creators first and foremost seems to stand in stark contrast to the blanket rights options I keep reading about (which seem to be a literary echo of the infamous “360 deals” recently made in the upper earnings bracket of the recording industry), and aiming for small dedicated niche communities is very much in keeping with the philosophies of the leading edge of business and marketing punditry (not to mention social media architecture).

3 thoughts on “Cursor: a community-based fiction publishing business model”

  1. Interesting. Also, although a bit peripheral, this sentence caught my attention: “The number of books published has increased forty-fold since 1990, the number of readers has remained broadly static.” So… are people really buying/reading 40x as many books now compared to 1990, on average? Well, if there has been no change in purchases, then wouldn’t this imply that the number of copies sold per published work has fallen, on average, by a factor of 40? Sigh. (Once again, I am reminded of the wisdom of not quitting my day job!)

  2. My first question for any new publishing model–not the only important question, but the one I see answered least often–is how it is going to assure that its products are ones readers seek out and are willing to pay for. If I pick up a book from Tor, for instance, or from Penguin–ANY book from Tor or Penguin, or other publishers like them–there’s at least a fair chance that I’ll find it worth reading unless it happens to be a genre or topic that doesn’t interest me. To my mind, one of the greatest values of a traditional publisher is that they have a relatively proven mechanism for filtering submissions down to a very small percentage of more-often-readable-than-not works. Granted that they filter out some of the good stuff too, and that the things they select are not always the greatest, but they do have a system, and the system often works.

    So when a new publishing venture is started that focuses on the needs of the writers rather than on what attracts readers (which in theory is what traditional publishers are largely focusing on: marketability), I have to wonder how they’re going to 1) ensure some level of quality and desirability in their offerings and 2) convince readers that they have the goods. If I don’t have a lot of confidence that they’ve got those points covered, then to my mind the other issues become moot because there is no workable business model.

    All that said, I’m certainly in favor of people trying out new publishing models; I just don’t expect them to be commercially viable in the short-term without an unusual way to attract readers.

  3. I don’t see this as necessarily a win for the writer. Most book publishing contracts already have per-copy royalty rates with escalator clauses (higher rates that kick in for larger numbers of sales). If your book gets featured on Oprah and your whole backlist starts to sell, you’ll do great.

    Although the occasional lucky writer may have a better negotiating position just after he’s learned that his book will be made into a major motion picture, the average writer will never have a better negotiating position than before his book has come out—because the publisher is hoping that it might be a surprise success. Three years later, when the book has shown itself to be a middle-of-the-pack book (as most books are), the writer’s negotiating position is going to be terrible. What if the publisher offers to keep it in print but at one-quarter the royalty rate?

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