Coffee House Press talks survival, values and (of course) its writers

By Harriet Staff

As Coffee House Press prepares to make its first major leadership transition in its 35 year history, The Huffington Post's Anis Shivani chats with founding publisher Allan Kornblum and Chris Fishbach, who will take over as publisher in July. Kornblum will remain involved as senior editor at the press he initially began as a hybrid between his first love, letterpress, and trade publishing.

But when I finally sat down to do the math, I realized that if I were to continue as a letterpress printer, I had to move into the $300.00 per copy range, and cultivate rare book collectors instead of contemporary writers and readers who wanted a challenge. I know some great people who went the "rare book" route, and they have produced works of surpassing imagination and inspiration. It just wasn't the right road for me.

Though it was never formally announced, Coffee House Press published its last letterpress title in 1994 and focused on being "one of the top small literary presses with a strong multicultural list, and as one of the presses that might prove to be a survivor."

Survival is a major topic of discussion, with Kornblum addressing many of the difficult business decisions faced by his press and other small houses, and the impact those decisions have on what gets published and how innovative (or risky, depending on your perspective) publishers can afford to be. The transition from letterpress to trade-only wasn't a question of surrendering values for Kornblum, and neither does he see values at issue in the the question of "indie vs. major." All publishers, he states, can and "should believe in the books we publish, and publish books we can believe in; those books should be carefully and responsibly edited and proofed; printed with materials that are made to last; available as possible to readers; and designed with the same care their authors take, on every single page. Those are the values that should drive every publisher, corporate-owned or indie."

How survival and adaptation plays out on each side is most visible when discussing backlists, the make-or-break cushion for jumping into new initiatives.

Are indies better positioned to take advantage of the rapid changes going on in publishing and bookselling? Maybe--new ideas reach decision-making levels at an indie press when someone walks across a room and knocks on a door; at the major houses, new ideas have to make their way through several levels of management, and major initiatives need approval from the money-people, and the legal department. Advantage indies.

But if a new initiative falls through, the major houses have backlists that provide more than 50% of their annual income in sales and subsidiary rights. And those same money-people who can slow things down, can provide the resources to cover the cost of failed initiatives without putting the entire house at risk. Advantage majors.

The emphasis on backlists particularly effects poetry, already perceived as a risky investment. Kornblum has proved himself excellent at reconciling the publishing of challenging work with the business needs of paying salaries and rent, but those skills rarely combine in the same person, leaving other publishing houses to wage internal battles among staff.

I think it's fair to say that the major publishing houses are staffed with gifted professionals who would love to publish more poetry. But to the people who pay their salaries, thinking a year ahead is long-range planning--building a backlist of poetry that might take five-to-ten years to start making money seems ridiculous. So a few senior editors might get to pick a few poetry books, but they would love to do more if they could. However the money-people do have a point--poetry books don't sell the kind of numbers needed to pay the rent and make the payroll. As a result most poetry books are published by nonprofit literary presses that receive donated income to cover a portion of their costs; they're published by university presses, which are also subsidized; and they're published by very small presses that publish one or two books a year, and don't know how to reach the review media or get their books into the stores... But we respect our colleagues at the major houses, and are not arrogant enough to believe that true editorial wisdom is the special province of the small indies.

The are also some great videos and a discussion of Coffee House Press's current writers, all of which would take a few more posts each, so you'll have to check 'em out on your own.

Originally Published: February 16th, 2011