Something Close to Unique
Andrew Stevens interviews Soft Skull Press publisher Richard Nash.
3:AM: When you took over as Publisher at Soft Skull you inherited quite a financial mess. Without going too much into economics, how did you get things on an even keel?
RN: Well, ironically, I’d only ever partially stabilized things. A successful publisher can have profit margins of maybe 10%. Given that our sales in 2001 were about $350K, and our debts about $300K, and we’d no bank financing or anything, I had to aggressively build up Soft Skull’s sales fast, in order to have even the slightest chance of saving things. I managed that to some degree, increasing the list dramatically (from six books a year, to 25, and then 35) and having some successes in 2002-2003 with Get Your War On, in 2004 with The Sleeping Father, and in 2005 with White Like Me and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. I also began to hustle translation right a lot more and I borrowed, from credit card companies, and a friend. These successes and that borrowing allowed me to pay down a good deal of the old debt but, with hindsight, never quite enough. Because when you make mistakes (which I certainly have done), and you’ve a bad month of sales, you’re fucked. You’ve no money for a month, you can’t pay the printer, then you can’t ship new books, leading to more bad months. So the debt goes back up again.
It used to be the case that your distributor would often advance you money against sales one to three months down the road, and that would allow you to avoid a spiralling situation of money = no new books = no money, but it’s become much harder in the past two years to get that. I thought it was because of the bureaucratic approach our distributor’s new corporate parent had eventually imposed on them, but I now see it was something more than that.
So basically while I saved Soft Skull, by expanding the list without increasing our overhead (capitalist code for being incredibly, painfully cheap), the changes in the infrastructure of indie publishing over the last two years, have imperilled most of the progress — although, of course, between when Soft Skull would have gone under, in mid 2001 and now, we’ve published 150 great books…
3:AM: What do you think the likely outcome will be over the whole AMS thing? It certainly exposes how precarious independent publishing is.
RN: Good question. Yes, completely exposes it. Basically, the era of distributors informally helping publishers’ short-term cash flow problems is likely over. Which means, if you are in the game of having your books distributed on a nationwide basis, into the wholesalers and national chains and such, you’re going to need deeper pockets than hitherto…
In general, I would hazard that most PGW publishers will take the Perseus offer of 70 cents on the dollar in exchange for allowing our contracts to be assigned by PGW/AMS to Perseus. Many of us will have no choice but to do that. I’m working my ass off to try to get capital in so that I can have options.
3:AM: Given this precarious state, why do you want to stay in business? What do you think sets Soft Skull apart from other US independent presses?
RN: I feel we’ve really built something close to unique. We’ve string name recognition amongst consumers (very unusual in this business). We publish a combination of genres that only larger publishers attempt — serious literary fiction (Lynne Tillman, Matt Sharpe, Lydia Millet, Douglas Martin), edgy coming-of-age stuff (Manstealing for Fat Girls, Vibrator, The Pornographer’s Poem, Woman Alone at Night), fiction-in-translation from multiple languages (African Psycho, Vibrator, The City in Crimson Cloak, Guantanamo), graphic novels (fiction, non-fiction, hybrid, translations), poetry of the academic, pop, and slam persuasions; political and pop non-fiction with emphases in race, gender, sexuality; we’re finding alternative voices in genres where they’ve been ignored in the past, like children’s books (Hey Kidz, Buy This Book!), parenting (Mamaphonics, Let The Run with Scissors, Food of Love), relationships (Making Love, Playing Power); political books that come from unorthodox left (Power and the Idealists, Freedom From Want). Most indie presses stick to a range of genre, and we don’t, and that’s partly why we’re in this situation, compared to, say, Akashic, or McSweeney’s — but I feel that the cross-fertilization that goes on amongst all that is important, culturally, and worth trying to find a way to make it thrive…
(pic: KGB Bar Lit)
3:AM: A recent article describes the grungy origins of the Soft Skull project. Looking around the literary scene today, with the Downtown gone but slowly reviving to some extent, yet the NYC scene largely being composed of more fashionable mainstream writers in Brooklyn, how do you see things panning out? Is the audience for what you’ve outlined dwindling or do you think the net will sustain it?
RN: Yeah, that’s something I’ve thought about a lot — the true-to-your-roots principle. My overall approach, though, is to act as if everyone could find something in every one of our books. On the one hand, that’s pretty mad, and it’s also bad publishing — you need to identify your audience and publish into it. But on the other, the best kind of a scene is the one you didn’t realize you were a part of until it was over. So, yes there was a downtown scene, and Soft Skull was around and on-site for the tail-end of it (at least to the extent that Brandon [Stosuy]’s timeline sets it, or I guess way way at the end of the it, and the aftermath of it, really.) And yes, the conversion of much of Manhattan into a kind of urban Epcot Center has meant more folks move to Brooklyn and that fact that it’s still far more expensive in Brooklyn than in the East Village in the 70s and 80s means that people are operating with a greater awareness of the fact that they need to make money has involved a, well, “milding” of fiction. And that’s a quasi-scene. But I don’t think the demise of the first, and quasi-rise of the second has that great an impact, in part because they’re symptoms, really, of economic forces — not dissimilar, I imagine, from forces acting on London, in terms of housing prices and cost-of-living.
I think there are always going to be people living on the economic/social edge, and people living comfortably but attracted to precariousness as a way of adding buzz to their lives. And that there will be osmosis both of people, and of cultural artefacts between the two. And Soft Skull kinda hovers in between. The fact that we’re totally not immune to the “market” (in some ways LESS immune to it than corporate publishers who are sitting on vast backlists acquired over decades of consolidations) means that we are always in the position of taking that which is discarded by the “Mainstream” (corporate publishers who want predictable markets of a certain scale) and then… sell it back to them! (Since we can’t possible pay the printers and the rent by only selling books to people living economically precarious lives…)
Technology, in all its ongoing manifestations, does assist us in this regard because it permits greater bonding, exchange of ideas and information (and “You-should-read-this” word-of-mouth) across space and time (space meaning geography, as you ad I are doing right now, and time, in that the opinions of people live on longer, echo for months and years, depending on how stuff is archived…
3:AM: Which other publishers do you admire in this shitty business?
RN: Akashic for sure; Melville House; McSweeney’s have done some amazing stuff; Dalkey Archive. Those would be the places on our scale. Then smaller ones: Clear Cut, Chiasmus, Impetus, Hotel St. Georges looks like it’ll be good.
3:AM: And websites?
3:AM: What authors should we be looking out for in 2007, both on Soft Skull and elsewhere?
RN: Oh well, Matthew Sharpe’s new book, Jamestown. We’ve only North American rights and his previous, The Sleeping Father, didn’t do well for Hodder, so I don’t know what’ll happen with this one in the UK, but I think it is fucking brilliant…
Manstealing for Fat Girls is coming out in the UK in May, and I think she writes some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. And then this graphic novel, Siberia, is also coming out in the UK, in April — it is b-l-e-e-e-a-k. So much the real deal, it’s almost embarrassing.
Other stuff, well, Nathan Englander’s new novel is coming out in the US in April, not sure about the UK, and from what he’s told me, it sounds amazing, dealing with Jews in Argentina, the whole “transitional justice” thing…
3:AM: Finally, you’re an Irishman in the states. What do you think you’d be doing now if you’d stayed in Ireland?
RN: Well, I was a big parliamentary debater in high school, and so I’d’ve done that at either Trinity, or UCD, and that world would’ve sucked me in pretty well, I think, absent discovering other ones, and oh God, well I’d be some kind of bloviator as I am now, but in the service of something less worthwhile, I suspect…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007.