In American publishing, Astra Publishing House has become something of the talk of the town. Established in early 2020 by Beijing-based publishing conglomerate Thinkingdom Media Group, the literary-minded press is part of a growing group of imprints that is beginning to make its mark on the book business. (In fact, lawyers for Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, defending the proposed merger of those companies in court against the U.S. Department of Justice, cited, however improbably, Astra House as proof that the so-called Big Five are not the only major forces in the American publishing industry.) Once on the scene, Astra immediately started making moves, wooing such publishing veterans as Alessandra Bastagli (formerly at Nation Books—now Bold Type—and Dey Street) and Rachael Small (from Europa Editions) and rising stars including Deborah Ghim and Danny Vazquez, both of whom spent stints at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It also launched a buzzy literary magazine, Astra, with Nadja Spiegelman, the daughter of comics legends Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly.
At the top of Astra House’s publishing program sits publisher Ben Schrank, the former head of Henry Holt, who we spoke with by email about the latest developments at the press and other bookish matters.
What books are you reading right now?
I just finished Dilla Time from MCD/FSG, which was the musical re-education I didn't know I needed. Now I'm toggling between Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker and Ducks by Kate Beaton. I plan to read Nuar Alsadir's Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation from Graywolf very soon. Hua Hsu's Stay True is next after that.
What's one of your favorite books that most people don't know?
Henry Green's trilogy: Living, Party Going, Loving.
What's a big book you read recently that surprised you in a good way? In a bad way?
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut was on Obama's 2021 list and I bought it because Michael Taeckens recommended it on Twitter (I think). I was dubious when I started it and now I'm its biggest evangelist.
What book (or books) made you want to be a publisher?
So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, Sent for you Yesterday by John Edgar Wideman, Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.
How has the business of publishing in translation changed over the course of your time in publishing?
We're seeing really nice sales for books like Dogs of Summer by Andrea Abreu. Ferrante paved the way for that kind of success so that's a welcome change and a smoother, or better, path and we hope to continue to capitalize on the openness to translated works that we're seeing, especially via celebrations like Women in Translation month.
During the trial over the government's lawsuit to block Penguin Random House's proposed acquisition of Simon & Schuster, Astra House was one of a number of publishers the defense's lawyers consistently referred to as a serious rival for the possibly soon-to-be megapublisher. What are your thoughts on that?
*face without mouth emoji* 😶
To that point, you're one of a handful of relatively new publishers making waves in the book business. What do you think is spurring so many in the industry to strike out on their own right now?
Publishing is a dream, a beautiful occupation, a scary reality day to day—I'm not surprised at all that lots of people are trying it and I know we're all incredibly grateful to independent booksellers for their help.
Astra House's sister publication is one of the talks of the literary town in the U.S. right now. How does having a lit mag with an international focus impact, or inform, your book business?
Astra Magazine is so exciting! We maintain a healthy editorial separation but sure, we share information when we can and we read the website everyday. We do think it helps keep us aware of what's exciting in short form fiction and non-fiction. I'm still thinking about Yiyun Li's memories of third grade and Gabriel Matesanz on biking in the city: “We’re all in this together. But don’t try and pass me at an intersection unless you have what it fucking takes!”
What are some trends to watch out for in international literature?
Books that interrogate a sense of place, regional literature that helps us to understand places that are foreign to us—I think that's what people want right now.
What are some trends in American literature your international book business friends and contacts are most excited about? What are some they're tired of?
My colleague Patrizia van Daalen says people are looking for less US-centric stories, bigger and wider stories that they can relate to. She says we want to zoom into spaces that help us understand the bigger picture of what is happening in the US and beyond now. And I would add that I think it's harder and harder to invigorate autofiction—and I love autofiction.