City Spotlight: Publishing in Chicago
Disparate. Collegial. Decentralized. Collaborative.
If Chicago publishing professionals agree on one thing about the city's publishing scene, it's that it is not easy to characterize. About to celebrate 175 years as a major publishing hub (Chicago's first publisher, Robert Fergus, set up shop in 1839), today the city is ranked second in the printing and publishing industry, behind New York.
Some of the area's earliest publishers still survive, among them Rand McNally (est. 1856). Many houses are long gone, for example Reilly and Britton, which published L. Frank Baum's beloved Oz books. Some, like Scott, Foresman & Co. have been absorbed by other publishers. In fact, if Chicago publishing professionals lament one change that has taken place over the past decade or so, it is consolidation, to which a number of local publishers have fallen victim.
Doug Seibold, president of Agate Publishing, one of Chicagoland's top independent publishers, notes that, despite its prodigious output and many houses,"Chicago's trade publishing scene is surprisingly small for a city of this size and cultural prominence. Compared to smaller cities like Boston or San Francisco, which have diverse and well-established publishing communities of long standing, Chicago's publishing industry is disproportionately modest."
Substance over Style
"Chicago was never about glamorous trade publishing," says Ela Aktay, executive editor at National Geographic Learning/Cengage Learning in Evanston, just north of Chicago. "We're just about that steady, bread-and-butter kind of publishing."
Publishers abound in and around the Windy City: academic, association, education, evangelical, independent, medical, specialty and university presses. Today, Chicago is home to more than 125 book publishers.
Despite these numbers, though, Chicago is often underappreciated for its publishing prowess. In an effort to promote the local publishing industry, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs in 2010 launched a pair of online entities—ChicagoPublishes.com and ChicagoArtistsResource.org/literary—but the former effort was put on hiatus in 2012. Other organizations, such as Chicago Literary Alliance, Chicago Women in Publishing and Midwest Publishing Association (formerly Chicago Book Clinic), also work to promote the city's publishing industry in various ways with varying degrees of success.
Pros and Cons
Publishing in Chicago, as in other cities, is marked by pros and cons. Although some local publishing professionals note that it is much more difficult to get a full-time publishing job in Chicago than it is in, say, New York or Boston, others note that the number of houses here makes it possible for freelancers to cobble together successful careers working for a variety of publishers, both locally and further afield.
Seibold believes that being based in Chicago has some other, intangible benefits. "There's never any risk of succumbing to the herd mentality that often afflicts major conglomerate publishing," he says. "Here, publishers are pretty free to make their own way."
In fact, local publishers often have to make their own way if they want to survive. Although Chicago has a rich publishing environment, its publishing scene is diffuse, with various interest groups, associations, and organizations spread far and wide. Despite its at times disparate nature, Chicago remains home to scores of publishers and thousands of publishing professionals. As the country's second-largest publishing center, it is an important cog in the wheel. The Windy City's publishing scene is defined by a lot of publishers, operating in numerous fields, creating books for many different kinds of readers.
Academic and University Publishing
Chicago is home to a number of academic and university presses that are based in such prestigious institutions as DePaul, Loyola and Northwestern. Of course, no discussion of academic publishing in Chicago—or academic publishing in general for that matter—would be complete without the juggernaut University of Chicago Press, the country's largest university press. Editorial Director Christie Henry finds in Chicago a cohesive, collaborative publishing community. With its unique position in the city, the University of Chicago Press, which this year will publish about 350 new titles, has devoted some of its resources to publishing books that focus on the region. "We made a strategic decision to more fully engage in regional publishing about a decade ago," Henry says. "For us, being the Chicago home team has meant significant advantages. It's wonderful to be here and understand the meat and bones of Chicago."
Chicago is home to more associations than any U.S. city outside of Washington, DC. The American Bar Association, American Dental Association, American Library Association, American Medical Association, for instance, are all headquartered here. Association publishing is big business in Chicago, with associations publishing myriad books, journals, newsletters and other publications. Although publishing may not be associations' primary mission, the hundreds of titles Chicago-based associations issue every year speak to the ever-growing importance of the practice to their members. Just as with trade publishers, association publishers are navigating the print–digital transition. "Like everyone else," says J. Michael Jeffers, publisher at ALA Editions, the publishing arm of the American Library Association, "we are trying to figure out what our customers want and in what format."
Although it is true that Chicago is no longer home to major trade publishing houses, the city has a rich field of independent publishers, from the very small to the very large.
"My aim in starting Agate," says Seibold, who launched the indie press from his basement in 2003, "was to create a company that would be successful enough in business terms to endure and to contribute to the strengthening of the publishing scene in Chicago not only by publishing good and worthwhile books, but also by furnishing opportunity for more writers, editors, designers and other publishing professionals." Agate, which counts six imprints under its umbrella, publishes on topics ranging from dining and nutrition to business to the African-American experience. The indie house is known for its innovative publishing, which includes an exclusive arrangement with The Tribune Company to publish ebooks based on content from the Chicago Tribune.
Another local indie, Sourcebooks, got its start in a similar fashion—from founder Dominique Raccah's upstairs bedroom in Naperville, about 30 miles west of Chicago's Loop. Sourcebooks, which now has about 100 employees and is seen as an important industry innovator, has been able to tap into that pool of publishing professionals. The house celebrated its 25-year anniversary in 2012. Its location has not been an issue in attracting talent, connecting with readers, or publishing bestsellers. "It has its challenging aspects, but I think we managed—long ago—to get over any inferiority complex we might have had," says Editorial Director Todd Stocke. "When you're outside of Manhattan—even outside of Chicago proper—there are a lot of different things that you're not supposed to be able to do. But there are a lot of opportunities now to connect publisher and reader."
Indie publisher Emily Clark Victorson, who heads Allium Press in Forest Park, about eight miles west of Chicago, agrees that connecting with readers is crucial. "Chicago is critical to our success," she says. "It's important to be able to connect to the Chicagoland community."
Allium, which will publish its tenth book this year, focuses on Chicago-based fiction. But that doesn't make getting local media attention any easier. Discoverability remains a challenge, but being in Chicago has its benefits. "Part of it is that here in Chicago we still have that second-city attitude," which makes local publishers work a little harder, Victorson says.
A Thriving Community
Although some may call Chicago's publishing scene disparate or disconnected, most local publishing professionals agree that it is diverse, collaborative and collegial, a thriving community where hard work is required and where following the herd is rarely done. To paraphrase favorite son Daniel Burnham, the architect and urban designer, publishers here are making no small plans for the future.
Kelli Christiansen has been a publishing professional in Chicagoland for more than two decades. She launched bibliobibuli professional editorial services in 2007.