Since Charlie Winton's career in publishing has been based on nontraditional business models, it's no wonder that two of his most profound inspirations have been the Grateful Dead and Grove Press's controversial founder, Barney Rossett.
Winton, who began in publishing right out of the M.B.A. program at Stanford University, started Publishers Group West in 1976 and over the years formed Avalon Publishing Group. Winton sold PGW in 2002, and after selling Avalon five years later, he formed Counterpoint Press in Berkeley, an independent publisher that includes the imprints of Shoemaker & Hoard, Soft Skull Press and Sierra Club Books.
“All of the strategic evolution that eventually formed the basis of what became Avalon was something that just evolved organically and was very much self determined,” Winton says of the process that moved him from distributor to publisher. “I've tried to operate toward collegiality and building collective consciousness in the publishing process.” Winton ran PGW for over a quarter-century and says of the company's success, “We were able to develop a strong sense of purpose that ran through both the employees and the publishers that enabled us to be greater than the sum of our parts.”
It is this philosophy that allowed Winton to evolve from distributor to publisher and editor. Grove Press caught Winton's eye early on. “It was the company I was most aware of when I first got into publishing and admired their style and audacity. The writers they published stood for something, and I respected that,” Winton says. As CEO and publisher of Counterpoint, Winton is excited about the direction Soft Skull Press will take under the guidance of its new editorial director, Denise Oswald. She replaced Richard Nash, who resigned in March, and brings with her a more traditional publishing background after 10 years as senior editor at FSG/Faber and Faber. “Soft Skull is wide open at this point,” Winton comments. “Denise will bring her own editorial personality to the job in a pretty organic way, which includes more of a pop culture and feminist slant than Soft Skull previously focused on.” Winton's intention is to maintain the countercultural spirit of the press.
The question of e-books is of great interest to Winton, which he approaches with a circumspect excitement. “We're committed to making all our books available in the e format, but everyone in the equation needs to be mindful of the publishing process,” he says. Counterpoint now has one title available for the iPhone through ScrollMotion, with more to come. “Manufacturing is just one component in creating a book, but it's by no means the largest one. Everything else—the editing, marketing and distribution—still exists for the publisher to pay. The benefit of not printing should be divided between the publisher and the author, which is what we're trying to accomplish,” Winton says.
Counterpoint, which publishes fiction, literature, poetry and a range of nonfiction titles, is distributed by PGW and maintains an editorial office in New York City. “Counterpoint is doing fine,” says Winton. “We finished out 2008 on plan, and in 2009 we had a solid first quarter. We haven't had to make any structural changes in terms of layoffs or salary cuts, but there is no question that the retail climate is very challenging.” Winton's great concern is that the current economic downturn could permanently change the publishing industry. “What is the new world after we work through this time?” he wonders.
Winton acknowledges that the next two years will be critical for independent publishers, and that people have to be attuned to strategic possibilities and the potential for new alliances. “The challenge is to preserve the integrity of what you're doing while at the same time adapt to what's likely to be a more conservative economic climate,” he says.
Although few distributors have made the change to publisher, Winton is not entirely surprised where he's ended up. “I see my whole career as being on a continuum, where each transition has been part of the previous thing,” Winton says. “Avalon grew from PGW, and Shoemaker & Hoard grew from Avalon. It's been one, long strange trip from the beginning to where I am now.”