Credit: Efi Chalikopoulou

“It is that experience of reading a book which can most politicize and most radicalize people,” says Anthony Arnove, a founding editor and editorial board member of Haymarket Books, Chicago’s foremost progressive publisher. Founded in 2001, Haymarket has grown in tandem with the rising popularity of political organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America. Haymarket’s editors have bet on a hunger for leftist classics, Howard Zinn-inspired people’s histories, politically engaged poetry and children’s books, and on new work from marginalized voices, and they’ve had notable success with a number of titles, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough, and Eve Ewing’s Electric Arches among them. In everything from its staffing to its book acquisitions strategy, Haymarket has quite intentionally set out to do business differently in a competitive industry where profit margins, especially for small publishers, are usually thin.

The press was founded after Arnove, an editor and filmmaker, and Ahmed Shawki, editor of the International Socialist Review, took a reporting trip to Palestine. With a third cofounder, Julie Fain, who’d also worked at the International Socialist Review as well as at In These Times, they produced what would become Haymarket’s first title,The Struggle for Palestine, an anthology of essays by pro- Palestinian activists, including Edward Said. “And one thing led to another,” Arnove says. They held a contest to choose a name for the fledgling press; Haymarket Books, after the 1886 Chicago labor protest that ended with a bomb, was an obvious fit.

The Haymarket table at Afropunk 2017
The Haymarket table at Afropunk 2017Credit: courtesy Haymarket Books

Today, Haymarket publishes 40 to 50 books a season, including paperback reprints. While some of those titles sell just a few thousand copies each, works by a popular author like Naomi Klein have gone through several printings of up to 60,000 copies each.

Haymarket’s audience has grown “explosively” over the last few years, says publicity director Jim Plank. “There are many, many people who are becoming politicized in new ways,” he says. He characterizes Haymarket’s audience as a diverse group that encompasses “anyone who’s remotely on the left”—especially those involved in movement politics.

“The holy grail of radical publishing,” says Fain, now the press’s managing editor, is a book that sparks “conversations . . . in existing movements.” Many of Haymarket’s books—especially those with a connection to Chicago—focus on the achievements of social justice struggles and on offering a counternarrative to dominant accounts of contentious political issues. In September, for example, Haymarket published José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal, which counters dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric with joyful, vivid, and closely observed portraits of the lives of Latinx people in Chicago. The book is now a finalist for the 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Award, worth $75,000 and given to a book of any genre for its “originality, merit, and impact.” (The winner will be announced next week.)

Olivarez, like the other Haymarket authors I spoke to, gravitated toward the press because he wanted to work with one aligned with his progressive political values. And indeed because of its values, Haymarket has at times made decisions a conventional publisher might avoid.

In a 2014 roundtable on “publishing while black” in Scratch magazine, Chris Jackson, who was an editor at Spiegel & Grau at the time (he’s now editor in chief of the Penguin Random House imprint One World), said that large publishing houses “publish to those audiences they think they’ve mastered,” which tend to be white audiences.

“That’s never really been our starting point,” Plank tells me. “For us, it’s obvious that there’s people who read across all identities and political perspectives, [who are] looking for things that reflect themselves. That’s where we start from.”

Poetry collections like Citizen Illegal tend to sell fewer copies than works of fiction or nonfiction, and publishing debut works of any kind carries inherent risks. Olivarez says that his intended audience was “young Latinx people in Chicago”—a group publishers rarely picture as the primary purchasers of poetry. A publisher operating under the model Jackson described might not have taken the chance that Olivarez’s book would be able to reach a new audience.

But Olivarez’s book found its audience and then some. In addition to the PEN/Jean Stein nomination, it won the 2018 Chicago Review of Books award for best poetry and a place on best-of-year lists put out by the New York Public Library and NPR.

“A big part of that is that [Haymarket] is actively promoting it,” Olivarez says. “They’ve treated my book with the same amount of care and the same amount of push as Rebecca Solnit’s or Eve Ewing’s or any of the other writers who are big-time sellers for them.” For the cover, the press commissioned striking, brightly colored artwork from Chicago-based artist Joseph “Sentrock” Perez and solicited blurbs from Olivarez’s target audience—young Latinx Chicago poets Vicky Peralta and Luis Carranza—in addition to Ewing and other well-known figures in the poetry world. Haymarket sent Citizen Illegal out to its monthly book club, which “helped get the word out to audience’s beyond my own,” Olivarez writes in an e-mail.

Olivarez refined his poems with the help of two black editors, poet Nate Marshall, author of Wild Hundreds (and also a contributor to the Reader), and Maya Marshall, whose first poetry reading took place at an anti-KKK rally in the south. Her audience, she says, included “snipers and Klansmen.” (A third editor who worked on the book, poet and educator Kevin Coval, is white.)

Because his work wasn’t edited solely by white editors, Olivarez feels he had a different experience than many writers of color. “I didn’t have to translate any sections of my book, I didn’t have to explain things to my editor, I didn’t have to fight for [certain things]—for example, the words in my book that are in Spanish are not italicized. They just understood and went with that.”

Eve Ewing at the release party for <i>Electric Arches</i>
Eve Ewing at the release party for Electric ArchesCredit: Lauren Miller

Haymarket’s editors cultivate relationships with up-and-coming writers of color, including Olivarez, through the BreakBeat Poets anthologies. The editors also diversify their list by accepting unsolicited submissions directly from writers who don’t have agents, which the “Big Five” publishers (HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House), and even some of the larger independent publishing houses, almost never do. Haymarket accepts unsolicited, unagented submissions in part because they’ve found successful books that way, including Ewing’s Electric Arches. But it’s also a political and ethical decision.

In an e-mail, Arnove explains that the practice of not reading unagented submissions filters out diverse authors and many marginalized, progressive, and radical political viewpoints. “A young female poet of color, a trans essayist, a socialist labor organizer from Appalachia are all going to have higher barriers to finding an agent who can submit their manuscript than a white guy who graduated from Harvard and has family connections,” he writes. Once accepted, Arnove says writers are presented with an “author-centric” contract that offers unusual levels of authorial control over things like cover design. While Arnove would not allow the Reader to see a sample contract, both Olivarez and Britteney Black Rose Kapri, whose poetry collection Black Queer Hoe was published by Haymarket in September, say that they were happy with their contracts.

Following its commitment to publishing diverse voices, Haymarket hires more people of color than most publishers. Of its staff of 18, Plank says, about 66 percent are white, and 33 percent are people of color. That’s slightly below parity, since the United States is about 60 percent white, but significantly more diverse than other publishing houses. According to an industry-wide 2015 survey by the children’s book publisher Lee & Lowe, 82 percent of the editorial staff in publishing is white. (The same survey found that the industry as a whole is 79 percent white.)

Manuscript editor Maya Marshall points out that people of color can be discouraged from entering publishing by the combination of degree requirements and modest salaries. “A lot of people of color don’t make it through the hoops you have to get through in order to have a lower-middle, middle-class job,” she says. “And if they do, they have the tax of taking care of the people who couldn’t. And so they don’t choose to work for a nonprofit.”

Most of the staff I spoke to had been recruited through activist networks; the more usual path into publishing involves at least one unpaid or low-wage internship. Haymarket’s staff have been involved with anti-war, housing, immigration, and pro-Palestinian activism and have worked to seek justice for torture survivors.

Haymarket aims “to be a socialist workplace in a capitalist world,” says Fain. “We do everything we can to decommercialize the project without completely going under,” adds Plank. That means donating books to Chicago Public Schools, incarcerated people, unions, and other organizations, and allowing staff time off to picket, protest, and celebrate May Day. Plank declined to disclose salary information but says Haymarket is committed to fairly compensating staff for their labor.

Still, Haymarket, like any publisher, wants to sell many copies of its books as it can. “Ultimately, you’re competing in an industry and a world where there are ideas everywhere,” Plank says. “Someone’s [always] trying to sell an idea. Trying to sell the idea that we could have a different kind of society seems like a pretty OK way to counter that.”

Haymarket’s marketing plan focuses on hand selling at conferences, events, and book festivals. “What’s happened in publishing is that large corporations like Amazon have gotten between publishers and their readers,” says Colin Robinson, who worked at Simon & Schuster before cofounding fellow progressive publishing house OR Books, based in New York, in 2009. “There’s something very problematic about that from my point of view.”

Selling directly to readers allows a publisher to build bonds with its readers, Robinson believes. OR Books prints on demand and sends books directly to customers; it does not distribute via Amazon or large chains. Having a direct connection to readers is especially crucial when a press sees its work as part of a larger political project, Robinson argues. “If you’re on the left,” he says, “as I am and as Haymarket is, your books are designed and produced by people on the left, reviewed by people on the left, and read by people on the left. So what happens if you don’t have that connection to your readers?”

Haymarket is in the midst of renovating a Buena Park mansion at 800 W. Buena to serve as an office and event space. The new building is more than an answer to the perpetual struggle to find space for book launches and other events—it will also serve as a public forum and a space for discussions with writers, artists, and activists. The staff is on schedule to move in this summer.

The new space is already sparking ideas for how the press might develop further. Arnove and Fain are excited about the possibility of collaborations with other Chicago cultural groups such as Young Chicago Authors. (Many of Haymarket’s staff and authors, including Olivarez, Kapri, and Coval, are already involved with YCA.) Coval thinks it could be a space for a regular reading series. Maya Marshall envisions sheltering refugee writers, along the lines of Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum Bookstore. But she doesn’t want to set any limits. “I think we’re just in a moment of generating a wealth of new possibilities.”   v