Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2013

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NEWNEWCITYIt’s been a deadly year for Chicago writers, with the passing of Roger Ebert, Richard Stern, David Hernandez and, just last week, Father Andrew Greeley. Not to mention the dead-woman-walking status achieved by Rachel Shtier, whose ill-conceived New York Times Book Review takedown of Chicago turned her into this city’s most universally disliked resident since, perhaps, John Wayne Gacy. So a sense of what we’d lost pervaded the creation of this year’s Lit 50, this time around celebrating not so much the writers who occupy the center stage, but those who operate behind the scenes to make sure the stage itself exists. The process, as excruciating as it is, always renews our optimism for the literary Chicago that carries on, bigger and better every year, even diminished by its inevitable losses. This year’s increasingly long short-list reached new magnitudes, with 360 folks under consideration for just fifty nods. Needless to say, a slight tilt in another direction, and an entirely different Lit 50 could have been created. But so it goes. (Brian Hieggelke)

Written by Brian Hieggelke and Naomi Huffman, with Greg Baldino and Kathleen Caplis. See previous years here.

Photo: Jeremy Lawson

Photo: Jeremy Lawson

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Scott Turow
Author and President, Authors Guild
As a bestselling author of nine fiction and two nonfiction books with estimated sales of 25 million copies—not to mention movies and TV shows based on his books—and as a partner of a law firm with estimated annual profits of nearly $800,000 per partner, Scott Turow has reached the level where most of us would be buying a Caribbean island or some such thing and spending our time enjoying the fruits of our success. But Turow, though he may own an island for all we know, is using his lofty profile to wage war on issues more important to the culture at large than to his personal wellbeing. He’s been a passionate advocate against the death penalty, and has gotten involved in the conversations about a Constitutional Convention to change the influence of money in America’s political process. But it’s his frequent use of the bully pulpit on behalf of authors that has thrust him front and center into a major conversation about the future of intellectual life in America that’s most noteworthy right now. He’s been president of the Authors Guild since 2010 and in that role has spoken out against the increasing concentration of power in book sales, both in the continuing consolidation among major publishers and Amazon.com’s monopolistic tendencies, as well as being a front-line voice in the Guild’s lawsuit against Google over the latter’s scanning and digitizing of copyrighted materials for its search engine. In April, he penned an important essay for The New York Times entitled “The Slow Death of the American Author,” where he laid out the persuasive case that “The value of copyrights is being quickly depreciated, a crisis that hits hardest not best-selling authors like me, who have benefited from most of the recent changes in bookselling, but new and so-called midlist writers.” Though some detractors have simplistically labeled him a Luddite for his opinions, he brings a singular—and selfless—perspective to the debate. He puts his work with the Guild simply: “We’re doing what we can to save writing as a livelihood for the greatest number of people in this country.” He’s especially troubled by the lack of attention being paid to the enormous consolidation of power in certain companies, noting that writers use to be pitted against powerful publishers, but the “publishers are Quakers compared to Google.” Of course he’s still writing as well: he just turned in a pilot script to TNT for a weekly dramatic series set in a judge’s chamber and look this fall for “Identical,” a political thriller “based loosely on the myth of Castor and Pollux.”

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Dominique Raccah
Founder, President, Publisher and Series Editor, Sourcebooks
Dominique Raccah left a career in advertising with Leo Burnett more than twenty years ago to start Sourcebooks, and has been working to build the company ever since. Sourcebooks is now the world’s largest publisher of poetry in book audio form, and has made major contributions to the shifting digital publishing industry. In 2012, Sourcebooks began experimenting with Agile Publishing—a method that seeks reader feedback before the book is actually published. The experimentation is paying off—so far in 2013, Sourcebooks has had six best-selling titles, and Raccah recently won the BEA Industry Ambassador Award at Book Expo America.

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Garrett Kiely
Director, University of Chicago Press
When Garrett Kiely was appointed director of the University of Chicago Press in 2007, he had already worked in academic publishing for more than two decades. In the last six years, Kiely has done a wonderful job steering the nation’s largest university press—which employs more than 300 people in its three divisions: Books, Journals and Distribution—toward expansion into the digital market while continuing to increase their number of original titles published annually. Last year, the Press appointed him to a second five-year term.

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Jack Cella
General Manager, Seminary Cooperative Bookstore
The Seminary Cooperative Bookstore in Hyde Park celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2011. The Co-Op, founded by a handful of members in 1961, now has more than 50,000 members and three different locations. The Co-Op specializes in academic books, and hosts frequent author events. Jack Cella was at the forefront of the Co-Op’s recent move from its original location on the corner of 58th Street and University to 5751 South Woodlawn—an effort that will ultimately allow the Co-Op to carry a wider selection of titles and, hopefully, an even more inspiring bookstore experience.

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Brian Bannon
Commissioner, Chicago Public Library
When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the appointment of San Francisco Public Library chief information officer Brian Bannon to replace the legendary Mary Dempsey, who stepped down after nearly eighteen years in the job, he signaled his vision for the library’s future, saying “With his expertise in digital technology, Brian will expand the online resources of the Chicago Public Library and broaden the horizons of those who rely on it.” Though he’s kept a lower profile in his first year, the openly gay—is that a first for a Chicago Commissioner?—Bannon strikes us as having the potential to be the kind of transformative leader that Gabe Klein, the city’s Department of Transportation commissioner, has proven to be. But where Klein took over a department that had been a cesspool of leadership problems under Mayor Daley, Bannon’s had to follow one of the nation’s most admired librarians, one who built up the branch system, who created One Book, One Chicago and who stood up publicly to Mayor Emanuel when he imposed unacceptable budget cuts to the library system. Bannon’s shrewdly kept most of Dempsey’s programs, “reimagining our signature programs” rather than dismantling them. In that regard, he cites the expansion of One Book, One Chicago from two-months-a-year to all twelve, the funding of three new branches—Back of the Yards, Chinatown and Albany Park—and the expansion and retooling of the “Summer Reading” program and “Teacher in the Library.” He’s also made seemingly small but high-impact changes like his fine amnesty—the first in twenty years—opening up computer use regardless of fine status, and an increase in the number of allowable renewals. As for his technology mandate, “we launched a multi-year initiative to improve technology access and tools for our users,” he says, and soon we’ll see a new experimental Innovation Lab at the Harold Washington Library.

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Don Share
Editor, Poetry magazine
On May 29th, the Poetry Foundation announced Don Share as the twelfth editor of Poetry magazine, following the departure of Christian Wiman, who’s joining the faculty at Yale. Prior to the announcement, Share was acting as senior editor of the magazine. Share’s cumulative twenty-five years of editing experience includes publications such as Harvard Review, Partisan Review and Literary Imagination, and he was curator of poetry at Harvard University for seven years. He’s also the author of ten books, including “Wishbone” and “Bunting’s Persia.” Share says, “It’s a great honor…to be working to refresh and revitalize the magazine.” Poetry just celebrated its centennial in 2012, so here’s to Don Share, and 100 more.

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Doug Seibold
Founder and President, Agate Publishing
Since he started his company in 2003, Doug Seibold has expanded his operation to five imprints, two of which he’s launched in the last two years. Midway Books covers Chicago and the greater Midwest and Agate Digital publishes standalone e-books, most notably in an expansive partnership with the Chicago Tribune. In 2012, Publishers Weekly recognized Agate as America’s fastest-growing independent publisher and shortly before that, Agate notched its first New York Times best-seller with “I, Steve.” Whew. Not surprising, then, that Seibold says sales have increased about seventy percent in the past two years, necessitating a doubling in staff to nineteen folks.

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Mark Suchomel
President, Legato Publishers Group
It was just a year ago that Mark Suchomel made national news when, as president of Chicago-based Independent Publishers Group (IPG), he stood up for small publishers in defiance of the imperial Amazon.com. So, after twenty-six-and-a-half years with IPG, including fifteen as president, the publishing world was shocked earlier this year when news broke that Suchomel had abruptly left the company. He’d been the public face as well as the driving force of its stunning growth, from a twenty-million-dollar-a-year business when he became president into a seventy-two-million-dollar-a-year business when he was asked to leave over differences regarding the direction of the company. Just last week at Book Expo America, however, news broke that he had signed on to helm a new division for his old company’s chief competitor, Perseus Book Group. Legato Publishers Group will be a new affiliate of Perseus’ Publishers Group West, the largest distributor of independent publishers in the country, and will be based in Chicago. “Our goal,” Suchomel says, “is to have about thirty or forty publishers in the first couple of years and to grow the business by growing each publisher rather than by adding more publishers.”

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Elizabeth Taylor
Literary Editor, Chicago Tribune
Longtime Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor has an imposing resume: former correspondent for Time magazine, former editor of the Tribune’s Sunday Magazine, former president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the staffer who led the Tribune’s charge to acquire what is now the Printers Row Lit Fest, just to name a few of her most notable achievements. Taylor also oversees the Tribune’s Literary Prize, Heartland Prize, Young Adult Book Prize and the Nelson Algren Short Story Prize. At our deadline, Taylor was in New York meeting with the National Book Critics Circle—proving her relentless dedication to literature to Chicago and beyond.

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Curt Matthews
CEO, Chicago Review Press and Independent Publishers Group
To say it’s a pivotal time for the Curt Matthews empire is an understatement. His Chicago Review Press just celebrated its fortieth birthday and continues to chug along, turning out seventy or so titles a year, but its Independent Publishers Group (IPG) is where much of the action is. In March, IPG—the nation’s second-largest independent press distributor—shocked the publishing world by asking its highly regarded president Mark Suchomel to leave. Though Matthews has two sons working for him who will be assuming ownership at some point, Matthews says he’s “gonna be here at least two-to-three more years” and that whether his sons take over the company “depends.” He adds, “they’re very capable, especially in technology.” Last week at Book Expo America (BEA), Suchomel announced his next act: the presidency of a Legato Publishing Group, a new Chicago-based division of IPG’s principal competitor, Perseus Books. But Matthews seems unruffled by the threat: he describes his state of mind coming out of BEA as “just on a high” over the positive energy finally returning to the publishing business and on the “big strides” into new markets, like big-box stores and e-books, IPG is making.

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22 Responses to “Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2013”

  1. Tony Boo Boo Says:

    Where all the POC’s at?

  2. Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2013 features Mairead Case, Ian Belknap, Kathie Berquist and others | Chicago Literati Says:

    [...] annual Newcity Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago list came out today and it features some of my very favorite people. The wonderful Mairead Case, [...]

  3. Henry Juliues Says:

    It would appear that the most connected people in Chicago publishing are largely white. Is this in keeping with the New City demographic?

  4. brianhey Says:

    Henry,
    Demographics is not a consideration in compiling this list; only journalism. We don’t gather the photographs until after the list is done, so genuinely do not take race into consideration either way. We of course, have little to do with the factors that drive this list, i.e. hiring decisions by colleges, book-buying habits of the general public, etc. If you look at last year’s list, in which the artistic factors are paramount, you’ll see more diversity.

    Thanks for reading,
    Brian Hieggelke, editor

  5. Deborah Pintonelli Says:

    That is the lamest excuse for not doing your job properly that I have ever seen. This is a city whose racial divide is tearing us apart and causing more deaths than people can understand. Shame on you!

  6. Nikki Patin Says:

    What do you mean by journalism? In terms of who’s being written up or who’s writing articles? If that’s the case, then you missed some people with a fairly high media profile, Samantha Irby being at the top of that list. She’s been on WBEZ, interviewed in all the major newspapers in Chicago, won runner-up for Best Blog in the Reader last year and will likely nab the top spot this year, produces her own reading series, has a new book out AND has thousands of followers of her blog from across the country. I actually asked people to name their favorite writers of color in Chicago on Facebook and the list that was generated hit 50 in less than an hour. So, I think that something’s off in the way that you compiled this list and you might want to look at your process, especially because the people who are most impacting writing in Chicago, in terms of those who have the most readers or who provide the most opportunities for writers or who are publishing are certainly not represented on that list. I think that it’s problematic that you have only two writers of color and no female writers of color on your list in 2013. Your process is clearly flawed.

  7. XM Says:

    This list is whiter than the RNC. Gracious. Do we live in Chicago or Des Moines? New York’s lists never look like this.

  8. APM Says:

    ^ But sir editor, would it not also count as journalism to investigate and locate personalities from underrepresented or underexposed demographics that “book” in and out of their own communities, as opposed to simply following the dominant/sanctioned measures of success, such as hiring decisions, book-buying habits etc? While I understand your argument, it doesn’t necessarily explain the lack of diversity on this list – journalists have a choice whether to just report what’s most obvious or to dig a little deeper to reveal something new…and to help advance change and promote a wider variety of cultures.

  9. APM Says:

    To clarify, being “color-blind” photographically might seem fair/unbiased on one hand, but totally ignores or reinforces systemic disadvantages and biases on the other.

  10. brianhey Says:

    Deborah, I am sorry that our passionate coverage of the literary world has provoked the murder epidemic in Chicago.

  11. brianhey Says:

    Nikki, On a case by case basis, our list is rife for argument, so I can’t defend it other than to say we do our best to craft a list that reflects the state of literary Chicago in a point in time (not necessarily the state WE want, but the state that IS. That is journalism). In the case you mentioned, Samantha Irby was on our short list and is definitely a likely candidate for the list at some time, but did not make it this year. (Nor did her live-lit partner, Keith Ecker, for that matter, who’s skin is paler.) Ironically, when I researched her, I did not look at her picture and so until you brought it up, was not aware of her skin’s pigmentation. If you believe that I should have looked at her picture and made a different decision solely on that basis, I can’t get into that argument, as we have profound philosophical differences. If Samantha believes I should have done so, that is a conversation I am interested in having. Please note that this list was not our “artist” list, that is writers, poets etc. but our “power” list; we alternate the two in order to cover as much ground as we can. So, Gillian Flynn did not make the list, either, though her “Gone Girl” is the best-selling book of the last year by a Chicago author, and possibly one of the best-selling Chicago-written books ever.

  12. brianhey Says:

    XM, Thank you for thoughtfully advancing the argument. Maybe you and Rachel Shteir should move to New York together. Apparently she thinks it’s better there too. (PS Can you provide a link to New York’s version of Lit 50? I was not aware of the list you reference.)

  13. brianhey Says:

    APM, You make a valid argument, and to the extent we can, we do such things. I think Corey Hall, on this year’s list exemplifies what you describe. Frankly, reflecting the diversity of Chicago in our coverage is a core value of our company. I have no idea how long you’ve read Newcity, but giving you the benefit of the doubt, you probably know that we’ve done standalone cover stories on Haki Madhubuti, Bayo Ojikuto, Louis Rodriguez, Achy Obejas and many other writers and artists of color.

    How many other publications in Chicago have done the same? In America? This particular list chronicles “power” and influence and the barometer is calibrated differently than the list that champions artists (last year/next year). That influence in Chicago resides in less diverse hands than artistry is unfortunate, but I do not think it is the role of our list to attempt to distort that reality in order to push the reality we would wish for. Dishonesty, especially if willfully practiced by our media, is a cultural poison. Instead, we do what we do, which is to champion diverse artists day in and day out in our pages.

  14. brianhey Says:

    APM, Regarding your second comment, you are correct that we’re not yet living in the color-blind society that Dr. King dreamed of; in fact it sounds like King’s dream is the nightmare of some of the commenters on this page for the all the wrong reasons, which I think would break his heart if he’d lived to see this. (It certainly breaks mine that merit seems so secondary or irrelevant to this whole conversation.) Color seems to be a more complex thing than ever before; is someone who is half Latino but has an Anglo name no longer a person of color? Is someone from South America whose ancestors were mostly European white or Latino? What about a fair-skinned Arab? Is darkness of skin pigment the only measure? God, I hope not, or we’ve regressed to a very bad place, the parallel to a notion that once justified discrimination on the basis of a drop of African blood.

  15. Nikki Patin Says:

    Brian, I want to be very thoughtful in my comments about this. First, I want to say that I don’t think merit is second to color. At all. In fact, the people who I think should be on your list are incredibly talented, hard-working and educated. I think what rubbed me the wrong way about this list is knowing, for a fact, how influential and powerful several writers of color are in this city (like C.C. Carter, who’s the dean of high school for the arts in Chicago and travels extensively to read her writing and just ended the 10-year run of POWWOW, the only weekly black lesbian open mic in the U.S. There’s also avery r. young, who just won a major grant for his work. I could go on and on.) and the fact that they very rarely get any attention from major press. I don’t think it’s due to a lack of merit. I think there’s an issue of discrimination that goes far deeper than your publication simply searching out and compiling data on who should be on this list. Secondly, I didn’t make any assumptions about anyone’s ethnicity on this list, only that I know that there are far fewer writers of color on this list than white writers. I think that’s unfortunate. Third, I think that the process of choosing writers in a way that’s color-blind is good. I don’t think you should collect pictures from folks before you make your choices. I think that the pool that you’re pulling from has some flaws, as I made in my first point, which would then make your process flawed, which isn’t your fault but is now something to think about. Lastly, there was some good that came out of this. My call for folks to tell me who their favorite writers of color are generated a lot of excitement and a Facebook group for writers of color of Chicago developed out of that excitement, along with plans to develop collaborations, gatherings and perhaps an anthology in the future. Again, this lack of visibility of writers of color is not a problem that New City created, but the list made it glaringly obvious. And it’s disturbing because it’s a really narrow, but not necessarily false, narrative. In a city known for being painfully racially segregated, it hurt to look at it. The upside is that some great dialogue and beautiful, inspiring energy came out of it and brought a lot of people together. For that, I say thank you.

  16. brianhey Says:

    Nikki, Thank you for this. I think thoughtful dialogue about issues such as this is important and a positive outcome of the process of list-making like this. And you are correct that we are far from perfect in what we do; every year new folks come to our attention that we wish we’d known about long before. One other point I would make is that we’ve been doing this list for a long time, and some of the people on the list come and go and come again; over time, we hope to cover everyone of merit at some point. C.C. Carter, to cite your example, was on the list as recently as 2009. That she deserved to be on it this year is a valid argument for you to make, even if our final product did not support it, but she was and is in our consideration set. (One final point I’d make is that we cover the literary world 52 weeks a year, and if any of you writers out there would like to profile someone like C.C. or others in this conversation, send it our way. If the writing meets our standards, we’d love to publish it.) Keep me posted on the writers of color project that is in the works. It sounds like a great story. :-)

  17. Nikki Patin Says:

    Thanks, Brian. It’s really good to hear that folks are being considered, even if they didn’t make the final cut. I think that profiling people who are providing opportunities for writers, some in very unconventional ways, would make a really good story. As a born-and-bred Chicagoan, I’ve lived on every side of this city and have been involved in writing communities from Rogers Park to the far South and West sides. We’re fortunate to have a dynamic literary community in Chicago that features writers from a myriad of ethnic and class backgrounds. Not all of that work winds up on the page, but the fact that there is space for all kinds of people to tell their stories speaks to heart of this place. I’ll definitely keep you posted on how the Chicago Writers of Color project evolves. We’re excited!

  18. Jim Says:

    I’m tired of all these complaints about “representation” and “bias”‘ that amount to little more than reverse racism. Affirmative action may be required in politics and in corporate America, but has no place in reality.

  19. Leggy Mountbatten Says:

    Groan.

  20. Janice Knight Featured on Newcity Lit “Lit 50″ List | News from the Division of the Humanities Says:

    [...] Read the full 2013 list here. [...]

  21. How We Work: An Interview with Jacob S. Knabb : Bad at Sports Says:

    […] to have had the opportunity to attend over a dozen of his events around the city. In 2013, he made NewCity’s Lit 50 for his work as Editor-In-Chief of Curbside Splendor. He currently lives in Lake Forest with his […]

  22. Jess Says:

    interesting list of bookers

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