My start-up: Cursor

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an editorial for Publishing Perspectives and got a rather dynamic response, including small group of commenters who were particularly exercised that I had not offered guidance on how to move forward.

In this week’s Publishers Weekly cover story, I offer exactly that guidance, although I couldn’t help but include some anecdote and sundry color. The article describes what I want to do, why I want to do it, and how I came to it. It’s not yet the perfect business model for the writing-and-reading community but it is I believe the right place to start, and critically it is designed to have powerful feedback loops, so whatever we’ll get wrong, we’ll be able to fix.

If you’d like to be a part of it, let me know. Here’s an excerpt from the Publishers Weekly piece.

Cursor…represents a new, “social” approach to publishing. To call [it] “niche” or another “independent” publishing enterprise would be a poor approximation, because those terms fail to capture the organic gurgle of culture at the heart of the venture, the exchange of insight and opinion, the flow of memes and the creation of culture in real time that is now enabled by the Internet.

My business plan is now out with investors””I will spare you the P&L numbers and just offer the broad strokes. Cursor will establish a portfolio of self-reinforcing online membership communities. To start, this includes Red Lemonade, a pop-lit-alt-cult operation, and charmQuark, a sci-fi/fantasy community.

The business will focus on developing the value of the reading and writing ecosystem, including the growth of markets for established authors, as well as engaging readers and supporting emerging writers. Each community will have a publishing imprint, which will make money from authors’ books, sold as digital downloads, conventional print and limited artisanal editions””and will offer authors all the benefits of a digital platform: faster time to market, faster accounting cycles, faster payments to authors. But the greatest opportunity is in the community itself. Each will have tiers of membership, including paid memberships that will offer exclusive access to tools and services, such as rich text editors for members to upload their own writing, peer-to-peer writing groups, recommendation engines, access to established authors online and in person, and editorial or marketing assistance. Members can get both peer-based feedback and professional feedback.

Other revenue opportunities include the provision of electronic distribution services to other publishers; fee-based or revenue-share software modules, especially for online writing workshops or seminars for publishers, literary journals, teaching programs; fee-based linking of writers to suppliers of publishing services, including traditional publishers and agents; corporate sponsorships and site advertising; and events and speaking fees. Yes, I envisage Cursor obtaining a larger basket of rights than is the industry standard, but that will be in exchange for shorter exclusive licensing periods. Our contracts will be limited to three-year terms with an option to renew.

The Cursor business model seeks to unite all the various existing revenues in the writing-reading ecosystem, from offering services to aspiring writers far more cheaply than most vendors to finding more ways to get more money to authors faster. It also will create 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.

Cursor is not designed to “save publishing,” but simply to offer the kind of services that readers and writers, established and emerging, want and the Internet enables. I believe especially strongly that the model must be viable in a world where the effective price of digital content falls to zero, and paper becomes like vinyl records or fine art prints. After all, the world is littered with things that people won’t buy at the prices their producers want to charge””like, say, the contents of remainder bins.

If recent experience is any guide, there is little reason for me to think that people, given so many other options for their leisure time, especially in the wired world, will continue to give up hours and dollars for the sake of our industry, any more than they will for big cars or daily newspapers. We are going to have to find new ways to earn those hours and dollars, and at the prices our readers””and writers””set.

I believe Cursor’s communities are a new way forward.