Interview with an Indie Press: Agate Publishing
On Supporting "Fresh and Unconventional" Writers
Agate Publishing, based in Evanston, Illinois, celebrates its 20th anniversary this October. President and publisher Doug Seibold answered questions about the last two decades working in independent publishing, taking strategic risks, and how they reach readers.
What are some of the benefits of working at an independent press?
The answer to this one is a little complicated for me. One of the reasons I decided to pursue a publishing career outside of New York, near which I grew up, is because I felt I understood from an early age the value of steering away from the mainstream and the herd mentality that comes with it. When I was a student at Washington University in the 80s, I got to observe first-hand when the great editor Shannon Ravenel, one of my teachers there, co-founded Algonquin Books with Louis Rubin Jr.
They saw an opportunity in publishing writers from the South who at the time were overlooked by the big New York publishers. Later, I left graduate school after just a semester in part because I realized I wanted to read, and think, more independently; I felt done with assignments and reading lists, and confident in my ability to determine myself what I should be reading.
When I first had the idea of starting the company that became Agate, I believed—as I still do—that it’s in the nature of the bigger companies, because of their sheer bigness, to overlook a lot of worthwhile work that, regardless of its merits, doesn’t have the most conspicuous appeal. I believed I could run a company with very low overhead that could earn its own way commercially by publishing high-quality work that bigger companies just didn’t value. I never wanted to compete with those bigger companies; I felt the real value of independence, as I understood it, came specifically in the freedom to use my own judgment and acumen, and my own money, to invest in writers that other companies didn’t want—but who I believed were good enough, and important enough, to command a readership big enough to sustain a good independent press.
Which is how it’s worked out, pretty much. During the company’s first ten years, that meant Agate earning recognition for publishing a lot of terrific African American writers. It meant publishing a lot of women—more women than men, over the years. And more recently, it’s also meant publishing a lot of terrific writers from the Midwest that maybe aren’t appreciated as much by the big New York publishers.
What are some of the challenges of working at an independent press?
One big challenge: in a word, neglect. I’ve been fortunate that Agate has attracted hundreds of great writers over the years, many of whom have published multiple books with us, and many of whom have gone on to publish with the big conglomerate houses. Thanks to our distributors at PGW/Ingram, I am confident in the quality of our sales effort.
And over the years I have been able to find and develop a succession of copyeditors, designers, production professionals, and publicists, mostly via Agate’s internship program, who publish excellent, well-made books to a very high level of quality. But getting attention for our books from the big media outlets is a constant source of frustration. This has been exacerbated by the general decline in review media bandwidth over the past decade-plus, of course.I take risks all the time, but I hope I’m smart and deliberate about them.
But beyond that, I’ve felt from the beginning that being a small house based in the Midwest meant we were too easy to overlook, even compared to our well-established indie colleagues in the Twin Cities. And I felt for a long time that the review media found our Black authors in particular too easy to overlook. For a company that’s had the kind of success Agate has earned over the past 20 years, I would think it would get easier to interest media outlets in our new books. That doesn’t seem to be the case. We’ve always invested a lot of resources in publicity and promotion, especially for a press of our size. But with every book, it’s always the same pitched battle for every shred of coverage.
Is there a particular quality, style, or other characteristic that connects the projects that you take on?
Because we deliberately pursue projects that bigger publishers overlook, there is an out-of-the-mainstream aspect to every Agate project. But over the years, specifically with the narrative work we publish, I’ve come to feel that what most distinguishes Agate writers is voice. With relatively few exceptions, the most celebrated novels and memoirs we’ve published have featured highly distinctive narrative voices, which may have a lot to do with how those authors found their way to Agate in the first place.
This has been the case from the very first book Agate published, right up to recent successes like This Life, by Quntos KunQuest, a novelist who’s been incarcerated at Angola penitentiary for most of his adult life and whose work was celebrated by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, and Burn The Place, by the Michelin-starred chef Iliana Regan, which was named to the National Book Award long list in 2019. These writers have little in common aside from the fact that their writing is arrestingly fresh and unconventional—to an extent that likely deterred bigger publishers. I’ve come to believe that finding and championing writers like these is one of the most important things independent presses like Agate can do.
Were there any titles in particular that were game-changers for your business?
The first two come to mind. Sexual Healing, the first novel by the brilliant Jill Nelson, was our inaugural release and its success helped get Agate flush enough that we could stay in business rather than flame out in our first year. Jill Nelson’s work was fearless and ahead of its time and I don’t understand why she’s not more celebrated by younger writers today. And then Risk Rules, our second book, by the late Marvin Zonis, helped us achieve a slower-emerging dimension of success, one that derived in large part from relationships Marvin helped me develop.
Eventually, close to a dozen other Agate titles came into being via writers who found us because of my connection to Marvin. And I created Agate’s internship program—not something I necessarily intended to do—because our first intern was pointed to me by Marvin, and that program became my chief means of attracting and developing the young people who filled out Agate’s staff as we began to grow.
There have been a few others: a book called I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words became our first New York Times bestseller and established a template for Agate’s most successful book series. A book called Crown, by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, earned us Caldecott and Newbery Honors when Agate expanded into children’s publishing. And Iliana Regan’s Burn The Place further broadened the kinds of books with which Agate could find wide recognition.
What are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken as a business? How did you navigate them?
Just starting Agate represented a huge risk for me. My background was as a writer and editor. I am purely an autodidact when it comes to business. I started the company using all of my liquid savings. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was pretty much all I had. I kept our overhead very low by running the company as a largely virtual enterprise for our first seven years, working from a small room in my basement. At the time, in the early-mid-2000s, there were a number of other publishing startups getting off the ground in Chicago, some of which got a lot more attention than Agate, especially locally. I kept my head down and stuck to my basic convictions about how to grow a good small press.
The next big risk was when I bought another Chicago-based publisher called Surrey Books in 2006. That allowed us to expand into food-related publishing, and the support of that company’s founder, Susan Schwartz, in making a mutually beneficial deal was pivotal. I learned, again, that positive relationships make all the difference in achieving good outcomes. Susan also introduced me to the leadership at PGW, which has distributed Agate since 2007.
Later, when I started a children’s line with the Atlanta-based writer and editor Denene Millner, we built a strong relationship through years of weekly phone calls discussing the business aspects of publishing. I think that stood us in good stead when she later decided to join Justin Chanda at Simon and Schuster; along with Justin, we were able to negotiate a good transition of the line from Agate to S&S that I hope worked for everyone involved. It wasn’t the outcome I envisioned when we started that line, but it did result in our publishing Crown, which is the best-selling book we’ve published and which is still going strong.
I think it’s essential to take risks to find the opportunities that will keep your company flourishing, but the key is figuring out when and how to take those risks in ways that won’t swamp you if they fail. Everyone knows—or should know—that failure is a constant in publishing. There aren’t enough readers for all of the books we publish, just as there aren’t enough reviewers to review them or store shelves to carry them. I think one of the biggest differences between a company Agate’s size and the bigger presses is that we can’t afford to lose as big as they can on individual projects. One huge mistake can wipe us out. I take risks all the time, but I hope I’m smart and deliberate about them.
What are some projects you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
We are looking forward to publishing Fieldwork, the second book by Iliana Regan, in January, and it’s already earning strong and much-deserved pre-publication buzz. The book is heartbreakingly good, and I hope it finds all the readers it deserves. But beyond that, working with Iliana has been a uniquely rewarding experience. Watching her develop as an extravagantly gifted writer while right in the midst of her demanding and accomplished career as a chef has been amazing. As a creative force—I don’t think “visionary” is too strong a word—who’s made this kind of transition from one field to another, she is not like any other writer I’ve ever worked with in my almost forty years as an editor.
But as I hope I’ve at least suggested in this interview, I am endlessly excited by how publishing works, and by meeting the challenges involved in perpetuating an independent press. To that end, we’re marking Agate’s 20th anniversary later this year by launching a suite of educational programs aimed at training new publishing professionals, in a form that we hope will be more focused, more practical, more accessible, and less costly than the offerings out there right now—especially master’s programs.
We’re calling it Agate Publishing Academy, and we’ve got six initial offerings: a publishing basics course, courses in basic copyediting, DEI editing, basic business know-how for publishing freelancers, and basic instructional design, and a course I’m developing myself on how to start your own independent press. We hope all six will be live by the end of the year.
I’m at the stage of my career where I’m trying to figure out what I have to offer others who are interested in this field. We need new blood and fresh perspectives to figure out the best ways forward. But book publishing isn’t a lot more accessible or inviting than it was when I was trying, and largely failing, to find a secure place in it myself 30 years ago. As an old white guy, I am mindful that other people might look at me and assume I have particular advantages in knowledge or experience that just aren’t accessible to them. So now it’s increasingly important to me to make whatever expertise I’ve accumulated as widely available as possible, especially for people who aren’t white or male. I see Agate Publishing Academy as an instrument for achieving that.
How do you get feedback from your readers?
For most of the years we’ve been in business, Agate has taken part in the Printers Row Lit Fest, Chicago’s big annual book event, where we spend a weekend on the street selling books directly to readers from under a tent. That’s been our one main opportunity, outside of bookstore author readings, to see how readers react to our books in person.
Otherwise, I think the real feedback on publishers’ efforts come from our sales and marketing efforts. That’s when you see how people, whether buyers or reviewers or journalists, are responding to your books in the most material ways. When a book sells well, it’s not usually because of a clever marketing effort, or because it’s a great value price-wise; it’s almost always because one reader after another has told other readers that the book is worth their time.
What’s another indie press you love/would recommend?
I don’t get a chance to hang out with other publishers very often, beyond events like Winter Institute or sales conferences. I am always happy to spend time with Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians of Melville House, who started up right around when Agate did, and Daniel Slager of Milkweed, who’s always been generous with his time and perspective. Their companies are terrific. But I would like to call out two newer children’s publishers, Joy Triche of Darklight/TigerStripe and Patricia Stockland of Kind World, both mid-career publishing professionals who recently took the leap I took 20 years ago, and whom I’ve been working with and trying to support as they got their businesses on solid footing. They are exactly the kind of new publishers this industry needs, in my view.