City Paper is not for tourists
D.C. is about to become a little less literary.
When the downtown office of Counterpoint Press shutters at the end of June, the Washington area will lose its only major publisher of fiction. The award-winning, highbrow publishing house, which also puts out nonfiction works of science, philosophy, history, and art, will remain in operation under the auspices of its parent company, the Perseus Books Group, but will be folded into New York City-based and Perseus-owned Basic Books. The five employees of Counterpoint’s Washington headquarters, including publisher and industry luminary Jack Shoemaker, will leave Perseus.
“They were kind of a lone wolf in D.C.,” says Jamie Brickhouse, Basic Books’ director of publicity. “[Counterpoint] just didn’t have the marketing and publicity that we thought we could give them with Basic.”
Shoemaker came to Washington from the Bay area to found Counterpoint in 1995 with capital from wealthy lawyer and financier Frank H. Pearl. Pearl and Shoemaker’s business strategy for Counterpoint was to produce a quality list of books with cost-cutting measures, such as a small, efficient editing staff, the outsourcing of design and legal work, and modest book advances for authors. Pearl furthered this strategy by using it as the standard for Perseus, a constellation of serious publishing subsidiaries that he began acquiring and adding to Counterpoint in 1997. Perseus now consists of nine imprints, including Basic Books, the African-American-oriented imprint Civitas, and Da Capo, a nonfiction publisher geared toward arts and music.
Although Counterpoint has had great success over the past eight years—attracting well-known authors such as PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Gina Berriault, J.G. Ballard, James Salter, and poet Wendell Berry—Brickhouse says that Counterpoint’s book list would benefit from being in the proximity of the New York City-based national marketing headquarters of Perseus. Both he and Shoemaker agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with basing a literary publishing house in D.C. But Shoemaker says that Counterpoint’s method of publishing was no longer sustainable under the continuing expansion of Perseus.
“What Perseus has become is neither small nor strictly literary,” Shoemaker says. “I don’t think it’s fair for a system to deal with a little tiny company the way it does with a great big company.”
Shoemaker denies that Pearl has turned his back on their original goal of building a financially viable publisher of thought-provoking and scholarly books. And both Shoemaker and Brickhouse claim that Counterpoint’s fall list will still be published and that the overall load of the two companies’ book contracts will not be diminished.
But recent events cast doubt on where Perseus, the much-heralded savior of quality publishing, is headed. Counterpoint’s merger comes a few months after Perseus acquired Running Press, which produces a bevy of profitable miniature versions of how-to and self-help books, mini Zen garden kits, and other lightweight kitsch items that are often found in greeting-card stores. By some estimates, Running Press may increase Perseus’ revenue by about 50 percent.
Brickhouse defends the integrity of the books that Basic will publish as both Basic and Perseus continue to grow: “We’re not going to start publishing celebrity cut-and-paste biographies. That’s not who we are.”
Shoemaker supports the direction in which Pearl is taking his independent publishing company but says, “The kind of press that I want to run is too small to be a partner in that system.”
Citing pride in the 195 books he published while at Counterpoint, Shoemaker says he has no regrets about his stint as Washington’s literary heavyweight.
“I had a great run,” he says. —Paul Fain