An as-told-to interview with a Chicago publishing whiz, for our Spring Books issue.
“I grew up on the east coast but always wanted to make my own way. I didn’t want to be part of the herd. I didn’t realize how challenging it would be, though, to have a publishing career outside the center. Making a career outside New York has often required pursuing unpredictable paths. By 2003 I’d worked as a publishing professional in Chicago for about 15 years. I’d spent half that time fruitlessly trying to start my own company and had become pretty discouraged. Eventually I figured out that if I kept my costs really low and made my publishing program as tight as it could be, I had a chance to survive beyond the first year. And if I didn’t, I’d be about what I was—a fortysomething guy looking for a job.
“When I first started Agate Publishing in spring 2003, I was working out of my basement. I had a cell phone, a laptop, and a DSL line. That was pretty much Agate Publishing.
“We originally published African-American fiction and nonfiction and business-related nonfiction. Then in 2006, we bought Surrey Books, a 25-year-old Chicago-based publisher devoted to food, dining, entertaining, and nutrition. We took our original two content areas and created imprints. The African-American imprint is called Bolden, the business-related one is B2. We kept ‘Surrey Books’ as the name for our food-and-dining imprint.
“Around that same time, some former colleagues of mine from a folded dot-com reached out to me about creating their own content for the schools where they then worked. I saw this as a business opportunity, so we created a new business called ProBooks. ProBooks is essentially a digital content service that creates resources and courses for textbook publishing companies and for-profit education companies.
“We finally moved out of the basement to a leafy corner in south Evanston in May 2010. This was just in time for a significant growth spurt in the company. At the time we had four staff members, and now we have 17.
“We’ve also created two new imprints.
“The first is Midway Books, which is devoted to titles with a regional focus. For example, we have a new book called Locally Grown that looks at midwest farmers with organic and sustainable operations. I believe that regional publishing is one area where the big publishers aren’t going to want to compete. It just doesn’t make sense for them to get down to that grain level.
“The second is Agate Digital. This is where we publish stand-alone e-books. The digital marketplace is a very new and fast-growing part of the publishing industry. It’s a great time to experiment without the physical limitations of traditional print. There are a number of really worthwhile books going unpublished because there isn’t a predictable market for them. But because publishing costs are significantly reduced with an e-book, there are tons of new material we can do. And in that sense it’s a long-term play. If you find good writers, you’ll eventually find your audience.
“But we’re not reducing our print publishing. This past fall we had our most successful book to date: I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words. It was a classic case of timing. We’d acquired the project much earlier in the year, but when Jobs retired and passed away, the book just blew up. It was on the New York Times best seller list.
“I hope being outside New York has allowed me to think in a more openminded way. I’m very positive about the future. When I was first trying to start Agate, things were a lot more daunting. The status quo is good for the big guys, but when it starts to break down, opportunity is created for small companies like mine. And fortune favors the bold. There’s a lot of things that are very, very uncertain right now, but from where I sit that’s a good thing.”