On a recent afternoon at 71 Bond Street in downtown Brooklyn, two dozen people crammed together to attend a poetry reading at Shortwave, the new bookstore and headquarters of Soft Skull Press. From inside the shiny new space, complete with tall, innovatively arching bookcases, it would be difficult to guess that just two years ago, Soft Skull was in the middle of every independent publisher’s worst nightmare—a lawsuit that threatened to bankrupt the company.
In a few short months, the small publishing company was almost destroyed after a series of devastating financial setbacks. But now, despite its highly publicized troubles, Soft Skull is quietly making a comeback and preparing to re-release Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The reception of the book could either undermine or enhance Soft Skull’s already controversial reputation.
Sander Hicks, a young, charismatic punk rocker, self-described revolutionary, and Kinko’s graveyard shift employee, and his girlfriend Susan Mitchell founded Soft Skull in a Manhattan Kinko’s copy shop in 1993. “When I first met Sander, he had no money,” said Don Goede, publisher of Shortwave, Soft Skull’s art imprint. “He was basically just a copy jock.” Between midnight and 8 a.m., Hicks Xeroxed chapbooks for his friends. He incorporated Soft Skull in 1996 to raise money, issuing limited stock offerings of $1,000 to supporters.
In no time at all, Hicks was publishing dozens of books—everything from poetry by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo to William Upski Wimsatt’s cult classic Bomb the Suburbs. In July 2000, Punk Planet’s Will Tupper wrote, “Sander Hicks is going to change history.” So when Hicks decided to publish Fortunate Son, J.W. Hatfield’s controversial biography of George W. Bush, it seemed like just another notch in a long line of successes.
But Fortunate Son was different. St. Martin’s Press, the original publisher, withdrew the book from circulation after discovering Hatfield’s criminal past. (He was convicted of attempted murder in 1988.) In 2000, Soft Skull decided to republish the book with a new foreword addressing Hatfield’s criminal record. In the foreword, Hatfield detailed the involvement of a business partner who was never convicted. The foreword was never vetted before a lawyer, and Soft Skull was sued for libel by the businessman Hatfield named as a co-conspirator. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Hatfield committed suicide in July 2001.
By then, Soft Skull’s board of directors realized that something drastic needed to be done. They appointed board member Richard Nash to take over the company’s finances in the summer of 2001. Hicks took what Nash called “a leave of absence” and relinquished any input into the day-to-day operations of Soft Skull. Nash then assumed the role of publisher. “Richard would really like me to cool it and chill out in the background,” said Hicks via e-mail. (He refused to be interviewed over the phone or in person for this article.) “So I’m giving him a chance to shine on his own. I’m still the biggest owner, shareholder, and I think I’m still the biggest dreamer, and prophetic, poetic fighting thinker.”
Rescuing Soft Skull from disaster was Nash’s goal from day one, but he had no idea how serious the problems were. “Sander had simply no idea of how to run a business at all,” Nash said. “Enumerating the series of flaws would take a huge amount of time. They include almost everything: spending too much money on the wrong kinds of publicity, neglecting basic publicity, making poor decisions in terms of timing, and allocating resources poorly.”
When Nash sat down to sort through the problems, he found out that there were no financial records or publicity database beyond “scraps of paper and hand-written scrawls.” Upon further inspection, he discovered that the company was never properly incorporated in 1996. Nash also discovered that Soft Skull was in debt for $250,000—$190,000 more than Hicks had estimated. “I am guilty of too much hope, and not enough conservative cash flow analysis,” admits Hicks.
Nonetheless, Nash is confident he will succeed. “We’re basically turning Soft Skull into a publisher in a normal nuts-and-bolts type of way,” he said. Hicks agreed: “I think Richard is bringing a better sense of financial rigor to the company. It’s exactly what the company needs right now.” However, tensions remain. Hicks’s summary of the situation is that “it’s like having your old best friend date someone you just broke up with.”
Nash has started paying creditors in installments, reconstructing financial records, and hiring new employees. “You can only have a finite amount of risk,” Nash said. “I want to place the risk in the content. Everything else has to get done properly.” In the past year, Soft Skull has made a remarkable comeback—putting out the popular satirical anti-war comic book Get Your War On by David Rees and preparing to publish a new edition of Arming America by Michael Bellesiles.
After just a few months in print, Get Your War On is quickly approaching the previous Soft Skull sales record; 40,000 copies of Fortunate Son. Author David Rees had nothing but positive things to say about the new incarnation of Soft Skull. “For a big publisher this would have been too weird or too quirky,” he said. “For Soft Skull this was a pretty big book. They invested a lot in it. I don’t think things could have gone better. It was literally perfect.”
Whereas Get Your War On was a runaway (and somewhat redemptive) hit, Soft Skull seems headed for controversy once again with the decision to publish a new edition of Arming America. Michael Bellesiles uses a variety of sources, including probate records, to argue that relatively few Americans owned and used guns before the Civil War. His argument implicitly challenges the claims of organizations like the NRA (National Rifle Association), who are fond of referring to America’s gun-filled tradition.
Arming America, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., was at first met with widespread acclaim and even won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for the best work of American history published in 2000. However, as scholars examined the evidence, they cited numerous examples of inaccuracies and sloppiness. Historian Clayton Cramer, the author of two books on American gun laws, claims to have discovered hundreds of errors—including “false quotes, misrepresentations, [and] quotes out of context.” Other historians focused on the probate records Bellesiles used. (He cited probate records from San Francisco between 1849 and 1859. These records were reportedly destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.) Bellesiles blamed much of the confusion on the loss of his original notes—which he said occurred during an April 2000 flood at Emory University.
“Arming America is a fraud,” Cramer wrote on his website. “There are more falsehoods in single paragraphs than I have found in dozens of other anti-gun scholarly works.” The Bancroft committee rescinded the award. Historian Joyce Lee Malcolm called it “the worst scandal to hit the American historical profession in recent memory.” In the March 2003 issue of Reason magazine, she argued that the entire book’s argument is now suspect. “Virtually every aspect of it—including his conclusions about English weapon use, hunting, axes versus guns, homicide rates, and the inefficiency of firearms—has been shown to rely on faulty, at times nonexistent, evidence and biased research,” she wrote.
Bellesiles, who resigned from Emory University because of the controversy, maintains that the errors were minimal and not deliberate, and that he became the victim of a right-wing witch hunt. "For 14 months I have received hateful, threatening, and expletive-laced telephone calls, mail, e-mails, and faxes,” he wrote in an online article for the Organization of American Historians. Indeed, the NRA was an early critic of the book, as were many anti-gun control pundits.
Nash is one of the few who agree with Bellesiles. "This book was singled out because of what it said,” he said. “That, to me, is political. I don’t think we should run away from things that have flaws.” When asked whether he believes Bellesiles was, at times, deliberately misleading, Nash paused before responding. “I really just don’t know,” he said. “It’s very hard to know anyone’s motivation.”
The book is scheduled to be released in October 2003, with “reconstructed data,” Nash said. According to the draft version of the new introduction, Bellesiles will rewrite three paragraphs concerning the probate records and correct “a number of minor errors.” In the new introduction, Bellesiles defends the book’s thesis. “Even if every probate record in the United States were somehow permanently destroyed, the core argument of Arming America would stand,” he writes.
In a recent interview, Malcolm disagreed. “There’s no way that he can correct the mistakes because they’re wholesale,” she said. “Soft Skull Press is doing a disservice to the public by publishing fiction. This book really is fiction masquerading as history.” Malcolm said she even received a call from a New Hampshire librarian asking if the book should be placed in the fiction section of the library. “I thought it should be,” she said.
Bellesiles could not be reached for comment. Nash dismissed concerns about replicating Hicks’s practice of publishing the work of an author with dubious credibility. “Anybody who thinks they know [whether or not Bellesiles was intentionally misleading] is a person who needs certainty in their life,” he said.
When asked if Soft Skull will be around in five years, Nash nodded and said, “The present configuration of American publishing—with five or six behemoths—is a temporary phenomenon. The history of publishing has been a history of hundreds of mid-sized idiosyncratic publishers.” And Soft Skull, he says confidently, “will be one of them.”
MADELEINE BARAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.