Interview With Soft Skull Press Editorial Director Denise Oswald

Soft Skull Press. The Huffington Post calls it, "The literary version of a punk rock label."  Canada’s Quill & Quire describes it as "One of the most visible and respected alternative houses in the U.S…like Grove Press in the 1950’s and 1960’s." Among its recent releases you’ll find Osama Van Halen and Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Sex Workers and Prostitutes writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex. Clearly, Soft Skull Press is not your grandfather’s trade publisher.

In this interview, Editorial Director Denise Oswald talks about Soft Skull’s philosophy and approach to publishing, the advantages of working with a small publisher, how Soft Skull succeeds with books the majors won’t touch with a ten foot pole, and more.  

Soft Skull is known for being a sort of "punk" publisher, in the sense that SS frequently publishes edgy and nontraditional material. Can you elaborate a bit on what Soft Skull looks for in its acquisitions?

I’d say we’re drawn to gritty, dissident voices. Risk takers that are in their own way willing to speak truth to power. The focus could be on just about anything, really—it’s all about the author’s take on it.

What specific advantages do you feel Soft Skull can offer its authors, in comparison to a big, mainstream publisher?

It’s really easy for all but the biggest books to drown on a large, mainstream publisher’s list. For a book to just get subsumed amid the sheer volume of other titles vying for the attention and energy of not just the retailers and media, but of the in-house sales, marketing, and publicity staffs. A small press offers a boutique publishing experience. Odds are everyone in house not just knows about the book but has read it and shares the editor’s enthusiasm for it. And odds are the editor who was so enthusiastic about the project from the get-go is going to have a larger hand in how that book gets marketed and sold. So it’s a very intimate relationship.
Does Soft Skull have a set number of titles it can release each year, or do you let the quantity of desirable material dictate your release schedule?

Well, I think every publisher, large and small, has a range specific to them that they’re trying to hit in terms of the number of titles published annually. There’s a minimum number you need in order to achieve pragmatic results, like keeping your lights on, and then there’s a maximum number beyond which I think everyone sees diminishing returns because all the key players are working at capacity. But that doesn’t mean if a small publisher falls in love with a project she might not be able to take it on because she’s already maxed out on the number of books that can be published that year. At worst it means waiting a season to put the book out but it never means passing simply because you don’t have a slot to fit it into. 
You took over as Editorial Director for Soft Skull following the departure of Richard Nash earlier this year. Do you have any specific goals, or changes in mind for the imprint?

I’d like to expand on the fiction publishing program. It’s a spectacular list that I’m eager to build on, particularly in terms of voices from abroad–in translation or otherwise. Beyond that I’ve always done a lot of music related projects so I think you can expect to see that part of the list growing, as well.

Soft Skull is known for championing the very books mainstream publishers avoid: books that are controversial, difficult to classify, difficult to boil down to a sound bite, and frequently for, from, or about underrepresented or fringe populations. Why do you think Soft Skull is able to succeed with these types of books when the majors cannot?

To invoke an oft-abused term, it’s all about authenticity. When you embrace those kinds of books with purpose and show that you’re discerning about what you take on and that you can publish those that you do take on well, people trust your opinion and pay attention when they otherwise might dismiss a project out of hand.  When it comes to mainstream publishers, they probably have few people on board who’d understand the relevance of some of the books Soft Skull is known for, let alone be willing to devote the time and effort to making them work. This isn’t to say that something controversial or difficult couldn’t make it through at a big house due to the passion of the editor, but it can also die on the vine if the other departments don’t get it or what the readership is for it. 

To what extent, if any, does Soft Skull plan to utilize ebook and Print on Demand technologies?

Well, both are valuable tools that can be used in either standardized or more discriminating ways. Most publishers I know of, including us, utilize POD technology to help keep their backlist going when limited demand might have otherwise forced good books out of print. This is one embodiment of the The Long Tail theory. But I think the most interesting use of POD is what’s going on at ELECTRIC LITERATURE. The editors there have created a new literary journal that plays to both internet and traditional paper readerships and in order to make it feasible the terrestrial edition is purely available as POD. I think it’s a very smart way for a literary endeavor to navigate the digital transition.

As for e-books, at this point they’ve become an established format that stands alongside traditional hardcover and paperback—and one that will likely come out the victor in years to come—but for now it’s a fellow traveler that can be  be utilized in more proactive ways. For instance it allows for the rapid publication of timely material.  So if you’re doing a book that’s tied to current events, instead of releasing an e-book simultaneously with the hardcover or paperback original, perhaps you get that e-book out first. Or perhaps you’re doing a book on the environment or technology and you need the medium to live up to the message. Then maybe going e-book first or e-book only is the way to go. It all depends on the particular context of the project at hand.

Author platform is becoming an increasingly important consideration for mainstream publishers when it comes to considering a debut book for acquisition; how important is author platform to Soft Skull press in its acquisitions of debut books? 

Platform gets such a bad rap, but everyone potentially has one so it’s a question of figuring out what yours is and how to utilize it or further develop it. It’s another way of cutting through the sheer volume of voices out there and making yourself stand out. It’s a kind of road map to your reader and in an era of seemingly endless choices for our personal amusement and enlightenment, that’s crucial. Think of it like building your resume. You need to gain experience and exposure to get better and better job opportunities. If you’re a would-be novelist that can mean working on short fiction and trying to get placement in journals and magazines. It’s very rare that you can publish a debut book by someone who hasn’t made their way to some extent through the newspaper/magazine/journal circuit. If I can use a sports metaphor, getting a book published is like marathoning. A wise coach once told me: the marathon isn’t the hard part, it’s sticking with the months of training that’s the hard part. The marathon is your reward.

In a recent Idealog column Mike Shatzkin said self-publishing is now an acknowledged strategy for authors looking to break in to publishing, but some industry people still strongly advise authors against self-publishing. What is your opinion of the burgeoning "indie author" movement? Can self-publishing be a smart move for authors whose books don’t fit the conventional, easily-classifiable mold?

I think if you look at the number of break-out books amid self published titles you’ll see the percentage is very small. I’m clearly biased, but my feeling is that it always benefits a writer to see if they can place their work with a good house and a good editor who gets it before going the self-publishing route. There’s a lot more to publishing that simply creating the book itself. And sometimes the fact that a book has existed in a prior edition can hinder its chances of getting exposure on a grander scale.

April L. Hamilton is the founder and Editor in Chief of Publetariat, and the founder of the Publetariat Vault, a new crowdsourcing tool for use in literary acquisitions.