Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Coffee House Press Founder Allan Kornblum
In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I talk to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture. This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses. How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and economics?
I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us better understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing, books and reading culture, and how we can ourselves both understand and influence the future of books and reading. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been talking to a wide variety of people in the book business, mostly about the future of writing, publishing, and reading. But the future is always built on what has gone before now. And there has been so much incredibly creative and wonderful publishing work done in recent years, I’ve wanted to share some of the experiences of people who have accomplished so much, with vision, talent and amazing effort.
I’ve known Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press (and its predecessor, Toothpaste Press), a long, long time. He and I started out in publishing in similar ways and around the same time, the early 1970s. Allan started out as many of us did in those days publishing a handmade mimeo magazine. But he discovered fine printing by taking classes at the University of Iowa with the renowned Harry Duncan (Cummington Press – there is a great interview with him in a wonderful book called Against the Grain, interviews with independent publishers, you can access this book online through Project Muse). Allan’s Toothpaste Press used letterpress printing to create beautiful poetry books and chapbooks for ten years beginning in 1973, when Allan and his wife Cinda lived in West Branch, Iowa (home of Herbert Hoover).
The Kornblums eventually faced an existential crisis with Toothpaste, to either become a letterpress “art press,” producing limited editions at high prices, with limited readership and distribution, or to aim for a broader audience, which for a low margin literary press, requires financial support. Kornblum elected to create a nonprofit publishing venture, renamed Coffee House Press, and moved to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, the literary mecca of the midwest (then as now), where the press has thrived along with several other excellent publishers, with a literary arts center, and an extremely supportive community of readers and writers. Now having published there for almost thirty years, Coffee House is an established an active organization, with a strong board and staff, and a tremendous list of books to its credit, many of which have won awards and have sold extremely well. Coffee House has maintained consistently high editorial and production standards, but it has also been a successful and innovative book marketer, embracing a wealth of tools and approaches to finding audiences for its books.
Interviewing Allan for Publishing Talks was a pleasure for me. I’d also like to recommend listeners to a written interview with Allan from 2006 that can be found at NewPages.com. And visit the Coffee House Press website to see their latest books as well as their exceptional and impressive backlist. Listener alert! These interviews with independent publishers, documenting their history and experiences, are longer than usual. This one is 53 minutes long. Pull up a chair….