Interview with an Indie Press: Coffee House Press
On Working Outside the Margins of Publishing
In a corner of northeast Minneapolis, Coffee House Press has been quietly publishing some of the most creatively adventurous, engaging books of the last few decades. The publisher, which started as a letterpress, will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary next year. Members of the staff answered questions about what makes indie publishing unique, their favorite recent and upcoming books, and how they keep a close relationship to readers (takeaway: they really want you to get in touch).
What are some of the benefits to working at an independent press?
I feel like Coffee House is in a special place right now where we have an amazing publishing history at our backs, while at the same time we get to be part of a contemporary flourishing of independent publishing in the present. I was drawn here by CHP’s political and artistic legacy, and it still feels special to be somewhere that’s always been a home for literary work outside the margins. Working here, I know that the books we’re publishing are valuable contributions to literature and culture; we can publish strange, creative, challenging work without feeling like we’re compromising our taste or ideals to get by. I love our nexus of hybrid-genre, autotheoretical feminist books, for instance, and I think the qualities that make those works special and exciting to us are the same that may preclude their acceptance at larger or more traditional publishers. –Daley Farr, publicist
One of the biggest benefits, in my experience, is the camaraderie and sense of shared purpose among the staff. It’s such a privilege to work at a value-driven organization and to know that all of my colleagues are just as invested in CHP’s mission as I am. I’m also grateful to be at a press where there’s such a strong legacy of championing work that takes risks in terms of form and content, and I think that’s much more feasible at an independent nonprofit publisher, where you’re not relying solely on sales potential to make decisions about which books you’ll publish. –Lizzie Davis, editor
What are some of the challenges to working at an independent press?
It is hard to overstate just how much work everyone here is doing! There are just ten of us, and I think we’re all proud of everything we’re able to accomplish together, but it’s definitely a challenge to do it all every day. We believe so strongly in our books and the artists we work with that we want the world for all of them, and it can be a tough balance to strike with our limited resources and people power. –Daley Farr, publicist
One challenge that I find really rewarding is educating people about the publishing industry, especially the differences between independent presses and corporations. I find that a lot of people, even voracious readers, don’t realize the essential role independent publishers play in making artistically adventurous books available—or the obstacles we have to overcome in order to do so. The unique editorial vision an independent press develops is another thing that is underappreciated by many readers. I always tell my friends outside “the business” that an indie press whose “personality” resonates with you is just like a favorite author: you can always count on them to have books you’ll enjoy! That’s just not true with big publishing houses. –Marit Swanson, marketing and sales manager
Were there any titles in particular that were game-changers for your business?
This was before I started working here, but Justin Phillip Reed’s debut, Indecency, winning the National Book Award (the press’s first!) was a huge point of pride and excitement; the award itself, of course, but also the idea that it was a rare opportunity to introduce so many more readers to this thorny, provocative, and technically brilliant book of poetry. I think Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends was an exceptional book for CHP; it struck such a chord with people, politically and emotionally, while at the same time, it’s a narratively complex examination of how and why we tell stories, and questions what literature’s ability to affect change really is. And I have a soft spot for our Emily Books imprint, with titles like Myriam Gurba’s Mean and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, which was great for us both from a sales and an amazing-freaky-books-by-women perspective.
Cumulatively, over the last 50 years, I think our list has continued to be game-changing in terms of artistry. From Anne Waldman to Quincy Troupe to Rikki Ducornet to Karen Yamashita…I can’t list everything, of course, but the literary history here is overwhelmingly rich, and that’s the kind of wealth we’re interested in cultivating. –Daley Farr, publicist
I think I’m going to sidestep the question. I want to say that all of the books we’ve published have been game-changers for us, for their authors. Some books make more money than others. Some books win awards and some don’t. But every book is important, and every book has the power to challenge a narrative, to change a point of view or even a life. –Erika Stevens, editorial director“To trust that readers will love and appreciate books that defy popular expectations and conventions is a huge risk.”
We’ve been lucky enough to have some books really take off internationally in the last decade and a half: Sam Savage’s Firmin, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance, Jade Sharma’s Problems…It’s thrilling to see these books, many of them debuts, getting translated into Hungarian, Catalan, Dutch, Danish, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, German. Putting a new edition on our foreign-rights shelf and imagining that it will find its way into the hands of readers in another timezone, another country, another language, never gets old. –Lizzie Davis, editor
What are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken as a business? How did you navigate them?
We believe in publishing art for art’s sake, and our metric is not success the way the big business parts of the industry measures success. We tend to think that the greater risk is in what we’d all miss if nobody made space for the voices and projects that fall outside mainstream publishing’s interests. –Erika Stevens, editorial director
Beginning to publish translations more regularly and intentionally was certainly a risk: translations are expensive to produce, and (unfortunately!) it’s never assumed that they’ll sell as well as books originally written in English. But we’ve now been publishing translations of works by Latin American writers since 2014, and I can safely say that it’s one of the best risks we’ve ever taken. I’m not sure there was much navigation involved—I think we got very lucky by starting off with three books from the inimitable Valeria Luiselli, in translation by Christina MacSweeney, and that helped us build a devoted base of readers of translated literature. Valeria was also instrumental in pointing us in the direction of other writers whose books were a fit for Coffee House: Rodrigo Márquez Tizano, Daniel Saldaña París, Guadalupe Nettel, Naja Marie Aidt, and others. Now, the challenge is keeping up with our prolific authors—I look forward to the day when we can publish more than two books in translation a year! –Lizzie Davis, editor
To trust that readers will love and appreciate books that defy popular expectations and conventions is a huge risk, and I think requires a great deal of respect for writers and readers alike. We have to stay willing to trust people to take a chance (shoutout to booksellers who bridge this gap every day), and when they do, love what they find, change a writer’s life or consider their own in a different way, that’s the reason for what we do. –Daley Farr, publicist
How has the coronavirus crisis changed your work?
Of course, it’s completely upended how we operate in so many ways it’s hard to even comprehend them. We are proud of launching the Coffee House Writers Project, and grateful to everyone who helped us put cash directly in the hands of booksellers and artists whose livelihoods were threatened by the pandemic. And our staff is based in Minneapolis and Portland, so the uprisings last spring and summer felt like upheavals equal to, or even exceeding, the pandemic. Most of us were very active in protests and mutual aid efforts in our neighborhoods, and deeply affected by the experience of living, however briefly, in a revolutionary world people in our cities had created together. The pandemic and uprisings forced us not only to take a closer look at our values as an organization and as individuals, but also to totally re-evaluate how we do our work—how could we make it more effective, inclusive, imaginative, supportive, efficient? How could we more actively fight white supremacy and patriarchy in our industry and our own systems? What more could we do to make Coffee House the kind of publisher we want it to be? We are still very much in the midst of that process, but it’s brought us closer as a staff, and we are all energized by the work of making Coffee House better for ourselves, our authors, our readers, and our communities. –Daley Farr, publicist
What are some projects you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
Our reissue of Echo Tree by Henry Dumas is something we’ve all been looking forward to—after a few prior delays, the staff really came together when planning this season to say “this is an important book and we want to make it happen,” and that’s what we’ve done! Meanwhile, I cannot wait for people to read Julietta Singh’s The Breaks, an epistolary memoir about race, queer motherhood, and how we might collectively remake our world to save it. At one point in the book, Julietta’s daughter (to whom the book is addressed) makes a protest sign that says “No Walls, No Meanies, More Girls,” and that nicely sums up the vibe. I am also a total Eugene Lim evangelist, so to be publishing his new novel, Search History, this fall is super exciting. –Daley Farr, publicist
I’m excited about so much of the work we have coming, but I’m thrilled to have published Daniel Borzutzky’s Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018, which is a kick in the pants in all the right ways. Eloisa Amezcua’s Fighting is Like a Wife is coming soon, and I’d strongly advise everyone to subscribe to her weekly newsletter, “Dream Life.” And of course, stand by for new work from Anne Waldman, Raquel Gutierrez, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Victoria Blanco, Sun Yung Shin, and the list goes on… –Erika Stevens, editorial director
I love interesting series, so I’m particularly excited about a new project we’re launching this fall with guest editors Ken Chen and Youmna Chlala: the Spatial Species series. Inspired by George Perec’s classic An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, the books in the series turn place-centric writing inside out, exploring margins, forgotten corners, and negative space while experimenting with language and genre in true Coffee House fashion. They’re also going to be covetable objects: pocket-sized, with lush cover art by Mika Albernoz, and (my favorite!) french flaps. Our first title is Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan, an intimate study of Alaskan glaciers, memory, and the art-making process. –Marit Swanson, marketing and sales manager
How do you get feedback from your readers?
Please, get in touch! We read all our DMs and emails—if you reach out to us, you will definitely be reaching a real person who wants to help you and hear what you have to say. It’s important to us not just to know more about what our readers think and want to see from us, but also to be accountable to our readers and broader community; as a nonprofit, we exist as a service to the public, and that’s an essential part of our mission. We love getting notes from readers and booksellers, hearing from you on social media, even getting your emails (one-third of this staff are Geminis). I am so excited to see you when we can have in-person conferences and events again! –Daley Farr, publicist
What’s another indie press you love/would recommend?
We are blessed by many truly amazing peers in independent publishing and I wish I could name every single one. To quickly, non-exhaustively narrow it down, I’m a fan of Two Lines Press, I love Feminist Press, Transit Books, Wave Books, Seven Stories, City Lights, our erstwhile co-publishers And Other Stories, and dorothy: a publishing project. I always want to know what’s coming from the University of Texas and Duke University Press. And I’m eager to see what comes of the “new” Dalkey Archive Press now that they’re enmeshed with Open Letter and Deep Vellum. –Daley Farr, publicist
This relates back to the first question for me: one of the absolute best parts of working in independent publishing is the wealth of incredible people and projects I meet and discover! I can’t not mention Two Lines Press: incredible books, the sweetest people, and impeccable design—I’m especially obsessed with their Calico series. Biblioasis has my eternal admiration for their work on Ducks, Newburyport. New Directions has yet to disappoint me. And no list would be complete without our dear friends here in Minneapolis at Graywolf and Milkweed! –Marit Swanson, marketing and sales manager
All of the above! I’m eternally inspired by our indie press compatriots—it is a joy and an honor to get to work alongside such exemplary and dedicated people. I’d like to give a shout to Charco Press in the UK, as well, not least of all for introducing me to Ariana Harwicz. They’ve done something quite special since launching in 2016, publishing Brenda Lozano, Selva Almada, our very own Daniel Saldaña París, Margarita García Robayo, and so many other knockout writers, and building tremendous momentum. Keep an eye out for Rooftop by Fernanda Trías, coming in 2021 in Annie McDermott’s translation, if you’re a fan of claustrophobic, vaguely incestuous novels written in painfully beautiful prose! –Lizzie Davis, editor