Five years after its launch as a regional press specializing in nonfiction books about the industrial Midwest, Belt Publishing is growing rapidly and gaining visibility in the marketplace. For the fiscal year ended June 30, 2018, revenue rose 48% over fiscal 2017, and the company is upping its title output, releasing 11 books in 2018 and 14 in 2019, compared to six in 2017. Belt is also switching distribution from IPG to PGW this fall.
Publisher Anne Trubek attributed the Cleveland-based company’s growth spurt primarily to its success in diversifying its list. Belt launched as a publisher of anthologies about Rust Belt cities and currently has nine in print. But it began moving beyond compilations of poems, essays, and visual art in 2015, when it published How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass by Aaron Foley, which has sold 7,000 copies; a second edition is scheduled for release in October. This year, Belt began reissuing fiction and nonfiction classics in its Revival series, including Sherwood Anderson’s novel Poor White and Ida Tarbell’s 1904 takedown of John D. Rockefeller, The History of the Standard Oil Company, set for an October publication. It has also begun publishing urban neighborhood guides and monographs about topical subjects, such as 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, edited by Elizabeth Catte, Emily Hilliard, and Jessica Salfia, which it rushed out in July and has sold 1,000 copies to date. In October, Belt is releasing—with a 5,000-copy initial print run—The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago by Daniel Kay Hertz.
In 2019, five of Belt’s 14 releases will be anthologies, but its lead titles are not: Radical Suburbs by Amanda Kolson Hurley is a study of the diverse communities that sprang up around American cities in the 19th century, and Rust Belt Terroir: A Culinary Road Trip into Uncertain Territory by Beth Kracklauer is an exploration of regional cuisines by a Wall Street Journal food editor.
At about the same time that Belt shifted its editorial focus, it began aggressively reaching out to indie booksellers nationwide. “Our books are selling everywhere,” Trubek said. “Most people assume that a larger percentage is sold in the region than it is. A lot of our readers are interested in urbanism, and then there are a lot of what I call expats—a huge group of people who have a strong connection to the region but don’t live in it anymore.”
Bookseller Jonathon Welch of Talking Leaves in Buffalo, N.Y., said Belt Publishing titles tend to do well at his store, as Buffalo identifies with the industrial Midwest perhaps even more so than it does with other East Coast cities. Belt has even published a Buffalo anthology, Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology by Jody K. Biehl; it is a bestseller at Talking Leaves. “There’s a certain blindness on both coasts as to what is happening elsewhere in the country,” Welch said. “Belt serves a useful function: it’s a regional publisher that connects to the land, as well as to the larger picture, geographically, culturally, and politically.”
Belt’s two top sellers confirm Trubek and Welch’s point that Belt titles, though regional in scope, have a universal appeal: What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte, which Trubek described as a “response to Hillbilly Elegy, a more nuanced history [of the Appalachian region],” has sold 10,000 copies; and How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClellan has sold 7,000 copies. Welch called Midwestern a “fascinating” study of the linguistic variations that have emerged in the Rust Belt over the centuries.
Indie booksellers aren’t the only ones taking notice of Belt’s list. This past spring, Picador published Voices from the Rust Belt, an anthology edited by Trubek, which features selected essays that were originally published in seven of Belt’s anthologies.
Picador editor Pronoy Sarkar said the publisher reached out to Trubek because Belt anthologies “questioned the simplified, monolithic narrative that echoed from the national press after the 2016 election.” He added, “It felt urgent to give Anne and her contributors the platform of a major trade house and the opportunity to share their stories.”
Though Belt continues to grow and evolve, Trubek said that its core mission will never change: “The bottom line remains publishing strong voices. We remain committed to quality nonfiction about the region, but we’re defining it more expansively.”