“The impulse to publish
is the impulse to
An Interview with Allan Kornblum,
publisher, Coffee House Press
Posted Summer, 2006
by Jessica Powers
NewPages: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Coffee House Press? How and why did you get involved in publishing?
Kornblum: Well, I started with a mimeograph magazine back in 1970. I started the magazine because it just seemed to be one of the coming-of-age things for a young poet to do at the time. Almost everyone I knew had started a little magazine and ran it for a few years. In doing so, you learned what you liked and why you liked it, what really spoke to you, how to talk about writing—that was essentially my incentive at first. Then I took a class on typography at the University of Iowa and was inspired by the instructor and the process. My teacher was Harry Duncan. He had published first editions of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens and may have published Robert Lowell’s first book. I was very attracted to the letterpress craft. Partly under Duncan’s influence and partly of my own interest and volition, I began to learn the history of the craft of books and printing, bought a press and a house in West Branch, Iowa, and under the imprint of Toothpaste Press, began publishing exclusively letterpress books and pamphlets of poetry on a full-time basis in 1973. We published our last Toothpaste title, Anne Waldman’s Make-Up on Empty Space, in December 1983, and re-opened as Coffee House Press in 1984.
During the Toohpaste years, I really did learn the craft of book design and letter press printing, along with a little bit about what went into marketing books, and the schedule of trade publishing. I began attending some of the major trade shows, like American Library Association and the American Booksellers conventions. I saw what the greater publishing world was about and thought there was room for me. I started to see the limitations of letterpress printing—you couldn’t do large or longer books, you couldn’t do fiction. The prices I was charging couldn’t really cover the labor involved. Either I had to become a trade book publisher or switch to being a “private press” publisher and make books in the $200 - $2,000 price range, which is a viable option that others have taken, including several of my friends. I love their dedication to the craft of fine printing, and I love their work, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
My wife and I were getting tired of Iowa, so it all came together: the move to Minnesota, becoming a non-profit house, doing trade books, publishing fiction, and the press name also became part of the change. Toothpaste Press was starting to get letters from authors who were about to get tenure reviews, asking for articles about the press to convince their tenure review committee that even though the press had a funny sounding name, it was a legitimate professional credential. I felt one of the reasons for running a press was to serve authors, and clearly using “Toothpaste” as a press name wasn’t cutting it. We were looking for something that had an association with literature. Coffee houses had been associated with literature for a very long time. For example, [Joseph] Addison and [Sir Richard] Steele edited the one of the very first literary magazines—The Tattler—out of the gossip and conversations they heard in coffee houses. It seemed to be a name that had an association with literature and I love good coffee—it was a good fit.
NP: Do you think a knowledge of the history of books, of letter presses, of printing is necessary for a literary press to be successful?
Kornblum: Well, “successful,” is a funny word—how do you define success? Let me say that a knowledge of the history of books and printing can only add depth and perspective to one’s efforts as a publisher; it can only be a positive. It’s a rich history. The very first trade school ever established was for scribes. Gutenberg? The guy went bankrupt. Gives you a little perspective to know that the very first printer went under and publishing has been in a very precarious state ever since. Some printers, along with their authors, were burned at the stake. Books have started revolutions, some good, some for ill. It’s good to know the history of the business, and the craft. Is it absolutely necessary to be successful? Probably not.
NP: Your website shares the impetus behind Coffee House’s name—how, historically, coffee houses have begun and perpetuated literary revolutions or movements. How do you think Coffee House has contributed to that history? And do you see any recent literary revolutions—or is the entire wave of self-publishing and new independent publishers a possible revolution?
Kornblum: I’m not prepared to discuss at length the relationship between coffee houses and social, cultural, or literary revolutions, but it is interesting to note that both literary magazines and insurance companies began at coffee houses. Insurers would hang out at docks in coffee houses and watch ships and see which ones were well-managed and which were not and charge insurance accordingly. Certainly the cafes of Paris in the early twentieth century saw the birth of cubism, Dadaism, and surrealism, and in the 1950s, the beats frequently read in coffee houses.
With regard to publishing, the clay tablets had tremendous charm. But cuneiform gave way to scrolls and alphabetic forms of writing. The papyrus scrolls gave way to parchment, then to books as we know them. Then finally Gutenberg came along with moveable type, independently reinventing printing, which had already been invented in Korea and spread throughout Asia. But at each stage, a little bit of charm was lost and greater access was gained. As letter press printing gave way to off-set printing, which gave way to desk-top book design programs (curiously known as desktop publishing programs), at each of those stages, a little charm was lost and greater access to the manufacture of books was gained. That seems to be continuing. In principle, it is a social good. That access may not create revolutions in literature, but it makes possible intriguing little pockets of literary activity, where local character can develop because publishing no longer has to be done at a national level. This greater access gives literature the freedom of folk music.
Of course new technologies have also revived the discussion about the demise of the book as we know it. That discussion brings to mind two paradigms: the horse-and-buggy and the automobile, and TV and the movies and the theatre. Movies did not destroy theater—it forced theatre to be more inventive and more relevant. TV didn’t destroy the movies—it forced the movies to improve. It’s my belief that electronic publishing will force traditional publishing to be improve—maybe it will encourage NY publishers never to be Jame Freyed again! If, in fact, one of the theoretical advantages that books have is that they are more slowly put together and that there are checking procedures that have been part of good publishing practice for centuries, let’s make sure that those are restored and fully utilized. Let’s make books better and respond to the challenge of electronic publishing in that manner.
NP: I’m sure you have a personal philosophy about publishing. Can you share it? How do you think it differs from other independent publishers and how do you think it’s the same?
Kornblum: A publisher is providing a service to writers and to a community, and that community can and should be partly local, and it can and should be partly a community in/through time. I want our books to reach readers today, and readers in some future I can’t imagine. As a publisher, I’ve tried to use my abilities and the resources that have been made available to me to turn words in a manuscript into books, and to get those books in front of readers. I’ve tried to use the capabilities of a publishing house to make a difference in the lives of the writers we’ve published, and to make a difference in the communities in which I live, both local and national. I think the impulse to publish is the impulse to share enthusiasm and that is universal. Coffee House has some focus areas—we’ve published a lot of New York School writers, and poets associated with Naropa and Brown University.
I’ve tried to use the capabilities of a publishing house to make a difference in the lives of the writers we’ve published, and to make a difference in the communities in which I live, both local and national.
We’ve done a lot of Minnesota writers because we’re in Minnesota and we’ve done a significant number of books by African American and Asian American writers. I think we’ve found some unbelievable talented writers from every region and ethnicity who explode all of the expectations about what one might have expected them to say or the ways one might have expected them to say it. It’s been a privilege and an honor to make that kind of work available. Other publishers will come forth whose main mission will be to present works from writers of Idaho, or publishers whose main mission will be to publish Hispanic American writers, or left-handed writers—there exists an incredible range of possible focus areas. But the central mission—to share one’s enthusiasm—is the universal impetus for a publisher.
NP: What is a critical attribute or quality to develop or possess as an independent publisher?
Kornblum: You need to be committed to continue learning. This is a field in which you can never stop learning because it keeps changing. You need to learn from commercial publishing and from the basic principles of business as well as to be on top of the changes in the literary community. A commitment to keep learning is definitely one of the keys.
To do it successfully, which you asked about a while ago, you need to master a number of different skills including bookkeeping, financial management, organizational development, staff management, marketing, and some sense of book design, in addition to bringing a literary vision to the table. Those abilities aren’t always found in the same person, so if you don’t have them all, you need to find people to augment your own abilities, and you need to give everybody room to do their jobs.
NP: It seems like there are a million things to do to be successful at marketing. If marketing were ranked in order of importance, what should be held as a priority?
Kornblum: The priority is to have a plan and then be able to execute the plan on time. Your plan for each book might differ. If you have a book that has a small audience, then you shouldn’t spend huge resources on it, but you should make sure the book reaches that audience. If you have a book with potential for big audience, put your resources behind it, but make a plan a year in advance and make sure you maintain your schedule. I can’t tell you how complex book marketing has become. At Coffee House we’re lucky to have a marketing director who reads each book and creates a plan appropriate to the author and the text.
If I were pressed to pick a particular aspect of marketing that we’re stressing these days, it would be the number of galleys. We’re no longer just sending them to book reviewers—they’re also going to booksellers and bloggers. That’s probably one of the most effective uses of our marketing dollars.
NP: How do you find the blog market?
Kornblum: There’s the Litblog Co-op, which lists quite a number of literary bloggers, and our marketing director and publicist together have been doing the research, finding people who review the kinds of books we publish, and getting our books in front of them. It is a new phenomenon and an exciting one because it provides audience response. In some instances, there are blogs that are actually written by book reviewers, for example, Barbara Hoffert, the editor of Library Journal, who will occasionally put a review on her blog because she couldn’t find space for the review in the magazine. But there are also blogs written by readers who, like publishers, want to share their enthusiasm. Those blogs provide authors with a kind of reader-response that was previously unavailable.
NP: Can you name a few magazines or newspapers that are especially good for reviews?
Kornblum: There are the traditional trade magazines—such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, ALA Booklist, and Kirkus, which bring books to the attention of the book trade: the librarians, and book sellers. Those reviews work in concert with our distributor’s sales reps, who are talking to the stores and wholesalers. Obviously, if you get a book reviewed in the New York Times, it’s going to really help your book. That has really national scope. But it’s good to get reviewed anywhere.
Of course, a review in a newspaper in the author’s hometown can make a big difference. Or if the author is writing about birds, a review in the Audubon Society’s journal will help.
NP: Has Coffee House ever been involved in any odd-ball marketing schemes or guerrilla marketing tactics and if so, what was it?
Kornblum: Well, we just published a book that is narrated by a rat who was born in a second-hand bookstore. And after eating scraps of paper that his mother used to create their nest, the rat learns to read. Our marketing director found nine-inch long gummy rats on the internet and we gave them to reviewers and sales reps and sent about 400 off to booksellers with galleys through a marketing program run by our distributor. The [gummy rats] got a lot of attention for our book and were very successful.
And a long time ago we published a book called Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show. We offered to send an Elvis impersonator to the bookstore that came up with the best Elvis window display, as long as it included our book. We were confident that wherever the winning store was located, we’d be able to find an Elvis impersonator nearby. As I recall, the winning bookstore was in St. Louis, and we had no trouble finding an Elvis impersonator who came to the store and performed for an hour.
NP: Do you find a big difference between indie bookstores and the chains? If so, what’s the difference? How can publishers use those differences to market their books more effectively?
There are many differences between indie bookstores and the chains, not the least of which is accessibility for emerging small presses. Without a distributor like Consortium, it is increasingly difficult for emerging small presses to get their books into Barnes & Noble or Borders. They have centralized buying systems in place that give them advantages of scale, but make them difficult to approach. On the other hand those chains are interested in carrying small press books to give color and breadth to their shelves, so if a press is represented by a good distributor that meets with chain store buyers, it’s possible to get a 3,000 copy order that can sweep a small press off its feet. At Coffee House, we value the interest chain stores have shown, and we value the personal integrity and financial risk taken by the visionary people who run independent bookstores. Our job is to get our authors’ books onto bookstore shelves, and we’re willing and eager to work with all aspects of contemporary bookselling world.
But for emerging presses, it’s best to befriend a local indie bookseller, then add another, and then another to a slowly expanding circle. Go to the stores, shake hands, make introductions, give sample reading copies, ask advice, set up some author events. If I were starting from scratch, I’d make a list of ten stores to befriend in my first year, and plan to add at least an additional five stores each succeeding year. I’d print a broadside each year to give to booksellers, learn the names of the staff, and try to turn them into advocates for the press. After I developed a circle of indie bookseller advocates for my new press, I’d find a distributor to help introduce my books to the chains.
When not reading manuscripts, I’ve been reading history lately. I’ve been frustrated and angered by the attempt by the political and religious “right” to claim that theirs is the only correct interpretation of the constitution and of the meaning of American history. They have attempted to make our story as simple as a grade school Thanksgiving pageant.
NP: Coffee House is a non-profit press. Do you ever wish you had gone the for-profit route?
Kornblum: It’s like asking if you would have preferred to have been born rich. Publishing is a capital-intensive proposition. You either have to inherit the money, have investors invest the money (in which case they expect their money to come back with a share of the profits), or become a non-profit and have people donate the money—unless you want to run a very small press that reaches a very small range of people. There’s nothing wrong with a very small press. Some tiny presses have been quite influential. Sylvia Beach only published one book—it just happened to be Ulysses by James Joyce. But if you do want to build a press that has greater scope and might outlast its founder, you do need to have access to financial resources.
Of course the drawback is that I don’t own the press. I can’t sell it. I can’t give it to my children (not that they want it). But Coffee House could never have continued as an exclusively literary press, or attained its current size and scope, without financial assistance. I wanted a press that would be of service to the literary community, not a press that would become a financial bonanza for my retirement. It is my hope that when I am ready to retire, the press will continue under the management of some of the staff who are now at the press. We’re working hard to make sure that will be possible. But that wouldn’t have been possible without the financial resources that were made available by both the local and national philanthropic communities. In short, I have no regrets.
NP: If a publisher who was fairly new to the scene was trying to decide which route to go, what advice would you give to him or her?
Before even thinking about the for-profit/non-profit issue, someone considering this field should start by getting some experience at a publishing house. There weren’t any literary presses of our size when I started. Now there are a lot of opportunities to get an internship or a part-time job at a good small press. Or put up the money and go to the Denver Publishing Institute – it’s a six-week series of classes that give a realistic picture of the business. Learn what you can before you start, unlike me. I just sort of stumbled into it and had to learn gradually. Then think about what kind of press you want to be part of. Think about your concerns, what you want to contribute to the world. Even if you only publish four books a year, in ten years that becomes forty books, and then ten years later, eighty books. Eighty books can make a significant statement if you’ve given thought to the kind of statement you want your press to make. And of course evaluate your access to financial resources, and find someone to help you put together a business plan. Regardless of your tax status, this is a business, and if you don’t bring your head along with your heart to the office, your press will never fulfill its potential.
NP: I was joking around with my editor recently about how I read somewhere that Minnesota is a great state in which to be an artist because there are so many grants available. Would you say this is true? Does operating in Minnesota as a non-profit give you or your writers any kind of advantage?
Kornblum: Almost every state has money that goes to the arts. The difference in Minnesota is the way the money is distributed. In most states, all of the money goes to the major arts institutions in that state. In the Twin Cities, the major institutions would include such groups as the Walker Art Center, the Guthrie Theatre, the Minnesota Opera, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. These are major institutions with budgets that go well over seven figures. They deserve significant support and they receive it; but in some states they’d be the only organizations receiving support. At some point, the Minnesota philanthropic community decided that each funder would reserve funds for small start up operations and mid-sized organizations, in addition to the major institutions. It’s not that there is more money for the arts, it’s the way it’s distributed that creates the stimulating Minnesota arts environment. Those small and medium-sized arts organizations push the large groups to be more creative, while the larger ones compel the smaller ones to reach their standards. I’d encourage other communities to consider Minnesota’s division of philanthropic funds. It does make more work for the grants officers. Sometimes smaller groups are more cantankerous and don’t always know how to fill out an application. Some local philanthropic organizations take a very proactive role, teaching small groups about budgeting, the role of the board, and the steps needed to develop the kind of infrastructure that can sustain an organization beyond the start-up phase. Their effort has made the Twin Cities an exciting place for every aspect of the arts.
NP: Coffee House has been in business since 1984. What’s your secret for longevity?
Kornblum: Take your satisfaction from doing your job as best you can. Know that you’re going to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Remember that it’s about the authors and their books, not about you.
NP: Any books on the publishing business that you recommend?
I can give a quirky, not a definitive list. Some of these books aren’t specifically about publishing, but actually reveal critical issues that continue to reverberate through the publishing industry. Other than the first title, few are specific how-to books. But if you read all of these titles, you’ll have a far richer picture of this great calling.
- One Book Five Ways: The Publishing Procedures of Five University Presses (out-of-print and dated, but still very useful)
- Published in Paris by Hugh Ford (for inspiration)
- A Short History of the Printed Word by Warren Chappell & Robert Bingham
- Book Business by Jason Epstein
- Anatomy of a Typeface by Alexander Lawson
- First Principles of Typography by Stanley Morrison
- Now All We Need is a Title by André Bernard
- Max Perkins, Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg
- Grant & Twain by Mark Perry (an example of a quirky pick)
- Boswell’s Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman (another quirky pick)
- Making the List by Michael Korda (for perspective about the other side of the fence)
- Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius by Edward de Grazia
NP: Let’s end with a more personal question. What are you reading these days?
When not reading manuscripts, I’ve been reading history lately. I’ve been frustrated and angered by the attempt by the political and religious “right” to claim that theirs is the only correct interpretation of the constitution and of the meaning of American history. They have attempted to make our story as simple as a grade school Thanksgiving pageant. The American character can’t be found in Horatio Alger—we’re more like characters in a Dostoyevsky novel, rich in complications and contradictions. So after I finished reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I found Wait Till Next Year, her memoir about growing up in the fifties at a second hand bookstore on a trip to visit my sister in Madison, and I gobbled that up with pleasure just this weekend. Now I’m reading a book about the election of 1800, the fight between Adams and Jefferson, which was just as nasty and partisan as anything seen in recent years. America may not have rolled out a welcome mat, but my grandparents were grateful to come here from Eastern Europe. I want to learn more about this great mixed-up country of ours. One of the principles of small press publishing is to find a way to turn the disadvantages of being small into an advantage. If we all understand our history better, maybe we can find new ways to turn some of our national weaknesses into strengths. Or maybe we’ll just laugh harder at the Daily Show.
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