Soft Skull Press, the indie publisher that was rescued from financial ruin when it was acquired by the Berkeley-based publisher Counterpoint in 2007, became a West Coast outfit on Friday after 17 years in New York with the closing of its office in the Flatiron District. Both of its full-time staffers, editorial director Denise Oswald and associate editor Anne Horowitz, were laid off, and titles that were already in the pipeline have been reassigned to editors at Counterpoint.
According to Counterpoint CEO Charlie Winton, Soft Skull will live on from California, though there will not be any one there dedicated to running it. Mr. Winton, who founded Publishers Group West in 1976 and made his name in the book business as an innovative indie distributor, said that while the number of titles published through the Soft Skull imprint will drop from around 40 per year to 20, Counterpoint’s editors will acquire and publish books for the Soft Skull list, thus keeping the brand alive.
Mr. Winton’s conception of that brand is broad. “We see the role of Soft Skull as introducing new writers,” he said, when asked to define the imprint’s sensibility. “In general, those writers are probably going to be a little younger and maybe a little edgier.”
Literary agents know the Soft Skull sensibility, he said, and he expects them to continue submitting to the imprint accordingly. In addition, he hopes authors who have been associated with Soft Skull in the past will return to the imprint for future books. Eventually Mr. Winton hopes to designate a “point person” within Counterpoint who would be responsible for overseeing the Soft Skull list, but he does not expect to appoint a full-time editorial director.
It’s not like this is the first time Soft Skull has undergone a major change in editorial leadership, Mr. Winton noted, referring to when Richard Nash, who ran the company for most of a decade, stepped down in the spring of 2009 to launch his publishing start-up, Cursor.
When Ms. Oswald — whose previous job was at the Faber & Faber imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux — took over that April, she signaled a commitment to maintaining Soft Skull’s identity, telling one reporter that while she wasn’t setting out to imitate Mr. Nash’s publishing program, she was going to preserve the house’s “take no prisoners attitude” and its dedication to “the outspoken and the contrarian, the marginal and the disenfranchised.”
Ms. Oswald said that Mr. Winton flew out to New York at the end of September to inform her and Ms. Horowitz that their office was going to be closed. Ms. Oswald said Soft Skull had been suffering from diminishing sales but that Mr. Winton’s decision to pull the plug came as a surprise to her.
There had been pressure over the past year and a half from Counterpoint, Ms. Oswald said, to publish more books in order to increase revenue. “I tried to explain that we can’t do the work of producing good books if we’re just trying to do books at volume,” Ms. Oswald said. “Anne and I were working tremendously long hours just to try to stay on top of the workload and trying to bring in more projects.”
Mr. Winton said that Soft Skull’s revenue had fallen by a total of about 25% since 2008, and that adding more titles — including paperback reprints of books originally issued by other publishers — was a measure taken to justify keeping the New York office open. In the end, he said, the seismic shift that the publishing industry underwent over the past several years proved overwhelming and maintaining a bicoastal presence was deemed unfeasible. He said he has “come to terms” with the fact that Soft Skull in its diminished condition will have to publish fewer titles, not more.
In an interview, Mr. Nash praised Ms. Oswald’s efforts at Soft Skull and placed the blame for the closing of the New York office on what he said was Counterpoint’s insufficient commitment to publicity and marketing.
“Anne and Denise were acquiring books that exemplified the Soft Skull spirit,” Mr. Nash said. “But another part of the Soft Skull spirit is the drum banging, and their books weren’t getting the drum beat hard enough for them.”