One spring day in early 2014, the Kent District Library held a writers’ conference. A large contingent from WriteOn!—a bedraggled group of aspiring penmonkeys lovingly shepherded by the divine Jennifer C. Brown—attended this event. And we heard a story, from a woman named Shannon who led a “micro-press” from the Ann Arbor area. We were intrigued. And we talked about it over lunch. And then we said: “Hey, how hard can this be, really?”
So with that charming mix of eagerness and ignorance and perseverance and braggadocio, we set to work. In June 2014, we established Caffeinated Press. The original incorporators—Brown, Lianne Crouthers, Julie DeVisser, Brittany Wilson and I—kicked things off. Brittany had a degree in forensic accounting, so she was CFO. I used to be a print journalist, so I was CEO. Lianne was COO. Julie led marketing.
That December, we released Brewed Awakenings, an anthology featuring contributions from the WriteOn! members. It was a wonderful thing, and we celebrated it later that winter with a kick-off and welcome event at the UICA in downtown Grand Rapids.
In 2015, things picked up. We leased our original office at the Ken-O-Sha professional building. Julie and Lianne both left the board; Julie was replaced by AmyJo Johnson and Lianne by John Winkelman. We signed our first contracts and got things moving. We published some stuff, like the lovely poetry book A Crowd of Sorrows by Lisa Anne Gundry and Grayson Rising by AJ Powell. And, under John’s leadership, we launched The 3288 Review as a quarterly journal of arts and letters.
Things ramped up over 2016 and 2017. In fact, 2017 ended on a busy note, with several simultaneous releases—as well as the departure of AmyJo, and the year-long hiatus of John, and the coming-and-going of Tabitha Maloley as our chief content officer. In 2018, Brittany and I ran the company single-handedly. Editorial production ground slowly. We only offered one release but we did a great job building a robust academic internship program and in plugging a lot of back-office recordkeeping deficiencies. Then, in 2019, John came back; he restored the journal’s editorial schedule to its previous regularity.
But funny thing. Running a publishing company is hard work. It takes a lot of people and a lot of money. Over the years, the partners have contributed roughly $100,000 but we’ve earned less than $10,000 in lifetime revenue. And we’ve always struggled with people coming aboard as editors or designers and then vanishing, usually after making firm commitments, which left major editorial projects in the lurch. It’s fair criticism, I think, that in some regards, we bit off more than we could chew. In the long run, though, these resource constraints don’t suggest a sustainable proposition.
So sustain it, we shall not.
Come December 31, Caffeinated Press will turn off the lights for the last time.
A Parting Reflection
As I look back on the last five or six years of being a publisher, I’m struck by a three lessons. I offer them as a lighthouse: both as a beacon of hope and a warning.
First, publishing is expensive and slow. No two ways about it. A kinda-sorta mitigation follows from self-publishing or from paying a vanity press to do it for you, but pursuing traditional pathways—even with a small press like ours—still takes about three years to cycle over the life of a book. The payoff is worthwhile, and I’m thrilled that we brought several authors to print for the very first time, but the work is heavy, and the financial return on our investment has been, without exception, incommensurate to the outlay.
Second, readers don’t care about publishers. We used to stress about blogging and social-media engagement and attending author events and holding craft sessions and all that kind of stuff. But all that effort never led to sales. And, in retrospect, it’s not a mystery why. When was the last time you stood in line at the local bookstore to get whatever book Simon & Schuster happened to release that morning? How many Harry Potter fans know or care that the series was published by Scholastic? Thing is, readers care about authors. They don’t care about publishers. So marketing always proved a double-edged sword. The people most inclined to pay attention to us were the people who wanted us to publish them. Not the people eager to see what would next roll off the printing press, wallets eagerly open.
Third, the Grand Rapids market lacks an authoritative literary nexus. This gap is a bigger deal than it seems. When you look at Kalamazoo, you see a relatively thriving and well-connected community that’s led, in large part, by people affiliated with Western Michigan University. In G.R., however, there’s no central convener for literary stuff. Isolated pockets of excellence, like Diatribe, work well, but there’s nothing gluing the slam-poetry scene with the academic lit-fic scene with the hobbyist genre-novel scene with the non-fiction essayist scene. No hub. And thus, no mutually reinforcing network of support that cuts across genres and demographic clusters. Write616 — originally, the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters — tried to fill this role, but it failed. (Literally; it’s closing its institutional doors, too.)
But there’s hope. If a nexus pops in, maybe supported with a great facility and funding from someone with a famous Dutch last name, the local literary community could thrive. Although we’re not going to be here as a company, we’re still going to be present in the community as individuals and still will advocate for mutual support and a healthy cross-fertilization of ideas and identities.
I’ve learned a lot about publishing and about authors and about running a business. I’ve grown a lot, and I’m grateful for all the community goodwill we’ve received over the last half-decade. Now more than ever, the power of the printed word proves a necessary counterweight to the solipsistic desiderata of social media. So this final blog post feels bittersweet, but not terminal. You’ll see us all again, soon, just with different hats on.
It’s been a fun journey. Meaningful. And now it ends.
So long, and thanks for all the fish.