The Minneapolis Model
Article by ben
Nobody was expecting Ben Lerner’s first novel.
A poet and critic, Lerner had found success in the limited way academics often do: much respected within his circle, but not well known beyond it. That changed in 2011 with LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION, an elliptical meta-narrative that won the Believer Book Award and was a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award.
It was a surprising success, not only for Lerner, but also for Coffee House Press, the Minneapolis-based independent publisher that took a chance on the novel. Soon, Lerner’s more experimental follow-up, 10:04, landed at Faber and Faber, a larger publisher with a wider reach. Big prizes and bigger advances will likely dot the landscape of Lerner’s career from here on out.
It’s an increasingly familiar narrative in the world of publishing—indie publishers becoming springboards for more conventional literary success (just ask Roxane Gay or Emily St. John Mandel)—and Lerner’s story seems so pure it’s almost wholesome: success hatched from talent, hard work, and belief.
As Caroline Casey, the Managing Director of Coffee House Press, puts it: “We create spaces for art to happen in. It’s great to see [Lerner] embraced. The initial space we made for his book will create a long-term career, hopefully.”
It’s a friendly notion, very different from the usual cutthroat hysterics associated with business—a sort of anti-competition. But then, as Casey herself points out, what does every review of 10:04 at some point mention?
Coffee House Press. The flag, planted.
In recent decades, Minneapolis has become a fecund place for the literary arts, providing a home not only for Coffee House Press but also for Milkweed Editions, another successful independent publisher, and Graywolf Press, a third—and particularly high-profile—indie. This plurality of literary voices in a relatively condensed space has become an inspiration for endeavors across the country. Recently, when Dallas-based Will Evans launched a new translation publisher, Deep Vellum, his model for Dallas’s literary future was simple: Minneapolis.
What has created this environment? Largely, it’s due to generous and widespread funding for the arts from private foundations, individual philanthropists, and governmental action. (For more on this, read Claire Kirch’s “Western Great Lakes: Land of 10,000 Presses.”) “A relatively low cost of living [in Minneapolis],” Casey adds, “means that you can be an artist and still have a house and a life.”
This notion—that there’s enough funding to go around—helps to create in the city a sense of community and pleasure. Free from oppressive financial constraints, Casey describes her job as fun, although “fun” may not be how the average reader would describe some of Coffee House Press’s books.
Take, for instance, Valeria Luiselli’s FACES IN THE CROWD (published in May), a novel in translation about a young writer wandering New York. The book contains slyness and humor, but Luiselli writes in fragmented, poetic style, resulting in a novel that seems broken into pieces and rearranged from page to page. Does it reflect reality? Yes—but so do the shards of a shattered mirror.
It’s a challenging book, no doubt, but challenge draws a reader like Casey. “I like a book that forces me to slow down and pay attention,” because otherwise, she says, “I have the tendency to read a book like a magazine—just skimming across its surface.”
Casey bets that other readers will find pleasure in challenge. She likens it to hiking: “People love to hike. They don’t complain about it because it’s too hard. They don’t walk around the block instead. It’s enjoyable to engage with a text instead of being passive and entertained.”
The success Coffee House Press has found with authors like Luiselli certainly argues that readers are ready for a hike.
Patrick Thomas, Managing Director of Milkweed Editions, stresses the importance of independent, not-for-profit publishers taking on projects that big, for-profit publishers have ignored, often because of dim financial prospects. Without a bottom line, Milkweed can publish artistically valuable books, even if they lack commercial viability. Thomas says that sometimes the risk of losing money is worth it to “fulfill some artistic or social good that’s related to our mission.”
Yet Thomas hasn’t resigned himself to financial despair; like Coffee House, Milkweed has had unexpected successes. He mentions A WHALER’S DICTIONARY by poet Dan Beachy-Quick, a book for “people who really love MOBY DICK and experimental nonfiction.” Thomas chuckles as he says this, adding, “When we sell more than a couple thousand copies of that, we’re blown away.” (It’s worth mentioning that Coffee House Press also took a recent chance on Beachy-Quick, publishing the poet’s first novel, AN IMPENETRABLE SCREEN OF PUREST SKY, perhaps with sepia-toned memories of Ben Lerner’s ascension in mind.)
An even bigger success for Milkweed was THINGS THAT ARE, Amy Leach’s collection of what Thomas describes as “short, artful, incredibly dense essays.” A tough sell, sure, but Thomas had a sense that indie bookstores would know what to do with it. So Milkweed worked especially hard on the design of the book itself, including intricate illustrations, to make an argument for the book as an art object, something that indie bookstores could get excited about. It worked, and THINGS THAT ARE became an unlikely success.
Or was it so unlikely? “Insanely,” Thomas says, maybe only half joking, “I thought it would work all along.”
Thomas’s “insane” confidence suggests an appealing feature of the contemporary independent publisher: editors are mostly free to pursue the projects that grab them as fans, first and foremost. Casey likens an independent publisher to “your favorite staff-pick person at the bookstore”—in other words, a consistent and trustworthy aesthetic can emerge.
Consider this against the environment of “big publishing,” which Casey has obviously given thought to: “Nobody says, ‘I can’t wait for the next Random House book!’ That doesn’t mean anything. But with a small press, consistency can develop, which gives readers a sense of what to expect.”
The equivalent I always think of is the world of independent record labels, especially those of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like K Records and Elephant 6, which seemed built out of a sense of community. People came together to make music on the fringes, and if a lot of the songs sounded sort of the same, it was because the artists were like-minded and went where their impulses took them.
A romantic vision, to be sure—one that, I’d guess, Casey might nod along to, at least half-agreeing with. But she’s also a businesswoman, and she boils that romance down to something a lot more practical (and, dare I say, commercial): “It’s important to develop a brand.”
Thomas agrees with this, though somewhat reluctantly. When I ask him whether Milkweed has an audience as a publisher or whether individual books have their own discrete audiences, he says, “That’s the million-dollar question.
“The majority of readers,” he continues, “are publisher agnostic—interested in authors instead. If people are discovering our authors, that’s fantastic. If they have no clue what Milkweed Editions is, that’s fine too. But like any small business, we’re trying to make sure that customers who’ve liked one of our books know that there are others out there.”
Recently, Milkweed acquired the debut of a University of Houston MFA graduate: Murray Farish’s INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR, a short story collection full of dark material—madness, assassinations, shitty parents and shittier kids—that mainstream publishing passed over for a variety of reasons. But the editors of Milkweed were able to look beyond the content. Instead, they saw in Farish a potential friend, somebody they wanted to work with, just as they had successfully worked with several other authors from the University of Houston program—including Sean Hill, Wayne Miller, and Joni Tevis—in recent years. In other words, the editors felt drawn to Farish and his work, commercial prospects be damned.
“We get to follow our hunches,” Thomas says. “Which is fun.”
Fun for readers, too. Whenever I encounter a new independent publisher and cram its books into my bag to take home, I’m reminded of the early days of a close friendship—days when the mundane pressures of adult life fade out, and nothing seems more important than sitting with a person for hour after hour, sharing drinks and conversation, the questions becoming more personal, the answers more revealing, as the sun dips, as twilight gives way to cool night air, as you reach for sweaters and two more drinks, as you feel like the evening will never end.
In a recent feature for our website, Mark Haber wrote, “Discovering a new indie publisher is like finding a new friend.” So, please, meet Coffee House Press and Milkweed Editions. I’ll let you all talk awhile.
Oh, and the first drink’s on me.
Luiselli will visit Brazos on Thursday, 10/23, at 7PM. Farish will visit Brazos on Monday, 10/27, at 7PM. Order your books today.