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The Astra Publishing House was started 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 United States. Thinkingdom already has a literary pedigree in China, having published a stable of prestigious foreign writers including Paulo Coelho, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami and Zadie Smith, and made headlines in 2011 when it reportedly paid $ 1 million. for the rights in Chinese of Gabriel García Márquez A hundred years of loneliness.

The first hires at Astra signaled that Thinkingdom intended to extend this literary philosophy to the United States. Ben Schrank has been appointed editor and chief operating officer, after serving as president and editor of Henry Holt; Alessandra Bastagli, previously editor-in-chief at HarperCollins, Dey Street, has been hired as editorial director; and Maria Russo left her post as New York Timeschildren’s book publisher to oversee Astra’s MineditionUS, an imprint of children’s books. Many more personalities from New York publishing circles have been hired, ranging from bold established names like children’s book expert Leonard Marcus, who serves as editor for the group’s children’s prints, to new ones. newcomers like Danny Vazquez, now editor at Astra House, and Deborah Ghim, associate editor at Astra House, both of whom previously worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“We’ve been on a rapid growth curve,” Schrank said. “We have around 40 employees now and should reach 50 by the end of the year.” This will cover Astra House adult printing, as well as the Astra Books for Young Readers division, which was only established in September and run by editorial director Rebecca Davis. The new division brings together the company’s various editions of children’s books, 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 editions of children’s books that cover books for all ages and interests of children,” said Schrank, “hardback books for babies and toddlers and children’s books. pictures, non-fiction and history, poetry, college and young adult books The Children’s Division begins with a list of 1,000 children’s books, from the acquisition of Kane Press by Thinkingdom in 2016 and its 2019 merger with Boyds Mills Press, Wordsong and Calkins Creek.

Schrank described the publishing house as a start-up and said that all success depends on hiring the right people. “The idea is to hire someone who has a strong editorial point of view, give them a role and see what comes out of it,” 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 verse novel about the attempt to resuscitate the late singer Quintanilla Selena; and Wrecked mountain by Saumya Roy, a non-fiction narrative book about garbage collectors in Mumbai.

Astra House’s initial roster had an early chance. The poem “Crossing Half of China to Fuck You” by Chinese author Yu Xiuhua (from his collection of poetry and essays The moonlight rests on my left palm, published by Astra House), has gone viral. Then Derecka Purnell, author of Become abolitionists, about the future of policing and imprisonment in the United States, appeared on Comedy Central The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in September.

“To get this platform to talk about a new book is the dream,” said Schrank.

To show support for the author, Astra went so far as to print softcover editions for the book that were given to prisons for free, as prisons do not allow hardcover books.

Astra House’s adult roster will be equal parts fiction, non-fiction and poetry, with half translated and the other half English, Schrank said, noting that it will have more of an international focus than the lists of typical American homes. To support this, the company publishes an international literary quarterly, Astra Magazine, with Nadja Spiegelman, former online editor of Paris review, as editor-in-chief. The first issue will be released in spring 2022.

Patrizia van Daalen, who lives in Berlin and was previously Publishing Director of Penguin Random House China, represents the company overseas, selling the rights, researching and serving as an international liaison.

Schrank stressed that the company’s success will depend on its employees, and said that a lesson he learned from a long and varied career in publishing is that a manager’s job is to hire people. experts, then give them autonomy. For example, he credits Astra’s production manager, Lisa Taylor, for keeping the company, which is distributed by Penguin Random House, without supply chain issues – and he credits the management of l to have listened. “I want Astra to be a place where someone can be whole,” Schrank said.

One question hanging over the house is whether or not it is subject to its owner’s censorship in China. Schrank said that’s not a problem at all. “We have full editorial freedom,” he added.

Schrank said 2022 will see the entire publishing group release 100 new titles, with modest print runs. “We will be making pounds by the thousands and not by the hundreds of thousands,” he noted, stressing – despite the accelerating wave of recruitment – the need for moderate and sustainable growth. “We don’t want to over-publish. The thing about editing is, it’s not like building a dot-com business, where one year you have nothing and the next you explode. 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 that publishing is a slow growing business. Fortunately, we’ve had the freedom and the time to do it in the way we think is the best. “

A version of this article appeared in the 01/11/2021 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: Astra Reaches For The Stars


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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson