A Platform for New Voices
“More than many other artform, literature can put you inside the head of a character, someone who is completely different from you.”
Chris Fischbach first discovered Coffee House Press as an undergrad. “A lot of the poets I came across while at college were some that Coffee House had published.” His interest led him to an internship at the press. Now, Chris is the publisher at Coffee House Press, which is in its 34th year of operations.
Coffee House Press creates new spaces for audiences and artists to interact, inspiring readers and enriching communities by expanding the definition of what literature is, what is can do, and who it belongs to. “Coffee House Press publishes the books the big houses won’t publish, or won’t publish as well, or won’t give the same amount of resources to,” said Chris. “That can be books that are more experimental in nature, those by new voices, or by voices that are underrepresented in published literature.”
One example of a recent Coffee House publication is The Latehomecomer by Kalia Yang, which was the first creative work published by a Hmong person in the United States. It turned into one of the press’s top domestic sellers. Coffee House has also had a lot of recent success publishing translated work from Latin American countries, such as Tell Me How It Ends and The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli.
Staying Relevant In a Digital World
In the last few years, Chris and the Coffee House team have been thinking creatively about how literature can stay relevant amid the changing nature of the publishing industry. “What if people stop buying books?” asked Chris. “One of the ways we’ve worked to innovate is seeing ourselves as more than a publisher – we’re also a literary arts organization that does different types of programming, where we can have audiences experience work in new ways that might be right in front of them.” This includes providing opportunities for audiences to meet the authors and writers, partnering with other community institutions to create special spaces solely for reading, and commissioning work that enhances other creative work and activities.
Additionally, Coffee House has a program called CHP in the Stacks where they put writers and artists-in-residence in different libraries, archives, and collections to interact with texts to create new art. “We’re expanding the understanding of those libraries, and we’re giving artists and writers new ways to flex their craft,” said Chris.
Enter Equity Builder
Propel Nonprofits has had a long partnership with Coffee House Press, largely due to the delayed cash flow nature of the publishing industry. “When we send a book to print, we’ve already incurred thousands of dollars of expenses,” said Chris. “Then, it takes about six weeks to come back from the printer, at which time the printing bill is due. However, the book might not go on sale for another month or two.” From there, it still takes months to get paid from distributors and in most cases, years for books to turn a profit.
Given Chris’s visionary leadership and Coffee House Press’s need for cash as well as a larger reserve fund, Propel Nonprofits’ Equity Builder Loan Program was a perfect fit. This unique loan program provides arts and culture organizations a working capital loan. A portion of this loan is forgiven on a monthly basis as long as the nonprofit is adding to its own savings fund, ultimately leading to a reserve fund that can allow for risk-taking on new projects and programs.
The Equity Builder model was attractive to Chris not only for the opportunity to strengthen the press’s balance sheet, but also because of its peer learning model. “I was really drawn to both the cohort aspect of it, and also the education part because we’re always looking to improve our financial infrastructure,” said Chris. All 21 Equity Builder organizations meet twice a year, and more frequently with Propel staff for specific financial guidance and planning.
The Next Chapter
One of the main goals of Equity Builder is to allow leaders like Chris the financial freedom to keep thinking bigger with resources to pursue those dreams. True to form, Chris is naturally looking ahead and thinking about how infrastructure improvements will add to the success of Coffee House Press. He plans to use additional Equity Builder funds for new computers. “I’m also really excited to make our HR policies and procedures better so that we can better help our employees be more satisfied and grow in their jobs, along with some of the financial discipline that we’re going to be getting through the Equity Builder,” said Chris.
For Chris, the purpose of literature and hence the work of Coffee House Press remains relevant and worth these investments. “More than many other artform, literature can put you inside the head of a character, someone who is completely different from you,” he explained. “Using a new voice, especially a first-person voice, you can empathize with them and feel what they feel and think what they think. Anytime you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you’re going to be more understanding.”
To learn more about Coffee House Press and to purchase any of its publications, visit its website.
Photos: Coffee House Press