Agate Publishing head Doug Seibold’s personal and professional goals haven’t changed since he incorporated his company in Evanston, Ill., in fall 2002: he wants to publish books that he is passionate about and that fill a niche, “without being beholden to funders or donors or investors,” he said. He also wants to make the industry more inclusive—not only by nurturing the careers of Black writers but also by supporting BIPOC people who want to work in publishing.
It was something of a gamble 20 years ago, Seibold said, to publish books by Black authors—particularly those from the U.S. “I felt at the time those were the writers most overlooked by the publishing industry,” he noted. “Big publishing does a much better job today of publishing Black writers and attending to Black readers. Still, if you look at Black writers published by bigger presses, you see a disproportionate number from other parts of the African diaspora. I felt like I had the most to offer African American writers, because I had worked for Noble Press, another small press that published African American authors. I felt like I understood how to reach readers.”
Seibold’s belief in his ability to successfully tap into that market paid off. Agate’s debut release, a novel published in May 2003 titled Sexual Healing by Jill Nelson, received great reviews. It sold 32,000 copies, and Agate sold mass market paperback rights to Pocket Books in addition to selling serial, foreign, film, and audiobook rights. Agate’s second title, Risk Rules: How Local Politics Threaten the Global Economy, targeted another niche the company focused on from the beginning: the business market. It sold 13,000 copies.
“The success of those two books was heartening and encouraging, and I wouldn’t be talking to you today if they hadn’t succeeded to the level that they had,” Seibold noted. “I didn’t have the resources to stay in it if the company hadn’t started making money right from the outset.”
Agate currently releases 12–15 titles each year. It became renowned for launching the careers of authors who then went on to achieve success with larger houses—the most famous example perhaps being Jesmyn Ward, whose debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, was published by Agate in 2008, three years before her sophomore effort, Salvage the Bones (from Bloomsbury), won the 2011 National Book Award in fiction. But several writers, Seibold hastened to add, “have stayed,” such as Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Leonard Pitts Jr., who has published two nonfiction works and four novels with Agate, including 2012’s Freeman, which has sold 40,000 copies.
By the time Agate marked its 10th anniversary, the company had added new markets. Besides its two trade imprints, B2 Books (business titles) and Bolden Books (fiction and nonfiction by African American writers), Agate publishes regional titles under its Midway imprint and cookbooks and culinary titles under its Surrey imprint. The company’s educational publishing division, Agate Development, produces customized materials and develops online courses and other learning resources.
“The diversity in how we publish has made us a stronger company,” Seibold said. For instance, while Bolden Books remains an important revenue stream, it shrank as it became harder to attract writers of the caliber that Agate used to, now that the larger houses are competing for them. At the same time, B2 Books has grown, due to a line of books of quotations by public figures that launched with the release of I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words—Agate’s first New York Times bestseller, with 100,000 copies sold, according to the publisher.
Surrey titles have also become a major source of revenue. “Cookbooks definitely have a different sales track than fiction or narrative nonfiction,” Seibold said. Agate’s success with cookbooks has allowed it to do different kinds of food books, he added, such as Iliana Regan’s 2019 memoir Burn the Place, which was nominated for a National Book Award.
Agate Publishing Academy
While Seibold is proud of all that he has accomplished in the past two decades, he is eager to help BIPOC job seekers and others without industry connections obtain access to information on how publishing works. “Pulling the curtain back is going to create more equity of opportunity for people,” he said. “It should be important for our whole industry. As I go into this next phase of my career, I think it’s something worth devoting much of my energy to.”
Using Agate’s internship training program as a model and building on Agate Development’s expertise in remote instruction, Seibold is creating a series of online courses for people interested in book publishing careers. Agate Publishing Academy will launch in the first quarter of 2023 with a suite of six courses that are “lightweight, inexpensive, and very professionally focused,” Seibold said. “The idea is to help people find a first job in publishing, and maybe help them find their next job in publishing.” There will also be a module on entrepreneurship, designed for those who might want to start their own presses. Other courses will focus on such nuts-and-bolts topics as instructional design. The courses will be supplemented by live seminar discussions.
The academy is designed to provide “an affordable and accessible option,” Seibold explained, “as opposed to something like a master’s degree, which takes much longer and is costlier than what our offering would be. We need to do something to allow people living away from the Eastern Seaboard or who didn’t attend Seven Sisters colleges to find opportunity in the field.”
While the instructors to date are Seibold and some of his 30 employees, the content will include brief videos of publishing professionals around the country “who do all manner of different kinds of work,” he said. “It will be an opportunity for their voices to be represented in the material.”
Reflecting on his 40 years as a publishing professional, Seibold maintains that he is more optimistic than ever about the state of the industry. He is cautiously hopeful that publishing’s commitment to producing more books by BIPOC writers will persist, while independent publishing away from the coasts continues to succeed and alternative bookstore models emerge alongside more traditional indies.
“A lot begins with some transformation in what people in publishing look like,” Seibold noted. “I am very eager to do what I can to speed that along.”