Interview: Sander Hicks of Soft Skull Press

words by Douglas Novielli and Jackson Ellis | photo by Douglas Novielli
| Saturday, November 17th, 2001

Sander and JacksonOriginally published in Verbicide issue #4

On June 23 and 24, 2001, Scissor Press attended the Underground Publishing Convention in Bowling Green, Ohio. Our booth happened to be situated next to the table for Soft Skull Press, a radical (and very successful) political-science/punk rock publishing company based out of New York City. We got to talking with Soft Skull founder and CEO, Sander Hicks, and decided to do an interview. The discussion that follows covers many topics. We were able to unearth quite a bit of information about the workings of Soft Skull, alternative press, and many interesting political philosophies. -Douglas Novielli

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Jackson Ellis: Who is involved with running Soft Skull, and how did guys get started?
I’m the biggest shareholder and but there is also a board of directors who are also shareholders and mostly friends of mine or people that I’ve met in the last 10 years of my life in New York City, people that I think are the best minds of my generation…people that I think are the best people to run an independent, radical publishing company — and we’re radical, but we’re not a partisan group, we’re not doctrinaire —

Jackson: And you’re definitely not anarchists.
And we’re definitely not anarchists! But I think what we’re finding this weekend…I don’t think the best minds of society are being attracted to either anarchism or a partisan left socialism these days. I think you’re finding a lot of mediocrity, conformity, and rote thinking, rather than a certain spirit of intellectual firepower, and belief, and a great powerful rationality. You’re just not finding these things in these so-called “radical” groups, so I’m personally feeling a little bit on edge this morning, especially after the panel on ostracism. We had a short question-and-answer period after these panelists had an hour-long talk about their own personal anecdotes of kicking crazy people out of their little anarchist groups, and it got me thinking, Is ostracism justice? How do you actually create justice in a radical community? One of the formative things in my political life in the past couple years is that I’ve been kicked out of the ISO, and I feel like the process was really unjust and was not even following their own stated processes in their handbook.

Back to the question about who Soft Skull is, Nick Mamatas and I are both ex-ISO people — he’s actually been kicked out twice — and he’s twice as smart as I am, but he doesn’t have half the people skill, so “HA.” [laughter]

Jackson: Are you a writer yourself?
Yeah, I wrote this book (holds up a book). The Breaking Manager. It’s a book of plays.

Douglas Novielli: How does that work, publishing your own book through your own company?
It’s fine, you just have to get other editors to edit it, and copy editors—

Douglas: And you have a separate contract?
Oh, no, I didn’t write myself a contract, and I haven’t paid myself any royalties out of this book.

Jackson: Why the name “Soft Skull?”
That was just a whimsical thing that I think is good for the press because it always keeps us on-edge against bourgeois, safe moors. It will always keep us a little weirder, a little bit stranger, a little bit more “punk” than the establishment. And I think it’s good because it’s developed it’s own connotation; it’s getting to be well known. It’s distinct.

Jackson: What type of literature and writing do you publish? Is it all strictly political and punk-related, or does it cover more territory?
The first factor is “quality.” I feel that we publish the best literature; I think that Todd Colby is one of the best poets in America today. Eileen Myles’ novel [Cool For You] I think is high literature because it’s raw, and rugged, and non-linear. I think William Upski Wimsatt’s political science is incredible news, street-leftism — especially No More Prisons. Sometimes the quality of the literature, though, is not the first question — it has to be good quality, but in the case of Fortunate Son [by J.H. Hatfield], it was just a good, critical biography of [George W.] Bush that was not necessarily written from a leftist perspective, but it was a book that was being killed by a larger press, so I felt we had to step in and re-publish it for the sake of American democracy and the election year, and for information flow. But when people ask me for the summary of what we publish, it’s punk rock, hip-hop, new left, street-left, political science…

Jackson: So what is your distribution like? I know you’re an “alternative” to the mainstream media, but are you reaching a large enough audience so that the message your writers and perhaps that you yourself are trying to get out is being heard, or at least getting the opportunity to be heard?
See, that’s another thing. I went to another panel today where Onward Newspaper was speaking — they’re an anarchist newspaper — and I don’t think they’re building a business model that will last. They seem to say that rather than concentrating on mainstream distribution, or distribution at all, they just like to send their newspaper to anarchist bookstores, and anarchist group houses. I think that’s hermetic, and irresponsible.

Jackson: Yeah, it’s not getting out; it’s not reaching new people and being seen by those who should be seeing it.
Exactly. So at this conference [Soft Skull] are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Our gross U.S. sales to the trade in 2000 were about a half-million.

Jackson: Wow.
Yeah. And our returns were really heavy. Two-thirds of the shipment out of that gross sale of Fortunate Son, which was the big bestseller, came back, because there were problems with publicity, and part of that orchestrated backlash in media and in the campaign.

Jackson: About how many books has Soft Skull published to date?
I think we’ve done about 65.

Jackson: How long has the press been around?
In 1992 I started making books in the back of a Kinko’s, and in 1996 I incorporated it with business partners.

Jackson: Do you receive a lot of submissions? Do you have to turn a lot of people away?
We turn most of the submissions away. They’re called “slush.” They’re unsolicited submissions. But that’s not really an important part of business.

Jackson: So what are you specifically looking for when you get a book submitted?
What I’m saying is it’s not an important part of business because not a lot of the books we acquire come from unsolicited submissions. A lot of times we go out and get the books that we publish, a lot of time we work with agents who do the same thing. One thing that’s been good for the company has been the Internet, not only for e-commerce, but it’s also really great for providing information about what you’re looking for, so instead of getting books about ponies or talking horses and young girls, we’re getting stuff that’s similar to what we’ve already done. We’ve effectively refined the “slush” in some ways. Nick Mamatas, my right-hand man, recently said, “We used to get a lot of crap that’s not in our genre. Now we get a lot of crap that is in our genre.” [laughter]

Jackson: About the Internet, someone actually referred me to your website about a week and a half ago, and that was the first time I heard about Soft Skull, and I loved it. Is that a site that you run yourself?
No. I don’t do anything myself, I’m the CEO. I know how to delegate, how to work with people, how to build teams. The website is hosted by a company called Somersault, and we’ve been with them for a long time. We’ve worked with different design teams over the years, and right now we’re working with this guy, Tom Hopkins, who’s also a part of the Soft Skull board, and he’s put together an awesome redesign, launching on June 30th. We’re really excited.

Jackson: How are the sales over the ‘net? Is that your biggest market?
Well, no, because our gross sales on the web in 2000 were 29,500, while gross sales through the U.S. trade were about a half million. If you add it all up we were about a $600,000 company last year, most because of trade. But I actually don’t think this year is going to be as good, especially because the web is still building and the trade sales are significantly lower.

Jackson: Did you feel any kind of loss with the “dot com” business crash?
Sure, it’s all related, in this economy when the sheep start going over the cliff, they all start going over the cliff. In a lot of ways we worship nothing but illusions in this economy and in this culture, and it’s sad.

Douglas: As an era, or collective generation of writers, what do you think is the most promising thing about contemporary fiction?
I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Pinkney Benedict…I personally like clarity, when things come into focus…when things move in a kind of “sinewy” muscularity.

Douglas: How about in terms of style and delivery?
I’m not really qualified to comment on fiction, it’s not where the press is going. We’ve been doing a lot more political science recently, and those are the books I’m most excited about.

Jackson: You mentioned one poet before, Todd Colby. Who else do you think will someday be looked at as one of the most influential writers of this era, and is there a cohesive group of writers?
I’ve always wanted to create a “group identity” for our writers, but like Todd Colby has always said, it’s artificial to superimpose a group identity. But I do think Todd is going to be in the canon some day…I think Upsky is going to be there as a political thinker. John S. Hall went to law school, and I don’t think he’s pursuing writing any more, which is sad…I think Eileen Myles is incredible.

Jackson: How about your latest book, Dance of Days. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
The book was 10 years in the making. Originally [co-author Mark Andersen] was gonna bring it out in 1992 on AK Press, but he felt that punk rock was getting too trendy, so he took it away from them — which is good, because its gotten a lot better. Mark Jenkins, a rock and film critic/writer in D.C. edited it chapter-by-chapter, and they cleaned it up significantly.

Mark Andersen is an activist and someone who finds a lot of meaning in punk rock…one of these people that says “punk rock saved my life.” It’s kind of interesting because he’s not necessarily a “writer” first and foremost; he’s someone who wanted to just get the information down. This, of course, means he’s not the most disciplined writer, but I’m glad it’s finally out. It’s well-written and well-edited at this point.

Douglas: Why is it important to have an alternative press?
Because the corporate media is full of cowards. Corporate media doesn’t encourage risk or adventure…they’re they opposite of us, in a lot of ways. A producer at “60 Minutes” who I was admonishing for screwing us, he retorted that “it’s not the media’s job to be critical” — which in some ways I understand, because it’s not our job to pontificate or editorialize about our own political opinions. But it’s irresponsible to not keep your eyes open.

I think the story in this country that media is missing is an oligarchy that just stole an election; since about 1980 there has been a big conservative backlash that we all need to fight against, and if you want to debate whether or not there are merits to certain planks in the conservative political philosophy I would grant that, but at the same time the actual political practices of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush I and II are deathly. They give everything to big business; they preach this “Wall Street Journal heritage foundation” theory of laissez-faire capitalism; they’re doing it now on a global scale…they need to be stopped. Which is why it frustrates me to see such a pseudo-anarchist gathering.

Douglas: I want to get back to what you said about the media being cowards: is it the media’s fault or are they responding to the general public? It’s granted that the media has to get ratings; they have to sell themselves because they’re businesses, too. Are they providing the customers with what they want, or are they telling them what they should want?
“The public wants what the public gets,” in the words of The Jam, so I don’t think the media is necessarily answering to a market-demand. The market shouldn’t dictate what the media reports in the first place. The media should support the truth and should investigate the truth.

In a lot of ways the conservative argument would be that people are dysfunctional, lazy fuck-ups. If that’s true, then you can’t argue for a free market in the media because that means the free market is not actually supporting real value. At the same time, I’m also very cognizant of the market forces in the way I run Soft Skull and I want to create a market, and answer to a market, and be responsible to that market, and achieve profitability on our titles.

Douglas: Do you think there’s any room for conservatism in underground/grassroots political movements?
I think maybe the answer is “no” because there is such a prevalence of conservatism in the ruling class. Now are you talking about libertarianism, or conservatism?

Douglas: I guess I’m talking about libertarianism.
My personal experience is that libertarians are conservatives that want to be hip. They’re usually rich, Upper East Side conservatives that come from wealth, but they want to have an anarchistic edge to their politics, so instead of saying “I’m conservative,” and therefore being in the camp of the aristocracy and power-elite, they say “I’m libertarian,” which means I believe in the free market, and Milton Friedman, and all these things that have a veneer of underground.

Libertarianism is interesting, but it really is in the interest of big business. A “free market” means that capital dominates the people, and that’s why have regulated capitalism, and minimum wage, and certain social services.

Douglas: Can literature, art, and music save the world?
No. Politics and philosophy can save the world, blended with a new spirituality…there has to a major seismic shift in consciousness. It can’t be dictated from above by a revolutionary elite, it has to come from below, from the people. But at the same time it has to involve a lot of discipline and hard work, and it’s not going to happen overnight. I think art, literature, and music are a big part of spreading the message, and should be in the interests of deeper principles.

Jackson: What do you think has a better chance of happening: politics and philosophy saving the world, or destroying the world?
I think it’s already destroyed the world in a lot of ways. Philosophy only comes into the picture after politics have caused destruction, but we need philosophy to lead the way, rather than coming into the picture “in the twilight.” I’m really into a left that learns from it’s mistakes in the 20th century.

Jackson: What do you find is the most rewarding part of what you do?
Daily life; working with people that I like. Working at Soft Skull means that we have a team of good people. I’ve achieved something that I’ve always dreamed of having, which is a job that I love. I want to run a company in which everyone believes in what their doing. My job is to make sure everyone is doing work that is meaningful — it’s not always fun or entertaining, but nobody there expects it to always be fun. It’s a very positive workplace.

Jackson: Last question: what is the best advice you can offer to aspiring publishers?
It’s a great business if you’re willing to do what you love, but not necessarily get paid. It’s tough; it’s a long haul. You have to think of yourself as a defender of freedom, and the life of the mind. You need a lot of intellectual integrity. You need to be a radical, but you also need to understand the care that one needs to be a good editor. You can’t have any opinion that’s not based in fact, or at least in theory. Theory is tricky, because a lot of people think opinion is theory, and it’s not. Theory is derived from evidence, while an opinion is just anything you can say. It’s intellectually irresponsible to throw around opinions.

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