Cobalt: Tell us a little about Soho Press. How did you get started? What do you publish, in a nutshell?
Bronwen Hruska: The idea for Soho Press was conceived in a bar in Soho in the mid 80s (which I think pretty much set the tone for Soho’s personality, come to think of it). My mother and father, Laura and Alan Hruska and their good friends Dial Press editor Juris Jurjevics and novelist Laurie Colwin, were bemoaning the state of publishing. Big houses weren’t willing to take a chance on debut novelists and there were so many great novels out there that simply weren’t seeing the light of day (sound familiar?). By the end of that evening the decision had been made. My mother and Juris would head an independent publishing company that would accept unsolicited manuscripts (as well as agented ones), and publish books they loved. The idea was that if they loved the books, someone else out there would, too.
While Soho started as a publisher of literary fiction, by 1991 they had added a new imprint, Soho Crime, which specialized in exotic crime fiction. All the books in the Soho Crime imprint (with very few exceptions) are set outside the US and feature a protagonist that is, at least partially, of that culture. This was long before the concept of “international crime fiction” existed, and fans of the genre became lifelong fans of Soho Crime, going into bookstores looking for the branded Soho Crime spine and buying up whatever they could find. While I have the floor, a big thank you to the devoted Soho Crime lovers out there! They’ve made it possible to expand the imprint dramatically over the years, and to great success: the Nina Borg series, set in Denmark, being our most famous to date (The Boy in the Suitcase hit #6 on the New York Times combined bestseller list recently, and has remained on the list for three weeks running).
The success of Soho Crime has become an identifying feature of Soho Press’ program, but the literary fiction that the press was founded on is still doing amazing things. Our 2012 LA Times Book Prize-winner, Luminarium, by Alex Shakar, is a great example of the surprising and ambitious fiction we’re publishing at Soho.
Our third and newest imprint, Soho Teen, launched in January of this year. The line offers mystery and thrillers for the high school set (and beyond). There isn’t another YA publisher dedicated to the genre, which is so popular among teens. That said, our Teen books fall into many categories—fantasy, dystopia, supernatural, historical, contemporary—each story has a mystery or thriller element at its heart. Soho has never attempted Young Adult before, and doing so posed a variety of new and exciting challenges. Nabbing YA veteran Daniel Ehrenhaft to acquire and edit was a big coup.
I guess one thing that sets us apart is our dedication to our authors. Not only do we love our authors, we are authors—three of the eleven full-time employees at the company are published novelists and yet more have had short fiction published. It always floors me when I hear about the way some publishers treat their authors. Bottom line, we couldn’t do what we do without our authors. So starting with a fair contract is key, and making sure our authors are happy and involved throughout the publishing process is paramount. I’m proud that Soho is such an author-friendly house. I guess the litmus test is whether I’d want to be published by us, and the answer is a resounding yes.
Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts that you publish, and how many of your authors are previously unpublished (no prior books, that is)? How many manuscripts are taken out of the slush pile, or is there a slush pile
Hruska: The big houses are more wary than ever of signing authors with a lack of sales history (ie debut novelists), but they’re also wary of the midlist author with low sales history. Since we’re not offering six figure advances, what we tend to see are books big houses have passed on for any number of reasons. And there are so many talented authors with wonderful books that are being passed on. We edit. And we market. We need to work very hard and find creative ways of breaking out a new author, or breaking out of a bad sales track. It just goes with the territory. If we love a book (and being the size we are we won’t publish a book we don’t love), the challenge is fun and gratifying.
In terms of how manuscripts come to us, there’s no easy answer. Yes, we get many submissions from agents. The most successful submissions are from agents who have a real understanding of what we do and where our tastes lie.
For example, if agents are paying attention, they’ve noticed that over the past few years Soho has put a huge emphasis on our literary fiction imprint. We’ve tried to shine a light on the new, bold, voice-driven direction our literary fiction imprint has taken. So if an agent sends us commercial chick lit, I know they haven’t done their homework. Likewise for agents who send us mysteries set in Wisconsin. It doesn’t matter how literary the mystery is, it’s just not what we do (unless you can make a great argument for a fascinating pocket of exotic crime activity in Wisconsin). We do have a slush pile (recently we’ve narrowed it to literary fiction slush only) that produced one of our big successes of 2012: That’s Not A Feeling, by Dan Josefson (NYT Editors’ Choice, Booklist Editors’ Choice, Barnes and Noble Discover New Voices selection). So we definitely pay attention to our slush.
And then there’s the moment when the stars align and it just happens. Case in point: We just bought an amazing novel by Dylan Landis, which came to us because I met Judith Freeman, who was moderating a panel I was on at the LA Times Festival of Books. She asked if she could refer writers our way, and a few days later Dylan’s agent got in touch. Kismet.
For the record: One thing I’m not so crazy about is when people I don’t know send me manuscripts via Facebook. Yeah, don’t do it.
Cobalt: Let’s suppose that you’ve just read a manuscript, love it, and are making that phone call (or sending that email/letter) to the author. How does that conversation typically go?
Hruska: It depends. Sometimes we’ll love a book but know that it needs a big edit. Or we love a book but have a few very specific changes we’d want the author to make. I like the editor to get on the phone with the author to talk it through, to see if the author is amenable. Because if not, no one will be happy with the process. Sometimes an author is deciding between a few houses and wants to hear the editor’s thoughts, notes, comments and level of enthusiasm. I’d say in about half the cases there’s a “pre-offer” conversation with the author.
But once we’ve made the decision to offer on a book, the book’s editor has the happy task of saying yes to the author or agent. The nature of the beast, unfortunately, is that there are so many no’s in our business that we have to revel in the yesses. That first phone call is the beginning of a long, close working relationship between author and editor.
Cobalt: You began with Soho in 2008, and quickly moved into the role of publisher in 2010. What were you doing initially, and what made you want to take over?
Hruska: The first twenty years of my career were dedicated to writing. I worked as a journalist and screenwriter and sold movies and television pilots to studios and networks (and in true Hollywood form, nothing was produced). I had started a novel (Accelerated, which was published last year by Pegasus Books) when I started Soho in 2008. To come clean, I never intended to get into publishing. But when my mother got sick in 2008 with a recurrence of breast cancer, I had a decision to make. Juris had already left the company to become a full-time novelist, and my mother asked if I wanted to come to Soho with an eye toward taking it over. I won’t lie. I had to think about it.
But I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime offer, and I would have been an idiot to say no. I said yes. Then I spent a very humbling couple of years trying to figure out what this publishing business was all about. Oh, and I had to figure out how to run a company, which I had never done. I felt like I was 21 in my first job out of college. Clueless… and working with my mother. But the more I understood about the business, and about the company, the more I loved it. And when the moment came for me to step into the role of publisher, I was, if not ready, more ready. My mother trained me well, and I still hear her voice in my head (“Always pay the printer first!”).
And I love Soho. As soon as I figured out some things and was able to take some ownership, I was hooked. At first I thought that my lack of inside publishing knowledge would hurt me—that I’d never fully catch up. But I don’t worry about that anymore. I mean, it’s true, I have holes in my knowledge of publishing. I don’t know all the players. I didn’t dance on bars with them at The Union Square Café in the ‘80s. But I also have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective and don’t feel married to Old School ways that just don’t seem to make sense anymore.
Also, coming into publishing in 2008, right when ebooks were surfacing, put me neck and neck with everyone else trying to figure out how to shift and bend and yield to something totally new. And in fact, I find that I’m less scared than some other publishers when it comes to digital books. It really is a huge period of opportunity. People are buying more books (and hopefully reading more books!), and that’s a good thing for everyone. Are there potential pitfalls and question marks all over the place? Of course. But it’s one step at a time, and the beauty of being a lean independent press is that we can be exceptionally agile. We can, and do, try new approaches, just to see what works. And then we change them, because what worked three months ago might not work next week. Things are moving fast. It’s a constant challenge to figure out what’s next and how to capitalize on the many opportunities out there. But really, that’s what keeps it fun.
The past five years have been incredible, and I’m truly lucky to be able to work with such a creative, intelligent and energetic group of people. Coming to work every day is a pleasure, and that’s not something many people can (honestly) say.
Cobalt: Are there any challenges specific to the types of work that Soho publishes?
Hruska: Literary fiction is hard. Debut literary fiction is harder. Mid-list literary fiction is harder still. So yeah, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Finding the books for our list is only the beginning. Convincing readers to take a chance on a hardcover book by an author they haven’t read is the biggest challenge. Building awareness of Soho’s literary titles has been a labor of love, and I think our Herculean efforts are paying off. I see our books out there in the world more than ever (a nod of thanks here to Random House, our distributor of the past two-and-a-half years). We’re getting great review attention and award nominations. It seems like we’re constantly on the road at trade shows to get galleys into the hands of librarians and booksellers, speaking on panels and talking up the books to whoever will listen. Over the past few years Soho’s marketing and publicity department has grown from two people to five, which has made a huge difference in terms of our ability to raise awareness for our books.
Cobalt: This year seems to be going quite well for Soho. Matt Bell’s IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS (I am always happy when I can nail that without double-checking!) and Christopher Hacker’s THE MORELS have both gotten a lot of recognition this year, and I can’t go anywhere without seeing at least one of those books. Both phenomenal. I have read Bell’s twice, and just finished Hacker’s. Do you see even bigger things in Soho’s future? What might that look like?
Hruska: I’m so glad you’re seeing the books in stores. That’s the first step! The two you mention have been very well received. In addition to overwhelming critical praise, Matt Bell’s novel (we refer to it as In the House at Soho, or even ITH!) was also an indie bookstore gem, with an IndieNext pick as well as an Indiespensible selection going out to 1700 Powell’s subscribers, which was very exciting. And The Morels has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel prize. So yes, we’re feeling the love this season, that’s for sure. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy and money on making sure booksellers and librarians know about our books early. It feels like we’re at a conference every weekend handing out galleys and talking up the books. It’s that kind of one on one conversation that can make all the difference. These are the people who are handselling books. We’re also sharply focused on what Amazon’s digital merchandising can do for a book, and do our best to make sure the good folks over there are aware of what we’re up to. Of course you have to start with a great book, and I thank our wonderful authors for providing those.
In terms of the future, establishing Soho Teen and building awareness for that is taking up our forward thinking for the moment, and as the Teen line expands our list to 91 books this year, making sure nothing falls by the wayside is paramount. The staff has more than doubled in the past two years as has the company’s sales. So we’re growing, fine-tuning, making sure that we’re doing the most we can for each book we publish.
Cobalt: On Sunday, at a non-profit book exchange here in Baltimore (The Book Thing), I came across a Soho book by Don Wallace, that led me to realize just how long you’ve been around. Can you point back to some Soho books from the not-so-recent past that especially deserve revisiting?
Hruska: Soho’s first list launched in 1987, so there’s a lot to choose from. Way too many to cover all the great ones, but we launched the careers of many authors you’ll recognize. Check out Breath Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat; How Even Broke His Head (and Other Secrets) by Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain; The Gunseller by Hugh Laurie (aka Dr. House); The Darkest Child, by Delores Phillips; The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville; Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais and all the books in her Parisian mystery series starring Aimée Leduc; Peter Lovesey’s wonderful British procedural series starring Peter Diamond. And from the not-so-recent past, two musts are: Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See, by Juliann Garey and Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman.
About Bronwen: Bronwen Hruska joined Soho Press in 2008 and became publisher in 2010. Before coming to Soho, she worked as a journalist and screenwriter. Her articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly, and her TV and movie scripts have sold to Columbia Pictures, NBC and CBS, among others. Her first novel, Accelerated, was published last year by Pegasus Books.