Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Interview with Chicago Review Press Publisher, Cynthia Sherry

I first visited Chicago Review Press, located in a vintage brick building not far from the Loop in 1996 to do some editorial work on my first book, The Wind at Work. At that time CRP occupied one floor of the building. I remember a delicious Italian lunch with the staff at a nearby restaurant. (LA doesn’t have an Italian population, so I hunt down the pasta in Chicago, Brooklyn, SF – and Italy too!)

Fast forward to Summer 2012, and another trip to Chicago. I had just flown in from New York, in time for a late lunch – French this time – with Cynthia Sherry, before she took me on a tour of the expanded offices of CRP – now filling the entire four-story building with Independent Publishers Group (IPG), its distribution arm. We talked about how Chicago Review Press had fared – very well, thank you – in the intervening fifteen years, and I’m pleased that they have just published an updated edition of The Wind at Work.

Cynthia Sherry, publisher of Chicago Review Press, has been with the company since 1989, where she acquires books, oversees the editorial and book production of about 65 titles a year, and manages a staff of ten. Cynthia is a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, where she majored in English and met her husband, musician Rick Sherry. They live in Chicago with their two daughters.

Tell me a little about the background of CRP.

Curt Matthews, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and poetry editor for Chicago Review magazine, had come across some wonderful works that were too long for the journal, and in 1973 he and his wife Linda decided to publish them out of their basement. They received permission from the University of Chicago to call their fledging company Chicago Review Press. The name had cachet and many of the early publications were Chicago-centric, including a very early graphic novel called Prairie State Blues.

In 1975 the press published The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, by Frank Hohimer, who was doing time at Joliet Correctional Center. CRP sold the film rights and the film Thief, based on Hohimer’s book, was released in 1981. Income from that film propelled the company forward. Four decades and many successes later, Chicago Review Press now publishes about 65 nonfiction titles each year and is a sister company to Independent Publishers Group (IPG), one of the largest book distributors in  North America.

Chicago Review Press has always focused on publishing titles of lasting interest. Some of our titles have been in print for more than 20 years. We also believe in developing new voices and taking chances on quirky and sometimes controversial subjects. With more than 700 titles in print and e-book formats, Chicago Review Press publishes history, popular science, biography, memoir, music, film, and travel, among others. Our award-winning line of children’s activity books and young adult biographies make up 25% of our list. The company is proud to remain independently owned and minded.

Why do focus on activity books for children? Who is your audience?

We generally focus on activity books because we feel that hands-on activities expand learning and are fun for kids. The primary audiences are educators, homeschoolers, librarians, and engaged learners ages 9 & up. We don’t dumb the material down for kids and we typically provide a lot of interesting sidebars that put the subject in the context of the era. Recently we launched a young adult biography series called “Women of Action” that has been well received, and we will likely expand in the coming years.

The first edition of The Wind at Work stayed in print for fifteen years! Other publishers whisk books out of print in a few years.  Why are you different?

We are very focused on publishing books that will backlist well and we are more patient than the larger New York publishing houses. Sometimes we publish a book that’s ahead of its time or for a niche market that requires more work and time to penetrate. Getting books into the National Parks, for example, can take a year or more because they want to see the finished book and they have review committees looking over the content carefully. Lots of children’s books will receive reviews months after publication and parents and teachers want to know that the material has been time-tested. The Wind at Work is an example of a unique book whose market grew over the years as wind technology became more prevalent.

Other publishers suffered in the 2008 economic downturn.  What happened at CRP?

We were large enough to withstand the economic downturn, but small enough to be flexible and make appropriate changes to our business model. We were quick to convert our backlist titles to ebooks. We have also been fiscally conservative over the years and that put us in a great position to build our business and invest in new technology while other companies were downsizing and retrenching. Also, we don’t pay large advances and that has protected us over the years from any big downsides in the risky business of publishing.

What are you doing with ebooks?

We embraced ebooks from the beginning and converted all of our backlist titles into the three ebook formats. It’s definitely a growing segment of the publishing business, but where it will level out is anyone’s guess. I think it will end up being at least 30% of the business, but perhaps as much as 50%. Ebooks currently represent about 20% of CRP’s overall sales, but I think there is a lot of growth potential as younger readers growing up with handheld devices become book buyers. That said, I also think that print is here to stay and that some books lend themselves better to a print format, namely picture books and heavily designed books.

What do you see in CRP’s children’s book future? 

We will likely branch out and try new things, but slowly. Right now we are working on developing a few new series like our “Science in Motion” series for ages 9 & up and our “Women of Action” biography series for young adults. We will pay attention to common core standards and STEM as we move forward and try to grow our library and education markets. We like science and building things, so activities will stay in the mix. As for now, fiction and picture books are still too risky for us, but who knows what the future will bring for CRP.

1 comment:

Anna M. Lewis said...

Great post.
Wonderful that The Wind at Work has been in print for so long and congratulations on the reprint.
Yay for the Women in Action series... can't wait to see the new books in the series. (Had to say... teehee!)