Ownership of the storied publisher Soft Skull has changed hands several times since it was founded in the early 1990s, but it has consistently published forward-thinking literature with an edge. Some of their titles include Eileen Myles’s Cool for You, Lydia Millet’s Pulitzer Prize finalist Love in Infant Monkeys, Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, and Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy. The press was recently acquired by the publisher of Catapult, and has a new Editor-in-Chief in Yuka Igarashi. We talked to Igarashi about the direction of the press, the editing process, and what types of books she’d like to see in the submission queue.
Soft Skull has been through several iterations. Can you talk about the press’s storied history and what direction it is going in now?
Igarashi: Soft Skull Press was founded in 1992 in New York when a student and punk musician named Sander Hicks started photocopying his writing and distributing it to friends. It published books that other publishers wouldn’t (most famously, in 2000, a biography of George W. Bush that was dropped by a major publisher); books by Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, Lydia Millet, and Alain Mabanckou before they were “names”; artists who worked across disciplines (one of its earliest releases was a book of prose and photography with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth); and alternative voices in everything from parenting to sexuality to religion.
In twenty-five years, it’s changed owners multiple times, fought legal battles and financial hardship, moved from Manhattan to different parts of Brooklyn to Berkeley, California, and now back to Manhattan. It’s survived due to enormous amounts of resourcefulness and passion by its editors—after Sander Hicks there was Richard Nash, Anne Horowitz, Denise Oswald, Jack Shoemaker, and Dan Smetanka, to name a few—and also, I think, because of a devoted community of readers and writers and believers and fans that have kept it alive.
I was one of those fans of Soft Skull, and in the early 2000s when I was in college and just out of college the press put out a lot of books that were important to me. Even beyond individual books, the fact that it existed at all was so exciting, revelatory. In those years, I was listening to bands that were on small labels, going to hear them at DIY venues, but it wasn’t until I encountered Soft Skull that I connected that kind of music scene with something equivalent happening in books. It helped me see that literature was being created right now, and that I could participate—that there didn’t need to be a separation between the people making art and the “consumers” of that art. So I want Soft Skull to keep publishing books no one else will, and to find the next Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson, and to be a home for cross-disciplinary conversation and new perspectives. I also I want it to keep representing what it represented to me—a real community and a refuge from the mainstream “top-down” model of cultural consumption.
You edited Catapult’s website, and previously edited for Granta magazine. How different is the process of editing books from editing stories and essays?
Igarashi: Books take longer. With Granta, which was a quarterly, I’d commission pieces maybe eight months in advance at most. Catapult was a daily so I’d be working a month out on average. Whereas the first manuscript I acquired for Soft Skull, Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin, was something I read in 2015. I knew pretty much immediately I wanted to publish it; it came out two years later, in 2017.
Fundamentally, though, I think editing is editing. It’s important to consider big picture ideas and structure, but in the end both the writer and editor have to go sentence by sentence. I don’t know anything about music production, but sometimes I think of editing as similar to tweaking sound levels on a recording, bringing out certain parts. That’s the same whether you’re working on a short story or a long essay or a book.
Publishing to me is also so much about creative approaches to framing and packaging—what you dress the book in when it goes out into the world. With books this is a big collaborative effort across the production, publicity, marketing, and sales teams, and when you’re working with talented people who share a vision, the process is a great joy. We’re lucky to have Michael Salu as our art director. He’s unlike anyone else working in books right now and he’s defining Soft Skull’s aesthetic through his covers and his visual ideas.
Then there’s the larger curatorial intent. It’s not only about the individual work but about putting writers, and pieces of writing, in conversation with each other. Probably because I got my start in literary magazines, I think about this constantly for Soft Skull—how the books speak to one another and what they add up to as a set. That’s why we’re doing the Soft Skull Book Club, inviting readers to read all our books over the span of a year. You can, of course, enjoy each of our books on its own, and we treat each as its own singular work, but we’re also building a list for a reader who’ll know us long-term. To continue the music analogy, we’re making a giant yearlong mixtape that we’ll send to your house (for super cheap!!) in monthly-ish installments.
Soft Skull, Counterpoint, Catapult, and Black Balloon Press are all owned by the same publisher. How do you decide if a book is a Soft Skull book instead of a book for another imprint? Do manuscripts submitted to one imprint ever get considered for another one?
Igarashi: We have one editorial meeting for Catapult and Soft Skull, so every editor is always aware of what others are getting in and reading, and we do often pass things between one another and to Counterpoint, too. Black Balloon plays with genre and mixes media (shout-out to Tiny Crimes) so we’ve definitely discussed between us where particular books belong. So far, every project has intuitively found its right home and right editor. Colin Winnette’s The Job of the Wasp, out this month, is an example of a book that got submitted first to a Catapult editor and is now a Soft Skull book. I had asked to see it after hearing about it from my colleague in a meeting, because it sounded like something I would like. And it was.
Does Soft Skull accept unagented submissions?
Igarashi: We do. We have published, or are publishing, several books by unagented writers—both by writers who didn’t have agents when we signed their books but who subsequently got agents, and by writers who don’t have agents at all. We have an open submissions period twice a year.
What is the most common mistake you see in submitted manuscripts?
Igarashi: Not being familiar with the press you’re submitting to. I know that’s the common answer but it is the most common mistake. To an editor, it’s instantaneously obvious when you receive a submission if a writer or agent has sent it scattershot to a bunch of different places. On the flip side, it’s so abundantly clear, and gratifying, when the submitter is a reader and fan who is interested in the press’s point of view.
What type of manuscripts would you like to see more of?
Igarashi: I always love reading something funny. I don’t mean everything needs to be a slapstick comedy or full of jokes. To me, though, “funny” means the writing has a degree of self-awareness, and has kept its audience in mind. It’s the extra step beyond having something to say. Can you say it in a way that surprises or delights or challenges a reader?
I also tend to like short intense books. This isn’t so much about actual word count; it’s about density and compression. That can be achieved even with a long novel. A. M. Homes has written these amazing epic novels that to me feel as intense as a short story. She once said to me something like: If life is grape juice a novel has to be wine. Here’s the quote: “If I’m going to ask people to stop living their lives and pay attention to my book, it needs to be a condensed version of life . . . If I spend seven years writing something I really hope it’s not grape juice.”