For more than a decade, Joe Bratcher operated Host Publications out of the living room of his house in Austin, Texas. Founded by Bratcher and his wife, Elzbieta Szoka, in 1988, Host was a very small press, publishing no more than one or two titles a year, plus an annual literary journal, the Dirty Goat. The couple handled everything—from translating, in some cases, to editing, design, production, and distribution—themselves.
They even handled international distribution, by hand. "I used to take the magazine over to Great Britain personally every year. My family would always go to England for the summer, and I would take two cases of it with us. I would go to all of the independent bookstores in London and to the Poetry Society, places like that. I'd get rid of thirty copies," says Bratcher. "I never got paid, but they were available over there," he adds with a laugh.
Over the years, though, the hardworking couple began to see a return on their investment. Slowly but surely, Host has established a reputation as a publisher of literary translations from countries such as Brazil, Chile, Poland, Belgium, and Uruguay. "People saw the quality of the work that we did and the seriousness that we approached the work with," Bratcher says. "We slowly started gathering titles, and, about seven or eight years ago, we started turning into a serious proposition."
These days, Host has two offices. The Austin headquarters handles fulfillment—a significant improvement from the old days, when Bratcher would only fulfill book orders every three months: "I wasn't making bookstores or anybody very happy," he says. Editorial and marketing operate from an office located in New York City's trendy Tribeca neighborhood (home to such nightspots as Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Grill, which, in addition to being known for its excellent food, has hosted celebrations for Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story). While the Tribeca address may seem surprising for an indie press, the office, which was opened in 2004, is modest: one small room with two desks and a reception area that Host shares with Bratcher's other enterprise—Paradox Smoke Productions, an independent film company.
Bratcher has a deep voice, with a drawl that hints at his East Texas roots. He and Szoka, who was born in Poland, started Host when they were graduate students at the University of Texas, Austin. Bratcher was pursuing a doctorate in English; Szoka, in Brazilian drama. Because the academic market was soft at the time, they decided to try publishing. "My wife had contacts in Sweden and Brazil, and I was interested in starting a journal, so we simultaneously started putting together the Dirty Goat and our first book, which was a bilingual edition of three contemporary Brazilian plays," says Bratcher. "It just kind of grew from there." Bratcher, who had "accumulated some funds," financed the startup himself.
By 1998, Bratcher and Szoka were living in New York City, where Szoka began teaching Portuguese at Columbia University and Bratcher had begun focusing more on Host. "What I did when I started taking things more seriously wasn't to ramp up production but to solidify things, like my database," he says. The first person he added to the staff was Susan Lesak, who now handles all of the fulfillment orders. He then hired marketing director Anand Ramaswamy initially to help sell the titles Host had already published. "It's only been within the last eighteen months that I've felt comfortable enough to increase production," Bratcher says.
Host has significantly stepped up its pace. Since its founding, the press has published twenty books and fifteen issues of the Dirty Goat. However, in the next year and a half alone it plans to put out two issues of the journal and twelve books. "We've grown, and it's exciting," Bratcher says.
Host's primary mission is to address the underexposure of international literature in the United States. "There are a large number of very established, very important writers from other countries who are not known in the United States," says Bratcher. "Those are the people who we try to publish." The press also publishes select American titles; this fall, it will release Beautiful White Ruins of America, a short story collection by James Sallis. But many of its American titles are inspired by Bratcher's home state, including Backtracking (2004), a collection of poems by Texan Dave Oliphant. "I have an affinity for that kind of literature," says Bratcher, who describes Texan culture as being distinct from the culture of the Deep South.
While Bratcher says that Paradox Smoke Productions is not affiliated with Host, the company did adapt into film Christopher Cook's Screen Door Jesus, a short story collection with a decidedly Texan bent that was published by Host in 2001. Bratcher and Szoka were executive producers of the film, which debuted at several film festivals in 2003 and 2004, winning awards for best narrative feature, best cinematography, and best original score at the Hamptons International Film Festival. It went on to a limited release in September of last year.
Many of Host's early international titles came through Szoka, who speaks seven languages, including French, Spanish, and Italian. "Initially," Bratcher says, "we started with Brazilian plays, because my wife was working on Brazilian drama as her doctorate. She translated one of the plays, she knew the other playwrights—things like that." More Brazilian titles followed, as did Polish titles—all through Szoka's contacts in those countries. These days, though, Host gets most of its international titles from the translators who approach the press because of its reputation. "We've been fairly lucky that way," Bratcher says.
Other books have come from authors who first published work in the Dirty Goat, which features poetry, fiction, drama, visual art, and essays from the United States and around the world. "One of the exciting titles that we'll be doing in the next year and a half or so is a volume of Yiddish poetry, which was a cold submission to the magazine," says Bratcher. The Dirty Goat often serves as a kind of testing ground for Host. Bratcher and Szoka, who are coeditors of the magazine, can measure readers' reactions to a given work, as well as gauge what it's like to work with a particular author. If all goes well, says Bratcher, they may opt to take the work to the next level, acquiring a book. "Or sometimes people write to us and say, ‘We'd like to do a book,' and I'll say, ‘Well, I don't know, but let us run some of your stuff in the journal and see.'"