Midwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with publisher, editor and writer Kelli Christiansen about Chicago Book Review, which she launched in 2013, the Chicago publishing industry, and more.
Jamie Monville: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Kelli Christiansen: I’m a lifelong Midwesterner and have spent my entire publishing career (over two decades) in the Chicago area, as a bookseller, writer, and publishing professional, working at such houses as Publications International, Ltd./Consumer Guide, McGraw-Hill, and ABA Publishing. As a freelancer, I’ve worked with other local houses as well, including ALA Editions and Sourcebooks.
JM: Part of Chicago Book Review’s Mission is to “Shine a spotlight on Chicago’s publishing industry, houses, titles, and authors, as well as on other Midwestern publishers, authors, and new titles.” Why do you think that Chicago’s Publishing Industry has been neglected in the past?
KC: Chicago has long had a robust publishing and printing industry. Rand McNally, R. R. Donnelley, University of Chicago Press, Encyclopedia Britannica, Moody Publishers—many of these houses have been around since the 1800s. Today, Chicagoland is home to more than a hundred publishers, from large independent houses like Agate Publishing and Sourcebooks to university presses to education publishers to professional reference publishers to micro presses and niche publishers. In addition, the Chicago area is home to countless authors, and we have a thriving community of writers who not only publish great books but who are out at events doing book signings, readings, and other live lit events and supporting Chicago’s literary community in countless other ways.
The thing is that most of us who work in publishing here—whether authors or editors or agents or publishers—aren’t shouting from the rooftops how great we all are (or how much better we are). We just kind of stick our heads down and do our work, much of which is truly fabulous. I’m not sure we’ve been neglected so much as we haven’t always sought the spotlight.
I hope that Chicago Book Review plays at least a small part in actually turning that spotlight on the publishers and authors in the Midwest, because there’s no reason not to. I love Chicago, I love books, I love reading, and I love working in publishing. To me, it’s an honor every day—even on bad days—to be working here with professionals I admire in a field I love. And so I see no reason why we shouldn’t be shining a spotlight on the books that are published here and that capture the voices that come from here.
JM: What do you believe that Chicago’s Publishing Industry brings to the literary sphere that is different than New York’s, London’s, or San Francisco’s publishing industries?
KC: All of these publishing hubs are putting out great work. With the large international conglomerates based in New York, most of those houses are doing the kind of traditional publishing that traditional publishers do. That’s not at all a bad thing—it just is what it is.
But not one of these cities has cornered the market on good publishing, and what I see coming out of Chicago and the Midwest is some seriously inspired publishing that isn’t as beholden to conformity, that isn’t afraid to take chances on unknown authors, that isn’t reliant on author buy-backs to break even. I see some risk-taking, some creativity, and some vision coming from a lot of houses in the Chicago area that I don’t always see coming out of some of the other great publishing hubs across the country or even across the pond. That’s not to say that Chicago’s publishers don’t have discriminating taste; we do. But from where I’m sitting, it also strikes me that the area’s houses are more willing to try new things, whether it’s a different voice or a different format.
I feel here an enthusiasm that I don’t often sense when I’m in New York or Boston or London. Maybe I’m being too Pollyannaish, but I’m not always hearing publishers, authors, editors, and agents here going on and on and on about the impending demise of our industry. I’m not hearing all the gloom-and-doom talk about how ebooks and self-publishing are killing things. Instead, I see a lot of enthusiasm and energy surrounding publishing, whether it’s in embracing new formats, tackling underserved genres like street lit, or giving little-known but talented writers a chance that they otherwise would never get with one of the big five publishers in New York.
I also see here a literary community that seems much more encouraging and perhaps not as competitive. I see local authors supporting other local authors at various events, whether they’ve published with the same house or not. I see local publishers giving each other shout-outs on social media. I see writers groups cosponsoring events with niche presses. I see indie bookstores working with local publishers to host readings and signings. It’s not that these things aren’t also happening elsewhere, but it does feel less competitive and more cooperative, as though we’re all working together to support each other so that good publishers can publish good books from good authors.
JM: What’s next for Chicago Book Review?
KC: Chicago Book Review is a labor of love. I launched it in June 2013 and have since then signed on more than a dozen volunteer reviewers who work with me (and for whom I’m extremely thankful) to publish book reviews. CBR also runs features (look for our Summer 2015 Preview soon), and we have a robust calendar that highlights events in Chicago and the suburbs. CBR is also a great resource: We have links to dozens of publishers, writers organizations, bookstores, and literary blogs on our site.
What’s next is very much more of the same—book reviews, features, and events. As long as local publishers keep publishing and as long as local writers keep writing, we hope to be one of the area’s source of free literary information. There’s no subscription fee, no passwords required—anyone can sign up for free and follow CBR on WordPress.
We’re always looking to add more volunteers to our roster of reviewers, and we’re always grateful for the books we receive from local and regional publishers. We hope that this is a virtuous circle that continues for a long time—books–reviewers–books–
Chicago Book Review was launched in June 2013 by publishing veteran Kelli Christiansen. With more than two decades of experience in the industry, Kelli has spent her entire career in the Chicago area, first as a bookseller with B. Dalton (a long-gone division of Barnes & Noble). She worked as a reporter and city editor for Press Publications before becoming an acquisitions editor, first at Publications International, Ltd./Consumer Guide and then at McGraw-Hill. Following a stint as an executive editor with ABA Publishing (part of the American Bar Association), Kelli launched bibliobibuli professional editorial services, in 2007. She also is the founder of Chicago Publishing Network, a LinkedIn group with more than 1,600 members. An editor, writer, and ghostwriter, her work has appeared in a variety of media, including Book Business Magazine; Carol Stream Press; Chicago Life; Collections & Credit Risk Magazine; Faith, Hope, & Fiction; Midwest Book Review; Sacramento Book Review; and San Francisco Book Review.