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How to Publish in a Recession: Coffee House Press’s Allan Kornblum

(This is Part 5 (Part 4, Part 3, Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I’m interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

Allan Kornblum is the publisher at Coffee House Books.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

Allan Kornblum: Publishing is in a huge state of flux right now, but then again, it has continually changed since the days of the oral tradition. While the distant past may not be germane, we do have to go back to the middle years of the twentieth century. At that time, publishing was certainly a business, as it is today, but it was a business that had accepted a low rate of return on investment, in exchange for the thrill (and it is a thrill) of being part of the cultural life of the country, and indeed, the world. But in the 1980s and 1990s, bigger publishers began gobbling up smaller publishers, and then multinational corporations swallowed up the bigger publishers. Suddenly these houses needed to service the debt involved in buyouts, on top of the relatively modest six-to-eight percent return on investment that Bennett Cerf and Alfred Knopf had once been happy to receive.
When you throw the internet, DVDs, and other forms of entertainment into the mix, major publishers were having difficulty sustaining their business model even before the recession hit. Now with Borders on the brink, and former readers becoming would-be writers and self-publishing books instead of reading books, a major shake-up was inevitable. Where it’s going to end is anybody’s guess. But publishing isn’t going to return 20% or even 15% on the dollar—it never has in the past, and I don’t think it will in the future. I think all these changes that are making things difficult for the major houses provide an opening for smaller publishers. It remains to be seen how it will all play out, however.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same? What do you attribute this to?

AK: For Coffee House Press, 2008 went very well. We had some books with regional appeal that found their market, and books with national appeal that received a nice boost from reviewers and we had a National Book Award finalist. Our break-out titles were The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, and Blood Dazzler, poems by Patricia Smith, our National Book Award finalist. Other titles that helped make the year a success include Jealous Witness, poems by Andrei Codrescu; Open Line, a novel by Ellen Hawley; and Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, a novel by David Mura.

Just like movie studios, a few big hits can help carry a small publishing house. We’ve also been doing well with the sale of translation rights. We attribute our success to a combination of factors. First, we do all the little things right: our books come out on time; we get out review copies out to reviewers early, and include cover letters with all the information reviewers need; and our books are consistently well-edited, designed, and produced. Of course we definitely had a little bit of luck with some of our titles, but we were ready for that luck with a great staff. We believe in our authors, and in each other.

SE: What in particular are you planning to do in 2009 to react to economic changes?

AK: What we’ve been doing since we ran into financial trouble in the early part of the decade: try to keep our costs down, make our marketing dollars as cost effective as possible, be conservative on print runs, and be ready when opportunities appear.

SE: Chad Post at Open Letter, a nonprofit press, has already noted that some of the grant money he expected for 2009 might not be forthcoming. As someone who works at a nonprofit press, what do you expect the grants and donation landscape to be in 2009 in comparison to previous years?

AK: We are anticipating an immediate 10% – 20% drop in individual donations in 2009, and a subsequent, comparable drop in grants in 2010 and 2011. We believe the economy will start coming back in 2011, and grants and donations will start to improve in 2012.

SE: How sensitive is Coffee House to unexpected changes in grants and donations? For instance, if some of your expected grants got stuck in limbo due to budget cuts and freezes, would this force you to postpone titles?

AK: At one point Coffee House income was 60% donated and 40% earned. During the last two years, those percentages have flipped–not because of a drop in donated (which has been flat) but because of an increase in earned income. I know we’re in a world-wide recession–it’s not just a US problem. But between US sales and translation rights sales, we think we can continue to build on our recent growth in earned income. But whenever I say things like that, I have to remind myself and my listener that you have to have an "optimism gene" somewhere in your emotional make-up to be a publisher. I try to cock my head, get some distance, and coldly evaluate our books and the marketplace, and I think I’ve done that and I still think we can continue to improve our earned income. Time will tell if the idealistic part of my personality has fooled my realistic side.
But to answer your question—for the moment, we believe we will be able to live up to all the commitments we’ve made to authors. If the recession drags on longer than anticipated, we’ll have to reassess our resources and our plans.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

AK: Houghton Mifflin’s mission is to make money for shareholders first, and to serve literature second. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good. Survival is a key part of serving the public good, but we’re not under pressure to make the same kind of margins as a for-profit house must make to serve both of its missions. And expectations are different–our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings. And we don’t get into pissing contests with our peers, bidding up celebrity memoirs so a competitor won’t get it. But all that being said, we’re all at the mercy of the moods of the booksellers. If they’re so worried about being stuck with too much inventory, if they see those images of empty aisles loaded with flat screen tvs going nowhere, if they see the same footage of car lots overflowing with inventory that I see on CNN, they may not order books this spring. And if the books don’t get into the stores, they won’t get into readers’ hands. So we’ll have to see what happens next.


SE: How well do books hold up in a recession?

AK: On the one hand, book sales did not experience a big boom during Christmas, with shoppers switching from $1,000 computers to $25.00 hardcover books, but in a year of disasters in one industry after another, book sales decreased by only 3%, if my memory serves me right. And according to the latest National Endowment for the Arts survey, readership is starting to rebound in all age groups, after years of steady decline. When almost everyone discovered the value of their retirement fund had been cut in half, in a year when literally millions of people lost their jobs, a 3% decline in sales looks pretty good. But again, you have to be a "glass is half full" person to devote your life to publishing.


SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers came on the scene during the UK’s recessionary ’80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn’t broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

AK: That sounds like a think piece by a journalist, not feedback from a working editor. It’s my job not to offend journalists, because someday they may be writing about one of our authors. . . . But to me, that just sounds silly. When a publishing house believes it has discovered a genius, it’s not going to wait for a recession to release the author’s book.


SE: By contrast, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model more alluring than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has "worked wonders," and she argued that it made more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than spread your money around a number of low-payoff books. In particular, she stated that publishers that spend "an inordinate amount on an acquisition, will do everything in its power to make that project a market success," that large acquisition deals indicate seriousness to chain bookstores, and that publishers that don’t show a willingness to bet bit on manuscripts in recessions will be shut out in the future. Obviously these kinds of blockbuster books don’t pertain to Coffee House, but what do you think of this logic, especially as it pertains to publishing in a recession?

AK: It actually sounds like the strategy Borders has been following during the last few years. Hasn’t worked too well for a bookstore chain, has it. I don’t think it’s going be an effective strategy for publishers either. That doesn’t mean some publishers won’t try it, depending on whether book people are calling the shots, or someone from another industry called in to make a publishing house more profitable. But last season’s best sellers are next season’s overflow in the remainder racks. Meanwhile some of those midlist titles will wind up on teaching lists and keep selling for another ten years, long after cartons of those best sellers have been recycled into cartons.


SE: As a follow-up, would you say that in times of recession emphasis shifts away from publishing’s center?

AK: The recession isn’t the only factor driving changes in writing and publishing. Writers on the one hand, and book and magazine publishers on the other, are both trying to figure out what the changes in information technology will mean. Will books get shorter, so they can be read on a cell phone? Will nonfiction migrate to ebooks, while literature stays on the printed page? Will backlist titles become downloadable PDFs? Will future desktop printers include binding equipment? Newspaper and magazine ad revenue has been shrinking, and no one has figured out how to turn electronic publishing into a business model that works. Keep in mind that clay tablets lasted 3,000 years, papyrus scrolls lasted two thousand years, the handwritten rectangular book we recognize today continued for about a thousand years, and letterpress printing lasted 500 years. All of a sudden we’ve had desktop book design, the internet, and the ebook, all in the last twenty-five years. Writers, publishers, and readers have had to swallow these major changes as if we were all at a fast food restaurant, so it’s not surprising that we’re all suffering a bit of indigestion.
I’m not saying that the recession isn’t going to have an effect on publishing, but it’s not the only part of the ever-changing landscape we’re all trying to negotiate.


SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

AK: Well as noted above, that’s my biggest concern. I believe Yogi Berra once said, "If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, you just can’t stop them." If booksellers don’t order books, we small press publishers can’t stop them. The demise of legendary stores like Cody’s on the West Coast and Robin’s in Philly is heartbreaking. But I still have that damned stupid optimism gene. And that leads me to believe that when the recession is over, new idealists will open new stores, and one in ten will find a way to make it work. And I do believe that booksellers know they need a variety of books to satisfy their customers, not a half dozen best sellers. In any event, we had a pretty good 2008–and I believe in the books we’re publishing, and I believe in the relationships we have, and Consortium’s sales reps have with good booksellers. We’ll see what happens next.

SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing?

AK: Advances in technology have cut some costs, balancing the increase in the cost of paper. As a result, production costs have been pretty steady over the last decade.
On the other hand, we just had an administrative staff person move on, and I received 110 resumes–four times the number we received the last time we advertised the position. And yeah, that’s the recession, no doubt about it. It’s tough out there. For all the optimism I’ve expressed, I’m holding my breath and, to use a Minnesota image, hoping we can skate over the thin ice and get to the other side of the lake.

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4 comments to How to Publish in a Recession: Coffee House Press’s Allan Kornblum

  • Excellent interview…great info, analysis. Thanks

  • Interesting. I have the feeling that the tottering edifice will creak and groan onwards but I don’t think publishers are more immune than the car industry – in fact less. Probably, returns will be the first concept to go, and then if it gets really dire, there will be a flood of ebooks in an attempt to convert the ones that float to the top into paperbacks.
    Citiria

  • For a literary fiction house, you’re pretty quick to dismiss “would be” writers as self-publishing instead of reading — considering that “would be” writers represent a demographic that tends to be interested in literary quality.

  • Interesting that you bring up oral tradition and the history of literature. It is, in fact, the strength of storytelling (as distinct from the written story) that has brought readers en masse to works like Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Neither is what I would call a masterpiece of written literature but both series compelled, whether through story or character. In oral tradition, if you could not compel your audience right away, and keep them coming back, you had no audience. If we can use oral storytelling to lead people to read the rest of the story, maybe we can shepherd in a new era of more reading.
    Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages
    Forthcoming from Avon Books
    http://www.vanithasankaran.com

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