On Catapult: I Have Some Questions
Did We Miss Anything?
This week’s newsletter comes early, due to my schedule, and picks up on a story that has been is roiling publishing over the past week. For background, Catapult, an independent press, abruptly announced cuts on February 14; a few days ago, the New York Times profiled its CEO, and since then Catapult has changed its mission statement.
What is Catapult?
Catapult was founded in 2015 by Andy Hunter, founder of the website Electric Literature, and Elizabeth Koch, who founded Black Balloon Publishing. Hunter was the publisher and Koch the CEO of the new press whose mission was to "celebrate powerful voices, breakthrough narratives, and extraordinary storytelling experiences.” Koch “personally invested the seed money for Catapult, which has an annual budget in the high six figures and aims eventually to publish 12 books a year.”
Koch received an M.F.A. from Syracuse, studying with George Saunders, and wanted to “create the same kind of safe, collaborative atmosphere that she found at Syracuse.” In addition to books, Catapult launched writing courses and an online magazine. Saunders praised Koch’s writing: “She’s one of the most verbally gifted writers I’ve worked with, just wildly imaginative,” Mr. Saunders said. “Her work is kind of dark but personally, she is very optimistic and bright…Some people come in and light up the room and raise the bar and she was one of those.” She wrote, often under a pseudonym, but also under her own name, for outlets such as the LARB. Her father is Charles Koch of Koch brothers fame, and Elizabeth, in 2016, strove to distance herself from politics, describing herself to the Wall Street Journal as apolitical.
In 2016, Catapult merged with Counterpoint, a larger and more established press based in Berkeley. Counterpoint was then owned by Charlie Winton, who purchased it after he sold the Avalon Publishing Group to Perseus. It was founded in 2007; Wendell Barry and Gary Snyder were both investors in Counterpoint, which also published their books. That same year Counterpoint acquired Soft Skull, a press founded in 1992 by Sander Hicks, and sold to Counterpoint by Richard Nash, who took over Soft Skull in 2001.
When Counterpoint acquired Soft Skull, they closed Soft Skull’s New York offices, but after the merger with Catapult, Soft Skull’s New York office reopened, backlist titles were brought back into print, and new Soft Skull titles were published. Since then, the press has been referred to by the ungainly but very descriptive Catapult/Counterpoint/Soft Skull. By merging three independent presses together, the imprint was able to reduce inefficiencies and do well. “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 was the group’s first distributor; they have since moved to Penguin Random House).
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