Officials Hope to Turn Chicago into a Hub for Independent Publishing | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Officials Hope to Turn Chicago into a Hub for Independent Publishing

Attendance at the recent Printers Row Lit Fest held steady, even with cold winds and rain. Chicago officials see the throngs of people as a sign that the love of books endures, in spite of a weak economy and the explosion of digital media. So city officials and some local publishers have a plan -- let's turn Chicago into a hub for independent presses.

Along with the usual sights and sounds, like strolling musicians, the lit fair offered something new: A tent for 15 local publishers. The city's Department of Cultural Affairs wants to make Chicago into a vibrant publishing destination. It's hired a former editor from "Poetry" magazine, Danielle Chapman, to galvanize the industry.

CHAPMAN: The more vital we can make ourselves as a publishing city, I think the more vital literature can be created here. We're unique and that should be represented in literature, as well as all the other arts.

She says the city's already well known for its tradition of famous authors and a lot of reading series. But:

CHAPMAN: There wasn't much perception of Chicago as a publishing city. Those words didn't seem to go together.
SEIBOLD: Chicago understands itself as an architecture town, it understands itself as a theater town. People who live here are aware of and proud of our legacies.

Doug Seibold is president of the independent Agate Publishing in Evanston.

SEIBOLD: People in Chicago do not understand Chicago as a publishing town, and in large part, that's because the industry is so small here.

There are about 130 book publishers scattered across the city and suburbs, and they print everything from non-fiction and poetry to children's books and graphic novels.

Here's how a recent transplant from New York describes Chicago's publishing industry:

KIELY: Small and somewhat fragmented and you feel a little isolated.

Garrett Kiely is director of the University of Chicago Press.

KIELY: The sort of way that things happen in New York is that people just get together informally, have lunch with each other, talk about this all the time. And it just becomes a sort of ecosystem that doesn't necessarily exist in Chicago.

He's joined a group of publishers who advise Chapman, and he thinks they're getting somewhere. The cultural affairs department is hosting meet-and-greets for local publishers and public events on the future of publishing. It's creating a literary and publishing section of the Chicago Artists Resource web site.

But neither Kiely – nor anyone else I talked to – wants Chicago to become another New York.

RACCAH: The message to New York is going to be something like publishing doesn't really belong in those big skyscrapers.

Dominique Raccah is the publisher of Sourcebooks in Naperville. Raccah says the industry in New York's been hit hard by consolidations and the economy, along with all the other things competing for our attention like Facebook and e-mail. Raccah thinks that's creating opportunities here.

RACCAH: My peers who are in really large organizations are really challenged right now because the business is changing daily, and it really is about moving very, very quickly. And that's hard to do in large organizations that take a long time to make decisions.

Contrast that with Sourcebooks. Raccah saw the digital revolution advancing, and devoted half her time to it, like a popular SAT guide or a baby name book that are now iPhone apps.

Or this digital version of "Country Music: The Masters," by Marty Stuart, with embedded video and audio.

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It's not just about being nimble. The city's Danielle Chapman thinks Chicago has a unique voice to offer.

CHAPMAN: A lot of people think that the new direction for publishing is going to be toward independent publishing. Chicago is so strong in that area, and it somehow fosters that entrepreneurial spirit, the real toughness you have to have in order to do that.

You can hear that creative spirit at Printers Row:
 
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Jonathan Messinger's the books editor at "TimeOut Chicago." He co-founded featherproof books, which is starting a new imprint to offer short stories and novellas by subscription.

MESSINGER: It's cliché to say this, but Chicago has such a kind of workmanlike approach to things, and I think that a humble approach to things, you know, and I think that that really reflects itself.

That attitude's resulted in a burst of small presses like OVBooks and StepSister Press that he hopes to see even more of.

But can this energy and Chapman's efforts overcome the terrible economy and create a publishing hub? The harsh reality is many local publishers have had lay-offs or trimmed their print runs. And the U of C Press is losing a few journals.

So far, Ivan R. Dee publishing is doing OK. But President Ivan Dee says it could fall off the table any moment. Though he says it's not the city's job to fix it.

DEE: This is not a civic enterprise. I'm all for the city making a little to-do about it, but finally, it comes down to a pretty individualized sort of business.

Don't tell that to Danielle Chapman. She's created a space called the Chicago Publishers Gallery to show off the local industry. She points to shelves full of books published here and cushy chairs tucked away next to the grand staircase. It looks like a library in an old mansion.

CHAPMAN: These nooks back really, they're a small space, and yet they offer this unique area to curl up with a book.

The gallery's already so popular that Chapman's expanding beyond the nooks and taking over the whole café.

RELATED: An audio tour of Independent Publishers Group

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