When Richard Nash abruptly resigned as Editorial Director of the nervy independent press Soft Skull, many wondered what direction the press would take. Nash had been the heart of Soft Skull for 8 years, overseeing the press’s rise to prominence alongside a slate of impressive literary authors. To see what’s in store for Soft Skull, I interviewed it’s new ED, Denise Oswald, who has been on the job since April of this year.
Scott Esposito: What exactly does the job of Editorial Director encompass? What do you do on an average day/week?
Denise Oswald: At a small independent like Soft Skull, being editorial director means a doing little bit of everything. Primarily the editorial director is really in charge of determining and maintaining the voice of a press. Every book that makes it on to the list has to pass through your office and whether it’s your project or something another editor brings in, the first question you have to ask yourself beyond whether the project is fundamentally promising or not is: Is this a Soft Skull book?
But beyond the so-called gatekeeper role, you have to be nimble, think fast, and be able to wear a lot of hats; to think like a marketing director, a rights director, a publicist, a designer—because at some point you’re going to have to take a strong, guiding hand in all those areas. You’re considering how to position and package your books that are forthcoming; how to get more traction in the media for the ones that are out; what foreign editors might be as excited by a certain title as you are and want to publish it alongside you.
In terms of what I do on a typical day, aside from c.f. the above I’d say: read, pitch, wrangle, and occasionally break bread with the really brilliant people in the industry you’re fortunate enough to work with, whether its authors, agents, other editors, and so on.
SE: What about Soft Skull and Counterpoint made you want to come on as Editorial Director (Soft Skull) and Senior Editor (Counterpoint)?
DO: Soft Skull is like a rogue agent—who wouldn’t want to work there? It’s exciting. I’ve always loved their shoot from the hip / take no prisoners attitude and the house’s commitment to embracing the outspoken and the contrarian, the marginal and the disenfranchised. Their books are thoughtful and deeply engaged on a ground level with the world we live in. Yet there’s always room for something elegant and literary or naughty and fun, which is a very satisfying balance at the end of the day because it helps one from becoming too self-serious.
And as for Counterpoint, well, I loved doing books on the North Point list when I was at FSG so Counterpoint affords me the opportunity, for one, to indulge in the kind of food writing and works about nature and the environment that I’m very passionate about, as well as giving me a broader palate to work with in terms of fiction. In the end, there wasn’t a single author from my past editorial life that I couldn’t see on one of these two lists and that’s incredibly appealing.
SE: So how exactly would you define a Soft Skull book? Or to take a slight different approach, in what ways would your ideal Soft Skull book differ from those of your predecessor, Richard Nash?
DO: Well, first and foremost, I’d say it’s got to have balls. I think the quintessential Soft Skull books are always taking some sort of risk, be it in their point of view, the way that’s being expressed, or both. I don’t think I could address in any kind of quantitative way how that would be different from Richard’s view since it’s all about perspective. We may both be drawn to progressive topics, for example, but how we define that and what gets us excited may be different. That’s a question that will really answer itself over time via the books we publish going forward.
SE: Regarding packaging and traction: there are 200,000 books published in the U.S. every year, and evidence suggests that not only are book sales in decline but that also online vendors are becoming a more and more important part of book sales. So what will you try to do differently to gain traction, and are there any things in particular you’re going to do to address the fact that books are increasingly sold in a virtual environment?
DO: What you do in terms of packaging and promotion always gets addressed on a book by book basis and certainly with traditional review outlets drying up publishers and authors need to be more savvy about finding their audience via new outlets—new media being the most obvious. The joy of the Internet is that you can really target reader interest in a micro fashion. But that being said, as much as everyone is looking at the internet as the future of books, internet sales still comprise a very small percentage of most overall book sales so even though we’ve all got irons in the digital fire, the analog world is still an important component of how we approach things. For instance I just acquired a very cool book on the history and how-to of Roller Derby. The sport has gone through a big reclamation and resurgence in the last ten years, much in the same way that burlesque has, and my gut tells me that our biggest opportunity for sales isn’t going to be from reviews or via web machinations but in making sure the book is physically at all the different bouts across the country right next to the programs and t-shirts and various paraphernalia that gets sold at the games. That’s your direct line to a very dedicated and enthusiastic audience who are certainly going to be your number one readers. And in terms of packaging for something like that, my first instinct is to get one of the designers from the league to do the book for us. The packaging here really needs to authentically reflect the content or you’re going to turn readers off so who better to capture that feel than someone who’s a part of that world?
That’s also a book where your major sales might come less from B&N and Amazon and more from Urban Outfitters or by getting it into a skate shop or the right catalog, and at the same time you want to make sure you’ve reached out to all the indie feminist outlets who’d be into in, such as Venus, Bust, Bitch, Feministing, etc. So the ultimate answer to your question is that you have to know your audience and understand how to reach them.
SE: In terms of fiction, what are some of your favorite authors working today?
DO: Colson Whitehead is probably my absolute favorite. I’m always chomping at the bit to read what he writes next. To me his work is the best combination of socially engaged, intensely creative, and wonderfully playful.
I’m in love with Pasha Malla who’s an amazing young writer on the Soft Skull list. His debut story collection, The Withdrawal Method, just published this spring. He writes elegant, aching stories about relationships and the distances between people. I can’t wait to see the novel he’s working on.
And if I can include playwrights on that list, I’d like to add Will Eno. He’s the kind of dramatist you could see Grove publishing back in the 60s. His vision of the world is just haunting.
SE: Malla’s been getting a lot of good press lately (our reviewer liked his book a great deal). When can we expect the novel, and who else forthcoming from Soft Skull are you particularly excited about?
DO: That remains to be seen—it’s still in its nascent stages but I’m as eager as you are to have a look.
On the fall list I’m wild for Lydia Millet’s new collection, Love in Infant Monkeys—it’s brilliant. Lydia looks at various public figures—from Madonna to Noam Chomsky—and uses their interaction with animals to peer with sometimes brutal clarity into their souls. And Jillian Weise’s The Colony, a fascinating and brassy piece of speculative fiction that takes a fresh look at the intersection of medical ethics, body image issues, and eugenics in our society.
SE: Any intent of looking for more translated fiction for Soft Skull’s lineup?
DO: Yes! I’m quite keen to do more fiction in translation. I just did a two book deal with Serpent’s Tail to continue publishing Alain Mabanckou. Translations are tough though. Not only are American readers resistant to literature in translation but on a practical level it’s just an extremely expensive endeavor for a small press like Soft Skull. But I’m hoping to take greater advantage of the grant monies available for translation and build partnerships with like-minded British publishers in a way that can make these kinds of books more feasible for us all.
SE: Translations are definitely tough for various reasons. Why are you so keen to do them despite their challenges?
DO: Take a look at your own bookshelves and I’d hazard the reasons to encourage this kind of cross pollination will become self-evident. When I look at mine and think about the authors who’ve had a profound effect on me over the years—Jean Genet, Milan Kundera, Michel Foucault, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julia Kristeva—whether they’re writing fiction, theory, or otherwise, the importance of the international conversation is clear. And it’s up to the publishers in no small part to help keep that conversation going.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer After fleeing Canada for Paris in 1999, crime reporter Jeremy Mercer has no clear idea of where to go with his life. A casual stop at the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience, which Mercer documents in Time Was Soft There. Modeled...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by TQC Reporting
Read more articles about books from Soft Skull