Radical media, politics and culture.

Adam Rathe, "Raging Skull"

"Raging Skull"Adam Rathe

It’s a short walk from 24 E. 12th St. to 19 W. 21st St., but for Soft Skull Press the trip took almost 20 years. And it’s been a wild ride. The two rooms that Soft Skull inhabits sit at the end of a hall in the offices of a commercial art firm, and today both are almost empty. It’s the day before the office is closing and operations move to Berkeley, Calif., where Counterpoint Press, the book publisher that bought Soft Skull in 2007, is based. It’s essentially the end of the line for a company born in 1993 at a Kinko’s just below Union Square that has, over the years, been one of the most provocative, daring, loved and hated independent presses in New York.

“The whole ethos of Soft Skull came out of a very New York, punk, Lower East Side, radical place,” says Denise Oswald, Soft Skull’s editorial director, sitting in her office the day before she would be out of a job. “A lot of writers were situated here and, by its very nature, it’s representative of a counterculture that exists here.”

Though Oswald will stay on in a limited role to shepherd some of her already-signed authors—including White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult, who wrote the upcoming I’m In The Band—the day-to-day of Soft Skull will now be handled by Counterpoint’s CEO and Publisher Charlie Winton, Editorial Director Jack Shoemaker and Managing Editor Laura Mazer, who will take over coordinating Soft Skull’s editorial activity.

While it might not be the end of Soft Skull altogether, by leaving New York, the press will never be the same. After all, Soft Skull is the quintessential New York City indie press. Born in a Greenwich Village copy shop in the early ’90s, a birth that reeks of Reality Bites-style angst and passion in a still-affordable Manhattan where poets, musicians and anarchists ran amok, the press published progressive books and wasn’t afraid to get dirty.

I first heard about Soft Skull when I was teenager because it published a book by a member of Sonic Youth, and I spent years admiring the company. Soft Skull was to books what Dischord was to records: a scrappy, admirable, punk-as-fuck place that could be trusted to release important work that everyone else was too stupid or too scared to take a chance on. As DIY publishing is once again experiencing a renaissance, it’s an embarrassment that Soft Skull won’t be around to mentor a new generation of offbeat sensibilities.

“It will never be anything but a chronic uphill battle to run an indie publishing company,” says Johnny Temple, owner of Brooklyn-based indie publisher Akashic Books (and former Girls Against Boys bassist). “I think the efforts that Sander Hicks made when he started Soft Skull, and then Richard Nash after he took over, were pretty heroic in terms of trying to keep an independent publishing company with a radical vision afloat. Soft Skull was a company of righteous outsiders and has traditionally been a great home for people who don’t fit into mainstream society. What was particularly great was that Soft Skull has developed over time an international reputation. It wasn’t the only place for someone with a devoutly outsider sensibility, but it was one of the very best.”

Sander Hicks is Soft Skull’s cofounder and the largest looming figure in its complicated history—and where the legend begins. As the story goes, instead of turning in a manuscript for his class at The New School, the sometimes-Mohawk-sporting Hicks, who did time as the frontman for a punk band called White Collar Crime, took a cue from zine makers and used his time at his job to bind his writing into books to share with classmates.

“I was in Miriam Sivan’s long-form fiction class at Lang College, which was just a couple blocks down the street,” Hicks recalls. “I had just finished my shift [at Kinko’s] and I had been writing like a mad dog a little novella about a radical hitchhiking trip I had taken the previous summer to L.A.”

Susan Mitchell, Soft Skull co-founder, was working with Hicks when he discovered that you could effectively make a book by pushing a button. “It would tape-bind it—the old Soft Skull books were all tape bound—so he made copies and put this name on it, Soft Skull Press,” Mitchell explains from Seattle, where she is now a nursing student. “Then, combined with all of the people we were meeting and this incredible amount of creativity going on there, it just happened.”

The Kinko’s where the couple worked wasn’t just Soft Skull’s first home; in some ways it was also its inspiration. “I was living in New York, working at [Spy] magazine and making no money,” Mitchell says. “So I started working at Kinko’s on the side and immediately was in this situation where I was behind the counter with really fascinating, creative people. Everybody was in a band”— Peter Aaron from The Chrome Cranks was a coworker—“or getting a PhD or an incredible painter or tattoo artist. I don’t think when you go to Kinko’s today that those people are working there anymore.”

Hicks and Mitchell were publishing just the sort of people they were working with, cutting-edge Downtown poets like Todd Colby and other figures in the world of offbeat culture below 14th Street.

When Hicks met Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo at the old Knitting Factory the night that Kurt Cobain died, the upstart publisher convinced Ranaldo to let Soft Skull release a book of his writing (coupled with his thengirlfriend’s photos). The result was 1995’s Road Movies.

“I was doing a lot of writing and occasionally publishing pieces in magazines, but I hadn’t really thought about the idea of doing a book until Sander came to me,” Ranaldo says. “There was definitely something happening. New York is such a literary town, and they were picking up the slack with younger writers that weren’t in the St. Marks Church poetry project establishment yet. It was a really cool time to do that kind of a thing.”

Outside of Kinko’s, Soft Skull’s home was the apartment Mitchell and Hicks shared at 50 E. 3rd St. “I moved to New York and immediately stayed with Susan and Sander at the apartment on Third Street,” recalls Don Goede, who met Hicks, then a traveling playwright, at a Louisville, Ky., Kinko’s and came to New York to work with Soft Skull. “I saw them with their books, and I just decided right then and there, I’m in, we’ll do whatever we’ve got to do to distribute.” In addition to distribution, Goede introduced Mitchell and Hicks to the idea of incorporation. “I was the one that kind of pushed them into that,” he says. “Like, ‘Hey, we need to raise money and we need to get shareholders.’” Family and friends who could donate money or time were added to a board that would dictate the direction of the fledgling press.

Dashing around town with a backpack full of books, Goede started distributing Soft Skull titles—at this point Henry Baum’s Oscar Caliber Gun and John S. Hall’s Jesus Was Way Cool—to what he calls, “cool little hipster places,” including record stores, cafes and book shops like Incommunicado on Norfolk Street, St. Marks Bookstore and the now-departed Gotham Book Mart.

On the merits of Road Movies and other books in the Soft Skull pipeline, Hicks scored a national deal with the distribution company Consortium. “They were the coolest distributor, they had all these great presses on their label—poetry and left history and sociology and cool, hip, smart books,” Hicks says. “So I got a meeting and told them about some other books that we had planned, including this book with Michael Stipe and friends, called The Haiku Year… and they signed us, so it was like getting signed to a major label deal.” (Stipe would later write a song, “Daysleeper,” about the apartment on East Third Street.)

In 1996, the Soft Skull offices moved from the apartment Mitchell and Hicks shared to a basement at 98 Suffolk St. “When Sander and I broke up, he moved down there and became the super of that building,” Mitchell says, pausing during our late-night phone conversation to dig in her closet for long-forgotten Soft Skull ephemera. “We tried to keep running it out of my apartment and that was a disaster. But he was the super in this building, so he cleaned out the basement and that became the office.”

“Every day was like an episode of a public access show,” recalls Cat Tyc, Soft Skull’s director of publicity from 1998-2001, who worked on titles like Eileen Myles’ Cool For You, William Upski Wimsatt’s No More Prisons and Douglas A. Martin’s Outline of My Lover. “You never knew who was going to walk in, whether it was a Left activist or a famous actor or a writer… and seeing these worlds interact while publicizing these books and making them, it was crazy but it was really exciting. It’s too simplistic to call it punk rock, because beyond music and literature, there was hip-hop culture and activist culture. My job became being a diplomat to all of these worlds because they weren’t worlds that would intersect. But because of Soft Skull, they came together.”

While it was publishing important books, Soft Skull still struggled to make a name for itself outside of Downtown circles. Things changed in late 1999 when St. Martin’s Press recalled Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President, James Hatfield’s biography of Bush, when it came to light that Hatfield was a convicted felon who had been involved in a plot to kill a coworker. In a move that would get Soft Skull tremendous exposure, Hicks decided to publish the book.

“I had heard that St. Martin’s was going to dump Fortunate Son and I ran into Sander at Tonic and said something like, ‘You’ve gotta swoop in and pick it up,’” explains literary agent Jim Fitzgerald, who advised Hicks on the deal. “Then I saw him two days later, and he came running up to me saying, ‘I fucking bought it!’” The struggle through the legal weeds—an experience that proved to be almost fatal to Soft Skull—was documented by filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley in the documentary Horns and Halos.

The duo filmed Hicks, Hatfield and a variety of others for almost two years, following the story—which ended in Hatfield’s death, an alleged suicide in an Arkansas hotel room. (Mitchell declined to appear in the documentary and today says, “For me the real break was when [Hicks] got so focused on publishing that Hatfield book. I thought that was a wrong turn for Soft Skull.”) The film focused on legal issues that left Soft Skull in debt and with a book that wasn’t released before the 2000 election. Galinsky explains, “They put in, without properly vetting it, Hatfield’s response to his past, which could have been libelous because he accused someone else of the crime he was convicted for. The saddest thing about the story is that it had nothing to do with the book, it was just Hatfield’s explanation of his past.” In a 2001 interview, Hicks said, “We should have checked with lawyers before printing Hatfield’s story of his felony. Not that we think it isn’t correct, but the truth doesn’t set you free: The truth gets you in trouble in this country.”

Another problem for Fortunate Son was distribution. Consortium, not interested in dealing with the lawsuits the book seemed likely to attract, begged off, and Soft Skull forged a relationship (and printed a second edition, sans foreword) with Publishers Group West, a middleman between independent publishers and booksellers. “PGW were really impressed with Fortunate Son—they started calling it the little book that could,” Hicks says. “Soft Skull at that point started printing units of 10,000 copies each and they started selling through. And I think that helped create a new era at Soft Skull.” But it would be an era of which Hicks would not be a part.

“I took a leave of absence—I never actually formally resigned or quit—I needed some time after Jim Hatfield committed suicide,” Hicks explains. On Sept. 10, 2001, he moved to his aunt’s house on Long Island, leaving Soft Skull in the hands of Richard Nash, a Harvard-educated former theater director (the two met when Nash directed a version of Hicks’ plays Sealove, Manager) who the Soft Skull board asked to step in as CFO earlier that summer. (Hicks never returned to Soft Skull. He opened Vox Pop, a coffee shop-bookstore-performance space hybrid in Ditmas Park, that closed earlier this year. He’s now in California working as an activist and journalist.)

“The problem with the Sander situation was, I don’t think that he had any one project that was central, at least not in the ’90s,” Nash says. “He was a playwright, he was a punk musician and he was a publisher. He was all three equally. Now that began to change probably as I was getting to collaborate with him, first because of the success of The Haiku Year and then Fortunate Son. And I, at the same time, was working at Oxford University Press, basically for health insurance.”

Working in the permissions department, Nash had little interest in the greater world of publishing, but his friendship with Hicks gave him a chance to talk about the business and a recent divorce gave him the means to sink about $5,000 into Soft Skull. “Sander was so charismatic and everybody else looked to him, and I thought this was kind of cool—which meant I ended up on the board,” Nash says. That year, faced with having no place to work—the management of 98 Suffolk had booted Soft Skull from the basement— Nash, now the press’ publisher after Hicks’ departure, moved the company into Tonic, the Norfolk Street nightclub (“a hub and hangout for avant-garde musicians,” according to the Times) where Goede already operated a bookstore and art-book offshoot of Soft Skull.

Having been laid off by Oxford, Nash— along with Art Director David Janik, Tennessee Jones in sales and marketing and editor Chris Teret—was working full-time at Soft Skull and living off his unemployment benefits. “I was able to work for Soft Skull because, for two years, Soft Skull didn’t have to pay me,” Nash explains. “I had some credit cards that I was able to max out on behalf of Soft Skull. That was more or less the situation, but it looked like things could be getting better.”

When the operation was kicked out of Tonic soon after, Soft Skull moved its entire operation to 71 Bond St. in Boerum Hill. “It was before that area turned into the more yuppie area that it is now, and the bookstore space was all one room,” recalls Kristin Pulkkinen, who worked out of 71 Bond as an intern and eventually became Soft Skull’s publicist. “We had books all in this big book cage, and then all the office desks were just in the back. Everyone was crammed into the store space, and someone would take care of ringing people up whenever they came in.”

Despite becoming something of a clubhouse, hosting parties and establishing Soft Skull as part of the Brooklyn literary scene that also included nearby bookstores Halcyon and BookCourt and Johnny Temple’s Park Slope-based press Akashic, the Bond Street outpost didn’t last long. “It was a horrible space,” says Pulkkinen. “We had no hot water. It was freezing in the wintertime, and we were ready to get a nicer, more normal office space. And we didn’t have enough employees to handle the bookstore and the publishing side, so we got rid of the store and got a great office space, at 55 Washington St. in Dumbo. We were moving up in the world.”

In 2002 and 2003, the company had relative hits with David Rees’ Get Your War On, a popular collection of political comics; Jenny Davidson’s Heredity, the first Soft Skull book reviewed in The New York Times; and Matthew Sharpe’s The Sleeping Father, which was selected for the Today Show book club. But the publisher was still unable to negotiate with creditors. Part of this, Nash says, was due to the ownership structure of the company.

“I was trying to find more professional assistance, and a service that provides business management for a lot of independent presses in New York said they would represent us, but they were like, ‘Well, what’s the situation?’ And when I described it, they said, ‘This is insane. You own 1 percent of the company when effectively you saved it,” Nash says. “We only work for people who own their own business.’ So we came up with a deal that was somewhat contested but eventually agreed upon— tempers flared and subsided—and I ended up having 51 percent of the company.”

Pulkkinen—along with Nash, Jones, Janik and Managing Editor Sarah Groff—transferred Soft Skull to the office in Dumbo, while some of the other players who had worked at the Tonic or the Bond Street locations—including Goede, influential board member Tom Hopkins and editor Shanna Compton—moved on. It was in this office that books like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Tim Wise’s White Like Me were published, and Soft Skull began to re-establish itself as an intelligent, important force in indie publishing. Now settled in Dumbo, the company continued its tradition of releasing radical books on a shoestring—putting out titles like Alain Mabanckou’s African Psycho, Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York and The Amputee’s Guide To Sex.

Anne Horowitz, who began as an intern in 2006 and worked until the final days of Soft Skull in New York, says, “It was pretty chaotic; it was dirty and there were papers almost everywhere. By the time I got there, there was a four-person staff and a bunch of interns. We worked in a communal space, came in at 11 every day, had music on… it was a fun place to work. What made it special was that we really believed in the books that we were publishing and everything we did, we did ourselves. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was typesetting books, proofreading books, copyediting…”

Working for Nash, however, seems to have inspired confidence in employees and authors alike, despite the fact that Soft Skull was still on shaky ground and Nash, as some who worked there recall, would have to sometimes duck authors and vendors who called or stopped in asking about their payments.

“No one was paid properly,” remembers Pulkkinen, who left the company in May 2007. “That had nothing to do with Richard, just the industry and what we were doing. We were all there because there was the opportunity to work in a publishing company where you believe in every single book that’s being put out.”

Still, Soft Skull had loyalists. “If it weren’t for Richard Nash, I might still be an unpublished novelist,” says Jonathan Evison, whose All About Lulu won the 2009 Washington State Book Award. “The problem is that, at most corporate houses, in order to make an acquisition you often have to build a consensus in-house, and that means convincing marketing folks that a book has commercial value. This type of consensus rarely results in risk-taking... This is the beauty of Soft Skull, you’ve got one person making the decision to pull the trigger, and that one person has zero reservations about doing so—and that’s exactly how that book is going to be published, without reservation.”

In December 2006, Advanced Marketing Services, PGW’s parent company, went bankrupt, leaving a number of independent presses—Soft Skull included—in the lurch. It was around this time that Charlie Winton, who founded PGW and owned it until 2002, was in New York and met up with Nash. “Richard was very much in bad shape,” Winton says now. “Soft Skull was not going to make it through.”

Winton had recently brokered a deal for Perseus Books to buy his company Avalon Books and, after that deal was closed, he acquired the Counterpoint imprint from Perseus. At the same time, Perseus also purchased PGW out of bankruptcy. Paying a rumored mid-six figures to acquire Soft Skull, debt and all, Winton moved Nash into the office on West 21st Street.

Stationed in the two rooms that Winton rented for Soft Skull, Nash and Anne Horowitz (who had returned as Nash’s second-in-command) worked solely on acquiring and editing books, while the business side of the operation was handled in California.

“The atmosphere was completely different because it was me and Richard as an outpost. And the fact that two rooms were separate, it didn’t have that communal feeling,” says Horowitz. A source familiar with the company at the time recounts, “Richard wasn’t really given the opportunity to do what he does best. He’s a guy who really knows how to get a book out there, you can see that in the way he gets attention for his own ventures, and when that function was moved to Berkeley, he wasn’t very satisfied that they knew how to connect Soft Skull books to their core audience. It left the company split.”

Nash, however, is proud of how the press functioned under Conterpoint. “Soft Skull did spectacularly well in the first nine to 12 months of being acquired,” he says. “We were doing well across the board. When you have the working capital to put up your books on schedule, you could do pretty well. We did, and it was kind of amazing. It was the best year of sales Soft Skull ever had.”

The charm didn’t last for long. Nash was becoming dissatisfied with what he perceived as Counterpoint’s priorities. “This wasn’t about finding books,” he says, “this was about selling books.”

And some of his authors, used to the cocoon that Soft Skull had built, were put off by the management style Counterpoint brought in. “For a long time, my agent and I wouldn’t even consider a small press because we felt that it was the way to get relegated to low distribution, but Richard really won us over,” says Lydia Millet, who was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2010 for her Soft Skull book Love In Infant Monkeys. “He was so closely involved and such a champion of his authors that the experience was better than anything I had up until then.” Though Millet stayed with Soft Skull for a time after Nash left, she was put off by the way the Counterpoint brass handled her Pulitzer nomination—“I didn’t hear from the folks on the West Coast and I was a little surprised,” she says—and earlier this year left for another, larger, house.

Former Soft Skull employees had also been nervous about the takeover, some citing Winton’s reputation as a cost-cutter above all else. “When Charlie Winton decided to buy Soft Skull, then I knew it was time to go,” says one person who worked there. “I had a feeling that my job wouldn’t be there soon after he took over.”

Meanwhile, Nash withdrew. “Richard became very interested in a type of publishing he didn’t feel was the direction Counterpoint was moving in, as it’s a bit more of a traditional publisher and has a way of doing things,” Horowitz says. “Richard was really interested in experimenting with new ways of reaching readers and I think that’s where his mind was going. I think his interests just diverged from what was being asked of him. It made sense for him to move on.”

In February 2009, Nash resigned. In a statement released then, he said, “2008 was Soft Skull’s best financial year ever, even though just two years ago, prior to Soft Skull’s merger with Counterpoint, it was weeks from liquidation. Along with Soft Skull’s writers and readers, I am immensely grateful for the reprieve and the boost that Counterpoint gave us… I now feel it is time to let Soft Skull move onto the next phase of its existence, and to allow me to take on the new challenges our industry is facing.” These days Nash is running Cursor, a group of social publishing communities that he describes as “a platform that can power independent publishing for the next century.”

In April 2009, Winton hired Denise Oswald to become editorial director of Soft Skull Press. A former editor at upmarket publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where she worked on Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards’ Manifesta and Dirty Blonde, Courtney Love’s diaries, Oswald came to Soft Skull with the skill set of someone used to working in a proper publishing house but a sensibility firmly in line with that of Soft Skull. “She has a great flare for subculture,” says Horowitz. “She really continued what Soft Skull was doing in a very cool way.”

During her tenure, Oswald published books like Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby and Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex, and added playwrights like Neil LaBute to the press’ list.

“The first book I acquired was a book about roller derby, and even Richard said that it was something I could do for Soft Skull that he never could,” Oswald says. “It was about identifying and speaking to what has been for quite some time an important subculture, that’s what I was starting to bring to the list. And also a slightly more literary quality to the writing that was also still nervy and chancy and aggressive.”

And even though she’s out of a job after only a year and a half, Oswald looks at what she’s done as furthering the Soft Skull cause. “I’ve always been interested in taking on the intersection of politics, social justice and popular culture and that’s been a through line through my entire career,” she says. “I’ve been here for a year and a half, so I’m just starting to bring things on and have them published, but in the first year I was here, we had two Pulitzer finalists and we’ve never had a showing in a big award like that. So I feel like part of my legacy is actually letting Soft Skull sit at the big kids’ table.”

It hasn’t been enough. In early October, Counterpoint announced that it would be shutting down the New York branch of Soft Skull. The office would be closed, Oswald and Horowitz would tie up their loose ends and leave and Soft Skull—which had found a way to survive in New York City for 18 years— would move into Counterpoint’s offices in the Bay Area.

“It was a really hard decision for me,” Charlie Winton says. “It was really a function of… the cost of the office relative to the pressures that we’re under here. From my point of view, when I started this entity in the spring and summer of 2007, I had a general notion about what we would be and how we could be that based on the economic environment that existed at that time. I did not have a crystal ball and couldn’t see what was coming down the highway, and the tremendous economic downturn that took place really started to manifest itself on the book business. And so, from my point of view, for Counterpoint, really the last year has been about trying to find our balance all through this—I’m essentially creating a new company.”

It’s a company that might not look the same. On Oct. 19, an email went out from a general Soft Skull email address informing recipients that, “We cannot consider unsolicited fiction submissions unless they are represented by a literary agent,” and “We are unfortunately unable to consider poetry, childrens' books or genre fiction.”

Nash considers this to be a fatal flaw in Counterpoint’s plan. “The critical thing with Soft Skull is that we accepted unsolicited submissions,” he says. “What is a Soft Skull book isn’t decided, was never decided, by me, and it wasn’t being decided by Denise Oswald, and it won’t be decided by [Counterpoint]. What a Soft Skull book is, is another thing being decided by the readers. And if you’re not out there among them, you can’t find out what they want. Soft Skull’s always been larger than the people in charge of it. And to the extent that the people in charge of it have ever done a good job, it’s because we listened.”

In a way, however, Soft Skull leaving New York makes perfect sense. After all, the New York that fostered Soft Skull—the one that made room for punk rock poets, nightclubs like Tonic and copy shops where smart, bored kids could bind books and sell them out of their East Village apartment—isn’t the New York that we live in anymore. As sad as it is to see Soft Skull go, maybe, like many punks before it, Soft Skull will find a later life in California to be restorative and inspiring— and it won’t have to deal with the almost unrecognizable face of its native Manhattan.

“I’m guessing what’s the most likely outcome is that Soft Skull will be an inspiration rather than an institution,” says Nash. “And that may have always been the case. That may have been the case since 2001, in some sense. Sander and I had our differences, but that act of bringing into being something out of nothing in that Kinko’s is the seminal act. If Soft Skull is meant to continue, somehow or another it will.”

“New York’s changed a lot and Berkley’s not a bad place to be,” muses Susan Mitchell, the press’ founder who escaped New York herself. “It’s not like it’s going to some other place that isn’t as potentially cool, it’s just the expense… It’s ridiculous that Soft Skull is even still around. Because of how we started it, I never would have thought—and there have been so many people behind it over the years that have kept it going… It’s amazing. It’s amazing that it lived for almost 20 years.”