'All the institutional stuff': Richard Nash on Blurb's 'Dream Team'

'All the institutional stuff': Richard Nash on Blurb's 'Dream Team'

Richard Nash is among featured speakers who will bring especially astute messages to publishing to us in our Big Ideas session near day's end Friday (14th November) in Europe's busiest publishing conference, The FutureBook , at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. 

This year's conference -- hashtagged #FutureBook14 -- promises to have the widest scope and most inquisitive bent yet, in terms of signalling digital directions ahead. Bookings have been extendedHurry to secure your seat

"To help connect writers...with all the institutional stuff"

We need some kind of system to help connect aspiring writers -- writers who for one reason for another operate outside the traditional publishing structure, by choice or necessity -- with all the institutional stuff, with all these people who used to have day jobs in publishing and are now freelancers.

Richard Nash is one of our Big Idea speakers at The FutureBook Conference on Friday. Nash is also one of the industry's best-known and most influential voices in innovation, a serial entrepreneur. His projects have included Small Demons, Cursor, Red Lemonade, and the iconic Soft Skull Press.

In this instance, he's speaking to me as a special consultant to Eileen Gittins, ceo of Blurb, a San Francisco-based self-publishing and marketing platform undertaking a remarkable pivot in its stance.

Many of us initially became aware of the new turn for Gittins' nine-year-old company during February's London Author Fair, at which Gittins joined Authoright's Gareth Howard and me onstage to describe her direction of Blurb's sea-change -- from a respected producer of family albums and gift books to a new presence today as an enabler of the full range of self-published work. To date, the company has more than 8 million titles in play.

In a move that illustrates Gittins' interest in seeing Blurb authors produce high-quality self-published projects, she has engaged Nash and Molly Barton, formerly of Penguin, the founder of its seminal Book Country reading-reviewing community. Their task has been, in an initial stage, to pinpoint some of the best author-services specialists available.

Gittins calls these specialists her "Dream Team" of collaborators. And she offers the group of some 50 or 60 people -- curated by Nash and Barton -- free of charge. You can see the lists of these collaborators here, broken down into groups: editorial, art, and design.

"This is something we thought about a little bit at Cursor," Nash says. "Periodically, we'd have conversations somewhere in the world in which someone would say, 'Well someone should do this.'"

That trademark Nash laugh catches up with him on cue, then he points to a very real reason that getting this kind of roster together hasn't happened in this way before: "The hassle," he says, "is that it would be hard to do it on its own because you're a servant of two masters. To get enough supply of designers and editors, you need to corral a bunch of demand. So it's a chicken-and-egg problem.

"And even apart from the chicken-and-egg problem, there's the fact that [you have to decide] who's your priority? Who are you really serving? If you say, 'Oh, I'm not involved, I'm just a marketplace,' it can create different types of moral hazards. Or if not moral hazards, there can at least be sloppiness. And you see it on CraigsList...If nothing else, it's almost impossible for the acquirer of services to really know how good this person is."

Gittins' model at Blurb -- in which the platform takes no cut of a transaction between author and Dream Team specialist -- "basically means that the user is the most important person."

Blurb is effectively saying, Nash says, "What we're going to do is just find people we know are good, and make them available to you."

Without charging for the referral service, Blurb "won't have any temptation to push mediocre or terrible collaborations on writers. And I think more generally, too, it maps to Blurb's value proposition, which is 'We want to make the best book, not necessarily the cheapest book.'"

In a separate conversation with Gittins, in fact, she echoes what Nash is saying here:

"We're not just in this because we're super-friendly people," she tells me. "We're in it because we're 100-percent aligned with the author. We want them to spend any money they have on a better book."

And that, she points out, is good for her business. The better a book, the more it sells, in theory, and thus the more her percentage of the take can add  up.

For now, Nash's interest is Blurb's ability to create a curated pool of recommended specialists without a fiduciary hand in the deal.

"Blurb isn't anything at the commoditized end of the business," Nash says.

"Which makes this services offering a good thing for the freelancers," the specialists, because the independent service providers on in the curated pool "are operating among potential customers who are not looking for the cheapest possible cover designers but for the best cover designers at the best value.

"Different people will have different ways of figuring out where they find value -- that depends on the circumstances. You don't need a $10,000 cover designer for Grandma's cookbook. But maybe you really do want a $5,000 art director for the interior of your catalog of antique Tag Heuer watches which is reportedly worth a million dollars."

In answer to my question, Nash agrees that the most expedient, least quality-oriented authors may not find this kind of service helpful.

"If all you want to do is punch your lottery ticket -- throw 100,000 words into the meat grinder and  hope you've got Fifty Shades of Grey," there's much less need for the stronger services of these specialists. "As a general rule, in my opinion, publishers should be aiming at the top of the market at all times. They should be aiming at quality rather than running around equating that readers or the media or Amazon doesn't value what they offer. Treat the value of what you offer seriously. I actually think part of what Blurb is doing...helps original publishers in a way. It puts a visible dollar value on some of the services that digital publishing specialists offer."

This initial group of specialists is focused on the needs of independent authors. Both Gittins and Nash say that they expect to work together next to curate a pool of specialists more focused on the needs of business clients, companies looking to create books for their corporate needs.

The process of curating one of these pools involves a couple of days in San Francisco at Blurb's offices. "Molly and I certainly had a great two days talking and brainstorming with Blurb...'create more value than you capture,' as Tim O'Reilly likes to say.

"This particular venture, I think, is doing that."

Main image - Shutterstock: blurAZ