When visiting a new city, one of the best ways to learn more about the place's history and people, as well as discover its heralded hot spots and hidden treasures, is to ask a native. This idea is at least part of the inspiration behind the Crown Journeys series of books and audiobooks, which features authors writing and reading about cities they love and includes the forthcoming Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz (Random House Audio abridged CD, July; simultaneous Crown hardcover).

"There were actually a number of inspirations for the series," said Crown senior v-p and publisher Steve Ross, who conceived of Journeys back in 2001 and oversees a wide range of editors who work on the book projects. "It was the result of an intersection of various observations," he continued. "We noticed that people were increasingly pressed for leisure time. We also wanted to consider smaller, shorter packages, making books more affordable in a pressing economy. At a time when travel seemed to have fallen, we assumed that armchair travel would pick up. Wanderlust is immune to safety and financial considerations. So we decided to approach some of our favorite authors and ask them if there was any place in the world they would want to write about."

For Ross the writers are essential to what makes the line unique. "It's the highest level of authorship, and they're writing about a place they're passionate about." Potential authors are selected during brainstorming sessions at editorial meetings, a process that has worked well thus far. "It was a little harder earlier on, when he didn't yet have any books to show," said Ross. "But many authors have been receptive. Michael Cunningham, fresh from his Pulitzer Prize win, agreed to do Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown [the series' first title, Aug. 2002]. He enjoyed it so much that he told other writers about it. That's how we got Frank Conroy [who wrote and narrated Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket]. The books are short and concise and we very consciously have given them a series look, feel and name that could be promoted."

Ross has been sensitive to the fact that he is often approaching authors not published by Crown or Random House. And it's the idea of a concise, contained series, and the authors' enthusiasm, that have helped pave the way to gaining cooperation from literary agents.

Kotlowitz is among those writers who have been happy to take on the assignment. "I had a notion of doing something similar on my own and then they approached me, so it couldn't have come at a more perfect time," he said. "Though I wasn't born in Chicago, I've lived here for the past 20 years. My wife and I think about where we want to spend our later years and I got to thinking 'what has kept me here like a magnet?' I think it's the messy vitality of the city."

Additionally, the prescribed Journeys format appealed to Kotlowitz. "I have been intrigued by this short form in recent years, by books like Winesburg, Ohio, which tells the story of a town in short stories, " he said. "I loved the idea, and it was an excuse to spend some time with people I had known, and to get to know some people better." In the end, Kotlowitz believes he has provided "a view of a prototypical American city from the ground up. All the contradictions and paradoxes of this country are found within the borders of Chicago."

The Role of Audio

From its inception, Ross has seen the Journeys series as having an audiobook component. "We bought audio rights for all the books thinking that when we had critical mass we would publish them," he said. Random House Audio began releasing the line of two-CD abridgements in spring 2003; a total of 10 audio titles will be available by the end of this year. "I thought the audio would be perfect for people driving in one place who want to hear about another, or for people visiting a town who wanted to listen to the audio while they are there," said Ross.

Authors are key here, too, as they each narrate their own work. "Literature lovers have a chance to hear their favorite authors speaking—and often sharing semi-autobiographical information about places that are integrally important to who they are," Ross added

Kotlowitz, who is used to doing a fair amount of speaking for public radio and television, found the recording process "exhausting—in a word," he said with a laugh. "Even though the book is relatively short, it's much longer than my radio pieces. I had a colleague years ago at the Wall Street Journal who used to read his pieces aloud. It used to drive me crazy. But it's the only way to hear the rhythm of the language. You sometimes find a sentence or a paragraph that you wish you had sculpted better and that can be frustrating. But books are meant to be read aloud—and who wouldn't want to be asked to read their book? The series really lends itself well to audio." Kotlowitz shared his insights on Chicago and his experiences in the recording studio with booksellers at the Audiobook & Author Tea during the BEA convention this past weekend.

"I had a lot of fun working on this book," Kotlowitz noted. "I hope it comes through as a fun and entertaining read for people. And I hope people—even those who live here—will see the city in a different light."