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Think Piece Publishing: Life’s troubles inspire indie press

Founder Adam Wahlberg isn’t afraid of dealing with hard issues. In fact, he’s attracted to them.

Adam Wahlberg's role is not just to publish, but to advocate for people in trouble.
Photo by Kevin Featherly

A few years ago, Adam Wahlberg and his friend Martin Kuz were tossing around an idea for a book. Kuz, a journalist who focuses on military issues, wanted to write about PTSD, but he couldn’t afford to write a book with no publisher lined up. So Wahlberg had an idea. “We’ll put it out!” he said. After all, tons of people were self-publishing, e-publishing, and how hard could it be?

“People warned me: ‘You won’t make any money, it will consume your life and bank account’ — and it’s all true. It’s all true!” said Wahlberg, who quit his job as an editor at Super Lawyers magazine (a spin-off of Law & Politics) to establish Think Piece Publishing, named after a line in the film “Almost Famous” about writing and deadlines. The Minneapolis-based press didn’t end up putting out a Kuz book, but another PTSD-themed piece appeared in Wahlberg’s email one day.

A different PTSD book

“Losing Tim,” by Janet Burroway, chronicles the aftermath of her soldier son’s suicide. Tim Eysselinck was a career military man, serving in the Army and reserves before taking an assignment as a military contractor charged with mine removal. Burroway describes him as a born soldier, enthralled with military life from childhood, despite her own pacifist stance. But during his time in Iraq, he became disillusioned and depressed. In April 2004, he shot himself in the head in front of his wife. He had a 3-year-old daughter. His grieving mother took to the page.

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Wahlberg said of “Losing Tim,” “I loved it. It’s this very journalistic memoir in some ways, and she asks a lot of hard questions about the military, but it’s also so beautifully written, just an unbelievably lovely prose poem, in a way.” Burroway, who now lives in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, has numerous books, including “Raw Silk,” which was nominated for a National Book Award, and “Imaginative Writing,” which Wahlberg describes as the “Bible for MFA students. “She’s this regal, distinguished giant of writing, but the topic is hard. No one outside of Joan Didion has done such empathetic, intellectual writing about grief. I felt unbelievably lucky that this is my first project with Think Piece.”

Eysselinck isn’t counted in the tally of soldier suicides because at the time of his death, he was working outside of the military. “This is a hidden crisis. Many, many military personnel end up working for private companies contracted by the military,” says Wahlberg.

Advocacy in words

Wahlberg isn’t afraid of dealing with hard issues. In fact, he’s attracted to them. Perhaps it’s in his genes. “My mother was a renowned counselor with the Wilder Foundation, and I grew up sort of immersed in the language of it, and social and mental health issues and advocacy have been a really natural topic in my life. I admit I’m attracted to people who lead strange, difficult lives or overcome challenges. I’m in awe of Hazelden, where resurrections happen every day.”

After he began to work with “Losing Tim,” Wahlberg found himself thinking about Honeydogs musician Adam Levy, whose son Daniel committed suicide at age 21 in 2012. “I was at a show a couple months after [the suicide] and it was hard to be in the room at times, but he never broke. I wondered, how is this guy even standing?”

That question stuck with him, so Wahlberg asked Levy if he’d go on film to discuss how he carries on, as a parent and an artist. The three-part documentary, by Kevin Featherly, ends up being a both a tribute to Daniel Levy’s own creative work as a visual artist, and a deep and honest discussion of suicide and its impact on a family. It became Think Piece’s first film piece. The one-man publishing house was beginning to find its mission. 

The next book, expected later in 2014, is “How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People,” by St. Paul writer Andy Steiner. “She gets into these questions I’ve always had, about how people carry on when, like Adam Levy, the worst thing you can imagine happens to you. Because terrible things happen every day, eventually to nearly everyone, and yet we carry on. So Andy writes about how people handle death, a partner’s seismic change (coming out as gay), heart attack, bankruptcy, suicide and depression. And she uncovers how people manage to be at peace with those events.”

The book can be broken down into individual chapters, and Wahlberg envisions selling them as e-books for $1.99 each. “I want them to be sharable, affordable and immediate and put them where they can do some good.”

It’s an altruistic impulse — but altruism isn’t usually good business.

The matter of money

“I haven’t figured out how to make money doing this yet. I’m just sort of following it; like a ouija board, it’s taking me where it wants to go. I’m spending this first couple of years establishing the brand with good content. I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur and I’m not sure I even like that aspect of things, but I feel strongly about the mission that’s sort of come about — if I wasn’t a journalist, I’d be in advocacy of some kind. So this is my way of bringing those things together,” Wahlberg says.

His business model is simple and ethical: He pays his authors and artists for their work, and splits the profits with them. In his first year, he ran through his savings, and Think Piece is a sideline to his other activities, which include studies at the Humphey School and a job as senior editor at Twin Cities Business magazine. But he’s just getting started with Think Piece, and he’s always looking for ways to make the press sustainable. Other publishing houses are struggling with the same thing. But he realizes his role is not just to publish, but to advocate for people in trouble.

“I’m a fairly ebullient fellow, but I admit I’m drawn to these hard topics, the whole dark and light thing, and the incredible strength people can muster when it’s needed. I’m hoping the works I bring out there give people solace. Solace is a great thing — it’s not fun, you can’t take it home like an iPhone and love and enjoy it. But we all need it, sometime.”