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The Book Boosters

The city launches a new website to serve the local publishing industry. Who will it help?

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The city's Department of Cultural Affairs threw a launch party at the Cultural Center on Tuesday for a pair of online entities created to serve the local publishing industry. A combination trade paper and PR tool, ChicagoPublishes.com will offer news, an events calendar, stories about books and periodicals, and a directory of publishers. CAR-Literary is a writer-centric subset of the DCA's massive Chicago Artists Resource site—which already features pages for dance, theater, visual art, and music—offering job and other postings, a forum, links to resources, and articles and essays by and about writers and publishers. Together they may be a boon to Chicago's small and scattered publishing community, a threat to its independence, or both.

ChicagoPublishes is the online home of the DCA's heretofore low-profile Publishing Industry Programs, one of three "creative industry initiatives" designed to support and promote small but sexy pieces of the city's business landscape. The other two cover the culinary arts and fashion, and all three function under the aegis of the Chicago Office of Tourism, which is part of the DCA.

Publishing Industry Programs is headed by former Poetry magazine consulting editor Danielle Chapman. She says PIP was the brainchild of DCA commissioner Lois Weisberg, who "loves publishing and books" and wanted to support them. Chapman was hired in late 2007, and the first thing she did was set up the Publishers Gallery—a showcase for locally published books and periodicals as well as work by local authors, initially consisting of two nooks, outfitted with comfortable chairs and bookshelves, at the base of the north staircase in the Cultural Center.

In December 2009 Chapman expanded the Publishers Gallery into the main room of the Cultural Center's Randolph Street Cafe, adding a nook each for children, writers, news and periodicals, and local interest. The gallery has also amassed a collection of more than 2,300 titles donated by 175 local publishers.

Other PIP projects include seminars and quarterly gatherings for the industry, as well as a series of four monthly public events that begins in December with a Cricket magazine holiday fair to be held in what's now called the Publishers Gallery & Cafe.

But the major PIP effort is ChicagoPublishes, built and run by Chapman's sole staffer, Julie Hunt—who dropped her own 22-month-old site, PublishChicago.com, to take it on.

PublishChicago carried reviews, news, and event listings for the local publishing industry. Kelli Christiansen's Chicago Publishing Network did the same, additionally offering job postings. Christiansen reconstituted CPN as a LinkedIn group last spring; it has 524 members.

The city site arrived in a soft launch last week—with event listings picked up, word for word and without attribution or links, from the Reader and other sources. (Chapman says the plan was to "compile listings from as many published sources as possible," and added that she didn't know listings sources needed to be cited; the descriptive parts of the listings have since been removed.)

Serving Chicago's diverse publishing world is a challenge. The territory takes in long-standing international companies like educational imprint Pearson Scott Foresman and mapmaker Rand McNally; university presses (including the nation's biggest, at University of Chicago); newspapers and magazines, along with online publications; one- and two-person shops like Lake Claremont Press; and nonprofit journals like Proximity.

And then there are challenges within challenges. Consider the situation in book publishing. The recent history there, marked by game-changing technological innovation and a crippling economy, includes the loss of Ivan R. Dee—a respected publisher of nonfiction that opened here in 1988 and closed its Chicago office last May. But others like Dominique Raccah's Sourcebooks—now the biggest trade book publisher in the Chicago area—and Chicago Review Press continue to succeed.

Chicago Review Press started as an outlet for a few manuscripts that couldn't be used by the journal of the same name and, cofounder Linda Matthews says, "accidentally" grew into a $10 million-plus company after her husband and partner, Curt Matthews, made a well-timed acquisition of Independent Publishers Group, a distribution company that's now the tail wagging the dog. PIP's plans are unlikely to affect publishers like the Matthewses significantly—while struggling smaller houses may be looking for more help than PIP is meant to deliver.

Sharon Woodhouse's 15-year-old Lake Claremont Press has shrunk over the last couple years as industry revenues have dropped; she says shoring up the local publishing business "might be a better use of tax money" than this softer, more "cultural" approach.

Dee "applauds" the city effort but wonders how effective it'll be. "Is the city going to get books into bookstores?" he asks. "Get local authors on TV? Convince authors to publish here? Book publishing is not a civic enterprise. It's very ego-oriented. It depends on one person who has a passion for getting certain kinds of books to the public."

Poet C.J. Laity greeted the arrival of ChicagoPublishes and CAR-Literary with an incredulous "yeegads" on his 11-year-old website, chicagopoetry.com, which he fears could be threatened by competition from the DCA. Ticking off a string of events that he says "illustrate this city's underlying hostility to the art scene," from the police raid that shut down one of local publishing's biggest annual events, the Printers' Ball, in 2007 to last year's arrest of artist Chris Drew, who sold work on State Street as a protest against city restrictions, Laity argues that the city merely wants to control the scene and "cleanse" it of "diversity and dissent."

"I've been doing poetry and literary events for over 20 years," Laity says. "If we now have a thriving literary scene with an abundance of reading events it's in spite of the city, not because of it. They're not doing this for our benefit. It's more for the city's benefit. They want to say, 'Look how we support the arts.' But there won't be a story about Chris Drew on ChicagoPublishes.com."

Yet many publishers say anything that raises their visibility and connects them is a good thing. Ed Marszewski of Lumpen magazine ("a front for the left in the arts since 1991") thinks PIP will allow writers and publishers to find one another, and Agate Publishing's Doug Seibold—who's already contributed an article to ChicagoPublishes—says, "What the city is doing is great. They're helping people see what's already here. People think of Chicago as a great theater town, a great architecture town—they don't think of it as a great literary or publishing town."

Seibold also says Chicago should have a larger trade book publishing industry. "This is a great time for small presses that are open-minded and entrepreneurial," he maintains. "The status quo is good for the big guys. When it starts to break down, it creates opportunity for the little guys." Seibold says his business will double its gross revenue this year, thanks to his new endeavor, ProBooks, which creates "content," mostly in the form of digital textbooks, for for-profit schools.

You have to be creative, Seibold says. "I started Agate to publish fiction and nonfiction by African-American writers. If I'd stuck by that, and only that, I doubt that I'd still be in business."   

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