TDR Interview: Richard Nash

Nathaniel G. Moore interviewed Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull Press both in his home base and store in Brooklyn and at a Soft Skull preview show in Manhattan in 2003. Soft Skull press’s current digs doubles as a bookstore, where the press sells, among other titles, Soft Skull’s latest and some Canadian small press titles as well (Conundrum). For larger readings and to attract a bigger cliental not restricted to Brooklyn, the press puts on preview shows at the Bowery Poetry Club in the Lower East Side. This small press in New York can have a first print run of 20,000 copies.

NGM: When did Soft Skull Press get its beginnings?

Richard Nash: Soft Skull was actually started by Sander Hicks and Susan Mitchell in 1993. During the graveyard shift at a Kinko's in downtown Manhattan! It was run very DIY for a few years, until they incorporated in 1996. I came on in an advisory capacity in 1999, and took over the company in mid-2001 after Sander Hicks took a leave-of-absence which became permanent.

NGM: What attracts an author to Soft Skull and vice versa?

Nash: More than anything else, I think people like that we're able to get a lot of publicity for their books. Although we're political, there are other political presses out there, but I think we've found ways to get more attention for our books, certainly more so than most presses our size. Rarely would someone forgo lots of money for us (although it has happened); but if you’re going to work with an indie press, they know we’ll take care of them.

Us to them? In one respect the answer is much the same. If someone is coming to us because they know we can push their book, we know that means they'll help us push their book. It’s very much a partnership that we have with our authors and so we both embrace the idea that books don't jump off the shelves by their own accord. What I guess we look for in poetry is a voice that seeks a broader audience that the usual poetry suspects, a voice that incorporates all of culture, high and low, and is not afraid to employ subject matter other than flowers and relationships. Our graphic novels tend to be actually political non-fiction (Get Your War On, Portraits of Israelis and Palestinians), but we've also done regular graphic novels, one by a guy named Nate Powell. That we published just cause it was lovely and he wasn’t under contract.

In non-fiction, we look for pop culture with a political edge, and political non-fiction that is popular. Not shallow pop, mind you, but popular in the sense of actually trying to move an audience. Out political non-fiction writers are not afraid of the first-person voice and of anecdote. Finally in fiction. That's the most difficult to summarize, but we do look for novels that are ambitious, surly, rooted in some way in actual social circumstances even if those circumstances are transformed by the writing process into more surreal happenings.

NGM: You recently acquired the rights to ‘The Pornographer’s Poem’ by Michael Turner, one of my favourite Canadian novels. What appealed to you about this project?

Nash: It came to us from his agent Hilary McMahon at Westwood Creative. I’d not heard of his other work, though Martha Sharpe from House of Anansi just sent me a copy of her two Hard Core Logo tie-in books. What had happened is that John Geiger had contacted us about doing the US edition of his Gutter Press book Chapel of Extreme Experience.

We agreed to do it, then he put me in touch with Hilary McMahon his agent. I asked if her she had anything else I should know about and she sent me The Pornographers Poem. I just couldn't believe it. It was certainly one of the best novels I had ever read. Period. And here it was, being offered to me to publish! I showed it to my Marketing Director, Tennessee Jones, formerly a woman now undergoing gender transition. Tennessee’s reaction was that it was the best depiction of adolescent sexuality s/he had ever read. If I, a conventional straight guy, and Tennessee both had that reaction (and he's a tough critic), we knew we had to do it. So we’re going to publish it the way it should have been published two years ago. All guns blazin’! If we can get the funding, we want to take him all over the US. Really, this novel's brilliance exceeds that of most of all the hot-shot authors in the United States right now. I would definitely want to bring him to Book Expo America and get him to meet all the arbiters of literary taste and make them confront the astonishing reality of this book.

NGM: Any other Canadian authors you enjoy?

Nash: I only get to read the books that get submitted to me! I've no time to read anything other than for the purpose of deciding whether or not to publish it. So, without giving too much away, I like Derek McCormack too.

NGM: Beyond the website, special orders and the bookstore itself, are there any international book fairs you participate in?

Nash: Soft Skull is distributed in the US by Publishers Group West and in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, both of whom do a wonderful job in the book trade. But in terms of generating the publicity that gets those books sold, it’s just relentless hustle. We try to approach publicity from as many angles as possible. Certain publishers, either because of money, or prestige, can get publicity placements, everything we get we pretty much have to fight for. So to improve our chances, we pursue many different avenues. This often means that with poetry and fiction, we’re often trying to sell them based on their content. So we do a book of poems centering around horror movies and we get a blurb from Roger Corman and we pitch it to lots of film magazines and quarterlies. We do a novel that deals in some measure with psychopharmacology and we're sending copies to SEED and NATURE. Events are a big part of it too, because newspapers need something to be news, and an event is news. So we do events. In September and October alone we’re having 25 authors do over 100 events in 30 cities in the US and Canada.

For more information on Soft Skull Press visit

Nathaniel G. Moore lives in Montréal but grew up on the streets of East York. With "Randy Savage’s Moustache" he committed ‘Career Suicide!’ (DC Books, 2003) More info visit Notho Entertainment.