Forty years ago this fall, a University of Chicago graduate student named Curt Matthews and his wife, Linda Matthews, founded Chicago Review Press, naming it after the Chicago Review literary journal, for which Curt was then poetry editor. Operating initially out of the couple’s basement, CRP’s debut releases included Spring and Asura by Miyazawa Kenji, a collection of contemporary Japanese poetry in translation, and what might have been the first graphic novel: Prairie State Blues by Bill Bergeron.
A lot has happened at CRP since; today, the press is housed in a 22,000-sq.-ft. former bicycle factory in Chicago’s River North district, and while it has more than 650 titles in its backlist, it no longer publishes poetry or graphic novels. If its books—in a variety of nonfiction genres—have one quality in common, it’s that they are all “quirky” and “smart,” said company representatives. This year, CRP will release 65 titles across four imprints: its flagship imprint, Chicago Review Press, which publishes nonfiction titles for both adults and children; Lawrence Hill Books, which publishes nonfiction with African-American themes; Ball Publishers, which publishes gardening books; and Zephyr Press, which publishes professional development titles and resource materials for parents.
In 2012, CRP had revenue of about $6 million, and sales are up 12% so far this year. In the year to date, e-books represent 18% of revenue, up from 14% for all of last year and 7% in 2011. “I think we’re poised for even more growth,” said CRP publisher Cynthia Sherry, noting that when she joined the press in 1989, CRP considered itself “very regional,” and was committed to publishing “the best of the Midwest,” with about 10 releases each season.
Sherry said that the press now intends to release 75 titles per year. While 40% of CRP’s authors are new to the publisher, a number of them, including William Gurstelle and Bill Adler Jr., have published multiple books with the press, including its top two sellers: Gurstelle’s Backyard Ballistics has sold 350,000 copies, and Adler’s Outwitting Squirrels has sold 300,000 copies. Gurstelle’s next book, Defending Your Castle, will be published by CRP in spring 2014, as will an updated third edition of Outwitting Squirrels, which was originally published in 1988.
“With the reputation we’ve built up over the last 40 years, we’re able to attract authors of a higher caliber,” Sherry explained. “Agents realize we can sell books.” For instance, she said, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart, an August release, has sold more than 9,000 copies to date, and its author has been interviewed on national radio and television stations, including NPR, MSNBC, and PBS.
Among the most important developments in CRP’s history was the 1987 acquisition of Independent Publisher Group. IPG, founded in 1971, distributes books for more than 800 companies, including CRP. The distributor has gone through its own tremendous changes recently. Last year, its longtime president, Mark Suchomel, was laid off and the company subsequently underwent a corporate restructuring. Mark Voigt, IPG’s v-p of sales, and Joe Matthews, IPG’s COO (and Curt and Linda’s son), currently oversee operations there. Although IPG will lose 20 publishers, including two of its largest accounts, at the end of 2013, sales “are up a little bit over last year,” Joe said. He noted that the gains reflect the addition of 40 publishers, steady growth in sales to the academic market, and increases in sales of Spanish-language books.
As CRP celebrates its longevity and steady growth, there is also change on the horizon: Linda, who manages IPG’s human resources department, intends to retire at the end of the year. She will, however, remain on CRP’s board of directors, and will continue as secretary of Chicago Review Press Inc.—CRP and IPG’s parent company. Curt has no plans to retire just yet; he’ll continue on as CEO of Chicago Review Press Inc. Joe said that Curt isn’t “as hands-on as he was 20 years ago,” but that “he’s a very smart guy, who started his own small press and his own distribution company. We hope to have his wisdom for a very long time. All the pieces are in place, when Curt decides to go.”