Chicago might be known for its burly swagger,” says the Chicago Tribune literary editor-at-large Elizabeth Taylor, “but it’s also a supportive place” for publishers and other literary folk to do business. “There’s an entrepreneurial indie spirit here,” Chicago Review Press publisher Cynthia Sherry adds. “There is something idealistic and can-do about this city that I think speaks well for the future of books.” Haymarket Books publicist Jim Plank agrees, declaring, “There are a lot of publishers here who are not afraid of making their own way.”
Like their Minnesota counterparts, presses in the Land of Lincoln were launched to fill niches, beginning with the venerable University of Chicago Press, which has published scholarly titles since 1890 and, since 1991, served as a distributor (at present, 130 academic and scholarly presses are distributed via the Chicago Distribution Center). This fall, UCP is publishing 145 frontlist titles; 37 of those target the trade, including Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, a follow-up to their Academically Adrift, which sold “in the 10s of thousands” of copies, according to UCP.
Also on Chicago’s South Side, billing itself as the “oldest independent publisher of Black thought and literature in the country,” Third World Press was founded by Haki R. Madhubuti in his basement apartment in 1967. Third World is publishing nine titles this fall and hopes to release, by the end of 2014, The Diary of Malcolm X, a book that caused the slain civil rights leader’s family to sue the press over the rights last year.
Triumph Books is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its founding by Mitch Rogatz, who still runs the press from offices in the same building as its distributor, Independent Publishers Group. Triumph, publishing 55 titles this fall, is renowned for “instant” books on teams and personalities during breakout seasons or after major sporting events—including this year’s World Series. Because of the Penn State sex-abuse scandal and the Paterno family’s lawsuit against the NCAA, Triumph’s Paterno Legacy (September), by Jay Paterno, is making news and bestseller lists; it sold out of its 6,000-copy print run and went into a second, 3,000-copy print run in August.
This fall, Triumph is moving beyond sports and into the children’s market, launching its Max Explores picture book series, published in association with children’s museums around the country. The first three books are Max Explores New York, Max Explores Chicago, and Max Explores San Francisco, written by Reji Laberje and illustrated by Liza Fenech.
Haymarket Books has been publishing works dealing with social justice issues for the past 13 years. This fall, Haymarket releases 20 titles, including Worth Fighting For by Rory Fanning, who served in the U.S. Army with Pat Tillman and is currently Haymarket’s marketing director. Haymarket also releases in November an expanded edition of a May release, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, which sold 15,000 copies, making the essay collection Haymarket’s bestseller this year.
Although Haymarket publishes primarily nonfiction, it has published fiction, graphic novels, and, since 2011, poetry as well. This fall, the press will publish The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, edited by Kevin Coval, Nate Marshall, and Quraysh Ali Lansana.
While Triumph and Haymarket have expanded their lists in recent years, other publishers in the region have grown so dramatically that they’ve become completely different companies.
“Today, we’re a book publisher, a developer, an Internet retailer, and a digital partner,” Dominique Raccah says of the Naperville, Ill.–based company that she founded in 1987 to release her title, Financial Sourcebooks Sources. The publisher currently releases books for adults and children under nine imprints, and, in recent years, sales of fiction and children’s books have accounted for more and more of the company’s growth. Sourcebooks is expanding into licensed publishing, Raccah says, adding that the 120-employee company had 22% growth last year and was up 25% the first half of 2014. Much of this was due to Sourcebooks’ new digital personalized book program, Put Me in the Story, which was launched as a platform for children’s books but is moving into the gift book category this year with such partners as Hello Kitty, Peanuts, and Anne Geddes. PMITS’s success has prompted Sourcebooks to create a new editorial division, the Entertainment Group, dedicated to its licensed partners and PMITS.
Initially the publisher of primarily romance novels, Medallion Press, founded by Helen A. Rosburg in 2003 with the release of her novel, By Honor Bound, has evolved over the past decade into the Medallion Media Group, whose publishing division now publishes fiction and nonfiction. MMG also produces music and films, and has fully embraced digital technology under COO Adam Mock. Its most recent innovation, the TREEbook (Timed Reading Experience E-book] digital platform, which has been in beta testing for the past two years, allows books to generate multiple story lines based on individual reading paces and other embedded triggers, such as the time of day, the month, or the year the book is read, or any number of other predetermined factors that propel the story forward differently each time it’s read.
“Readers aren’t making any choices at all about which branch they want to experience next,” sales and marketing manager Paul Ohlson says, comparing the platform to the Choose Your Adventure books. “The experience is completely seamless and doesn’t interrupt reading at all.” While Medallion will officially launch TREEbook at Book Expo in 2015, it is publishing three TREEbook-enhanced titles this fall, and three more in 2015. Medallion is also releasing six traditional works this fall, including Burnt Tongues, an anthology of transgressive short fiction edited by Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas, and Dennis
Widmyer, and Booker T: My Rise to Wrestling Royalty, the sequel to Booker T. Huffman’s 2013 prison memoir, Booker T: From Prison to Promise, which is Medallion’s third top seller.
Agate Publishing, too, has evolved since Doug Seibold founded the press in 2003 to fill the niches of fiction by African-American authors and business-related nonfiction. In 2006, Agate acquired Surrey Books, and added cookbooks and other food-related books to the list, and, in 2012, acquired Midway Books, adding regional titles, with an emphasis on books about Chicago, to the list.
“Our location has made it easier to expand,” Seibold says. It’s also easier to “find opportunities rather than succumb to the herd-think that sometimes characterizes the larger publishers” in New York City.
Agate is publishing 10 books this fall, including its lead title, Indian for Everyone, a recipe compilation, by Anupy Singla, who has published two cookbooks with Agate that sold a total of 100,000 copies. Agate is also publishing novelist Maxine Clair’s memoirs, Imagine This, and two photography books—Chicago Portraits and Gangsters & Grifters.
Founded in 1973 in Curt and Linda Matthews’s basement, Chicago Review Press specialized in regional titles about Chicago in its early years, but has since become a publisher of “quirky” books under its five imprints. This fall’s releases include Pandora’s DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree by Lizzie Stark; Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me by Yamma Brown; and Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build and Master Ninja Weapons.
Reflecting upon the twists and turns the press has taken in the past 40 years, Sherry, who has been with CRP for 25 of those years, notes that it is “not afraid to take chances” in the marketplace. “We like to try new things and don’t get hung up on the way publishing used to be. We are nimble and we can make changes quickly,” she says. “Although we publish on a wide range of subjects, all of our books tend to be a little quirky and come at subjects from an unexpected angle.”
Since acquiring Academy Chicago Publishers from Jordan and Anita Miller in January, CRP has expanded its list to include fiction. This fall, it is publishing four novels under the ACP imprint, including Death in the Pines, left-wing radio personality Thom Hartmann’s debut novel, and Leo Bruce’s Death of a Bovver Boy: A Carolus Deene Mystery. As part of a plan to “revitalize” ACP’s backlist, CRP intends to repackage all previously released Leo Bruce titles.
It’s evident that the entrepreneurial spirit displayed by Chicagoland’s more established publishers continues unabated in newer companies, such as Curbside Splendor, founded five years ago by Victor David Giron to publish his novel, Sophomoric Philosophy.
“I started as a self-publisher,” Giron says. “I enjoyed the process of putting a book together so much that I became a publisher.” The press, recently named “best indie book publisher” of 2014 by Chicago magazine, has 25 fiction, poetry, and nonfiction titles in print under three imprints, in addition to the Curbside Splendor flagship imprint. Meaty by Samantha Irby, a Holiday 2013 Barnes & Noble Discover New Voices selection and one of PW’s fall 2013 “big books by small presses,” has sold 2,000 copies.
Curbside Splendor is scheduled to publish eight more titles this fall and winter, including Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by debut novelist Erika T. Wurth, which has a first print run of 5,000 copies.
Publishing Bubbles Up in Champaign
Further afield, both Dalkey Archive and Human Kinetics have settled into their distinctive niches in Champaign, Ill., a college town 150 miles south of Chicago. Human Kinetics, which specializes in sports and physical fitness books and other products, reports a 12% increase in sales its last fiscal year ending April 30. The company will release 16 titles this fall and, as it approaches its 40th anniversary this year, it also hopes to improve digital delivery of content. Digital sales to date account for 10% of its book sales revenue.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, Dalkey publishes works-in-translation, primarily literary fiction with an experimental bent. A nonprofit housed at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Dalkey has 20 titles this fall, including Ballerina, Ballerina, by the Slovenian writer Marko Sosic. Dalkey has partnered with the governments of South Korea and Georgia to publish English translations, within four years, of 20–25 titles from each country.
“It’s a big project, but we’re committed to publishing the best literature from these countries,” says marketing manager Caitlin Neal. “We’re working to get different countries interested in establishing a national literature series with us.”