When Catapult, the literary publisher launched by Elizabeth Koch in 2015 and helmed by Electric Literature cofounder Andy Hunter, merged with the larger and more established Bay Area house Counterpoint Press in 2016, some eyebrows in the industry were raised. Though technically a merger, the move effectively brought Counterpoint and its Soft Skull imprint under the auspices of New York–based Catapult after nearly 10 years of operating as an independent company. (Counterpoint was purchased in 2007 by former CEO Charlie Winton when he sold the Avalon Publishing Group to Perseus while retaining the Shoemaker Hoard imprint.)
Indeed, the setup at Catapult is unusual—more like a confederation than a traditional publisher and its imprints. It comprises four editorial parts: Catapult itself, which includes not just the book publisher but classes taught by emerging and established writers, a daily online magazine of narrative nonfiction and fiction, and an open online platform for writers; Counterpoint, which remains a distinct legal entity; Soft Skull, which is now an autonomous publisher in its own right and has launched a subscription book club that is up to nearly 100 subscribers since its debut last fall; and Black Balloon Publishing, which was founded by Koch in 2010 and is now an imprint of Catapult. (Hunter is publisher of all three presses, in addition to the Grove Atlantic–owned website Literary Hub and CrimeReads, its semi-autonomous imprint.)
The editorial teams remain mostly distinct, although there is some crossover, and the publishers share operations, marketing, publicity, and production departments. Though Counterpoint remains in Berkeley, Soft Skull has returned to its hometown and settled in at Catapult’s offices on Broadway in the NoMad neighborhood of Manhattan, after nearly a decade with Counterpoint in California. Between the four, Hunter said, the group employs 31 full-timers and three part-timers, including two full-time editors at each of the publishers (Catapult’s editors also handle Black Balloon) other than Soft Skull, where Yuka Igarashi remains the sole editor.
“We share infrastructure, which makes it all possible,” Hunter said. “I know a lot of independent publishers that are having a hard time. But we can all share the same production department, and we can all have good distributor terms because we’re banded together.” (PGW is the group’s distributor.)
In spite of the unusual setup, the publishers are seeing considerable sales success. Counterpoint, which has increased its number of titles to approximately 50 books per year, is up 80% from January to August 2018 compared to the same period last year, Hunter said, while Catapult, which releases approximately 15 titles per year (including, this year, popular books Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby, PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018, and Welcome to Lagos Book by Chibundu Onuzo, and Nicole Chung’s upcoming memoir All You Can Ever Know) had a 197% percent sales increase, which includes strong gains from its classes, which compose roughly half of Catapult’s revenue. Soft Skull, which is publishing nine books this year, down from 24 in prior years, has seen a 3% sales rise despite the drop in number of titles. Going forward, Soft Skull aims to release 12 titles annually. And in terms of prestige, Joan Silber’s Improvement, published by Counterpoint, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction this past spring.
The shared infrastructure allows the publishers to experiment as well. Hunter noted that a number of the editors at each publisher occasionally work on books for the others, while one full-time editor works half on Catapult’s books side and half on its magazine side. Jenn Kovitz, the group’s associate publisher and v-p for sales and marketing, and Megan Fishmann, the group’s associate publisher and senior director of publicity, also pointed to the visual work of Daniel Salu at Soft Skull as part of that imprint’s success. Salu has been designing book jackets—sometimes multiple jackets per work, as was the case with Sam Pink’s dual novella collection, The Garbage Times/White Ibis—that are built to double as movable GIFs online.
For Igarashi, a big benefit to the peculiar organizational structure, especially for Soft Skull, is that each imprint can retain its own individuality while benefiting from a cooperative environment. Calling the original Soft Skull a “staple of the punk underground Lower East Side,” she said that because there was “no specific editor for it” during its Counterpoint years, it “kind of lost its identity a little bit.” Now, as it puts out new books and reissues from such quintessential New York counterculture mainstays as Lynne Tillman and Eileen Myles, that identity is clearly back.