Anitra Budd began her tenure as publisher and executive director of Coffee House Press this past October, but she first put down roots at the Minneapolis-based publisher as an intern more than two decades ago. Budd subsequently served as a managing and acquiring editor at the nonprofit press from 2009 to 2014, and also sat on the board for several years. Outside of Coffee House she has worked as a freelance copywriter, an editor, and a public speaker. Committed to supporting future generations of editors, she has also taught editing classes for MFA students at Sierra Nevada University and undergraduate courses at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College. During her first month at the helm of the press, she spoke about the strength of Coffee House’s legacy and backlist as well as her commitment to putting people before profit.
What are the present challenges and opportunities for Coffee House Press?
Industry consolidation is a challenge and threat. In Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, John Thompson describes how big publishing is built on economies of scale, and small independent publishing is built on an economy of favors. As more small and midsize publishers get snapped up by bigger presses, where does that leave us for acquiring authors, getting attention in the marketplace, and soliciting support from our peers? Because we certainly can’t command scale, not if these places are getting bigger and bigger. An opportunity is that our size makes it easy to be nimble, to test ideas and iterate really quickly.
Fatigue is the other big challenge. Almost two years into the pandemic, we’re thinking about how many ways tiredness can affect an organization our size: staff burnout, donor fatigue, market demand. Human beings are looking for comfort right now. Will our readers go toward a work that provokes them, offers deep inquiry, and needs to be engaged with fully?
Why are you prioritizing the Coffee House backlist?
Our backlist is more timely than ever. Our communities are talking about immigration, labor, class, race, and religion, and we’ve been publishing the people who were first talking about these things in the sixties and seventies. People are reengaged with the issues we’ve been exploring at Coffee House for so long, and that’s hugely exciting to me.
Our books can help people think about our life, our humanity, and our world. I think about every book I read as chipping away a new facet of understanding. Like a diamond, we are more valuable the more facets we have. That’s how I want people to feel our books in their lives: Every time they read a Coffee House book, it’s changing them in some way, making them more multifaceted.
What is your approach to leadership?
Two big pieces of my leadership are clear boundaries and expectations. The pandemic has made me reevaluate what’s truly urgent. When you’re in a nonprofit, you’re working for a cause that can loom so large it injects everything with urgency. As a leader I want to bring a calming perspective that we take our work seriously, but we know that it’s not more important than our lives, our well-being, and our happiness. It’s just not. I have a lot on my mind besides books, and it makes me a better worker to have healthy boundaries in place and a life outside of publishing. Even jobs like this, which I am beyond thrilled and shocked to have, come and go. But my family, my life, isn’t going away.
I also don’t see my position as being the main artistic voice of the press. I believe that’s something we build together.
What are your thoughts on access, or the lack thereof, to careers in publishing?
I love giving informational interviews and teaching and writing recommendations. But when I have those conversations, I tell people that I would never have had access to publishing if my wife hadn’t been able to feed me on her entry-level office-job salary while I took two unpaid publishing internships. I essentially needed a fiscal sponsor for publishing to be a possibility. That is a massive barrier.
We could get into capitalism. If the goal is to always be growing, you’re going to see problems with low pay, burnout, too many books. There’s nothing wrong with being the right size, and strategy is as much about what you choose not to do. If you’re always racing toward profit, it becomes almost impossible for for-profit companies to support workplace well-being, recruitment, diversifying the industry.
At a webinar for Black editors, we talked about how none of us had a nonwhite mentor. We are now the nonwhite mentors for other people, but we didn’t have an older generation—there’s a layer missing. Where I try to make the most impact is teaching and making information about publishing as widely and freely available as possible. We need to make sure we go back even further in the pipeline to reach people coming up behind us and demystify the industry for them.
Priscilla Wu is a writer, editor, and nonprofit communications worker living in Portland, Oregon.