Is it wrong to feel optimistic? You couldn’t be blamed if you didn’t. Yet while the country’s economy crumbles around us and less and less funds are available for the producers of the printed word, those in the literary world are finding new and inventive ways to stay afloat. We will not go down without a fight, and progress, of course, is key. So is awareness—in order to get the word out more efficiently (and, likely, to untether itself from the uncertain future of the paper form), Printers Row Book Fair changed its name from “Book Fair” to “Lit Fest” to have a title that better fully represents the weekend’s events, in time for its twenty-fifth anniversary edition. As is our custom, we time our annual Lit 50 list to the weekend’s events; this year’s list of local behind-the-scenes literati—no straight-up authors or poets this time—covers a large spectrum of Chicago’s world of words. As with past years we sought out those behind the smaller presses as well as the monumental figures. Some new names have emerged and many staples appear again, but all tirelessly labor to bring this ancient art to the community at large.
1 Oprah Winfrey
The most influential pop-culture figure in the United States has yet to select a single title this year for her much-discussed Book Club; David Wroblewski’s “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” being the last, in September 2008. While the literary merits of Oprah’s influence can be debated, no one can disagree with the financial benefits and significant boost in public awareness an author is awarded when he or she earns the approval of the big O and her legions of fans. When Winfrey chooses a classic novel—as she’s done in the past with “Anna Karenina,” “East of Eden” and a handful of Faulkner—the collective sigh of disappointment from contemporary authors (and publishers) is nearly deafening. Even when an author voices his objection to his being included in the Club, as Jonathan Franzen did when Winfrey selected his “The Corrections,” the wrath and fury of the Oprah-verse is so great he’ll retract his retraction, as Franzen did when he accepted the National Book Award for the same novel. Couple this with the remarkable success of O magazine, which sells millions of copies a month, and who could argue that Ms. Winfrey is not the most powerful figure in the world of the printed word, in Chicago or anywhere else?
2 Mary Dempsey
With seventy-nine local branches, the Chicago Public Library, which has been led by Commissioner Dempsey since she was handpicked by Mayor Daley in 1994, is one of the largest library systems in the world. Dempsey is credited with building Chicago’s reputation as a high-functioning library city, and spearheading citywide programs like “One Book, One Chicago” and Bookamania has proven her determination to progress. In this time of economic uncertainty, libraries have become as important as ever as accessible venues for personal advancement, whether through literature or service programs and classes. Add on the abundant number of author readings, panel discussions and lectures throughout Chicago at CPL locations—including the Harold Washington Library Center—and Dempsey’s reach can be appreciated in every corner of the city.
3 John Barr
While the Poetry Foundation still awaits the commencement of construction of its new headquarters at Superior and Dearborn, President John Barr, in his address in January, writes, “The lean economic times notwithstanding, the Foundation continues to develop a broader and more engaged audience for poetry. All of the Foundation’s programs, including its new initiatives, enter 2009 intact.” The publisher of Poetry magazine has also expanded well beyond the page—poetryfoundation.org features monthly podcasts by Poetry’s editors and “Classical Baby (I’m Grown Up Now): A Poetry Show,” the Foundation’s collaboration with HBO, won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. Though some once questioned the former investment banker’s appointment as president, his accomplishments with the Foundation have silenced his detractors.
4 Lawrence Weschler
The former New Yorker staff writer and National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Weschler has served as artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, one of the city’s top annual cultural extravaganzas, since 2006. Last fall’s “Thinking Big”-themed festival brought in several big names from the world of letters, including David McCullough and Alex Ross. The festival teams with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura to bring Roberto Benigni’s one-man show, “Tutto Dante,” June 12 at the Harris Theatre. This year the Chicago Humanities Festival celebrates its twentieth anniversary with the theme of “Laughter ;)”, of which we can all agree we can always use a little bit more.
5 Elizabeth Taylor
With the constant shifts and changes at both Chicago dailies, it’s unclear what the future holds for the literary editor of the Chicago Tribune and the editor of the Chicago Tribune Magazine, but for the time being, the critic and co-author of “American Pharoah: Mayor Richard J. Daley—His Battle for Chicago and the Nation” keeps fighting the good fight. Along with Haley Schaefer she supervises this weekend’s Printers Row Lit Fest, which features appearances by Elmore Leonard, Aleksandar Hemon, Dave Eggers and more. Taylor even moderates a few panels herself.
6 Keith Michael Fiels
The executive director of the American Library Association, the oldest and largest organization of its kind, oversees the various grants, awards, conferences and events sponsored by the association. The ALA’s mission statement notes that its purpose is “To provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all,” and it publishes both Booklist and American Libraries.
7 Teresa Budasi
When many media outlets across the country cut back, the literature sections of publications are some of the first to go. Luckily, some dailies have kept up coverage, and Sun-Times books editor Budasi is doing her part. She keeps up the paper’s online Book Room blog and was just honored with the James Friend Memorial Award for Literary Criticism from the Society of Midland Authors. “I was a little taken aback at first because I haven’t written much this year—layoffs, etc., have forced many of us to take on additional duties and I lost my ‘reading day,’” she says, “but I graciously accepted for work I’d done last year, etc., and for the fact that I’ve managed to maintain a book review presence in the paper when other papers across the country have eliminated coverage altogether. I also accepted on behalf of my roster of passionate, dedicated and talented freelance reviewers that make me look good every week.”
8 Mark Suchomel
As President of the Independent Publishers Group, Suchomel has led the company to its current status as one of the most significant book distributors in the country. Most recently, IPG has created a new division, Small Press United, which is intended to help “small and start-up publishers gain access to the market quickly and effectively,” according to Suchomel.
9 Don Barliant
The owner of the Barbara’s Bookstore chain got a boost when it opened a location in O’Hare Airport a few years back, essentially making the company an internationally known name given the costumer traffic. The New Mexico-based Barliant is assisted by Dave Schwartz, the general manager of the Chicago-area stores, which also include locations at UIC, in Oak Park, at Macy’s and in the Sears Tower. Barliant has also become bosom buddies with the famous cigar-chomping, fedora-wearing sportswriter, Bert Sugar. After meeting each other at the store’s “Tribute to Barney Ross” in 2006, Sugar and Barliant are now planning a new event that will focus on Chicago baseball.
10 Brad Jonas
To say Brad Jonas is a multitasker is an understatement. The president of Powell’s Wholesale, the country’s largest distributor of scholarly and academic remainders and hurts, also owns Chicago’s most abundant independent new-and-used bookstore, Powell’s Books. Walking into Powell’s, one can almost feel the tangible presence of intellect. The store houses a tremendous number of publications, including a meritorious collection of scholarly commentaries on medieval history and philosophy. In the past few months, Powell’s even participated in the annual Medieval Academy of America meeting and the International Congress on Medieval Studies.
11 Christian Wiman
As editor of Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman has been upholding the traditions of the 97-year-old publication, which remains an independent voice for poetry and has been known to champion young writers publishing for the first time. The June 2009 issue features pieces by D. Nurske, A.E. Stallings, Averill Curdy and more. Wiman’s 2007 collection of personal essays, “Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet,” beautifully revealed as much about the writer as his books of poems.
12 Francesco Levato
The executive director of the Poetry Center seems compelled to explore the world of poetry both on and off the page, as he’s set his sights on projects that involve the craft in other mediums, including creating a film, titled “War Rug,” which screens June 19 at Mars Gallery. The Poetry Center’s annual reading series welcomes some of the world’s best poets to read at venues like the School of the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art, and it has promoted literacy through its Hands on Stanzas program. As for what a “poetry film” actually is, Levato explains, “There are various ways to explore the blending of poetry with new media and my particular approach is through film. I layer multiple archival video tracks with various types and degrees of transparency so that they blend and form a kind of moving painting. This is married with an original cinematic music score and a voice track of the poem. It’s a way to reach out to an audience who might not otherwise go to a poetry reading by co-opting a familiar medium, like film. I also like the idea of ‘installing’ poetry in a gallery as a work of art.”
13 Curt and Linda Matthews
Curt and Linda Matthews have been shaping Chicago’s publishing scene for more than thirty years as the creative force behind both the Chicago Review Press and Independent Publishers Group. Since the early seventies, Curt has been the CEO and founder of both the Independent Publishers Group and the Chicago Review Press—where Linda currently presides as director. The Chicago Review Press publishes roughly sixty books per year, including this spring’s releases “Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled The Chicago Mob” by Jeff Coen and “Absinthe and Flamethrowers” by William Gurstelle. “We focus on non-fiction topics of a broad range,” says Linda Matthews. “We’re pretty eclectic.”
14 Randy Albers
The Chair of Columbia College’s Fiction Writing Department is the guiding force behind the Story Week Festival of Writers, the department’s annual piece de resistance. Thirteen years ago, Albers felt that the festival would be a “one-shot deal” yet it has transformed into an annual event that is embraced throughout the city. This spring’s event included tributes to Chicago greats Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel. In addition, Albers oversees a department that boasts local talent like Joe Meno, Sam Weller and Lisa Schlesinger.
15 Donna Seaman
When Seaman’s WLUW “Open Books” segment was canceled earlier this year due to administration changes, WBEZ’s “Eight Forty-Eight” wasted no time in adding her to their roster as a literary critic. “With ‘Eight Forty-Eight,’ I’ve been focusing on Chicago-area literature, but I’ll be branching out soon,” she says. “Open Books” currently lives on as a web podcast. In addition to her radio endeavors, Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist and also pens reviews for the Trib, Los Angeles Times and Bookforum.
16 Nancy Gale-Thompson
Most don’t know that Barnes & Noble, now the largest book retailer in the country and based out of New York, was originally founded in 1873 as a printing business in Wheaton. District Manager Nancy Gale-Thompson oversees the Chicagoland locations, which includes spots within the city limits at Webster Place, on State Street and in Merchandise Mart, plus reaches out to locations in Skokie and Evanston. The Webster Place location seems the most active with public events, boasting upcoming author readings with Andy Paige and Nathan Rabin, plus the continuing “Storytime” kids series.
17 Mike Kargol
Borders Group Inc. replaced its CEO and other top management at the start of 2009 following disappointing sales during the holiday season, and though the company has since seen its stock value rise, the future is still uncertain. After all, this is the same company that was looking to sell itself just a year ago. Kargol serves as district manager of the Chicago Borders locations—and it’s not as if we’ve been untouched by the declining sales, as the company announced in March its plans to shutter the flagship Michigan Avenue spot in 2010. Still, with stores spread out all over the city, including locations in Lincoln Park, the Loop, Hyde Park and Uptown, Borders maintains a significant presence. For how long, however, is anyone’s guess.
18 Ivan R. Dee
Since 1988, Ivan R. Dee Publishing Company publishing repertoire has run the gamut from politics to theater to religion. Though the company merged with The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group twelve years ago, it is still based in Chicago. Ivan R. Dee Publishing Company has become known for publishing books that push the envelope and it is living up to the distinction with selections like Elizabeth Brackett’s “Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption into a National Sideshow.” “We believe in serious books,” says the company’s managing editor Stephanie Frerich. “We publish on all sides of the spectrum and get readers to think about the real issues.”
19 Dominique Raccah
Raccah is the founder of Sourcebooks and was recently noted as one of the “Top 50 Women in Publishing” by Book Business. Twenty years ago, Raccah took a gamble by leaving an advertising career with Leo Burnett to start Sourcebooks out of her home in Naperville. Her risk paid off and her company has since experienced “double digit growth” according to Raccah. The company publishes more than 300 titles per year including award-winning children’s books, literature, poetry, humor and reference materials. Current releases include the critically acclaimed “Four Corners of the Sky” by Michael Malone.
20 Bill Ott
Ott, editor/publisher of the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine and Web site, is making sure that the more-than-a-century-old publication stays relevant in the twenty-first century. What began as a basic book review has evolved into a multimedia juggernaut that includes two e-newsletters and four blogs in addition to the traditional publication. Booklist reviews more than 7,000 books annually and continues to be a leading source for libraries looking to keep collections up to date.
21 Garrett Kiely
After Paula Barker Duffy’s departure, Kiely has served as the director of the University of Chicago Press since July 2007. Kiely manages one of city’s oldest presses, one that publishes everything from academic research to local interest. Some of this year’s offerings include “The Chicagoan: The Lost Magazine of Chicago’s Jazz Age” and “Soldier Field: A Stadium and Its City” which will be released in November.
22 Mitch Rogatz
Rogatz founded Triumph Books in 1989 and the press has since become a leading innovator in sports publishing. In 2006, the company was acquired by Random House, but is still run from its original Printers Row office. Recent releases include “Settling the Score: Talking Chicago Sports” by Mike North.
23 David F. Bishop
Earlier this year Bishop became Northwestern University Press’ Interim Director after former director Donna Shear took on a position at University of Nebraska Press. In October 2008, the university received a prestigious grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the press’ “Global Encounters” initiative. Northwestern University Press will collaborate with the school’s African Studies and Theater and Performance Studies departments to create new publishing opportunities within these areas.
24 Doug Seibold
Seibold has made some remarkable strides with Agate Publishing. Since 2003, he has acquired three imprints: Surrey Books, Bolden Books and B2 Books. In addition, Seibold has been setting trends in textbook distribution by launching ProBooks, a custom digital textbook publishing start-up that is geared towards universities. Since its inception in 2005, ProBooks has been serving “some of the biggest companies in the online education business,” says Seibold.
25 Haki Madhubuti
Since 1967, Madhubuti’s Third World Press has been an independent voice in African-American literature and has continued to grow in prominence by publishing poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, memoirs by Gloria Naylor, as well as numerous nonfiction titles as well. Recent releases include “Black Enough White Enough: The Obama Dilemma” by Rickey Hendon.
26 Janice Knight
The Chair of the University of Chicago’s Creative Writing program oversees both graduate and undergraduate students and a faculty that includes Elizabeth Crane and Daniel Raeburn, poet Suzanne Buffam and more. The school’s Committee on Creative Writing frequently hosts author readings and lectures, most recently featuring events with Aleksandar Hemon and Stuart Dybek.
27 S.L. Wisenberg
Wisenberg serves as the co-director (with Reginald Gibbons) of Northwestern University’s MA and MFA programs in creative writing. She’s also an author herself, most recently penning the at-times-devastating, at-times-wickedly funny memoir “The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,” which chronicles her battle with breast cancer.
28 Stephanie Friedman
The program director of the University of Chicago’s Graham School of General Studies Writer’s Studio oversees faculty and the school’s various courses. Two separate programs are available for prospective students—open enrollment courses and a more intensive certificate program. Courses include “Writing the Personal Essay,” “Writing the Novel” and “The Angel on Your Shoulder: Banishing Writer’s Block Forever.” Just last month, the students from the school’s short-story program read their final projects at an event at Book Cellar.
29 Sharon Woodhouse
Woodhouse founded Lake Claremont Press as a means to pay her way through grad school. Now in its fifteenth year, the press publishes award-winning books that celebrate all things Chicago. Of the seven books that will be published this year, two noteworthy inclusions are “What Would Jane Do?: City-Building Women and a Tale of Two Chicagos” by Janet Metzger and “Carless In Chicago” by Jason Rothstein, a primer for “surviving and thriving in Chicago without a car,” according to Woodhouse.
30 Jack Cella
The general manager of the legendary Seminary Co-op and its more general-interest sibling 57th St. Books has been general manager for… a while. Cella says he started in 1975, a year in which books weren’t battling the Amazon Kindle and YouTube for relevance. But thankfully, Cella’s two stores are still as inviting and prominent as ever. Both stores offer versatile and unique collections of books, and have the added bonus of being owned by their customers. There are always author events, and anyone can join the 45,000-plus members.
31 Cris Mazza
The director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Graduate Program for Writers—which features one of the few workshops specifically designed for novels-in-progress—is a published author herself, recently offering “Trickle-Down Timeline.”
32 Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon
Since 1979 these two have kept Chicago’s most prolific feminist bookstore alive and significant. Tucked away in Andersonville, Women & Children First is a great reason to visit northern Chicago. Besides a massive thirtieth-anniversary fundraiser set for October, the store is holding a special ticketed event for “The Time Traveler’s Wife” author Audrey Niffenegger, in honor of her upcoming novel “Her Fearful Symmetry.” There are even rumors of a visit from Margaret Atwood. Keep your fingers crossed.
33 Eric Kirsammer
If you want to have some outright fun at a bookstore, visit either of Kirsammer’s operations. Both Quimby’s and Chicago Comics are funhouses of literary counterculture. Whether you’re scavenging for alt comix, lowbrow art, horror comics or hentai, one of these two stores will carry it. New Yorker cartoonists Adrian Tomine and Seth stop by Quimby’s this week.
34 Suzy Takacs
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that “cellar door” was the most beautiful and phonaesthetic word ever conceived. Maybe that is why Suzy Takacs named her store the Book Cellar. On June 28th, the Cellar will have been a fixture of Lincoln Square for five years, and will continue its tradition of providing Chicago with much-loved local author nights, book-club meetings and a reading series. Also, the Cellar has unveiled its sidewalk café and, in July, there will be a celebration for the paperback edition of the new “Harry Potter.” Muggles are welcome.
35 Joe Judd
If Joe Judd is Wicker Park’s prince, then Myopic Books is his palace. Cozied away in Chicago’s confluence of hipness, Myopic Books is truly a Mecca of literary enthusiasts. Like a seasoned paperback, the store emanates a warm nostalgia and comfort. Used books of all sizes and eras blanket the walls and engulf every crevice, producing an instantly familiar atmosphere—at once both cluttered and intimate. In addition to its massive stockpile of reading material, the store also plays host to improv music on Monday night, chess on Wednesdays and a poetry reading series on Sundays.
36 Robert Loerzel
Author, journalist and photographer Robert Loerzel presides over The Society of Midland Authors, an organization that has annually awarded Midwestern authors since 1915. This year’s winners include Aleksandar Hemon, Neil Shubin and John E. Hallwas.
37 Gina Frangello
Frangello is the executive editor of Other Voices’ Books, which is now an imprint of Dzanc Books. “This allows us a wider distribution and more perks for our authors,” Frangello says. In addition, she is also the author of “My Sister’s Continent” and is publishing a compilation of short stories, “Slut Lullabies,” which will be released in 2010.
38 C.C. Carter
As the executive director of Young Chicago Authors, Carter oversees some of the city’s most innovative youth writing programs including Girl Speak, SAY WHAT Magazine and Louder Than a Bomb Poetry Slam, to name a few. This summer, YCA will be adding a $60 summer program, Three P’s: Page, Performance, Publishing, which will run from June 27 through August 8. The YCA has been making such an impression that the City of Chicago invited the organization to emcee events at the Taste of Chicago’s Children’s Stage.
39 Daniel Born
Despite the current upheavals in the publishing world, the Great Book’s The Common Review remains dedicated to “all books, all the time,” according to editor Daniel Born. The publication was created in 2001 and has been nominated for two Utne Independent Press Awards. In addition to overseeing nearly 850 book-discussion groups, Born is also planning to start up a short-story fiction contest “which we think will bring us a lot of new young writers.”
40 Brandi Homan
Homan serves as editor-in-chief of local feminist poetry press Switchback Books, which has published books by Jessica Bozek, Marisa Crawford, Peggy Munson and more. Homan’s a poet herself; expect her second full-length collection, titled “Bobcat Country,” in 2010 via Shearsman Books.
41 Ellen Placey Wadey
“We look at literary culture and ask—what’s missing?” marks the mission statement of the long-running Guild Complex. The executive director of the grassroots organization has seen it scale back over the last few years, but its programs—including writing workshops and presenting the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award—and sponsored readings still reach a hungry Chicago audience.
42 Bill “The Butcher” Hillman
The founder and emcee of the Windy City Story Slam offers several readings at various venues throughout the year, including event last year with John McNally and Irvine Welsh. At Pilsen’s Simone’s Bar on June 6, the Slam hosts “The War and Peace Show,” featuring appearances by Welsh, John Schultz and a handful of “slammers.”
43 Dan Koretsky and Dan Osborn
Local indie-rock record label Drag City has had its hand in independent publishing for a while now, and continues to release worthy publications, including issues of The Minus Times and Moonlit. Look for “The Portable February,” a new book of cartoons by Silver Jews’ David Berman, later this month.
44 Jonathan Messinger and Zach Dodson
The founders of local DIY publishing company Featherproof Books started their mission of few years ago, publishing somewhat experimental fiction and mini-books. Both Messinger and Dodson are authors themselves—Dodson, as Zach Plague, wrote last year’s thrillingly assembled “boring boring boring boring boring boring boring,” and Messinger, the books editor at Time Out Chicago, penned 2007′s “Hiding Out.”
45 Caroline Picard
The founder of Green Lantern Press, the local paperback company dedicated to publishing new and forgotten works, also serves as one of the three editorial directors of the Parlor Reading Series. Later this year Green Lantern looks to publish new works by Ashley Murray, Justin Andrews and Devin King.
46 Kristy Bowen
The poet, author of last year’s “in the bird museum,” runs dancing girl press & studio, which publishes chapbooks by women poets, plus manages the online literary zine Wicked Alice. Since its foundation in 2004, dancing girl has published more than fifty titles.
47 Caroline Eick
The announcement last month that Bookslut.com founder Jessa Crispin was leaving us for Berlin left many dismayed. What would become of her supremely popular site, with its book reviews, author interviews and more, and receives thousands of visitors per week? Not to worry, as Eick, Crispin’s longtime assistant, takes the reins as managing editor of the site, and while she’s handling day-to-day operations, Jessa plans to supervise from abroad.
48 Ray Bianchi, Bill Allegrezza
According to its web site, Cracked Slab Books was started “to provide an outlet to experimental poetry and poetics in its various forms,” including introducing American readers to international poetry. The modest press aims to release two books per year and has four under its belt already, including Steve Halle’s “Map of the Hydrogen World.” Bianchi, who serves as publisher, and Allegrezza, who serves as editor, are both poets in their own right—Allegrezza also organizes Hyde Park’s Series A reading series.
49 Victoria Lautman
The host of the monthly “Writers on the Record” interview series held at the Harold Washington Library Center (which is broadcast on 98.7WFMT) reports that each of the events from this season—which included appearances by Junot Diaz, Jay McInerney and Mary Gaitskill—have been “well attended,” as Lautman’s project “continues to be the only regular hour-long interview and broadcast available in the city.” Already scheduled to appear next season are “Empire Falls” author Richard Russo and “The Time Traveler’s Wife” scribe Audrey Niffenegger.
50 Joel Craig and Chris Glomski
Simply put, the monthly reading series curated by Craig and Glomski at Bucktown saloon Danny’s Tavern is one of the best Chicago has to offer, spotlighting both local and national talents in fiction-writing and poetry. This month featured readings by Noelle Kocot, Miranda Mellis and Eirik Steinhof.
Lit 50 was written by Katie Fanuko, Josh Kraus and Tom Lynch