New chapter for Chicago’s independent publishing

By Amanda Murphy

As certain literary communities like newspapers and magazines begin to dwindle around the city, others are beginning to flourish and grow. Chicago has long been a city of literature with world-renowned newspapers and authors, but publishing hasn’t been its forte since the glory days of Printers Row—until now.

In the last seven years, independent publishing houses have popped up all around the city, feeding Chicagoans with locally written works. In a once flourishing newspaper city, independent publishing is slowly bringing it back to its lit roots.

“The stigma that independent publishing houses are the catch basin for what didn’t make it into large publishers is gone,” said Jonathan Messinger, editor-in-chief and co-publisher of featherproof books. “This is a time when independent publishing is beginning to build and really starting to gain a lot of momentum.”

Messinger said one major aspect that is helping to put indie publishing more on the radar is the online and recession-induced fall of larger publishing houses across the country. Successful authors like J. Robert Lennon, author of “Light of Falling Stars” and “Mailman,” are turning to houses like the Minnesota-based indie publishing house Graywolf to publish their works.

A large reason this is happening is that the larger publishing houses have a lot less manpower because of lay-offs, he said. Independent publishers provide the time, effort and energy publicizing and hyping up the literature to make the book successful. In turn, the authors bring their devoted readers and provide the publishing house with a larger audience.

Although the industry is thriving, Messinger said there are still hurdles to overcome. He said the most difficult part of being an independent publisher is that there isn’t a centralized system for getting information out to people about what they are doing.

“If you were interested in Chicago’s music scene, it would be easy to find out what’s happening by picking up Time Out Chicago or the Chicago Reader, or by walking down to The Empty Bottle or Quenchers and seeing what bands are playing,” Messinger said. “That sort of activity doesn’t exist for books.”

Featherproof turned to utilizing popular spots in the city to promote, most recently at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., for the release party of “The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense” by the popular indie musician Tim Kinsella. Messinger said featherproof considers The Hideout, where they do most of their events, a home away from home. The bar/small music venue draws a certain type of crowd, he said, and they are the type of people that the publishing house considers

“its people.”

Gina Frangello, executive director of Other Voices Books and instructor in the Fiction Writing Department, said the best way to build an audience and repertoire in the city is to look outside the publishing houses. Many of the independent publishing houses turn to selling books at farmers markets or promote themselves at literary events at bars across the city.

“In general, Chicago has a very strong community-based publishing culture where people support each other and do a lot of cross promotional events,” Frangello said. “The indie presses are less insular here than in some other places.”

One of the bars used, Beauty Bar, 1444 W. Chicago Ave., has a number of events that promote local writers and publishers, like a reading series organized by the online magazine “Two with Water.”

Victor Giron, co-owner of Beauty Bar and editor-in-chief of the independent publishing house Curbside Splendor, said he was invited to his first literary reading event two summers ago in Logan Square by the editors of “Two with Water.” He said he had expected a small gathering of maybe 15 people, but was amazed by the filled seats, high energy and high interest.

He said that’s what drove him to use Beauty Bar as a venue for fundraisers to promote literature in the city, like not-for-profit literary organizations such as Chicago Underground Library, Young Chicago Authors and events revolving around The Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

Giron, whose publishing house has also recently been noticed city and nationwide, emphasized the important of community to succeed in the industry.

But Messinger highlighted the importance of branching out of the comfort zone to draw attention from other audiences. He said reaching out to other demographics is important in getting the entire city more aware of local art.

“When I speak at [city sponsored events], there are a lot of people who [haven’t] heard of us,” Messinger said. “It brings new awareness to what we’re doing, which is great for us and exactly what we want.”