The Small World of Small Publishing: An Interview With Soho Press

Photos of Editorial Director of Soho Teen Daniel Ehrenhaft and Soho publisher Bronwen Hruska

One of the best things (and there are many best things!) about working at Brazos Bookstore is introducing our customers to all the phenomenal small presses whose authors and books we are delighted to champion. Finding those hidden gems, those smaller books with small publicity budgets, that might get lost in a larger publishing house, or might not be there at all--well, it’s our honor, and as an indie bookstore with no huge corporate Big Brother, it’s basically our wheelhouse!

So it’s my honor to introduce you to Soho Press, which, since the mid 80s, has published its very specific vision of literary, crime, and mystery/thriller fiction. More recently, their YA fiction has also found its way onto our shelves, and thus it seemed only fitting that I interview both Soho publisher, Bronwen Hruska and Daniel Ehrenhaft, Editorial Director of Soho Teen.

JP: Bronwen, for those who are new to the story of Soho Press, can you tell us a little about how it came to be and how you came to be its publisher?

BH: My mother, Laura Hruska, founded Soho in 1987 with my father Alan Hruska and legendary editor Juris Jurjevics. Their vision was simple. Find books they loved and publish them. At a time when Big Five corporate publishing wasn’t giving new voices a chance, Soho filled a much-needed void. Laura and Juris were not only talented editors, they had great taste and in the early days found and nurtured (then-) novice writers like Edwidge Danticat, Jacqueline Winspear and Cara Black. I was in college when Soho was founded and while I read a lot of the early books, I went my own direction after I graduated. I got a Master’s degree from Columbia and worked as a journalist and later as a screenwriter for twenty years. Juris left Soho to become a full-time writer and has published two (and soon-to-be three) novels. When my mother became ill in 2008, I came to work at Soho so I could learn the business. Turns out I loved working in publishing (when I finally started to understand what the heck it was all about). I also loved the time I had with my mother. In retrospect, it was a huge gift, getting to know her as a publisher, an employer, a force of nature. I’m sure she had no idea how much I learned from her in those last two years of her life. When she passed away in 2010 I burst into tears. Because she had died, obviously, but also because I was terrified. I had no idea if I had what it took to keep Soho alive and well and relevant. But here we are seven years later and I don’t know, I guess it worked out.

JP: It certainly did work out! (Although obviously, I’m a bit prejudiced since--when I’m not here at Brazos, I’m also one of your very fortunate authors!)

And now, let’s talk a bit about your editorial sensibilities and tastes. Obviously this differs from title to title and imprint to imprint, and obviously it’s about editor passion for a project, but in general, what makes a Soho Press book a Soho Press book? How do and your editors know that a title is going to be good fit? How do you know “hey! This is the book?”

BH: That is one of those intangibles and it’s very hard to explain in any rational way. First, we have to love it. I know at a lot of companies, acquisition meetings are heavy on marketing input and metrics (or so I hear). We’re heavy on passion at Soho. It starts with one of our editors falling in love and making the rest of us fall in love, too. In terms of specifics we look for: super-strong writing and unique voice, unusual, complex or distinctive characters and a compelling story. My litmus test: if I miss my subway stop while I’m reading because I’m so engrossed in the story, I know I’m going to buy that book.

JP: I guess the Houston equivalent for that would be missing our exit on the freeway! But yes, to falling in love with a book! And now, as I’m the Children’s Specialist here at Brazos, I’d like to pose this same basic question to Daniel Ehrenhaft, Editorial Director of Soho Teen.

Dan, what’s your answer to how you know a book is for you and Soho Teen?

DE: It’s always about the voice and about being surprised as a reader. Nothing excites me more than a unique voice or a twist I didn’t see coming.  Both are optimal.

JP: Good answer! Since we’ve got you talking now, let’s hear a little bit about you. I’ve known you for a long time as both my editor at various houses as well as a fellow author and friend. But for those who don’t know Dan Ehrenhaft, tell us a bit about your journey to starting the Soho Teen imprint at Soho Press.

DE: I spent the bulk my career as a packager of YA and MG fiction at Alloy Entertainment and its various incarnations. I took some time off to be a full-time writer—a mistake because it’s lonely, and also because I like reading much more than I like writing.  Along the way I also came to realize that many of my industry friends, including a lot of people I admire most, were acquisitions editors. Long story short: I aspired to do what they do, but not at the expense of the more collaborative nature of packaging. In 2009, I caught a lucky break when Sourcebooks hired me to launch their YA imprint, Sourcebooks Fire. The on-the-job training I received there, and later as Director of Intellectual Property Development at HarperCollins, provided me with an understanding of what I might offer a Publisher. I put together a plan of what a dream YA imprint might look like: small, author-centric, collaborative, and with a packaging element. Then I met Bronwen Hruska, who was looking to launch a YA imprint at Soho Press. (Children’s literature brought us together, in fact; Bronwen’s sister-in-law is a fellow member of a Kid-Lit book group my wife and I belong to.)  Bronwen and I clicked, and the rest is history.

JP: Ah, the small world of publishing! And speaking of small, here’s my next question for both of you: Walking into your office is absolutely not like visiting say, Harper Collins. Okay, I do have to briefly state my intent at the lobby desk, but after that I ride the elevator up, walk in and yell hello and my editor peeks out from his little office and rummages up some sludgy coffee. There is a homey, family feel that is very specific and immediate and a touch quirky, in the best of ways. So my next question is: Why stay small? Why stay indie? What can you do/champion/publish that a larger press might pass on?

BH: Everything I talked about in the last question would fly out the window if we weren’t independent. Being able to base important decisions--like what books to buy--on the taste and passion of our small crew gives Soho books the highly curated feel that people have come to expect and respect. Chances are that if you are a fan of Soho and you open up any Soho book, you’re going to love it. If we were to expand and put five levels of corporate filters in place, I have a feeling we’d lose a lot of that.

JP: We at Brazos definitely understand and attempt to create our own highly curated feel here at the store. It’s something our customers prize very much and expect from us.

Dan, let me pose the same basic question to you, including letting our readers know that it’s you making me that sludgy coffee when I visit! What’s your response to why stay small? Why stay indie? And for that matter, why does this work for you, particularly in terms of the YA world and the vast amount of competition (from the Big 5 and elsewhere) for reader attention? What can you do/publish/champion that you might have to pass on at a larger press?

DE: Dude! The coffee I make is awesome, but I forgive you. I am so fortunate to have a home at Soho, a boss like Bronwen, and an Associate Publisher like Juliet Grames. They have taught me so much about the business of publishing and the importance of being nimble, innovative, and team-oriented—the keys to how I can best serve the books and authors I love. It really isn’t that complicated: I know that everyone at Soho is passionate about every single book we publish. That’s how we compete.

JP: Nimble and innovative. I agree that’s the key!

Now, for Bronwen, a follow up to that last question: Is staying competitive with the Big 5 something you think about?

BH: Not really. There are authors who are just going to be better suited to corporate publishing. And there are other authors who know that being at a smaller place with lots of passion and creativity and energy is what they want. We love debuts at Soho. And we’re well positioned to create a lot of noise around a new author. I always worry about debut authors at huge houses who are on the same list as the biggies. I mean, what debut authors were on the same list as The Goldfinch, and do you really think there was any oxygen left in the room for them when it came time for marketing and publicity?

JP: A very good point, about that potential lack of oxygen!

 So now let’s talk trends. Dan, what are you looking for lately in YA? Are there trends that excite you? Trends that you wish would slink quietly away? Are there types of books you’d like to see more of crossing your desk/inbox? What excites you in general about being at the helm of a YA imprint?

DE: Given the highly charged politics of our time, and given what I’ve always loved about classic teen literature, I am excited most by novels that speak to real-world perspectives different from my own.  I love fantasy, but I know I’m not the editor for it. Realistic, historical, or speculative fiction; that’s my wheelhouse.

JP: And Bronwen, since Dan brought it up, what’s your take on current YA trends?

BH: I love where YA is going. Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge Hunger Games fan and read all the books. But I’m not sad to see the relentless barrage of dystopian fiction slow to a trickle. Realistic YA about real people and real problems is so much more interesting to me. When character and voice drive the story I’m in a very happy place.

JP:  I’m with you on character and voice. And speaking of those voices, what Soho books should our customers be adding to their TBR lists?

BH: Okay, by imprint (we have three!): Two upcoming Soho Crime books I cannot recommend highly enough: The psychological thriller WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis (one of the talented co-authors of the Danish bestseller THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE), and August Snow, the first in an exciting, very appealing new series set in Detroit by Stephen Mack Jones. For literary fiction lovers I’d recommend SONORA by Hannah Lillith Assadi, about a feverish friendship between two young women and for Science Fiction fans, a wonderfully weird book called MORT(E) by Robert Repino about a warrior cat fighting with the ants in a war against the humans. [I know, I know, but trust me on this one.] For young adult readers (who may or may not be all that young): IT WASN'T ALWAYS LIKE THIS about a 17-year-old girl who hasn’t aged in 100 years trying to find the boy she was in love with back in a different century, NO SAINTS IN KANSAS, by Amy Brashear, a fantastic imagining of Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD as told by Nancy Clutter’s friend and classmate, and finally, one of my all time Soho Teen favorites, LIV FOREVER, by Amy Talkington, a boarding school story narrated by one of the students before and after she’s murdered.

JP:  I hope our readers are writing all those titles down! Anything to add, Dan?

DE: Adam Silvera’s MORE HAPPY THAN NOT and HISTORY IS ALL YOU LEFT ME speak perfectly to question number 5, as does Justine Larbalestier’s MY SISTER ROSA, Adele Griffin’s THE UNFINISHED LIFE OF ADDISON STONE, and Joy Preble’s IT WASN’T ALWAYS LIKE THIS.  (I am not just saying that because you’re the interviewer; I am your fan.)  This spring, look out for THE FREE by Lauren McLaughlin and UNEARTHLY THINGS by Michelle Gagnon.

JP: *blushing* Well, thanks to both of you for the shout out. And all the other great recs, so many of which --of course-- are on our shelves or will be soon.

Now, to the future: Bronwen, what are you visions and goals for Soho? How do they mesh with where you see publishing going in general?

BH: Well, we’re expanding our staff! But only by one person at the moment. Soon we’ll be twelve full-time. I’m not looking for massive expansion or to publish more books or to start another new imprint or anything crazy like that. I’m focused on doing what we do well. Finding books we love and getting them into the hands of people who will love them too.

JP: 12! Pretty snazzy! Dan, what are your visions and goals for Soho Teen? How do they mesh with where you see publishing going in general?

DE: My vision and goal: to keep bringing unique YA voices to the fore, especially those that might otherwise be marginalized.

JP: Bravo to that!  

Speaking of unique voices, what’s on your nightstands, both Soho and non-Soho?

BH: I just finished STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO by A.S. King and DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch. I loved them both! I’m in the middle of THE GOOD FATHER by Noah Hawley, which is haunting and so well done. ON DECK: THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS by Dominic Smith, SWING TIME by Zadie Smith and THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead. All the Soho books on my nightstand are books that won’t be published for another six months to a year!

JP: Love, love A.S. King. And as I type this, we are deep into selling out of available tickets for our Colson Whitehead event! Great choices, Bronwen!

Dan, how about you? What are you reading these days?

DE: I am rereading Philip Roth’s THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA because of…you know.  Elise Howard at Algonquin was kind enough to send me a galley of Adele Griffin’s BE TRUE TO ME, which I am loving. And I’ve just started Robert Repino’s MORT(E), a Soho Press title I’ve been meaning to read for years now because—as suspected—it’s like a post-apocalyptic ANIMAL FARM on acid.

JP: I’m reading the Adele Griffin book as well. We shall have to compare notes, but you know I am a huge fan.

Finally, since our readers are customers and supporters of Brazos Bookstore, Houston’s oldest indie bookstore:  Tell us a little about Soho’s relationship with indie bookstores!

BH: I’m not sure how we could do what we do without indies—and Brazos in particular. I can’t tell you how important it is for an author to have advocates out in the world telling people about his or her book. Handselling—actual humans recommending books to other actual humans—can make all the difference in the life (or death) of a book. Indies are where that kind of personal interaction, endorsement and cheerleading, happens. And for purely selfish reasons: How would I ever find my next book?

DE: We love you!! It is the greatest reciprocal business relationship I can think of.

JP: Thanks, Bronwen! Thanks, Dan! This has been a grand conversation and such fun to get a deeper view into why we love Soho Press!

Sonora By Hannah Lillith Assadi Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616957926
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Soho Press - March 28th, 2017

Morte (War with No Name #1) By Robert Repino Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616956219
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Soho Press - February 9th, 2016

More Happy Than Not By Adam Silvera Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616956776
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Soho Teen - April 26th, 2016

History Is All You Left Me By Adam Silvera Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616956929
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Soho Teen - January 17th, 2017

My Sister Rosa By Justine Larbalestier Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616956745
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Soho Teen - November 15th, 2016

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone: A Novel By Adele Griffin Cover Image
ISBN: 9781616955960
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Soho Teen - August 23rd, 2016

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