Astra Publishing House was established in early 2020 by Thinkingdom Media Group, a Beijing-based publishing conglomerate, as that rare thing: a new, literary-minded, well-funded publishing house in the U.S. Thinkingdom already has a literary pedigree in China, having published a stable of prestigious foreign authors, including Paulo Coelho, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, and Zadie Smith, and made headlines in 2011 when it reportedly paid $1 million for Chinese-language rights to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Early hires at Astra signaled that Thinkingdom intended to extend this literary ethos to the U.S. Ben Schrank was named publisher and COO, after having served as president and publisher of Henry Holt; Alessandra Bastagli, previously executive editor at HarperCollins imprint Dey Street, was hired as editorial director; and Maria Russo left her position as the New York Times’ children’s books editor to oversee Astra’s MineditionUS, a children’s book imprint. Numerous additional figures from New York publishing circles have been hired, ranging from established bold-faced names like children’s book expert Leonard Marcus, who serves as editor-at-large for the group’s children’s imprints, to up-and-comers like Danny Vazquez, now an editor at Astra House, and Deborah Ghim, an associate editor at Astra House, both of whom previously worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“We’ve been on a fast growth curve,” Schrank said. “We have roughly 40 employees now and should reach 50 by the end of the year.” This will cover the adult imprint Astra House, as well as the Astra Books for Young Readers division, established only in September and headed by editorial director Rebecca Davis. The new division brings together the company’s various children’s book imprints, including Astra Young Readers; Calkins Creek; Hippo Park, an imprint run by publishing veteran Jill Davis; Kane Press; MineditionUS; and Wordsong.
“Astra Publishing House now has six very special children’s book imprints that cover books for all ages and children’s interests,” Schrank said, “from board books for babies and toddlers and picture books, to nonfiction and history, poetry, middle grade, and young adult books.” The children’s division begins with a backlist of 1,000 children’s books, coming from Thinkingdom’s 2016 acquisition of Kane Press and its merger in 2019 with Boyds Mills Press, Wordsong, and Calkins Creek.
Schrank described the publishing house as akin to a start-up and said any success is predicated on hiring the right people. “The idea is to engage someone who has a strong editorial point of view, give them a role, and see what comes from there,” he explained.
Astra House’s first books have already been published, and they are eclectic: Jerusalem Beach, by Israeli writer Iddo Geffen, a collection of short stories translated from Hebrew; Dreaming of You by Melissa Lozada-Oliva, a novel in verse about trying to resurrect late singer Quintanilla Selena; and Castaway Mountain by Saumya Roy, a narrative nonfiction book about garbage pickers in Mumbai.
Astra House’s initial list has caught some early good fortune. The poem “Crossing Half of China to Fuck You,” by Chinese author Yu Xiuhua (from her poetry and essay collection Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm, published by Astra House), went viral. Then Derecka Purnell, author of Becoming Abolitionists, about the future of policing and imprisonment in the U.S., appeared on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in September.
“To get that platform to talk about a new book—that’s the dream,” Schrank said.
To show support for the author, Astra went so far as to print softcover editions for the book that were given free to prisons, because prisons do not allow hardcover books.
The Astra House adult list will be equal parts fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, with half translated and half in English, Schrank said, noting that it will have more of an international focus than lists from typical American houses. To support this, the company is publishing an international literary quarterly, Astra Magazine, with Nadja Spiegelman, former online editor of the Paris Review, as editor-in-chief. The first issue is coming in spring 2022.
Patrizia van Daalen, who lives in Berlin and was formerly publishing director of Penguin Random House China, is representing the company abroad, scouting, and serving as an international liaison. Foreign rights sales are being handled by Marleen Seegers at the 2 Seas Agency in Ojai, Calif.
Schrank stressed that the success of the company will lie with its employees, and said that one lesson he learned from having a long, varied career in publishing is that the job of a manager is to hire experts, then give them autonomy. For example, he credits Astra production manager Lisa Taylor with having kept the company, which is distributed by Penguin Random House, free of supply chain issues—and he credits management for listening to her. “I want Astra to be a place where someone can be their whole self,” Schrank said.
One question that has loomed over the house is whether or not it is subject to censorship from its owner in China. Schrank said this is not an issue at all. “We enjoy total editorial freedom,” he added.
Schrank said that 2022 will see the entire publishing group put out 100 new titles, with modest print runs. “We will do books in runs of thousands and not hundreds of thousands,” he noted, emphasizing—despite the fast-track hiring spree—the need for moderate, sustainable growth. “We don’t want to overpublish. The thing with publishing is that it’s not like building a dot-com company, where one year you have nothing and the next you are exploding. We want to earn the agent’s trust and respect, the bookseller’s trust and respect, and the industry’s trust and respect. Everyone understands publishing is a slow-growth business. Fortunately, we have been given the freedom and time to do it the way we think is best.”