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Literature Is Not the Same Thing as Publishing

PUBLISHED: May 23, 2014

This past January, I stood in the snow across the street from Matt’s Bar with a dozen fellow Minneapolitans, shivering in the subzero wind chill, as a short film was projected on the side of the building—five atmospheric minutes of people walking through the snowy streets three years earlier. 

Afterward, we went into the bar for cheeseburgers and beer. We didn’t sell a single book.

This is a new kind of publishing.

I’ve been with Coffee House Press since 1995, and took over as publisher in 2011. As a literary publishing house, and as a nonprofit, cash is often tight. Nearly every year, while putting together the annual budget with our founder, Allan Kornblum, we would pause at the rather large budget line for BEA, BookExpo America, publishing’s annual trade show. There was the booth, airfare, hotel, shipping—every year we wondered, wouldn’t we rather put the money into author tours, advertising, or salaries for our underpaid, overworked staff? But every year, it stayed in the budget. The logic was always, how would it look if we weren’t there? Would everyone think there was something wrong, or, worse, forget about us entirely?

This year, after much consideration, we’ve decided to attend BEA, but for the first time, we’re going unencumbered: no booth, no baggage. This wasn’t a financial decision, but a strategic one. We’ll still roam the floor and network at events and parties; we’re even hosting a bookseller dinner. But this year, we’re doing it all without a home base. 

So what’s changed? We have, and we’re not alone.

Literature is not the same thing as publishing. Publishing is ever-nostalgic for a mythic golden age, one that existed before the so-called death of print, the Amazon factor, the rise of self-publishing, and the supposed decline of reading. Literature, as it is read and written, is indifferent.

At least that’s the way we look at it at Coffee House Press, and it’s how some others are thinking and acting, too—making literature public, to publish, in new ways, circumventing the negativity that so often clouds the moods of those of us who have chosen this profession.

Tin House is one example. It has not only extended the “artful and irreverent” editorial vision of its journal to its books, but also established a very successful writer’s workshop in Portland. This past year, when we shared a sponsorship with Tin House at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Seattle, we were able to witness its editors’ pitch to booksellers firsthand. Not only are they excellent at talking about their books, they bring an enthusiasm and exuberance to the industry that’s refreshing. At this show, they were pitching a new title in their remarkable illustrated series: Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself. We drooled over the galley. That series, which also includes Heart of Darkness and Moby-Dick, is not only smart publishing, but also just plain fun.  Taking public domain books—classics—and turning them into stunning visual art makes you want to buy them again, even if you already have a copy.

Two Dollar Radio, a relatively new indie making a big splash, made an even bigger splash when it announced the launch of Two Dollar Radio Moving Pictures, a “micro-budget film division.” These aren’t book trailers; they aren’t done just to promote their titles, or even their brand. These are creative, exciting works of art in their own right; each one gives you the sense that the people behind it are incredibly creative people who love books, but who also love movies, and love making things, making things happen, trying something new. It sounds so simple, but it really was a paradigm shift for Two Dollar Radio to even think this was a possibility. 

Melville House, too, especially through its blog, MobyLives, and its accompanying broadcast via social media, provides a strong commentary about the industry, and news about a wide range of concerns other than its own books, serving readers and writers first, establishing a brand for itself as a publisher second. I once met with cofounder Dennis Johnson in the Melville House office (which, by the way, doubles as bookstore, gallery, and reading venue—brilliant), and asked why he started the press in the first place. He probably said a lot of other things, but what I remember was, “Because I was mad about George Bush.” That political instinct, that activism, is on display in MobyLives, which is probably unmatched in the industry for its frank opinions, telling truth to power. It’s clear that the energy of scrappy, grassroots activism has fueled its rapid growth; its beautiful and distinctive novella, biography, and Neversink series; its hybrid e-books; and much more. Like its multiuse space, Melville House can’t be pinned down or properly labeled, and my guess is that it would prefer not to.

What these extracurricular activities have in common is that they aren’t an extension of marketing or publicity. Not that there is anything wrong with a publisher crafting creative events in support of a book; that’s smart. But these publishers are creating new kinds of content, things publishers don’t traditionally do, to connect with readers in new ways. Literature, in these instances, is less about product and more about engagement, about serving the different and changing needs and desires of audiences. Some of it is about different revenue streams, but not all of it. 

These are literary publishers—a small but very influential subset of publishing overall. They are also very small compared to, say, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, or Norton. But instead of small, let’s think of them as nimble. Like Coffee House, all the presses I’ve mentioned get reviewed in the New York Times, have national distribution, and compete for space and attention with the literary divisions of big houses. But because they are small, they can try things big publishers might not find worthwhile or consistent with the aims of a traditional publishing program.

At Coffee House, we interrogated all our assumptions about the industry, how we do business, how we reach our goals. The largest assumption? That we publish books. Everything changed when we decided no, publishing books is not our goal; it’s a tactic we use to achieve our actual goal, which is to connect writers and readers. 

Today, Coffee House Press defines itself as an organization that connects writers and readers by designing and producing literary experiences. The primary way we do this is by publishing and selling books, like everyone else, through a distributor in a traditional manner. In fact, we’ve always connected writers and readers; we just didn’t think of it that way. Coffee House started as a mimeo magazine, grew into a fine letterpress printer, then a traditional publisher, adding e-books and a website and social media. We sell audio and translation rights, just like everyone else. Connecting writers and readers over the course of the decades, and continuing to do that, means delivering content however and wherever the reader or writer wants. But what is a publisher if you take books out of the equation? What’s the next step? 

What does innovation look like in the context of literary publishing? Hint: It’s not e-books. 

We looked at libraries, who’ve seen their own model upended, and who seem to always be ahead of publishing in terms of adapting to the needs of their patrons. We considered the Library as Incubator Project, an organization that believes libraries are places to connect and create. And we thought, how can a publisher be an incubator?

Coffee House, like libraries, thinks of our books, of all books, as potential collaborators. Our writers, too. Each has the potential to lend itself to partnerships. We think of our role as catalyst and connector, driving various kinds of cultural and community engagement. Sometimes that takes a solid and sellable form, and sometimes it’s performative, electronic, participatory, or even culinary. This is the kind of publishing we’re interested in, and what we think literature, and publishing, needs more of. 

Through our CHP in the Stacks program, we put writers-in-residence in libraries—public libraries, museum libraries, historical-society libraries, and more—to collaborate with the collections to make new art, and to shine a light on library resources that might be seldom used, neglected, or overlooked.  

This kind of residency program isn’t limited to libraries. Last year, we sat down with the director of programming at the Walker Art Center. Knowing our enthusiasm for collaborative literary projects, she wanted to partner with us on a piece for their upcoming Edward Hopper exhibit. We ended up co-commissioning a serial novella based on Hopper’s painting Office at Night. We selected two Coffee House fiction writers for the project: Kate Bernheimer, an expert in all things fairy tale, and Laird Hunt, a genre-defier who straddles literary noir and Midwestern gothic. They were put “in residence” in the painting, and tasked with cowriting a novella based on it. That novella, now complete, has been published in sections on the Walker website; we’ll eventually publish it in its entirety as an e-book. 

Even if you only read about the project—while standing at the actual painting, or in the newspaper—and imagine what the story might be, it will have an impact on you. Even better, it might prompt you to think differently about writing, about painting, about narrative, and about possibility.  And that change in thinking, to me, is a real measure of creative success. 

I’ve spoken to people at aquariums, zoos, restaurants, and public-television stations across the country. Everyone has said, You should do a residence here! When I tell them they don’t need us, they can do it themselves, they say, No, we don’t know how to work with writers, edit, design, market—that’s what you know. 

At BEA this year we’ll be talking about our books—books we believe are great literature, and we hope to sell, sell, sell. But we’ll also be talking to people about what else publishing can do when it thinks outside packaging. I hope we get to talk to you about it. 

Though we didn’t sell a single book that night at Matt’s Bar, it was one of my favorite, and one of our most successful, events. 

Three months earlier, we published Andy Sturdevant’s collection of essays, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow. The author is a journalist and social practice artist whose primary concerns are cities and how we live in them, and engage with them, to create meaning, cultural understanding, and connection to people, geography, and history.

In “At Matt’s Bar, in a Blizzard,” Andy writes about his experience walking to the bar, three years before, as a recent transplant from Louisville, Kentucky. It’s a terrific essay about past relationships, memory, Roxy Music, hamburgers stuffed with cheese, and a neighborhood come alive during a blizzard, shovels scraping.

But on this particular night, we gathered to watch the film that local artist Kate Casanova  and musician Chris Koza had created, inspired by Andy’s essay. We’d scheduled it to coincide with the first significant snowfall of the year—a kind of frozen flash mob. We stood there for about twenty minutes in our heaviest winter gear, joined by patrons going in and out of Matt’s, and by all those driving by on the busy street, probably baffled and at least curious. Little did they know they were reading an essay, in a way, and were witness to a new kind of publishing.


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Rolf Yngve's picture
Rolf Yngve · 9 years ago

Yes. It's gotta go this way. And the work has to cross the former boundaries of media. That's what I like so much about your collaboration with the Walker. They've been out in front looking for the doors across the arts for at least 50 years. This is it. This is the future. 

Nina's picture
Nina · 9 years ago

"and my guess is that it would prefer not to" - brilliant. What a great read! Thanks for the excellent article.

SK Figler's picture
SK Figler · 9 years ago

Congratulations on your new and daring direction at Coffee House Press.  It sounds interesting and exciting, especially as Coffee House Press has chosen to take a tangent away from---not completely, but significantly---publishing books.  Of course, publishing has always been about connecting readers with writers; that is its essence.  But these times are characterized by upheaval in so many ways, certainly not the least in publishing.  

As a writer/author of books, however, I see this as a loss, and I'm saddened by it, especially if this is the direction adopted by more and more small presses.  Perhaps it's something you need to do to (a) survive and (b) remain relevant, however that is defined.  I'm thankful that publishing on the whole is no longer a "constant pie," that is, an industry in which a slice taken in a new direction does not mean less for others at the table.  That's only true at the individual publisher level, such as Coffee House Press.  Bon apetit.


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