Chicago Review Press turns 40

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  • Chicago Review Press
Forty years ago this month, Curt and Linda Matthews, two English instructors at Northwestern, went into the publishing business. Their office was their basement, their pile of submissions was work that was too long to fit into the Chicago Review, where Curt was poetry editor during his graduate years at the University of Chicago, and their first book was Spring and Asura, a volume of Japanese poetry in translation. They called their new venture Chicago Review Press.

"They wrote to the University of Chicago to get to use the name Chicago Review," says Cynthia Sherry, Chicago Review's current publisher. "They thought it would give it extra cachet. The name implies that all we do is Chicago-based books. But we do lots of national-interest titles, too."

Today Chicago Review operates out of an office in River North and has four separate imprints. It's still independent. This year it will release 65 titles. It doesn't publish much poetry anymore; instead its catalog is a wide range of subjects, including history, current affairs, education, popular science, reprints of bestsellers from the 40s and 50s, and, especially, music and film.

"Everything is a little quirky, a little edgy, smart," says Sherry. "We're looking for the passionate niche audience."

These days, a publisher that hasn't been snapped up by a conglomerate is a rare commodity. And, having survived 40 years, Chicago Review is one of the oldest trade publishers in the city. Sherry says the secret to its survival was its steady growth, rather than expanding suddenly and all at once.

"Our independence allows us to be flexible," she says, "and handle the changes in the industry. For instance, we were able to convert our backlist to e-books quickly. It helped us weather the storm."

It also gets help from a few unlikely titles in its backlist that sell perennially: Outwitting Squirrels, The Mole People, Volunteer Vacations, and Outdoor Survival Skills. Producer and director Michael Mann served as a benefactor in the early days: in 1975, he bought the film rights to The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Frank Hohimer, who wrote it while doing time in Joliet, and renewed them annually until the movie appeared in 1981 as Thief.

"Another way we differ from New York houses is that we nurture Chicago authors," says Sherry. She estimates that 40 percent of Chicago Review's authors are journalists, recruited from Chicago newspapers and magazines, writing their first books. "They bring a fresh perspective," she says. "They bring writing talent and a collaborative spirit," by which she means they don't mind being edited.

In the future, Sherry hopes the company will continue to grow: next year, she plans to release 75 new titles, ten more than this year. "We want to market directly to the consumers," she said, "and get the books into the community." (Roadside Picnic, for instance, a reprint of a classic Soviet science fiction title, was featured on Gawker's science blog iO9, which increased its sales considerably.)

"We focus on books that contribute to the culture," Sherry says. "Instead of focusing solely on commercial successes, we want to produce books that will sell well year after year."

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.

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