In 1973, two English instructors at Northwestern University banded together to publish a small book of Japanese poetry in translation. Spring and Asura would become the first of hundreds of titles to be published with Chicago Review Press, which is celebrating its 40th Anniversary.
Since launching in Evanston, Chicago Review Press now calls River North home. Curt and Linda Matthews, those two English profs who launched the press, still have a hand in things, but Cynthia Sherry has since taken over as publisher. She and about a dozen(ish) staffers work together to publish about sixty to seventy titles a year, and they’re working on expanding their list. While Sherry is buzzing around Frankfurt Book Fair this week, we connected with her for an e-mail interview. Our Q&A with one of Chicago’s thriving independent publishers follows.
Q. Since its inception in 1973, Chicago Review Press has published hundreds of titles across a number of genres. How has the Press’s focus or mission changed during the past 40 years?
When the company was started back in 1973 by Curt and Linda Matthews, they published about a dozen titles a year including Japanese poetry in translation, one of the first graphic novels, Prairie State Blues, and Sweet Home Chicago, a guide to Chicago’s neighborhoods and nightlife. Now 40 years later, Chicago Review Press publishes 65 new titles yearly under four imprints. We no longer publish poetry; our list is mostly nonfiction on a wide variety of subjects. We still like to publish the best of the Midwest, but we are much more focused on national interest titles than we were in the beginning.
Q. Since launching 40 years ago, much has changed in the industry. How has Chicago Review Press adapted to those changes?
Chicago Review Press has always been a little scrappy and willing to embrace changes in the book industry. Our company has been tech savvy since the beginning. We embraced desktop publishing, direct-to-plate printing, and editing online when that technology first became available. When independent bookstores were put out of business in droves by the dominance of the chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Noble, and then Amazon, we continued to support independent bookstores. We converted our entire backlist to e-books early on and that has helped us thrive. Our e-book sales represent about 13%, and that number is growing. Right now we are excited about bundling e-books with print books for a small fee. And although Amazon still dominates the e-book market with the Kindle, we are opening up new e-book vendor accounts all the time and shifting that balance.
Q. In what ways has Chicago Review Press grown over the years?
Our publishing program has grown tremendously over the years, both in terms of the number of new titles we publish each year and the variety of subjects we publish. We’ve expanded our offerings to include popular science, history, music, film, biography, memoir, travel, and children’s nonfiction.
Q. What makes Chicago Review Press unique among its competitors?
We are a boutique press with a powerful distributor. We are one and the same company with our distributor Independent Publishers Group (IPG). We bought IPG in 1986, and since then IPG has grown to become the second largest distributor of independent publishers in the United States.
Q. How and why has Chicago Review Press stayed independent in a day and age when consolidation is de rigueur?
It’s a family-owned company that has rejected offers to be bought, and it’s multigenerational: Curt’s and Linda’s sons are involved with IPG and are helping us take the company in a direction that will allow us to continue to thrive in the 21st century.
Q. How has being based in Chicago helped or hindered Chicago Review Press?
It has helped us attract talented authors that might have been overlooked by the New York houses, and it has enabled us to attract talented editors and designers because there is less competition for trade publishing jobs here.
Q. What has Chicago Review Press meant for Chicago and the area?
We really love Chicago and celebrate our Midwestern authors and support the publishing community here. We exhibit at Printer’s Row Book Fair every summer, work with local bookstores and different venues like The Music Box theater to host author events and book signings, and my colleagues and I try and speak on as many publishing panels as we can to encourage local authors to submit book proposals to Chicago Review Press. We are also lucky to work with many excellent Chicago journalists.
Q. What has being based in Chicago meant for Chicago Review Press, its authors, and its titles?
We closely identify with the city’s independent spirit and hardworking Midwest attitude.
Q. Looking back, what are some of the highlights of Chicago Review Press?
Taking chances on publishing quirky books that turn out to be bestsellers like Outwitting Squirrels, Backyard Ballistics, My Bloody Life, The Mole People, and, more recently, MiniWeapons of Mass Destruction by John Austin and Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo.
Q. Looking forward, what are some of the goals for Chicago Review Press?
We are looking forward to growing our list to 75 new titles a year, expanding our e-books program, and finding new ways to reach out to customers. We plan to make the most of this exciting revolution in publishing.