Chelsea Hodson has always been a writer’s writer. Whether it’s through her own exacting essays or through working with emerging writers, Hodson has always been in the business of making sure soul-cutting, gutsy art exists.
Her debut essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else was published in 2018 and garnered a sizeable cult following, with tattered copies of its signature violet paperback cover being passed around by writers, readers, and even Kendall Jenner, who was photographed reading a copy dog-eared with lime green Post-it notes while tanning on a yacht (thanks in large part to Jenners’ modeling agent Ashleah Gonzales, whose first book Hodson is publishing next year). Hodson is the rare kind of writer who is as approachable as they are talented. For the last better part of a decade, she has taught classes and offered mentoring and coaching services, including the popular daily Morning Writing Club, for writers, helping them to whittle their words like sharp knives to sculpt marble.
Hodson has a third eye when it comes to recognizing talent — one that wades through the muck that’s infiltrated modern publishing. It’s through her work with writers over the last six years that she started feeling like publishers are trying to play it safe, publishing books they know will sell well and skirting around ones with rougher edges.
So she decided to do something about it.
Earlier this year, Hodson started Rose Books, a small but mighty independent press with the goal of publishing risky and unexpected literature that bigger publishing houses too busy trying to hedge their bets too often see as radioactive.
“I just noticed a trend in a lack of risk-taking from mainstream publishers and also agents,” Hodson tells NYLON. “Once a writer was trying to take their career to the next level, I noticed a lot of pushback on books that I felt were amazing.”
But in the last month, she has accidentally become the hottest new independent publisher, with the release of Someone Who Isn’t Me, the debut novel from songwriter and musician (and secret fragrance-obsessee) Geoff Rickly, of the post-hardcore band Thursday. Published last week, it has already gone on to sell 3,000 copies and is in its third printing. The surreal, urgent, and touching debut is about Rickly’s experience with Ibogaine, an experimental hallucinogenic drug, which he took to recover from a serious heroin addiction. It’s a wildly addicting interrogation of the self that takes risks on both plot and sentence levels. NPR called Rickly “one of the most poetic, impactful, and inspirational voices of his generation,” and it has garnered praise from everyone from GQ to Variety.
Hodson isn’t the only one to observe or predict a lack of risk-taking from publishers. In January 2023, a Publishers Weekly article quoted industry analyst Kristen McLean, who guessed that as publishers face an increasingly difficult economic time, they’ll take more conservative approaches to acquiring new content.
“Both publishers and retailers — including bookstores and mass merchandisers — will lean on ‘sure bets’ as they wait for a clearer picture of what consumers want,” McLean says.
But what is a “sure bet” when it comes to art?
“It started to make me mad and started to make me think, why is culture changing in this way? These are mainstream old-school publishing houses that I respect, but they're not publishing books that I'm excited about anymore. I still don't know why that is, but I just started really imagining how I might contribute to the conversation in some small way,” Hodson says. “Rose Books is doing two books a year. That's not going to change culture. But if enough indie presses do two books a year, it could potentially change culture and provide a different framework for writers who are maybe outside of the mainstream cultural conversation in some way.”
Sure, there are a million reasons in the world not to start an indie press, particularly in 2023, many of which Hodson started realizing when it was time to ship Rickly’s books.
“I’m starting to realize those now,” Hodson tells me in early July, laughing. “Only now do I really see the crystal-clear vision of how hard it is.”
For the last month, Hodson has been hand-mailing thousands of books out, along with the help of her mother and husband, the artist Mark McCoy, who designed the Rose Books logo. During our interview, her mom is in the other room waiting for her to print more shipping labels.
Hodson originally chose not to work with a distributor because they take huge percentages of what the book costs to produce and sell, threatening the existence of Rose Books altogether. When we chatted in early July, Rickly’s book had already been so much more successful than Hodson thought that it would be that she had already mailed out 1,000 copies and had at least 1,000-plus more to send: She shipped 2,400 total single book orders directly to consumers, along with hundreds more that she shipped in bulk to bookstores — and has received hundreds more orders in the weeks since our interview.
McCoy helped Hodson get out all those orders before the publication date, but not before their local Sedona post office got suspicious of them, wondering why they were dropping off hundreds of boxes each day. (Hodson ended up giving all the employees copies of Someone Who Isn’t Me and they're now reading the book, too.)
But during the week of the July 25 launch date, Hodson enlisted the help of Asterism Books as a distributor, which is run by writer and indie publisher Joshua Rothes, who owns the indie press Sublunary Editions.
“I could see that our ethics about independent presses were in alignment and I felt great about partnering with him and his vision,” Hodson says over email. “Last week, I was scrambling to keep the book in print and realized doing mail order myself had simply become unsustainable. I'm so happy to find resources like Asterism, which will not only help Rose Books grow, but also help it endure over time.”
It’s worth mentioning that it’s rare for a publisher to give so much blood, sweat, tears, and emails to a book. Unless books are poised to be bestsellers, major publishers often deem small books too big a risk to invest in things like book tours, even though events like that help with sales.
But publishing Rickly’s is personal for Hodson. In fact, it’s the book that ended up getting Rose Books off the ground. Hodson and Rickly had been mutual fans for years: She saw Thursday play when she was in high school and was surprised to see Rickly years later at the party for the release of her book.
“I was kind of starstruck by seeing him,” Hodson says. “I was like, ‘Wait, the singer of Thursday is at my book launch, like, this is messed up. That's just not how things are supposed to be.’”
Hodson read early drafts of Someone Who Isn’t Me and as Rickly was getting closer to sending it out to publishing houses with his agent, Hodson asked if he’d want to release the book with her. It would be Rose Books’ first release. The pressure of making Rose Books work was now heavier than ever: She didn’t want to let Rickly down.
“If I wake up in the middle of the night, it's because I'm like, ‘Will I let him down in some way?’” Hodson says. “I think that's a good motivation because I want to be there for this book and for my friend and I want to celebrate this book and make it a success.”
Following Someone Who Isn’t Me, Rose Books will publish The Holy Day by the artist Christopher Norris on October 10, a novel about a former teen detective who goes on vacation to die, which also includes original art by Robert Hickerson, Johnny Ryan, B. Thom Stevenson, Mike Diana, and Sammy Harkham.
“The way [The Holy Day] operates is something I truly feel like only he could write,” Hodson says. “That's kind of a crucial thing for Rose Books: Could anyone else write this book? If so, I can't publish it.”
Next year, Hodson plans to publish a book of poetry by Ashleah Gonzales, who is best known as Jenner’s modeling agent and arbiter of literary taste. Gonzales was responsible for recommending Jenner a series of literary books that became a brief internet sensation – including Hodson’s book, along with Miranda Julia’s No One Belongs Here More Than You and Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today. Gonzales attended one of Hodson’s events, where the two connected partially because they both grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and visited the same waterpark Hodson writes about in her book.
“I could just tell from the books that she had been reading and recommending to Kendall publicly that she was a writer,” says Hodson. “[She’s], like, a famous reader more than a writer. I was like, ‘You're obviously a writer yourself; you're a secret writer, aren't you?’”
For all the doom people love to predict about the publishing industry, more independent publishers and magazines are cropping up to offer places outside of the established forces that be to give new writers places for their work to be taken seriously.
“I think post-2020 in general, people are reimagining power structures and how they might contribute something in a way that they might not have thought about before,” Hodson says. “The indie presses that came before me that have existed longer than me are the ones that I admire. I'm just trying to make a dent.”
Though Tonight I’m Someone Else was published by major publishing house Macmillan, Hodson got her start in indie press. A decade ago, while still a relatively unknown writer, independent press Future Tense founder and writer Kevin Sampsell asked if she was working on a book. She told him that she was, but it wasn’t anywhere close to being done, so Sampsell published a passport-sized chapbook of Hodson’s essay “Pity the Animal” in 2013.
“The stakes of writing that were so low because I just thought, ‘Well it's an indie press. It seems really cool, but it's a small thing. I'm sure it's not going to change anything for me in a big way,’” Hodson says. She ended up getting an agent, and eventually a book deal. “I actually credit Kevin with helping me start my career as a writer. That was such a big deal to me that I want to do that for other people.”
But that’s the magic that can happen through an indie press: You can put out a single essay and unintentionally launch a career.
Hodson’s book was eventually published to great acclaim, and her experiences with a large press (Macmillan is considered one of the so-called Big Five presses that make up the biggest publishers) informed her decision to start an independent one. Though Hodson says she received a lot of support from her publisher, it’s not the norm in the industry. For example, Hodson used her advance to book her own tour, emailing bookstores and asking to set up events — the kind of work that Rose Books will help writers with.
“I'm really not driven by money or profit,” Hodson says. “I'm driven by a desire to create beautiful objects and meaningful books that might not exist if I couldn't help bring them into the world.”
Hodson was also heavily inspired by Giancarlo DiTrapano, the late publisher of the legendary, defiant Tyrant Books, who favored style over plot and sought to publish new voices. Hodson and DiTrapano were close friends, even leading a workshop in Italy together from 2017 to 2019. DiTrapano had an uncanny ability to sus out unexpected talent; it’s a sense, Hodson says, that will never be replicated — though his spirit can live on.
“When I was starting my own press, I thought, ‘Why would I think I could start my own press?’” says Hodson. “His voice would come in my mind, from when we started the workshop and he would say: ‘Just because you don't know everything right now doesn't mean you can't figure it out.’”