Chair, Committee on Creative Writing at the University of Chicago
The University of Chicago has produced more than its fair share of great writers—Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and the journalist Seymour Hersh spring to mind—but a decade ago the school still didn’t have a creative writing program. As chair of the Committee on Creative Writing, Janice Knight changed that almost single handedly. Knight developed the program into what is now the largest Humanities initiative in the College, with more than thirty courses a year, minor and master’s options, and world-class faculty. This year for the first time, students can fulfill their Core requirement in the arts by taking creative writing classes, another sign of the committee’s ascendance. Just as importantly, the committee sponsors numerous events throughout the year showcasing local and national literary talent, and its writers-in-residence programs bring in the likes of Art Spiegelman, George Saunders and Zadie Smith.
CEO, Chicago Review Press and Independent Publishers Group
Curt Matthews admits he never expected to become a heavyweight in the Chicago publishing world when he began his career in the early seventies. But one reason the founder of the Chicago Review Press and Independent Publishers Group has found so much success after forty years in the business was his early and eager embrace of technology, which has kept his publishing properties a step ahead of the digital tidal wave that’s drowned so many competitors. It was in 1982 that they purchased one of the earliest microcomputers, a machine with a whopping $30,000 price tag and a mere five megabytes of storage. But since then, he’s kept both IPG and the Chicago Review Press digitized, and it’s made them some of the most agile and successful publishers in the country. And as many companies scale back their operations in times of economic hardship, the distributor IPG currently houses an inventory of around 65,000 items, while the Chicago Review Press continues to churn out around sixty new titles yearly.
Co-Founder, CIROBE and Managing Co-Owner, Powell’s Bookstores
In the world of used books, Brad Jonas delivers a one-two punch. As the owner of Powell’s Bookstores, one of the most respected used, rare and out-of-print bookstores in the city, Jonas has plied his wares to generations of academics, authors and general readers. Twenty years ago, Jonas started the Chicago International Remainder and Overstock Book Exposition (CIROBE), a trade show for bargain booksellers looking to buy overstock from publishers and remainder companies. Probably the largest of its kind in the world, CIROBE played a significant role in the emergence into the limelight of the bargain book trade, once held in low esteem by established booksellers. Market trends that put brick-and-mortar bookstores in a vulnerable position, as well as the general economic downturn, have not left Powell’s untouched: in 2009, it closed its combination warehouse and retail location in the South Loop. But Jonas believes that even with the weak retail market and digital books, the traditional book is likely to stick around for some time. “I often think about it in relation to how people talked about how TV was going to kill radio, or cable was going to kill the networks. What happens is each time there’s a change, everyone has to find a new equilibrium.”
Keith Michael Fiels
Executive Director, American Library Association
Keith Fiels just re-upped his gig at the ALA for another five years, through 2015, in a bid to bring some stability to the oldest and largest library association in the world. These are both challenging and fascinating times in this once glacially changing business, with the digital revolution creating a vast array of new problems and oppportunities. An expert in library automation, Fiels is credited with keeping a steady hand on the tiller during a particularly choppy economic period for the association, which counts the publications Booklist and American Libraries among its many undertakings.
Co-founder and Artistic Director, Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival
Of all the names on this list, Kevin Coval has made perhaps the strangest personal journey to literary prominence. Starting out as a rich kid from Northbrook—the neighborhood made famous by John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club”—Coval is now one of the most respected educators and activists in the city, not to mention a well-known poet. He’s best known as the founder of Louder Than a Bomb: the Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, the world’s largest teen poetry festival and the subject of a recent award-winning documentary. Coval is also a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in area high schools, a four-time HBO Def Poet, and Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, a group that promotes youth literacy through writing and performance.
Founder and President, Agate Publishing
Talk to Doug Seibold and you won’t hear the usual tales of woe emanating from the publishing industry. In recent years, his company topped a more-than-respectable twenty percent growth the year before with a jaw-dropping doubling in business last year. Though its traditional trade-publishing imprints—Surrey (food), Bolden (African American) and B2 (business) continue to grow respectably, its ProBooks division, a digital content service for the education and textbook industries, is really flying high, now accounting for at least half its overall revenues. Last year the company moved to larger digs just in time, as its full-time staff tripled to a dozen. Look for the company to move into fast-to-market ebook-only releases and to expand its regional focus on Chicago and the Midwest in the near future, along with, perhaps, expanding its nascent distribution business (Hope and Nonthings, The Point magazine).
Owner, The Book Cellar
With Takacs at the helm, The Book Cellar has steadily established itself as a go-to venue for Windy City literati—and not just because it’s the only bookstore in town with a liquor license. While the books themselves may be the spine to Takacs’ business, it’s the carefully curated events calendar that’s situated the store as a community staple. In addition to a slew of reading groups (“Never Too Old: A Y.A. Book Club for Adults” and “The Salon: Classics,” among others), the store is booked nearly solid with author events and performances: they play host to the monthly nonfiction fixture Essay Fiesta, regular nights of “lady comedy” from The Kates, and their own Cellar-sponsored Local Author Night. All that, plus lit-mag launch parties, university end-of-semester readings, and author appearances make Takacs’ baby a locus of local letters.
Executive Director, 826CHI
Mara O’Brien began working at 826CHI when it opened in 2005 as an outpost of Dave Eggers’ national 826 literacy project and found herself on the ground floor of something big. Six years later, the former school teacher is running the non-profit children’s writing workshop, which reaches nearly 4,000 area students annually and provides them with opportunities to explore their budding creativity and build a love of the city they live in. Known for residing within “The Boring Store,” in Wicker Park, 826CHI is anything but. This summer, students will go to work for fellow Chicago startup Groupon and will even have a chance to interview bands at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Publisher/President, Triumph Books
It’s not surprising to find the nation’s largest publisher of sports books in a town with not only two Major League Baseball teams, but two sports-radio stations. In twenty-two years, founder Mitch Rogatz has built his Printers Row-based company into the publishing champion that it’s become, so that when New York publishing colossus Random House acquired his company in 2006, they hardly changed a thing—and a Chicago publishing triumph over New York is something we can all cheer. As for the future, look for accelerated expansion into digital publishing along with continued development of partnerships with major-market teams and leagues.
Editor and Publisher, Booklist magazine
Though it has long been thought that the American Library Association’s century-old magazine Booklist was targeted mainly at libraries and those in the book industry, Bill Ott is doing his best to broaden its appeal. Once a just print magazine, Booklist Publications now features ten different products, including five online newsletters, a soon-to-be launched eReader edition and even a mobile app that delivers the critical reviews they’ve always been known for to any interested party, for free. Ott has also made a name for himself as a reviewer, recently receiving the 2011 Louis Shores Award from the ALA for excellence in the field of reviewing.