The publishers anchored in America’s Heartland, particularly in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, include a vibrant mix of indies, literary nonprofits, children’s publishers, religion and spirituality publishers, and academic presses. There’s even a company in St. Paul, Minn., Elva Resa, that publishes books for both adults and children about almost every aspect of military life.

Heartland publishers may vary in size and scope, with some in large metro areas and others in small cities, but they all share one characteristic: without exception, they remain grounded in their local communities while doing business on a global scale. “It’s all about networks,” as Kregel Publications publisher Catherine DeVries puts it. “No matter where you are, you can find your people—you can find your community.”

Describing Sourcebooks as “an outsider to the more traditional book publishing model,” and ascribing that status to its location in a Chicago suburb, senior v-p//editorial director Todd Stocke says, “This has allowed us to forge our own path, and be both reader and data-centric. You may find that true of a lot of publishers in the Heartland—this freedom to operate and create outside the norm.”

Noting Sourcebooks’ roster of international authors, Stocke adds, “That’s part of the job, too—bringing the ideas and
cultures of this big, beautiful world back to our hometowns.”

The times they are a-changing

While a number of publishers—such as Cynthia Sherry of Chicago Review Press, Adam Lerner of Lerner Publishing Group, and Kregel’s DeVries—celebrate that the companies they lead remain family owned, change is in the air. Penguin Random House recently became a majority stakeholder in Sourcebooks, the company famously launched in 1987 in Dominique Raccah’s spare bedroom, and in late 2021, Judy Galbraith, another industry trailblazer, sold Free Spirit, the children’s publisher she founded in Minneapolis 40 years ago, to California-based Teacher Created Materials.

How do we expect kids to develop critical thinking skills if they are offered only one way to think?

On the nonprofit literary publishing side, Fiona McCrae retired as publisher of Graywolf Press after 28 years, during which she transformed a struggling small press into what a Chicago Tribune columnist proclaimed to be “the greatest publisher in the world,” its authors receiving such prestigious honors as the Nobel Prize, Booker and Booker International Prizes, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award.

Graywolf is not the only Heartland publisher to have attained great success with books that have become backlist stars. One notable example is Milkweed Editions, which has sold more than one million copies of its 2013 release Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

Anna Erickson, v-p of sales for Mankato, Minn.–based Creative Company, says the publisher’s Creative Editions picture book imprint was “probably better known internationally than in the U.S. for many years,” due in part to Creative’s relationship with famed Italian artist Roberto Innocenti. “For nearly 30 years, Creative Editions has been Roberto’s exclusive publisher, and we’ve sold rights to his titles around the globe—including Italy.”

Diversity and inclusion

Of course, publishing in the Midwest does pose challenges endemic to the entire industry, including a need to diversify the workforce, and two Chicagoland publishers have taken action to do just that. Three years ago, Sourcebooks launched the BIPOC Editorial Program in an effort to make publishing careers more accessible to people of color from nontraditional backgrounds. The program, which is conducted remotely and pays a stipend, emphasizes the fundamentals of publishing while providing hands-on experience.

In July, Agate Publishing will roll out Agate Publishing Academy, a series of online courses designed to provide “an affordable and accessible option” for in-person publishing programs, says publisher Doug Seibold. “Pulling the curtain back is going to create more equity of opportunity for people. It should be important for our whole industry.”

A commitment to ramping up their output of books reflecting DEI themes was expressed by every Heartland publisher PW spoke with. While Lerner launched the Read Woke Books imprint to, as publicity director Lindsay Matvick says, “amplify the voices of people of the global majority and provide information about groups that have been disenfranchised,” Phoenix International launched its Sunbird Books imprint to “represent strong and diverse voices that reflect children’s realities,” according to publisher Susan Brooke.

Confronting challenges

Even if they aren’t creating new imprints or specific lines to promote diversity and inclusion, Heartland publishers are publishing more and more books featuring LGBTQ and BIPOC characters—the kinds of books targeted by extremists and essential to library collections. A few publishers are even releasing books about book banning itself to educate children—and their parents—about censorship. Creative Editions recently published a picture book, Banned Book, and this fall Sourcebooks will release its own picture book on the subject, This Book Is Banned.

The spike in book bans is a major concern for all Heartland publishers. Even those that have not yet contended with their titles being challenged admit, as Two Dollar Radio publisher Eric Obenauf puts it, that “it does affect our approach in terms of the types of books we seek to publish.” That is not always in the ways that the extremists agitating for book bans would wish, however.

Noting that one of its releases, Four Feet, Two Sandals, has been challenged in Florida, publisher Anita Eerdmans of Eerdmans, which is renowned for its faith-based list for the Christian market, declares that while bans “continue to be distressing for us, it has only strengthened our resolve to publish books that reflect diversity of all kinds.” And Haymarket Books has been organizing free e-book giveaways and is spearheading a campaign to send donated books from its Chicago offices to schools and libraries under siege in Florida, Tennessee, and elsewhere.

Disclosing that Creative is so concerned about censorship that it has licensed the right to reprint a recent Atlantic magazine article, “The Librarians Are Not Okay,” on the cover of its fall 2023 catalog, Erickson points out, “The current political climate will affect everyone in the end. No library can hold physical copies of every book, but there is a vast difference between a collection curated by a trained professional and a collection stripped of anything even remotely controversial. How do we expect kids to develop critical thinking skills if they are offered only one way to think?”

Read more from our Heartland Publishing Spotlight feature:

Midwestern Publishers Have Something for Everyone
Publishers from America's heartland are prepared to strut their stuff at this year's American Library Association conference in Chicago.

Children's Publishing's Deep Midwester Community Roots
Midwestern children’s publishers are finding inspiration in their communities.

Midwestern Faith-Based Publishers Find a Higher Purpose
Religious presses in the Midwest aim to offer readers hope through their books.

The Heartland's Scholarly Presses Look Past the Ivory Tower
Midwestern scholarly publishers, like their counterparts in other regions, are increasingly expanding their lists beyond the academic market.