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St. Paul, Minn. — Allan Kornblum first dabbled with printing presses at school in New York while studying to be a music teacher.
"At the time, in the late '60s and early '70s, it seemed to be almost a coming of age ritual for young poets to start a little magazine and run it for a few years and then it would die," says Kornblum. "And I thought that that's what I would do as well."
But Kornblum has been running Coffeehouse Press for 20 years now, and he's still going strong.
He started it in Iowa under the name Toothpaste Press, and handset books of poetry himself. On a trip to the Twin Cities for a book fair, Kornblum says he recognized an energetic literary and printing scene, and he wanted to be a part of it. So he moved to Minneapolis.
He no longer sets his type by hand, but he now publishes novels and short stories in addition to poetry. Kornblum prides himself on the quality of books he publishes. Coffeehouse Press specializes in works by authors of color and other minority communities. He's published the books of Minnesota authors Sandra Benitez, Alexs Pate and poet Wang Ping.
Kornblum says the book world has changed drastically over the past twenty years. Many independent bookstores have been replaced with major chains and online outlets. That makes life hard for small publishers.
"At one point the chains represented about 25 percent of the market and independent booksellers about 75 percent, and now those figures are reversed," says Kornblum. "As a result, if the chains don't buy into one of your books you're squeezed out. To some extent a couple of buyers in Barnes and Noble and Borders have veto power over what's going to show up in bookstores around the country."
In addition, Kornblum says many of the leading for-profit publishers are owned by the same companies.
"What appears to be over 100 publishers is really only five. Random House, Knopf, Vintage Contemporaries, Bantam, DoubleDay, Dell, Delacourt, Washington Square Books, Dolphin Editions; they're all owned by the same company - Bertelsmann."
Simon and Schuster is owned by Viacom; Warner Books is owned by Time-Warner. Kornblum says these big publishers have to pay strict attention to the bottom line. So they can't take risks on a new author who's not guaranteed to make a hefty profit.
Kornblum says major houses rely on small non-profit presses like his to find new writers and give them a test run. If they garner some good reviews from the critics and develop a readership, the big houses might then offer to publish their next book.
Milkweed Editions first started as a publisher of literary magazines, but in the mid-1980's switched to publishing books. It's now situated in Open Book, a center for the book arts in downtown Minneapolis. Open Book is the only center of its kind in the nation. It operates as a literary incubator.
Editor-in-Chief Emerson Blake says Milkweed is dedicated to publishing works that better humanity. Milkweed is the most successful of the small, independent non-profit literary presses in the nation - it publishes 15 to 20 books each year. A large for-profit publisher will often put out upwards of 500 books each year.
"At 500 books a year, even with a lot of staff you can imagine that those kinds of books are just not going to get the kind of attention that you're going to have at Graywolf, Coffeehouse and Milkweed," says Blake. "At these small publishers every book we put out counts. Every book we put out really means something to us, and as a result of that every book gets a special kind of attention."
Blake says he has nothing against blockbuster books from the big publishing houses. He reads them. He says they often speak to something important going on in the present culture.
"But I think it's also important to have books that speak to values that aren't just about 2004, or just about the upcoming election, or just about something that happened last year," says Blake. "It's important to have books that speak to basic human values, that speak to things that we struggle with every single day."
Blake points to authors such as Jane Austen and John Steinbeck, who wrote in different eras, but whose works are timeless. It's the next Austen or Steinbeck he's looking to publish.
Such small presses can't survive on their booksales alone. They rely on outside funding to stay afloat.
But nationally there are few foundations - aside from the National Endowment for the Arts - that dedicate funds for publishing. Fiona McCrae of Graywolf Press in St. Paul says publishing isn't nearly as compelling as say theater or dance when it comes to charitable giving. Publishers exist locally, but they work nationally, so they can't really talk about how they effect their community. They don't even really know who their readers are.
"You have a situation where somebody is reading one of your books and they don't know they're doing it. 8 out of 10 readers don't look at the spine," says McCrae. "And we don't know they're doing it, either. Right now as we speak there may be hundreds of people across the country holding, reading, studying a Graywolf book, but it doesn't show up anywhere."
So how is it that Coffeehouse, Milkweed and Graywolf have managed to do so well over the years, while other non-profit presses across the country struggle? All three presses point to local foundation support. They say they rely heavily on the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, The Bush Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board in addition to a host of local companies that give charitably to the arts. That's one of the reasons why Graywolf Press moved to Minnesota from Washington State back in the 1980s. Fiona McCrae, Allan Kornblum and Emerson Blake all say it's a major reason for why their presses have continued to thrive.
The McKnight Foundations's Neal Cuthbert says while funding may have been key, it's also helped that the Twin Cities literary community is so vibrant.
"Funders don't make things happen - people do," he says. "All these people were doing incredible work, and it might not be of the scale that it is, it might not be of the prestige that it is if it weren't for the funding, but they'd all be doing it. That work would be happening in one way or another."
Cuthbert says the literary scene feeds off itself. He points to organizations like Open Book, Rain Taxi, SASE and others, all aimed at fostering the local readers and writers. The more organizations there are, he says, the more attention they get, and the more important they become to the community.
Back in the 1970s and '80s Jim Sitter was working at Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul, and distributing independently published magazines and books out of a truck. He founded the Minnesota Center for Book Arts before moving to Manhattan to work for the Nations Trade Association for Publishers of Poetry and Fiction. Sitter says Minnesota is unique in the country with it's abundance of literary houses and related centers for writing and reading. He says local publishers should take advantage of the situation and jump to the next level.
"Perhaps a press like Graywolf needs to start thinking of itself as NOT a small press," says Sitter. "But rather should it think about becoming a much larger nonprofit organization with larger national presence than they already have?"
Sitter says the Twin Cities have the potential to be the national hub of non-profit publishing in the same way New York is the hub of all for-profit publishing. Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York, agrees the Twin Cities publishing scene is exceptional. He says literature still plays a crucial role in influencing people's ideas about their culture and the world, so quality non-profit presses are essential. But, he says, in order for these presses to continue to thrive they need the strong support of not just the foundations, but their community as well.
"And so not only should they try to buy local just like you buy produce - buy the books from the houses that are local - but get to know them," says Lependorf.
Minnesotans will have an opportunity to do just that on October 16th at the Twin Cities Book Festival. The all-day event takes place at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College in downtown Minneapolis. It features author readings and signings, children's book readings and hands-on activities for kids, a magazine fair and a used book sale. Local presses Milkweed, Graywolf and Coffeehouse will all be there.