‘Books are essential’: How Counterpoint Press is staying strong in a virtual world

Illustration of person looking at bookshelf
Jericho Tang/Staff

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Located off of Ninth and Parker streets in Southwest Berkeley, the Counterpoint Press office occupies a modest space in a building that also houses many other businesses. This office is the headquarters for a bustling, acclaimed publishing house that releases about 50 titles per year, many of which receive prestigious book award nominations and extensive media coverage. 

Counterpoint is part of the publishing triumvirate completed by Soft Skull Press and Catapult, the latter of which merged with Counterpoint and Soft Skull in 2016. This partnership is a collaborative one, as staff will often work across imprints.

“There is a lot of California in us,” noted Megan Fishmann, vice president and associate publisher of the publishing triumvirate, in an interview with The Daily Californian. Fishmann went on to cite works from notable California authors that Counterpoint has published recently, including “Survivor Cafe” by Berkeley-based writer Elizabeth Rosner and “The Atlas of Reds and Blues” by Bay Area author Devi S. Laskar. 

The work to bring these books to life hasn’t stopped in light of social distancing measures enacted to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus. Counterpoint, like many other companies, rapidly pivoted to functioning remotely.

According to Fishmann, however, this wrench has been one that the company has been able to overcome with relative ease. Thanks to its multiple locations, many meetings — such as those between editorial and publicity staff — already took place virtually and with different time zones in mind. Thus, Counterpoint and its companion imprints were quick to transition staff to working from home. Everyone’s health and safety, Fishmann said, is the company’s first and foremost concern. 

Some obstacles can’t be completely manuevered around, though. Fishmann noted that physical copies of upcoming releases are currently unable to be mailed out, and it’s always disheartening to see independent bookstores having to close down. But even these challenges have alternatives: Virtual copies of books are the current norm, and Counterpoint has been partnering with bookstores to put on virtual events with authors whose works are slated to be released amid this strenuous time. 

“We had 90 people attend, quote-unquote virtually, a launch last week,” Fishmann said. “I think it’s really creative. I think it’s a way to still have people get together and ask questions and hear readers read.”

Hearing Fishmann talk about her work, it’s clear that the efficiency and efficacy of this virtual transition has been made possible because of the passion book publishers have for what they do. 

Fishmann got her start in the publicity department of Penguin Random House, one of the “Big Five” publishing companies. She completed an MFA in fiction at the University of Virginia and worked at the Virginia Quarterly Review before returning to publishing, eventually ending up in San Francisco, where she now lives with her husband and children. It’s from there that she commutes to Counterpoint’s Berkeley office when social distancing measures aren’t in place. 

“There’s so many great books coming out, and I get to talk about them all the time,” Fishmann said. “That’s the dream job. I say to people, ‘If you love books, publishing really can be the dream.’ ”

For people who love books, the work of dedicated publishing houses like Counterpoint is indeed a beacon of light in otherwise anxious times. According to Fishmann, all but one of Counterpoint’s upcoming publication dates have remained the same. This is all because of the work of staff that, in Fishmann’s enthusiastic words, “are doing their best to work harder than they already did — and they already worked so hard.”

One way Fishmann recommends that readers continue to support the literary community is by buying books for themselves, family members and friends, if they are able to. This can be done via bookshop.org, which was founded by Andy Hunter, publisher of the Counterpoint-Soft Skull-Catapult triumvirate. Bookshop.org gives back to the literary community by sharing proceeds with independent bookstores, which is critical right now because many of these stores are struggling to make ends meet without physical customers. 

“Books, in my mind, are essential,” Fishmann said. “We’re doing everything we can do to support these authors and I’m just grateful for anyone who is able to … order books remotely and support the community. It’s an important time to support everybody as much as we can.”

This article is part of a series in which local artists and art organizations discuss how closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak are impacting them.

Alex Jiménez covers literature. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @alexluceli.