Eagle-eyed fans of Caffeinated Press have noticed (and I know you have because I’ve been asked about it!) that so far in 2018, we’ve seemed rather … quiet. Perhaps too quiet. So we’re here to offer some behind-the-scenes scoops about our year so far and about what we’ve got planned for the rest of the summer and into the cold-weather months. Buckle up, this will be a two-cup-of-coffee story!

But first, a brief recap about the end of last year.

Late 2017 was an extra-busy time for us. We lovingly released five titles to market in less than three months, including Jot That Down: Encouraging Essays for New Writers; Isle Royale from the AIR: Poems, Stories and Songs from 25 Years of Artists-in-Residence; Ladri; Off the Wall: How Art Speaks and Vol. 3, Issue 1 of The 3288 Review. On top of all that, we hosted a kick-ass party in November at Books & Mortar in Grand Rapids while supporting an intern for academic credit. And all of our board members participated in National Novel Writing Month, too. Oh, and we updated our annual house catalog and kept abreast on incoming submissions and even ran a few offsite sales events.

That’s a lot of activity, especially for a small press that’s run as a part-time business by an all-volunteer working board.

But that kind of pace takes a toll, given the amount of time and money that small-press publishing requires. So by the end of December, two members of our board of directors resigned. AmyJo Johnson—chief marketing officer—stepped aside to focus on some of her own (exciting!) projects. And Tabitha Maloley, who had joined us mid-summer as our chief content officer, opted to pursue a full-time career doing something she loves while also getting paid to do it. We can’t fault either of them for their choices, and we’re grateful for their engagement and support over the years.

In addition, John Winkelman, our chief operating officer, began a year-long sabbatical from All Things Publishing. John has been the driving force behind The 3288 Review since its inception. Coincidentally, we also said goodbye to journal editors Elyse Wild (non-fiction, vol. 1/2) and Leigh Jajuga (poetry, vol. 1-3), who both left on happy terms and did much to elevate this growing journal that celebrates local literary talent.

The Last Six Months

Rolling into January 2018, then, Caffeinated Press’s day-to-day leadership fell to the two-person team of Jason Gillikin, CEO, and Brittany Wilson, CFO. And from the get-go, we understood that Job No. 1 consisted of better understanding where we were at: Transitioning board accountabilities, engaging in strategic planning, updating submission policies, auditing the books, adjusting to a new property-management firm, etc. So we entrenched, dedicating almost every single Wednesday night to joint mandatory office hours (in addition to our own individual worktime) where we focused on strategy, operations and finance at the expense of much of our editorial and marketing work. The two of us decided very early into 2018 that unless we initiated this detailed under-the-hood inspection of our core business, we’d put future editorial projects at risk if we couldn’t effectively contexualize those projects within our policies, processes, infrastructure, risk profiles and cash flows. This kind of effort is routine as a start-up transitions into a more mature and stable enterprise, so despite being necessary and tedious and time-consuming, it also wasn’t anything unusual. Typical growing pains! As a four-year-old privately held corporation, we are big enough to develop some non-trivial complexities under the hood, but we’re not big enough to hire expensive consultants to sort it out for us.

In fact, big kept surfacing as a core theme. Think of it like this: A small press might have 10 different attributes—e.g., transparency, cost-effectiveness, market reach, production quality, speed-to-communicate, etc.—each scored on a scale of one to 10. But you can’t be a 100-point company. Instead, every small press gets 50 points to allocate how they like, spreading points into these attributes until they spend all 50. RPG players understand this concept of talent trees and leveling up—a useful metaphor for small businesses. So at Caffeinated Press, we do somethings extremely well, punching far above our weight in the small-press universe. But, conversely, we also do some things extremely poorly, leading to frustration and confusion. Which is why some stakeholders love us so much they’d probably agree to get the CafPress logo beans tattooed upon their body parts, while other stakeholders hate us with the fire of a thousand suns. No two small presses spend their 50 points the same way, which is why if you’ve worked with one small press, you’ve worked with one small press.

The reason big is a problem for us? By February, we understood that we needed to re-balance the points. Our strengths have always been technical: Our IT infrastructure far outclasses publishers ten times our size. We issue solid, well-documented editorial policies and procedures. We enjoy the expertise to produce books and the lit journal that are well-done artifacts with design, paper, covers, etc. that look and feel better than other small-press products. Our weaknesses, however, have flowed from those strengths: Because we could leverage IT to do more work with fewer humans, when we suffer constraints in human availability, everything seems to grind to a halt—including communication—because we had too few humans in key roles supporting too many initiatives. We became hypersensitive to inherently unforeseeable bandwidth crunches given how we shaped our infrastructure and our processes early on.

So, we’ve had to re-balance our points in our skill-attribute tree, mostly to streamline our pipeline so that variation in human availability doesn’t adversely affect the system as a whole. The practical upshot is that we’ve decided to train three new layout specialists, to install a ticketing system as a bypass for “email jail,” to pivot our editorial committee and to cancel a few contracts. These contract decisions are mostly economic: A given title in a given format just isn’t going to sell well, and we’ve been regrettably slow on the uptake to focus on the financial performance of a title over how much the initial query charmed us. Those are sad decisions, given that the work itself is good but it’s just not saleable. In a few cases, though, we’ve canceled contracts with emerging authors whose pattern of conduct wasn’t aligned with our expectations of professionalism. Those, too, are sad—for entirely different reasons.

Today’s trivia: It takes, on average, two to three years for a book to progress from concept to release. In that sense, we aren’t horribly slow: Our longest project took 2.5 years and our shortest just four months. But if you’re an author who’s never been published before, and you have no real sense of what’s realistic to expect, waiting a few years feels like an eternity stretched upon a bed of nails. Incongruous expectations have been a sore spot. It’s not a coincidence that almost every one of our experiences with seasoned authors has gone smoothly, while several of our experiences with novice authors have not. I don’t think it’s a fault question—I’m certainly not casting aspersions at early-career authors, a group we remain committed to publishing!—as much as we all navigate a structural misalignment of expectations that inevitably anchors to a friction point. Seasoned authors know how the process works; debut authors do not. That’s one reason we’re investing in online seminars to help emerging authors better level-set their expectations, not just with us but with any small press (more about that, below). Ultimately, we aim to enjoy friction-free relationships with all of our authors, regardless of their experience level, and we think that our seminars are a key step in harmonizing expectations to reduce this friction.

The biggest business problem we’re tackling isn’t author-publisher misalignment, however—it’s cracking the distribution market, where the saleability of a book is paramount. Several years ago, Partners in Ann Arbor closed its doors. The small-press distribution market in the Upper Midwest is fragmented and, from a publisher’s perspective, both expensive and difficult to crack. That said, it’s worth noting that for a long time, we did our own sales efforts out of our office. We’re still going to sell whenever, wherever and however we can, but we’ve come to recognize that our emphasis shouldn’t be on direct-to-consumer sales but rather on direct-to-retailer sales. Put differently: No one gets up in the morning and says, “I’m soooo excited for whatever the newest Simon & Schuster title is! I’m going camp out in front of Barnes and Noble so I can get a copy.” Readers don’t care who published a book—they care who wrote it. So our sales events will feature our house titles (the anthology and the lit journal) and we’ve instead developed an entire package (contracts, free-pen giveaways, a freshly revised house catalog, etc.) to support our efforts to sell all the books in our catalog directly to bookstores in the region. I have no doubt that some, perhaps many, will decline—some distributors frown on publisher-direct side contracts—but without getting books in bookstores and then authors to events at those bookstores, it’s hard to drive meaningful sales.

More trivia: Did you know that more than 1 million new titles hit the market each year and that of these, any randomly selected title has a less than 1 percent chance of being housed on even one books-and-mortar retail shelf? Yup. So our top job, as publishers, is to work with retailers, not to (e.g.) promote novels on social media. But we still need authors to be out there, marketing themselves and speaking. Because a retailer won’t buy a book from us if that book’s author commands no readers who will generate foot traffic into the store. Again: Readers buy books by favorite authors, not by favorite small presses. This truth is why “platform” matters.

In other early 2018 news:

Caffeinated Press dedicated a fair amount of time these last several months to work with Write616. I’m a member of the Write616 board and host the Get Pressed program, as the well as the still-forming Writers Squared program. The Write616 mission and the Caffeinated Press mission align in several key ways, so nurturing this relationship is part of a “rising tide lifts all boats” theory of building a stronger literary community in West Michigan.

Despite the masthead turnover for The 3288 Review, we’re in excellent shape with the literary journal, delayed release notwithstanding. We welcome Dr. Lisa McNeilley as prose editor and the Pushcart-nominated KT Herr as poetry editor. Although KT is leaving us this summer to begin her MFA residency on the East Coast, she’ll continue to serve as our poetry editor while she’s there. I’m taking over as interim editor-in-chief during John Winkelman’s sabbatical. A good issue is shaping up. It’ll be our first new issue now that we’ve joined the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. CLMP’s mailing lists, alone, were worth the membership fee.

We didn’t stop editorial work completely this spring. In March, we released Measuring the Marigoldsa delightful poetry collection by Miriam Bat-Ami. She’s emerita faculty at WMU and an all-around fascinating human being—a fact that will become obvious in her collection, which is a reflection of life and transition. We’re grateful to Katie, the editor on this project, for her great work. Plus, also on the editorial front, we consolidated our 6,400-word editorial guidelines page into a hyperlinked collection of FAQs, which means that going to our query tool isn’t nearly as imposing as once it was.

In May, Caffeinated Press welcomed two summer interns: Brenna, from GVSU, and Dawn, from Aquinas. They’re both doing excellent work handling a few research projects, learning about the publishing industry, and assisting with both the final proofing for Brewed Awakenings 3 and the early vetting for Brewed Awakenings 4. While they do their thing this summer, we’re also training a few of our editors to work in Adobe InDesign so that more hands can help steward the final steps of our editorial projects. Meanwhile, we’ve restructured our editorial team to focus less on slush-pile vetting and more on reviewing ARCs before final production. Bug squashing, for the win!

As Det. Columbo says, “Just one more thing.” Perched atop all this behind-the-scenes work at Caffeinated Press, my long-time day job was eliminated in January, although I remained formally employed with the company until May. During that fraught period between January and May, I had to focus even more intensely (time-wise) on project wrap up and severance negotiations. Now I’m starting an independent consulting agency as my new day job, although that effort will take six to nine months to really start to see signs of success. The upshot for Caffeinated Press? Starting this month, I’m significantly more available to work on publishing stuff than I ever had been before. One major constraint in human availability, relieved.

The Next Six Months

So where do we go from here?

First, having finished our finance/ops work, we pivot back to editorial over this summer. We developed the concept of a “wave,” each of which lasts for six months and consists of editorial projects scheduled for completion within that window. On July 1, we start Wave VIII. Which means I have to hustle my buttocks off to finish the last remaining Wave VII titles—Brewed Awakenings 3 and Vol. 4, Issue 1 of The 3288 Review, both of which will be out in early-to-mid July. In addition, we have a few outstanding contracts to sign with a few folks who’ve been very, very patient. The eighth semiannual wave includes another release of the journal and the anthology (BA4 and issue 4.2) as well as three novels. This pace is slower and more carefully planned in 2018 than it had been in prior years, which makes it more conducive to successful execution.

The wonderful success of our internship program means we’re going full-steam ahead with editorial apprentices later this year, probably-maybe-we-think starting in September, as well as keeping the door open to future interns seeking academic credit. An apprentice is a person who dedicates X number of hours per week with us over, say, six months, to work on a variety of things more deeply and with more individual accountability than a summertime intern would incur. It’s our goal (but not, at present, our promise) to offer a reasonable monthly stipend to our apprentices, partly because it’s deserved and partly because of federal labor law. Stipend availability derives, in part, from a partnership with Write616, which will share these apprentices and which—as a not-for-profit organization—can accept corporate sponsorships for the apprenticeship program in ways that Caffeinated Press, as a for-profit corporation, cannot. We plan the apprenticeship program for students or new grads who need some reasonable experience to get started in the publishing industry but struggle to find their first break given that so many employers in the industry seek experienced candidates.

In the second half of July, supported by our brilliant intern research, we begin a long process of dedicating a few hours or weekend days each week to visiting every independent bookstore in the western half of the lower peninsula. Our goal? To encourage them, face-to-face, to carry our books and our lit journal, and to discuss partnerships for events and cross-promotions. The plan is set and will commence when BA3/4.1 are on the shelf.

As we continue to emphasize titles that we can place in the retail sales market, we’re going to start looking more keenly at whether submitting authors are prepared (or at least willing, with mentoring) to actively support their books after release. In the past, we’ve picked queries that we thought were good books, without really considering the book’s likely financial performance or the author’s cultural alignment with our business model. In retrospect, this approach was a mistake. Increasingly, now, we’re looking at queries for good books by authors who evidence some understanding of a writer’s role in book promotion and who appear to be a good interpersonal fit with us. We still prioritize local talent, of course.

During our downtime, we continue to work on a portfolio of free and online training seminars. We’ve curated trainings on a half-dozen different subjects that are already three-quarters done; we just need to fine-tune them and then post them. The point of the seminars is to help early-career authors master the business side of writing and to understand the common reasons why we (and, potentially, other publishers or agents) reject their manuscripts. We hope that by offering in-depth background information about how the industry works, that authors will be better equipped to set reasonable expectations about how their own book project can, should or shouldn’t unfold.

One last thing. In the first half of the year, we skipped out on open office hours—mostly because no one ever comes. That said, we’re going to start holding them again regularly. In fact, the June and July hours are already posted on our Events page. Office hours are free and no RSVP is necessary (although we encourage you to call ahead if you’re coming from a long distance; on rare occasion, we cancel hours with little notice). During open office hours, you have free access to our coffee, water, Wi-Fi and snacks. You can also browse for free the Write616 reading library or purchase Caffeinated Press titles. We offer limited availability to consult on your projects or writing, too, during office hours. Use our Contact Us form for more information.

The Future: 2019 and Beyond

So what happens on 1/1/2019? Hard to say. Caffeinated Press is committed to our mission and to our market, but at the same time, publishing is a high-cost, low-margin business. At some point, sales must at least break even with our expenses. We’ve got a plan for growing revenues, but if you’ve read this far, you’re encouraged to shop with us, too. Every bit of community support helps. The interesting thing about this market is that even from the Write616 perspective, community engagement seems surprisingly weak for a metro area the size and shape of Grand Rapids. Programming offered by Write616 that’s free and open to the public gets between zero and six attendees, on average, although we can tell that our targeted local social-media ads earn four-figure impressions. We struggle to understand the dynamic of the Grand Rapids literary community and its persistent—even willful—fragmentation.

We’re probably also going to look more intensely at our local universities as programming partners. One bit of clear and unambiguous feedback from English and Creative Writing students is that their college or university does not offer any meaningful courses in the business of writing. So they’re taught to write, but not how to be writers. Lots of opportunities there.

In any case, we’re here for the long haul and look forward to sharing more excellent local-sourced literature with you for many years to come. I hope this peek behind the curtain proves useful. Thanks for your ongoing support!

A Mid-Year Report Card
Tagged on:

4 thoughts on “A Mid-Year Report Card

  • 2018-06-23 at 1:03 pm

    Looking forward to getting together with Jason next week and to becoming part of the Caffeinated list!

  • Pingback:Six Months Later ... | A Mild Voice of Reason

  • 2018-07-21 at 7:37 am

    Thanks for writing this and providing such detailed transparency on the behind-the-scenes work of running an independent publishing house. Truly informative and helpful. I think your idea for working with local colleges/universities and their creative writing programs to create some sort of learning opportunity regarding the business side of publishing is brilliant and necessary. As someone who graduated from a university with an MA and PhD in English with a creative writing emphasis I can personally tell you that would have been a great course to offer graduate students. There’s a lot more to publishing and finding work in the field post-graduation than teaching or writing itself.

  • 2018-11-28 at 3:09 pm

    Jason, this has been very interesting to read. On another page I asked how to order books for contest submissions. I have several to do and sent books to the Library of Michigan. By the way, Dean Hauk really enjoyed meeting you. What a great bookstore she has. She is an amazing woman who gave me such encouragement. Have a lovely December. Let me know if you are in Kalamazoo.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.