Passing the torch at Coffee House Press


Allan Kornblum, the long-time publisher passing the torch at Coffee House Press, noted that he “came into the field at the end of mimeograph,” then the “tail end of letterpress when the last of the small town printers were getting rid of equipment.”

“And let’s hope not at the end of paper books,” Chris Fischbach, to whom the torch is passing, chimed in. The literary publishing house produces about 18 new books a year. A note from Fischbach in the current catalog states, “starting in 2010 and going forward, all of our prose titles are published simultaneously in paper and e-book formats.” Both men, as Kornblum put it, believe “any writer wanting to be taken seriously will want print.”

Coffee House Press (CHP) moved offices to the Grain Belt Bottling House, 79 NE 13th Ave. about two years ago, after losing their downtown Minneapolis lease at Fourth Street and First Avenue N. It’s one of a group of houses publishing books by authors who appeal to audiences smaller than the huge corporations want to take chances on. Milkweed Editions, Copper Canyon, and Graywolf Press, for example are all competitors and colleagues who constantly elevate publishing standards, Kornblum said.

CHP’s distributor, Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, is, coincidentally, across the street in the Keg House. Physical printing is done all over the country and distributed through a plant in Tennessee. Letterpress equipment on site in Minneapolis is perfect for limited edition broadsides such as the commemorative piece from a recent fundraiser. The event recognized Kornblum’s career and Fischbach, who started at CHP as a letterpress intern in 1994 and worked his way up.
The interns, by the way, read most of the fiction received from first to last, and write reports, for practice. The talent for succinctly describing a book can be learned, Kornblum said, and he’s proud that one-third of recent college or recent-graduate interns have gone on to magazines, publishing houses or bookstores.

E-books and the shifting future

Allan Kornblum, Founder and Senior Editor of Coffee House Press, on e-books:

“They will co-exist.

Photography was feared to be the end of painting, film to be the end of theater. Vaudeville disappeared. Theater got smaller but better. Some kinds of books that are printed now will shift to e-book and stay there. Crosswords, Sudoku. Harlequin Romances are reportedly doing very well online. Novels and poetry will be in both mediums. Any writer wanting to be taken seriously will want to be in print.”

“The question will be an economic model of how to make it work. Book publishing was new at one time. The records we have of early publishers are of bankruptcies.” If a company was doing well, it didn’t have to disclose inventory or financial details… therefore there isn’t economic data on what success looked like during the (initial) shakedown period.

About two years ago, coincidentally at the time of the office move, Kornblum began handing over the publisher reins to Fischbach, and started working on overhauling some of their systems, such as author royalties and author files.

Fischbach said he foresees Coffee House Press continuing to grow. “We have a very active, committed board of directors. We will be further professionalizing operations under them, and doing increased fundraising.” Bigger cash reserves would allow taking more risks. He anticipates more books in electronic form, and more of an international presence perhaps with more translations. Fischbach said he wants “increased ties with the Twin Cities arts community in general.”

Coffee House Press and other small presses plus the Loft Literary Center “are influential nationwide,” Kornblum said. CHP’s new development manager, Andrea Satter, grew up here, as did Fischbach, so they see this as a logical progression.

How does an author or a book get chosen at CHP?

Fischbach said “we choose what will fit in with our other books,” from open submissions, author referrals, and authors with whom they are familiar, while adding five to six new authors per year. There are about 3,000 open submissions a year. “Every manuscript is handled with respect” though it may not be read all the way through by Fischbach, Kornblum, or Anitra Budd, Managing Editor. Turndowns are polite, but they do not try to make suggestions. And of course, there are business considerations, and the publishing house might be in competition with others for a title.

Kornblum, who said his favorite book is “the next one,” said he reads “hoping to fall in love” with something from the slush pile (the industry term) or “the diamond mine” (his term).

Norah Labiner’s Our Sometime Sister, Fischbach’s first acquisition, rose from the slush pile. “I put a big star on it, and set it aside to read further, about a month later,” a “not very long” delay in the industry, he said.

Publishing books “is like conducting a symphony,” Kornblum said. “If there are 12 different authors they’re likely in 12 different cities.” At 12 months before the books come out, estimates are delivered between publisher and distributor, then it’s a mad dash with the editor and author working with solutions to suggestions for improvement, electronic files, page proofs. Meanwhile, covers get negotiated, art chosen, and the marketing and publicity developed. All this is the publisher’s responsibility (Kornblum, now Fischbach). “Plus, there’s the board of directors to report to, what needs the organization has, and what the board can provide. There’s the fundraising component. And keeping track of the money. Chris has his hands full.”

Looking back, looking forward

As Kornblum winds down toward retirement, he’ll concentrate on more systems cleanup and on fundraising projects. And “there are authors I’ve promised to read, some who like working with me on rewrites. And I like helping them fulfill the promise of a manuscript, helping them focus on their key issues and keeping the reader engaged.” He’s started writing his own memoir.

The CHP story started with Dental Floss in 1973, a mimeographed magazine with a counterculture voice. Founder Kornblum had toyed with music and theater, but said he didn’t want to do the practice work that would make him great. “But then I started setting type. I could put in a 12-hour day and be ready to go back the next day.” He was hooked. At 21 he started publishing and at 23 got married, “the two great loves of my life.”

Dental Floss morphed into Toothpaste Press, printing broadsides and letterpress books and the press in residence at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The present name evolved in part from authors needing to have a legitimate credential from their work. It was hard to explain “toothpaste” to review committees.

A book on coffee houses as “Penny Universities” inspired the new name, and Coffee House Press incorporated in 1983 as a non-profit. CHP exhibited at an American Booksellers expo in May 1984 with sample galleys for books due out in fall 1984.

Conversation at British coffee houses was deemed so fascinating that you could get a college education for a penny, the price of a cup of coffee. Coffee houses represented a change from the posted “rules of the inn” where topics were forbidden in order to avoid arguments, and patrons with more money could bump others from choice spots near the fire. At the coffee house, any topic is fair game but fighting’s not allowed, and there’s no bumping.

“When Chris said he thinks of our authors as sitting at an expanding table,” Kornblum said, he knew their ideas were merging well and that Fischbach would grow the vision.

Kornblum said he thinks “other baby boomer founders should explore ways to let a new generation lead, while continuing to contribute. Chris is the right person to take an organization” founded by an iconoclast who grew up in the 60s and give it a “more professional face.”