Founded in October of 2002 by its current president, Doug Seibold, Agate Publishing is an independent small press publisher of fiction and nonfiction. With five imprints, Agate elevates Midwestern and Black American voices while also publishing books on cooking, nutrition, business and leadership. Agate’s authors include winners of the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and James Beard Award. The press is based in Evanston.
Did you envision Agate making it this far? Twenty years and five imprints later?
When I started, my aspiration was first and foremost to get it off the ground, because it had taken me seven years since I conceived the idea to start Agate. I had spent so much time and energy trying to will it into being, trying to find investors and people interested in supporting it, that I just wanted to shoot my shot. I believed in it, too. A lot of my ideas about how a company like Agate could work were based on this idea of being efficient at our scale. We weren’t trying to compete with Random House. What we were trying to do was to find the opportunities and all kinds of gems that the Random Houses of the world and the Barnes & Nobles of the world didn’t value and that a company like ours could come along and champion. I felt like I could identify books that were good because I’d already had a lot of experience identifying good writing. So for it to have succeeded in the way that it has has been very gratifying.
Can you explain how a small press like Agate developed such a diverse array of imprints?
There were a couple models out there that I thought were instructive and relevant. Also, I feel like it’s sound business to diversify. If one aspect of your business begins to decline or diminish, you aren’t as vulnerable as if that was the sole basis of your business. And then I thought it was just less boring. One of the reasons why I enjoy having a diverse array of imprints is that it’s interesting to work with all these different kinds of material and the people who create it. When I bought a food imprint in 2006, Surrey Books, I’d been a food writer for a while. Though I was first a book critic, I then became someone who wrote about food and restaurants. I really enjoyed that. I was interested in food. I thought it made good business sense, but it was also something that interested me. It wasn’t merely cold and calculated. It was the same thing in the years leading up to Agate which led me to work particularly closely with African American writers. Despite this brief little spark of interest in Black writers in the early nineties, there was still this terrible struggle that African American writers experienced just to be published. I thought it was good business to create opportunities for perennially undervalued and underappreciated writers—and readers—but ultimately I thought it was worthwhile and important work worth throwing myself into. These attitudes have been important in deciding the different kinds of things I’m going to do.
Would you say you’ve always had a long-term vision of creating imprints that are sustainable?
I would say my vision is really focused on sustainability. I don’t have grand aspirations to grow Agate to conglomerate size. I’m not someone driven by making the most money. I don’t think too many people go into publishing with that aspiration. It certainly wasn’t mine. And it’s certainly not a sustainable aspiration. My aim has been to do work that I enjoyed and that I felt like I was good at, work that I thought was valuable to the wider world. That has really shaped how I’ve operated the company. I felt like for us to be sustainable we had to pay our writers. first and foremost, obviously. But the people who come to work for you have to be able to earn a decent livelihood, too. I’ve created jobs for people in the Chicago publishing community. That is something that I am really proud of.
How has working out of Chicago influenced Agate’s development and growth?
Chicago is not the most hospitable place to book publishing. It has a disproportionately small publishing community for a city of its size. There are many smaller cities that have much bigger and healthier trade publishing businesses than Chicago. I think it’s a conundrum, so one of my aspirations has always been to contribute to that community, to try to strengthen and raise its profile. Although I feel like we struggle with that all the time. One of the reasons I started Agate was because I didn’t feel like there were many prospects for me to have a career in book publishing in Chicago. But at the same time, I felt like being outside of the center could allow me to think more broadly and see more clearly in terms of the work that I thought was more important.
I think the most exciting one is the second book by the Michelin star-winning chef Iliana Regan, which is coming out in January, called “Fieldwork.” It’s very powerful, dark, and very much bears the mark of coming out of the pandemic. The book has a lot to do with family and mortality in ways that I think are compelling and in some cases heartbreaking. We also published her first memoir, “Burn the Place,” which was named to the National Book Award longlist. It was the first time a culinary title of any kind had been recognized that way since Julia Child thirty-nine years earlier.
How would you like to see Agate continue to grow?
Over the past few years I’ve been developing learning resources for people interested in careers in publishing. I feel like helping people find a foothold in this industry is something that’s worth doing. Our industry needs to diversify. Our hope is that in 2024 we’re going to roll out a whole suite of online learning resources aimed at providing people with affordable and accessible information about the industry. My hope is that this venture, Agate Publishing Academy, is a big part of what we’re doing in the next few years.