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Events Mon Oct 14 2013
Like a rock n' roll band, Chicago Review Press started in a garage. And with a rock n' roll attitude, the independent press has published quirky and controversial books since 1973. (Sample titles: Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace by Michelle T. Johnson, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction: Build Implements of Spitball Warfare by John Austin.)
Currently publishing 65 new titles a year under four imprints, CRP has not only survived but thrived in a tumultuous era for the industry. This year, the River North press celebrates its 40th anniversary. Book Club caught up with Publisher Cynthia Sherry, who started her career at CRP as an accountant, moved on to editorial director in 1995, and publisher in 2004. Sherry shared insights on CRP's success, what hopeful authors need to know about submitting, and plans for the future (hint: more intriguing books!).
What's kept CRP going through such a turbulent time for the publishing world?
Being tech savvy, flexible, and open to new ideas has helped us survive the dramatic changes in the publishing industry over the years. Publishing tends to be an old-fashioned business, and while many publishers, especially the independents, were hesitant to shift from only publishing print books to publishing both print and ebooks in tandem, we jumped at the opportunity early on. Within a year or two, we converted our 1,000 title backlist into all the major ebook formats. We also made sure that our new ebooks were available online as soon as the print editions were available in stores.
How did CRP start?
Curt and Linda Matthews started the company in 1973 when they were both English professors at Northwestern University. The first book they published, Spring and Asura, was a book of Japanese poetry in translation, and they also published an early graphic novel called Prairie State Blues. Curt had been the poetry editor for the Chicago Review when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and occasionally he would come across wonderful works that were too long for the journal to publish, so he started publishing them on his own out of his garage with Linda's help.
How have you seen it change over time?
The company has grown tremendously over the years. We were publishing 15 titles a year when I joined the editorial department in 1995, and now we are publishing 65 new titles a year under four imprints. We started out as a small, primarily regional publisher, and we are now a dynamic midsize publisher with a list of national interest titles on a wide range of subjects, including popular science, history, music, film, politics, current affairs, biography, and autobiography, as well as an award-winning line of childen's nonfiction and young adult titles.
What are the advantages and disadvantages to running an independent press?
The biggest advantage to being an independent is that we can publish what we like and are not beholden to investors. It allows us to publish books that are important and contribute to the culture but may not sell a lot of copies right out of the gate. We are definitely focused on publishing quality books that will backlist well and sell more year after year. The biggest disadvantage to being an independent press is that we have more limited financial resources, which means that we have to work harder to get our books known, and we sometimes get outbid on new projects by the larger New York publishing houses who pay high advances.
Do you think CRP would thrive as well in any other city?
It's hard to say. We really identify with Chicago, not just in terms of our name and our history, but also in terms of our attitude, the subjects we publish, and our local authors. We love Chicago. There's a friendly, honest, and hardworking attitude that characterizes the city. Chicago has always been a champion of the working class and the underdog. Just think about some of its literary giants: Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren.
What makes Chicago a good or not-so-good home for independent presses?
Chicago is a great, affordable place to live and work, so it attracts a lot of talented creative people, including writers, editors, and designers. It's also a less expensive place to run a business compared to New York, Boston, or San Francisco, which means we can sell fewer books and still make money. On the downside, the publishing community here is not as well organized or as established as it is in New York and Boston, but that's changing. Also, some of the New York literary agents overlook Chicago and the Midwest as a place of vibrant publishing-- that is, until we convince them that we can sell a lot of books and garner great publicity.
What are some of your favorite titles? Some of CRP's most successful titles?
Some of my favorite titles happen to be some of our most successful ones. I love Backyard Ballistics, The Mole People, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction, My Bloody Life, and Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure. We publish mostly nonfiction, and our books tend to be quirky and a little edgy. We are always looking for that story that hasn't been told, and we want to give voice to new ideas and people on the margins of society.
What should hopeful authors know about submitting to CRP?
We enjoy working with first time authors, journalists, and unagented authors, as well as established authors with agents. You also don't need to have to have a finished manuscript to get a nonfiction book published, just a great idea, a detailed proposal, and the credentials to write the book. Interested authors can check out our submission guidelines.
What can we expect from CRP in the future?
We plan to grow our list to 75 new titles a year and will work to build more community around our books, reaching out directly to our readers. We are also excited about the new possibilities with ebooks and will be offering an ebook upgrade when customers buy a print edition.
Anything else Book Club readers should know about CRP?
We are looking forward to 40 more years of successful publishing in Chicago, and we are grateful to all the people who have bought our books and supported local bookstores and authors over the years.