The editorial directorship at Coffee House Press may have changed hands only six months ago, passing from its founding publisher, Allan Kornblum, to longtime editor Chris Fischbach in July, but the 27-year-old Minneapolis literary nonprofit press certainly hasn’t lost any momentum during the transition. Two of the press’s fall 2011 releases, Leaving the Atocha Station, a debut novel by Ben Lerner, and Sông I Sing, a debut collection of poems by Bao Phi, have been published to critical acclaim in major media publications.
A spring 2012 release, The Last Warner Woman, Kei Miller’s second novel, also is starting to get some buzz within the industry. A review of The Last Warner Woman was selected as PW’s “pick of the week” in the December 19, 2011, issue. Coffee House has such high hopes for it and for another spring release, pop musician Dylan Hicks’s Boarded Windows, that the press is flying Miller from Scotland to ABA’s Winter Institute this month and, in May, releasing simultaneously a downloadable album of Hicks’s music with the debut novel. And in this week’s PW (p. 50), Judith Kitchen’s unconventional memoir, Half in Shade, is warmly reviewed.
Leaving the Atocha Station, which was published in September, landed with the sort of bang that most book publishers can only dream of: a three-page rave by the esteemed critic James Wood in the New Yorker, who called it “subtle, sinuous, and very funny.” Leaving the Atocha Station is the first book in Coffee House history ever to receive a feature review in that publication. Since then, Leaving the Atocha Station has been reviewed just as glowingly by Lorin Stein in the New York Review of Books; Maureen Corrigan on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air; and Jonathan Franzen in the Guardian. The book has even been reviewed favorably in some unexpected publications: the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Foreign Policy.
Fischbach, who acquired Leaving the Atocha Station for Coffee House when he was still the press’s senior editor, explains that the novel has a broad appeal because it “satisfies a generational hunger for authenticity.” And, he added, “The attention has steamrolled: it’s attracting very intelligent readers who like to talk about and suggest books. This is the best thing that could have happened.”
After an initial 3,500-copy print run, Leaving the Atocha Station went into two more print runs. Of the 12,000 copies in print, 7,500 have sold to date. Besides working with Coffee House’s regular subrights agents, the company hired literary agent Anna Stein—who had recently been retained by Lerner to agent his future books—to sell foreign and movie/TV rights on an incentive basis, after hearing of her enthusiastic talking up of Leaving the Atocha Station at industry gatherings in New York City and at Frankfurt. She’s delivered: Dutch, Spanish, Italian, German, and U.K. rights have been sold so far.
While Sông I Sing has not received nearly the amount of attention, its reception has been impressive for a debut collection of poems, with accolades from the New York Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly magazine. There are 2,000 copies of Sông I Sing in print, with 1,500 copies sold. This past September, when Coffee House launched the book with a reading at a Hennepin County Library “Spotlight on Local Presses” event, 400 people attended.
Coffee House, said Fischbach, grossed $1 million in sales and contributions in the last fiscal year, ending June 30, 2011. He predicts that there will be a 10% growth in revenues this fiscal year, much of it due to the impact upon the company’s bottom line of Leaving the Atocha Station.