In many ways, we've been at the forefront of publishing," Jordan Miller, the publisher of Academy Chicago Publishers, said as he and his wife and copublisher, Anita Miller, recently recalled some of the highs and lows of their 30 years in the business. In typically proud small press fashion, "forefront" in this case means publishing books "no one else wanted, but that we felt should be published," as Anita Miller put it. According to the Millers, many of the 15 titles Academy Chicago publishes each year are books that were first offered to and rejected by the large New York houses.
"Everyone goes to New York first. Then they come to us," Anita Miller declared.
Academy Chicago is best known for its history, biography and politics list, but also reissues classic Victorian literature and works in translation.
This fall, the press has found success with a somewhat unorthodox wine and lifestyle book that was spurned by a number of New York publishers. Then its author, Alpana Singh, a 29-year-old Asian-American master sommelier in Chicago, looked closer to home and offered the book to the Millers. Alpana Pours: About Being a Woman, Loving Wine & Having Great Relationships was published in September 25,000 copies in print.
"We don't do cookbooks. We don't do lifestyle books. But [Singh] talks about wine in a style that relates to people's lives," Anita Miller said, explaining why a publisher whose list includes such serious works as George W. Bush vs. the U.S. Constitution and Journey to Chernobyl would publish lighter fare about wine and dating.
The Millers—Jordan ran a media monitoring agency and Anita was working on a Ph.D. in literature—launched Academy Chicago in 1976 with A Guide to Non-Sexist Children's Books, the first reference work of its kind. The book, which included an introduction by the actor Alan Alda, then starring in the TV series M*A*S*H, was a bestseller, selling more than 40,000 copies. Media attention included a banner across the front section of the Chicago Tribune and newspaper headlines around the country blaring, "Hawkeye Is a Feminist!"
"We thought publishing was simple, just publish a good book and people will buy it," Anita Miller said of her entrée into publishing. Now, after having published 400 books, the Millers fully realize that publishing books is a series of hits and misses. Successes include Anthony Alcott's Murder at the Red October (1981), which sold 30,000 copies in hardcover before Bantam bought the paperback rights, and, more recently, What Went Wrong in Ohio: The Conyers Report (2005), with 20,000 copies in print. Disappointments include Clean Start by Patricia Page (2002), which "hasn't sold at all. We got not a single review," and Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland by Jeff Janoda (2005), another "brilliant" title that "is just sitting there."
And then, of course, there's the 1987 lawsuit between Academy Chicago and the Cheever family over the rights to publish The Uncollected Stories of John Cheever. After trials in both New York and Illinois, the press lost that suit, and the Millers learned another hard lesson: publishing isn't just tougher than it looks, it can even be cutthroat.
"The great irony of the whole thing was that, after the trial ended, nobody wanted that book. It's never been published," Anita Miller said.
As Academy Chicago enters its fourth decade, the Millers are moving forward, with five employees and a fulfillment house, Chicago Distribution Center, now handling their distribution. Commission rep groups all over the country talk up their books to booksellers.
But despite the stability that comes with knowledge and experience, the Millers mourn changes in the publishing industry in the past three decades—the closings of independent bookstores, the high rate of returns and the "clutter" of books in a competitive marketplace—that have made it "less fun" for them to publish books "It's incredible. Once, we sold 10,000 copies of a Welsh novel by somebody that nobody'd heard of. I don't think we could do that now," Jordan Miller said. "It'd be impossible." But the Millers' longevity on the Chicago scene is much appreciated.
Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women & Children First bookstore, said that the Millers came into the store when it first opened 27 years ago and extended them credit. "We established a relationship with them and this relationship continues to this day. They publish unique and wonderful things."