Denise Oswald Leaps From Stolid FSG Right into Soft Skull

Denise Oswald didn’t expect to find a steady publishing job for a good long while when layoffs at Macmillan in

Denise Oswald didn’t expect to find a steady publishing job for a good long while when layoffs at Macmillan in December forced her to leave her longtime home at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Like many of the editors who found themselves unemployed this winter as a result of industrywide cutbacks, Ms. Oswald considered her options with as open a mind as she could, knowing that full-time editing jobs would be few and far between for the foreseeable future.

“I was networking, talking to publishers, drumming up freelance projects and thinking about whether there were other careers I could be pursuing,” she said, adding that she briefly considered agenting, and even talked to some friends about becoming a copywriter at an advertising firm. In the meantime, she found what work she could, mainly with agents around town whose clients needed help finishing their proposals.

It went on like that for about two months, at which point Ms. Oswald heard of an opportunity that promised to restore everything. Richard Nash, longtime editorial director of the mighty indie publisher Soft Skull Press, had abruptly resigned, leaving the head of Soft Skull’s parent company, Counterpoint LLC, to look for a replacement.

Ms. Oswald applied, interviewed and was finally hired out of a pool of about 50 applicants. She will start as Soft Skull’s new editorial director on April 20, working from an office in the Flatiron district, not three blocks from her old one at FSG, and publishing about 20 books per year.

Mr. Nash had been running Soft Skull since the summer of 2001 when, at age 31, he took over the troubled company and nursed it back to health from the brink of financial ruin. Under Mr. Nash’s leadership, Soft Skull became one of the most visible independents in the country—“a truly renegade publishing company with outlandish and bombastic literary tastes,” as Mr. Nash’s friend Johnny Temple of Akashic Books put it in an interview—publishing adventurous fiction and bold works of journalism and history that the major houses might not have touched. (Some consensus standouts include Matthew Sharpe’s novel Jamestown, Shannon Burke’s Black Flies, David Rees’ Get Your War On, Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores and Tim Wise’s White Like Me.) 

In 2007, Mr. Nash was forced by circumstances to sell Soft Skull in order to avoid liquidation, and found a buyer in one Charlie Winton. Mr. Winton, who as the founder of Publishers Group West made his name as an innovator in the field of indie distribution during the late 1970s, had recently undertaken the formation of a new publishing outfit, Counterpoint LLC, to be based in Berkeley, Calif.

Though the sale to Counterpoint meant Mr. Nash was now answering to a higher authority—one based on the other side of the country, no less—he remained Soft Skull’s heart and soul. Indeed, the merger meant that almost everyone who had worked with Mr. Nash—namely, his publicity director and his managing editor—had to be let go, shrinking his team down to just one assistant editor, Anne Horowitz, and a team of unpaid interns.

After a year and a half of that arrangement, Mr. Nash announced his departure from Soft Skull, explaining in a note on his blog that he wanted to engage more directly with the problems facing modern book publishing. (According to Ms. Horowitz, “He was getting to the point where he was more interested in blogging and theorizing” about the future of media “than doing the administrative day to day work” of running a publishing house.) In a corresponding press release from Counterpoint, Mr. Winton asserted his intention to keep Soft Skull’s New York office open. The hunt for Mr. Nash’s successor began shortly thereafter.

Enter Ms. Oswald. At 38 years old, she had been with FSG for more than a decade at the time of the layoffs, having started there as an editorial assistant in 1995 after bailing on the comp lit grad program at N.Y.U. In 1999, after a brief stint as an assistant editor at Overlook Press, she was put in charge of FSG’s then new arts and culture imprint, Faber & Faber, and spent the next 10 years overseeing its list of music, film and theater books, including the journals of Courtney Love, the poetry of Billy Corgan and plays by the likes of Adam Rapp, Neil LaBute and Doug Wright. She also acquired and edited books that were published on the regular FSG list (including Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay and works of third-wave feminism, such as Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards).

Ms. Oswald said on Monday that readers should expect Soft Skull to change somewhat under her leadership—her interest in pop culture, she said, will be reflected in the books she acquires—but that the countercultural spirit that united the company’s output under Mr. Nash will remain the same. 

“I don’t think you can try to replace someone with someone who is exactly like them—it’s an impossible thing to chase after,” Ms. Oswald said. “But I think [Counterpoint] liked what Soft Skull was, and they were hoping for somebody who could be true to it. … They wanted somebody who was editorially minded and was very sympathetic to the cause, as it were—who really fit that kind of edgy sensibility.”

Asked what challenges he expects Ms. Oswald will inherit as she takes his place at Soft Skull, Mr. Nash said in a phone interview that “generating the marketing and publicity hustle in a radically changing environment” would be at the top of the list.

His advice? “Make a lot of friends. Go to a lot of parties. Reach out, on- and offline. Be part of the communities that Soft Skull publishes into, and keep accepting unsolicited manuscripts because the people who send unsolicited manuscripts are your readers.”

  Denise Oswald Leaps From Stolid FSG Right into Soft Skull