When author Karen Bender shopped around her 2013 novel, A Town of Empty Rooms, she initially had little luck. By the time she sent it to Berkeley-based Counterpoint Press, she had received something like 25 rejections.
At Counterpoint, editor Dan Smetanka immediately took a liking to Bender’s book. The company published it, as well as her latest short story collection, Refund — which is up for a prestigious National Book Award this week. Counterpoint is the only independent publishing house with a nomination.
Counterpoint, whose office is on Ninth Street in West Berkeley, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Its writers praise the company for two decades of a sharp eye for literary talent and genuine support for its authors.
“There is a feeling that everyone can and should help one another,” Bender said in an email to Berkeleyside. “I feel they are literary heroes — tirelessly working to find and promote wonderful books.”
Counterpoint’s Berkeley existence is only its latest incarnation in a long, complicated history.
Frank Pearl and Jack Shoemaker founded the press in Washington, D.C. in 1995. Shoemaker left Counterpoint in 2001 and went into business with Berkeley-based publisher Charlie Winton, whose former company Publishers Group West had done the distribution and marketing for Counterpoint in its early days. (PGW, also located in Berkeley, is the leading book distribution company in the U.S.). In 2006, the pair bought Counterpoint from Perseus Books Group. They also bought Soft Skull Press and launched the new venture in Berkeley in 2007.
Today, Counterpoint and its Soft Skull imprint publish up to 70 new titles a year. Counterpoint’s books are literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, whereas Soft Skull’s titles can be more experimental or avant-garde.
Although Counterpoint originated on the East Coast, Winton views the company as being very much in and of the Bay Area, which has a “great publishing community and a ton of wonderful people.”
“We feel like our list reflects the cultural dynamic and the gestalt of the Bay Area sensibility — its bohemian values and progressive values — and that’s an advantage for us,” Winton said.
Despite participating in the long literary tradition of the Bay Area, Counterpoint differs significantly from most of its local indie press peers. Winton, now executive editor and CEO of Counterpoint, believes it to be the “only literary, for-profit publisher west of the Hudson.” Other local presses, like Chronicle Books, McSweeney’s, and Heyday, either publish mostly nonfiction or are non-profits. “We’re in business,” Winton said.
And more has changed in that business in the past 20 years than anyone could have predicted. Winton remembers being among a group of publishers invited to breakfast with Jeff Bezos in the late 1990s to hear him talk up Amazon. These days, sales of digital books account for about a quarter of Counterpoint’s revenue.
“For us, digital is a positive thing in terms of profitability, but it’s really just another format” of the same books Counterpoint creates and sells in print, Winton said. And, following national trends, digital sales have been decreasing over the past couple years.
Winton attributes much of Counterpoint’s success to consistent efforts to build long-term relationships with writers. While Counterpoint can’t provide hefty advances like corporate publishing houses do, “we think of ourselves as an author-based company,” Winton said. “There’s an orientation towards developing authors and trying to keep them. That’s the great challenge as an independent publisher, but I think we have a very loyal group. ”
Berkeley author Elizabeth Rosner published her first two novels with Ballantine, a large publisher based in New York City, but published her latest book, Electric City, with Counterpoint. One of the attractions was that her Ballantine editor, Smetanka, moved to Counterpoint. But she also likes the company’s commitment to working with authors.
“My relationship with Counterpoint is collaborative in principle as well as in practice,” Rosner said. “I’m exceptionally fortunate in that I’ve worked with the same devoted and talented editor, Dan Smetanka, at Ballantine (in the past) and at Counterpoint (in the present). The difference is that we are now part of a team effort in which we all share a commitment to books that matter — in other words, books that contribute in some meaningful way to the culture and to the social discourse of our time.”
Some of Counterpoint’s financial success is the result of wise decisions to buy the backlists of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (whose most recent collection, This Present Moment, was published by Counterpoint). Berry is a big driver of digital sales, “which is ironic because he doesn’t even own a television,” Winton noted.
In addition to these big names, Counterpoint takes care to publish previously unknown authors. The press has also published posthumous manuscripts that may otherwise might never have reached the public. A couple years ago, Shoemaker recruited novelist Jonathan Lethem to complete Don Carpenter’s unfinished manuscript for the novel Fridays at Enrico’s, which Counterpoint published in 2014.
Lethem first encountered — and became enamored with — Carpenter’s writing in the 1980s while working at Pegasus Books (He later also worked at Moe’s). The store received many books from Shoemaker’s former company, North Point Press, which published Carpenter. Since then, “Shoemaker’s been a hero of mine,” said Lethem in an email to Berkeleyside. “Working with him on the Fridays At Enrico’s manuscript was therefore a lucky coming-full-circle for me. I’m grateful he asked me to be involved.”
Counterpoint appears to be settled in Berkeley. But it hasn’t completely abandoned its tradition of frequent change. Publisher Rolph Blythe, who replaced Winton in that position in 2013, told Publishers Weekly that the company has been moving “in a more commercial direction,” receiving mainstream press coverage, and possibly looking to acquire other companies.
And the Counterpoint team has left the Bay Area this week — temporarily. They are in New York City for Wednesday night’s National Book Awards ceremony, where they will be cheering on one of their own and continuing a year of celebration.
Threepenny Review marks 35th birthday with new book (01.08.15)
Berkeley author Elizabeth Rosner’s ‘Electric City’ is a lyrical coming-of-age story (10.21.14)
Authors use Kickstarter to begin new publishing company (04.06.12)
Snapshot: Malcolm Margolin, Founder, Heyday Books (01. 11.12)
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