In 1992 Doug Seibold, the executive editor of Noble Press, opened a manuscript by a writer from New York named Jill Nelson. The incendiary but often very funny memoir abut her life as a black upper-middle-class woman, especially her grueling experience working for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, had been rejected by over 30 publishers. Reading it, Seibold could see why they would be reluctant to touch it. "Jill's book was what I came to learn was very characteristic for Jill. It was extremely forthright, in your face, willing to say things that most people are not willing to say, and to say them in ways that most people are not willing to say them," he says.
But Seibold, a self-described "white, buttoned-down, minivan-driving suburbanite," didn't see Nelson's bluntness as a reason not to publish her memoir. On the contrary, he says, "here was a book where I just sat down and I kept on wanting to read it. It was a very unfamiliar sensation for a small, sort of struggling press."
Published the following year, Nelson's Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience became the best-seller every small publisher dreams about. It paid off for Noble a second time when Penguin bought the paperback rights for more than $100,000.
But the money coming in from Volunteer Slavery and a few other successful titles wasn't enough to offset years of tepid sales and high overhead, and before long Noble was downsizing itself toward oblivion. Seibold was let go in July 1994. "It was really just a little bit too late," says Seibold. "Too much money was gone, and the cash flow didn't work."
Seibold took a job editing the magazine of the national PTA, Our Children, but his interest in book publishing remained strong, and he soon found himself contemplating starting his own press. "After having had something collapse on you that way, you start thinking, Well, how could I try to have more control over this?" he says. "I was really bitten by my experience at Noble. I really felt like, This is something I really enjoy doing, and I felt like I was good at it. I felt like I had a significant measure of success in a relatively brief period of time. And I was proud of what I had done."
Seibold had been knocking around the literary landscape long enough to feel like he knew what he was doing. Since bailing out of the graduate program in English and creative writing at Washington University in 1986 to be with a girlfriend in Chicago, he'd done a lot of magazine work, including a stint at the age of 25 as the editor in chief of the Highland Park-based recreational magazine Lakeland Boating. On the side he wrote book reviews for the Chicago Tribune. He'd also served as fiction editor of the Chicago Review, manuscript editor for the Nelson Algren Awards, and head judge of the Carl Sandburg Awards.
Seibold reckoned there was a market waiting for a new small press of the right kind. "There's an opportunity in the book-publishing marketplace created by the gap between the larger publishers, which are continuing to conglomeratize and consolidate and to become ever more bottom-line oriented, and most small presses, which for the most part are subsistence operations," he says. "I believed that the key was operating at this scale, that essentially there were solid projects that were turned down by the biggest publishers because they didn't have the obvious commercial potential that they needed to feel confident doing it.
Seibold enlisted a partner, a trader at the Mercantile Exchange, to try to recruit investors, mostly from among other traders. In his lunchtime pitches to prospective backers, Seibold explained his concept using analogies he thought they'd understand. "One was the old pre-Disney Miramax, where you had this independent film company that could make movies in the $1 million to $10 million range. And occasionally one of those movies would turn into something like Shakespeare in Love and make $100 million. Whereas the studios were making Kevin Costner vehicles that might also make $100 million but would cost $99 million to make. The smaller company can do a very good business."
None of the prospective investors was biting, however, and Seibold now concedes that his timing may have been off. "At the time people were starting to get really worked up about the Internet, this being like 1996. People were just looking for anything technology-oriented to throw money at, and here I had this very quaint little small-scale publishing investment. It just didn't excite anybody."
Seibold ended up joining the dot-com economy himself, going to work in 1999 for UNext, a Deerfield-based concern offering accredited business courses and degrees on-line (where I am employed and met Seibold). As the company's editorial director, he was responsible for developing the editorial protocols of the company's courses. "I went there and essentially sublimated all of my entrepreneurial energies into UNext and into helping to build their organization," Seibold says.
But like most Internet start-ups, UNext was hard hit by the economic downturn in 2001, and although it didn't go out of business, it did initiate a series of layoffs. Seibold wasn't among those let go, but his role began changing in ways that led him to reconsider his options. "First I went through disappointment and chagrin over what had happened with UNext, and then thinking, Well, what do I really want to do?" he says. "And I looked back at my business plans and I still felt that the fundamental idea of a company of this scale was no less viable than it had been when I first started."
He also felt that the business knowledge he'd acquired while at UNext would give him an additional edge over other would-be publishers. "I think that a lot of people start publishing companies for very emotional reasons," he says. "They start it for altruistic reasons or philosophical reasons, and I think often they don't necessarily bring the business sensibility to bear that they need to."
Seibold doesn't buy into the notion of publishing as a genteel pursuit with few financial rewards. "I don't think you can be a great publishing company unless you're financially successful," he says. "I don't want to have a company that does a few terrific books and then flames out in five, ten, fifteen years or whatever. I want to build a strong institution."
Toward that end, Seibold has narrowed Agate's focus to the market niches where he feels he has credibility: business books and titles of interest to African-Americans. In settling on the second specialty, Seibold had Nelson very much in mind. He had stayed in close contact with her over the years and knew that she was not entirely happy with Penguin-Putnam, the firm that published her second book, Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman. "I think she felt like the people at Putnam, although they'd given her a great offer for her book, just didn't really appreciate the Jill Nelson sensibility."
Nelson, he says, often contrasted her experience at Putnam with the rapport she and Seibold had enjoyed while working on Volunteer Slavery. "She'd say, 'Oh, I miss working with you so much. I just don't feel the same kind of attention with these people,'" Seibold says. "I almost felt like I was complicating her ability to work better with Putnam, because it's almost like a psychologist--the transference has to go to the new psychologist."
Nelson confirms that working with Seibold on her first book was exceptionally fruitful. "Doug immediately responded to it. He was easy with the race stuff. He wasn't threatened at all by my voice," she says.
When Seibold went to New York in the spring of 2002 to ask Nelson if she would let Agate publish her next book, she didn't hesitate. Previously they had talked about a possible project based on journals and essays she'd written over the years, but Nelson now said that she had something different in mind: her first novel.
It was about two African-American women who start a brothel of male prostitutes. None of the editors she'd shown it to had been interested. Seibold asked to see it.
"It was a fragment, about a third of what the present book is, and substantively different," he says. "But just like when I read Volunteer Slavery, I was like, Hey, this is an incredible thing going on here. And it had her unmistakable voice, sort of raw, scabrous, a very, very funny, very in-your-face voice and treatment of this subject matter. Which was basically about sex and pleasure and how women can have more control over that with less grief." They decided that the novel, Sexual Healing, would be Agate's debut title.
Seibold allows that Nelson's advance wasn't anywhere near the amounts she's previously received from larger publishers, but says she has a nice deal. Nelson isn't complaining. "Mainstream publishing is just boring, as far as African-American literature--just really canned. I'm so tired of the kind of ditto-girlfriend-sister-girl novels," she says. "It really isn't about the money anymore. It's about the work. I want an editor who can push me to write the best book possible and stretch my writing out." She also says she trusts Seibold to keep her best interests at heart even as he negotiates the demands of Agate's bottom line. "My name--someone other than Doug would use it as an exploitation thing. I knew that Doug wouldn't do that. From his first reading of the first 100 pages of the manuscript, talking about how characters were going to develop, it was clear he wasn't looking for just a quick hit." Most important, Nelson has had the chance to work with her favorite editor again. "I knew that he would get it and that it wouldn't be, 'Aren't you being a little hard? Can't you talk less about race, be a little less pornographic? Don't you know any nice white people?,'" she says. "It's my truth. I'm not an emissary from the NAACP or the interracial council on love and friendship. I knew Doug wouldn't be into that, he's not that kind of person."
Seibold already has a distribution deal worked out with Consortium Book Sales, a Saint Paul-based small-press distributor, and his growth plan calls for Agate to be putting out 40 to 60 titles a year about five years from now. For the time being, however, Agate is pretty much just him and part-time associate publisher Diana Slickman working out of his Evanston home.
Sexual Healing hits bookstores in June, and Seibold has arranged for Nelson to do a 15-city tour of interviews, readings, and book signings beginning at the Book Expo America trade show in Los Angeles later this month. She'll be in Chicago on June 8, just in time for the annual Printer's Row Book Fair, although it remains to be seen if or how she'll officially participate. According to Seibold, the organizers of the fair initially expressed concern that Sexual Healing might be "a little too racy" to fit in with their family-oriented programming, but adds that they are presently looking for an appropriate way to include the book and its author.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman, Robert Drea.