America’s Heartland has sometimes been dismissed as “flyover country,” and its publishing activity is often overlooked by an industry concentrated on the coasts and increasingly dominated by international conglomerates. But due to the critical mass of independent publishers—and bookstores—in both the Twin Cities and Chicago, those two metropolitan areas have become exciting hubs of literary activity that spills over state lines into Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Minneapolis–St. Paul is home to three of the country’s most critically acclaimed literary nonprofit presses and several venerable children’s publishers. The efforts of literary-minded Twin Cities philanthropists more than 20 years ago created Open Book, the building complex on the edge of downtown Minneapolis dedicated to the literary arts and literary organizations, with an indie bookstore on the ground floor maintained by Milkweed Editions.
A similar generosity among literary-minded Chicago-area philanthropists led to the launch in 2017 of the American Writers Museum, dedicated to celebrating American literature and making the lives of authors and their works accessible to the general public. And Chicagoland boasts savvy entrepreneurs who have redefined what it means to be a publisher.
Perhaps University of Minnesota Press director Doug Armato best articulated why publishing in the Heartland is thriving: “Being based in the Midwest,” he says, “allows us to hear ourselves think and not get lost in all the coastal buzz and trendsetting. In that way, I think that our geography has kept our list unique.”
Midwestern publishers pride themselves on their entrepreneurial spirit and connections to their communities. Sourcebooks CEO Dominique Raccah revels in running a publishing company far away from New York City. “We’ve always been in the Midwest and we are extraordinarily proud of our Midwest roots,” she says of the 34-year-old company she founded in her Naperville, Ill., home in 1987. “We are to some extent outsiders, who all came to Sourcebooks and to publishing through our love of books. The entrepreneurial culture that we have at Sourcebooks really is rooted in being in the Midwest.”
Doug Seibold, the publisher of Agate Publishing, located in nearby Evanston, agrees. Agate’s Chicagoland location is “fundamental to everything about us,” he says, adding that “being here has maybe made it easier for me to think differently than a publisher in New York, finding opportunity by cutting against what big publishing does rather than emulating it.” Agate, which launched in 2002 in Seibold’s basement, initially specialized in publishing books by Black authors, although it has expanded its offerings over the years.
Agate, Seibold says, has always sought out books that “are a little different,” offering “unexpected” and “less obvious” content. For instance, in June, Agate published This Life by Quntos KunQuest, who has been incarcerated in Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary since he was 19. “KunQuest is exactly the kind of writer, writing about exactly the kinds of people, that the American literary world has perennially overlooked,” Seibold says.
The Windy City has been a boon to Triumph books, the IPG division specializing in sports publishing, according to publisher Noah Amstadter. “Chicago is a fantastic city for sports, as every major team comes through Chicago at least once a year,” he says. “We have teams in every professional sport, including two baseball teams. We’re in a great space as a sports publisher.”
Amstadter notes that the press’s coffee-table book on Kobe Bryant, put out in partnership with Sports Illustrated last year, has sold very well. In September, the press launched its newest series with The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021, edited by Glenn Stout, the founding editor of the Best American Sports Writing annual series that ended its run in 2020.
Roger Janecke, the publisher of Visible Ink, an indie press founded in 2000, explains that not only does operating out of suburban Detroit foster a company culture that emphasizes “politeness,” but it also encourages a slower, more methodical pace of production. “We work to get it right,” he explains, “letting ideas and complex projects develop organically, rather than forced by an unrealistic timetable.” For example, he says, in the spring Visible Ink will publish The Constitution Explained by David L. Hudson.
“The idea was to not publish a scholarly book, but rather, a book in plain English,” Janecke says. “The Constitution really is so vague in parts that the author and I kept going back and forth—here’s the expert, and here’s me, playing the role of the reader, wanting to understand what such terms as ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ really mean. It took time, but it was well worth it.”
Graywolf Press publisher Fiona McCrae says that being based in Minneapolis leaves the press “freer to experiment and pursue avenues that interest us. We are less interested in hustling for the next big thing and are happy to take a slower response. And the Twin Cities is a good place to be an independent nonprofit publisher”—due to generous support from the state of Minnesota and from corporations and foundations headquartered there. That’s a sentiment shared by leaders at Coffee House Press and Milkweed Editions, two other Minneapolis nonprofit literary presses.
Milkweed, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary, is housed in Open Book, a building complex dedicated to the literary arts on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. CEO Daniel Slager emphasizes that, while Milkweed has a national presence, “its values may be quintessentially Minnesotan.” After all, he says, it was publishing environmental literature “before it was popular.”
While Raccah confesses that she “walked into the pandemic scared to my soul,” that didn’t deter Sourcebooks from recently launching Bloom Books, an imprint dedicated to publishing books by such entrepreneurial authors as E.L. James and Scarlett St. Clair. A boxed set of James’s Fifty Shades as Told by Christian trilogy recently went on sale, and St. Clair is introducing a new fantasy series with the imminent release of King of Battle and Blood.
The pandemic has “pushed the Midwestern in us even further,” Raccah says. Sourcebooks is maintaining close connections with employees still working remotely—through biweekly check-ins, a companywide book club, gift bags for new employees, and other initiatives—and also reaching out to indie booksellers. Besides sending “welcome packages” to new bookstores, the Sourcebooks Booksellers Change Lives discount program offers indie booksellers who order direct a 53% discount on more than 15 backlist titles, with free freight and 90-day terms through February.
“We wanted to do everything we could to help booksellers,” says Sourcebooks retail marketing director Valerie Pierce. “The books they already love and are selling, they can bring in at a higher level for a better discount. It’ll make a difference in their bottom line and that’s really important to us.”
The pandemic has also prompted the trade book publishing arm of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Chicago to step up its efforts in reaching out to indie booksellers and libraries. “We recently mailed galleys of our forthcoming book High Five Discipline: Positive Parenting for Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Kids to more than 75 Black-owned independent bookstores,” says Mary Lou White, senior v-p of membership, marketing, and publishing. “The author, Dr. Candice Jones, believes her advice is especially relevant for fellow Black parents.”
A sense of place
While publishers such as Hazelden Publishing in Center City, Minn., and Mayo Clinic Press in Rochester, Minn., are located in the Midwest because of their affiliations with prestigious health organizations, others view the Midwest as their raison d’être. Anne Trubek, who launched Cleveland’s Belt Publishing in 2013, maintains that being a Midwest publisher remains “the very core of what we do—writing about the region, publishing writers who live here, and taking advantage of the possibilities of the area for creating a unique publishing company.” Belt is so committed to its roots and its mission that it does business only with Midwestern printers.
Kristin Gilpatrick, marketing manager at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press in Madison, notes that the publisher’s mission is defined by its location; its list “revolves around the Heartland and the philosophies, histories, and stories it produces,” such as its current top seller, Hope Is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in the Pandemic by B.J. Hollars.
While Josh Leventhal, the director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, points out that the press is defined by “where we are,” many of its books contain universal themes and content “that relate to people in other areas.” For instance, A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota by Sun Yung Shin—the press’s “most successful book in a long time,” with 50,000 copies sold in all formats—explores the experiences of Black people in Minnesota, but “the themes and issues it raises are relevant to places all over the country,” Leventhal says.
Scholarly presses build community
University presses across the Midwest emphasize their commitment to the region with trade lists that affirm their connections to the cities and states that support them. While the University of Illinois Press publishes “significant work in Chicago history, politics, and architecture,” says publisher Laurie C. Matheson, many of its releases also focus upon “working people,” such as a fall 2022 release with crossover expectations, Dream Books and Gamblers: Black Women’s Work in Chicago’s Policy Game by Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach.
The University of Chicago Press, says director Garrett Kiely, publishes standout books about Chicago and the Midwest, like Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. It received national media attention that included a feature article in the New York Times and an author interview on the Daily Show.
According to Ohio University Press publicity coordinator Laura Andre, the press’s regional list “has everything to do with our location in the Midwest and Appalachia.” Recent releases include Victory on Two Fronts: The Cleveland Indians and Baseball Through the World War II Era by Scott Longert and Common Mosses, Liverworts, and Lichens of Ohio by Robert Klips.
As for Ohio State University Press, publicity manager Samara Rafert points out that it also serves its community with such titles as Not Far from Me: Stories of Opioids and Ohio, edited by Daniel Skinner and Berkeley Franz, and A History of Hate in Ohio: Then and Now by Michael E. Brooks and Bob Fitrakis. Jerald Walker’s How to Make a Slave and Other Essays, a 2020 National Book Award finalist, “was a major high point, confirmation that our literary imprint, Mad Creek, has rapidly become a destination press for creative nonfiction” with an audience extending far beyond the Buckeye State.
“A considerable amount of our nonfiction and fiction titles have a Michigan, Great Lakes, or broader Midwestern focus,” says Gabriel Dotto, director of Michigan State University Press, which recently published Accidental Reefs and Other Ecological Odysseys in the Great Lakes by Lynne Heasley. “The Great Lakes area offers a surprisingly varied canvas of ethnicities, of rural realities shoulder-to-shoulder with large metro areas, and of a broad range of commercial and industrial activities, all of which inform our publishing program.”
It’s even an more complex algorithm for Wayne State University Press. The press is “very closely tied” to Detroit, executive director Stephanie Williams says; its blue-collar roots are amplified by its attention to the Motor City’s majority-BIPOC communities with such releases as Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and Belonging, edited by Ghassan Zeineddine, Nabeel Abraham, and Sally Howell. “This is not to say that a similar publisher based in New York or Los Angeles couldn’t or wouldn’t have similar alignments,” Williams says. “But the geocultural location of this press facilitates a conversation across the list that is not typical Midwestern, Coastal, or Southern, but some delightful amalgam of the three—plus a touch of Canada.”
The University of Minnesota Press’s trade list reflects its regional connections, too. Director Doug Armato points out that the Black Lives Matter protests last year have had a particularly profound impact. “George Floyd’s murder and its aftermath made us all the more conscious of our responsibility to our community,” Armato says. “We opened up for free online reading many of the key books we’ve published over the past 25 years on racial injustice. The events of May 2020 won’t be forgotten by us as we shape our lists to come.” To that end, the press recently released We Are Meant to Rise: Voices for Justice from Minneapolis to the World, edited by Carolyn Holbrook and David Mura.
Midwest expands, world shrinks
While Midwestern publishers remain fiercely proud of their status as publishing outliers, several of them mentioned an unanticipated side effect of the pandemic: technology has demonstrated that physical location does not matter as much as it once did in the industry. For instance, like other businesses in the region, Sourcebooks ordered employees to work remotely starting in March 2020. Now, Raccah says, citing one nomadic employee who travels about the country as she works, Sourcebooks has evolved into a hybrid workplace. “We no longer care where people live,” she adds. “You have to live in one of eight states for tax purposes, but if you want to live in one of those eight states, go for it.”
Chicago Review Press, founded in 1973 by Curt and Linda Matthews (who went on to acquire IPG almost 15 years later), has “always been able to attract the best talent in Chicagoland,” says publisher Cynthia Sherry. Since the pandemic, however, “we’ve been forced into a better mode of communication, so we can hire from all over and expand our reach.”
Recalling the cancellations of in-person international conventions and conferences, Sherry acknowledges that “at first I thought this was going to be terrible and we would lose business because of all the business we would do [at the Frankfurt and London book fairs]. I basically did a remote Frankfurt and London to some extent.”
But, Sherry says, “people showed up, and we got to see each other and talk and do what we would do in person for a lot less cost and travel exhaustion.” One hot property she successfully negotiated U.S. rights to last year was My Amy: The Life We Shared by Tyler James. “It’s going to be interesting to see what is going to happen when we do more in person,” she adds.
Read More from our Midwest Publishers Feature:
IPG at 50: Exploring Heartland Publishing 2021
Joe Matthews, CEO of IPG parent company Chicago Review Press Inc., discusses the distributor’s explosive growth, and its future.
Strong Roots: Exploring Heartland Publishing 2021
Midwest religion and spirituality publishers draw inspiration from their communities to meet readers’ needs.
Going Their Own Way: Exploring Heartland Publishing 2021
Midwest children’s publishers address important issues but resist trends.
A version of this article appeared in the 11/22/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: The Heart of the Matter