Chicago Review Press Inc.
Chicago Review Press Inc.
Sales: $50 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 424920 Book, Periodical, and Newspaper Merchant Wholesalers; 511130 Book Publishers
Based in Chicago, Illinois, Chicago Review Press Inc. is one of the more successful independent publishing companies in the United States, turning out about 50 new titles under four imprints: Chicago Review Press, Lawrence Hill Books, A Cappella, and Zephyr Press. The Chicago Review Press imprint focuses on general nonfiction categories, such as biography and memoir, parenting, travel, and how-to books, as well as children's activity books. Lawrence Hill concentrates on progressive political titles and nonfiction aimed at African American readers. The niches pursued by A Cappella are books about music or film. Zephyr focuses on books for teachers, providing them with the latest research and theories on how children learn, and material on how to be a more effective teacher. All the titles coming out of the imprints are distributed through the company's wholly owned subsidiary, Independent Publishers Group (IPG). The first organization established to market the books of small, independent publishers, IPG represents about 1,600 books a year from more than 300 publishers, located both in the United States and elsewhere. They range from well-established academic and university presses boasting dozens of titles to obscure publishers with just a single title. The company also is developing a growing list of Spanish-language titles.
FOUNDING CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS FOUNDED IN 1973
Chicago Review Press was founded in 1973 by Curt Matthews and his wife Linda. After earning an undergraduate degree from Denison University, he went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. Not only did he become an instructor at the school, he became poetry editor of the Chicago Review Magazine, a reputable literary magazine of the day, the first to publish William S. Burroughs' classic novel Naked Lunch. Matthews also published a number of beat poets and young poets who later enjoyed illustrious careers. Matthews went on to teach at Northwestern as an instructor but had aspirations to become a publisher and editor.
Matthews decided to publish a translation of some verse of Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji, and so in 1973 formed a company called Chicago Review Press to act as publisher. Although the University of Chicago had no formal relationship to the venture, the typesetting was done by the University of Chicago Press. Matthews was able to secure a grant from the Japan Foundation to provide funding, and he arranged for a small but well-respected publisher in Chicago, Swallow Press, to sell the book using its salespeople. After the book was published Matthews also launched a small bookstore, called Walton Books because it was located on Walton Street, that operated out of a storefront in Chicago's Drake Hotel. Matthews was able to sell all of the 2,000 cloth and 2,000 paperback copies he printed, but quickly realized that even with a subsidy from the Japan Foundation his earnings were meager.
Determined to succeed as a publisher, Matthews adopted a new strategy, dropping literature in favor of books that had a better chance to sell. Working out of his home and the bookstore and still relying on Swallow Press for sales support, he began commissioning writers and publishing books of local interest, guides on where to shop and eat in Chicago. One title, Sweet Home Chicago, a hip guide to the city, was especially popular, going through numerous editions. Another change in approach came when Matthews realized that he was not a particularly good editor, but his wife was excellent at the job. Hence, she became the publisher of Chicago Review Press, while he concentrated on the business end where he excelled. The bookstore, meanwhile, was sold after the erection of a nearby high-rise building, which included four bookstores. Not willing to deal with the competition, nor particularly fond of the bookstore, which Matthews said mostly sold romances to old ladies, he sold it.
In addition to growing Chicago Review Press at a healthy clip, Matthews also did well in real estate. By the mid-1980s Chicago Review Press had built up a strong enough business and a sizable backlist of titles that he began searching for warehouse and office space. With a partner who ran a Tai Chi studio, he bought a building in a bad part of Chicago. Their timing proved fortuitous, however, as artists, in search of inexpensive loft space, decided to move there as well. The neighborhood became trendy, and Matthews and his partner bought up real estate and sold it as loft space. They fared well until other investors recognized the opportunity and drove up the prices.
After being in business for more than a decade, Chicago Review Press, with some 200 titles in print, was ready to graduate to the next level. Matthews, however, was aware that major booksellers, such as Barnes & Noble, would not do business with publishers who provided less than $500,000 in business each year. Matthews told Crain's Chicago Business, "Our little company was doing very nicely, growing steadily, but the train was leaving the station. So, I said, 'How do we get bigger all of a sudden?'"
IPG ACQUISITION IN 1987
Matthews solved the problem through an acquisition, in 1987 buying Independent Publishers Group (IPG). The Long Island-based book distributor had been founded in 1971 by David White to market the titles of small and midsized independent presses to booksellers. Carrying the titles of these presses, no matter how high the quality, had not been profitable for mainstream distribution because of the cost of establishing the account and higher shipping costs per unit that came with small orders. Therefore, White brought together a group of independent publishers and formed IPG to take advantage of their collective size. Their combined lists were as large as major commercial publishers and they could now enjoy economies of scale in terms of selling and order fulfillment.
Matthews had been reluctant to join forces with IPG or similar ventures, worried that he would lose control. However when he learned that White was interested in selling IPG, Matthews realized that by acquiring it he could have the best of both worlds. He could retain control of the destiny of Chicago Review Press while also achieving the kind of size he needed to survive in the contemporary publishing world. Matthews visited White at IPG, which was located next to a tennis court, and soon learned that White spent most afternoons playing tennis. Because he planned to work all day long, Matthews assumed he would have no trouble in doubling IPG's sales. Matthews paid White a nominal amount of cash for IPG and agreed to pay him a percentage of the profit for several years.
Chicago Review Press began in 1973 as a primarily regional small press. Over the years we have grown into a dynamic midsize company with a list of national interest, publishing about 50 new titles yearly under four imprints: Chicago Review Press, Lawrence Hill Books, A Cappella, and Zephyr Press.
IPG was relocated to Chicago and folded into the Chicago Review Press Inc. operations. Curt Matthews acted as chief executive officer of the company and Linda Matthews continued to serve as the publisher of the Chicago Review Press imprint. Curt Matthews had achieved his goal of becoming a large enough company to warrant partnership with Barnes & Noble. The combined revenues of Chicago Review Press and IPG totaled $1 million, but that accomplishment did not guarantee success because the publishing world was undergoing dramatic changes on a number of fronts. In the 1980s old guard, family name publishing houses were gobbled up by larger media concerns, and in the 1990s the midsized publishers were next to be devoured. Meanwhile, independent bookstores, owned and run by people who hand sold titles, especially important to small presses that lacked marketing dollars, were pushed out of business by superstores owned by Borders and Barnes & Noble. Although these stores may have had the shelf space to carry many more books than a neighborhood shop, they were manned by clerks who in most cases lacked the breadth of knowledge of the publishing industry, beyond the bestseller lists, to make recommendations of small press books. To complicate matters further, the rise of personal computers and desktop publishing software opened up publishing to many more people, resulting in a flood of new titles into the marketplace.
Fortunately for Chicago Review Press, it had IPG, through which it could market its titles. Other independent presses also saw the advantage of working through IPG, which began to thrive under the new industry conditions. It gained even more business when a number of larger publishers decided that their time and resources were better spent on acquiring, publishing, and promoting books. Hence, the more mundane aspects of publishing—presenting new titles to book buyers, warehousing, shipping, customer service, and bill collecting—was outsourced to IPG. The company also began distributing the titles of foreign publishers who wanted distribution in the United States.
In the first four years that Chicago Review Press owned IPG, sales grew fourfold. IPG had 27 sales representatives and a roster of about 35 publishers. However this success came with caveats. "Our problem," Curt Matthews told Publishers Weekly in 1990, "is to find books for Chicago Review Press and for Independent Publishers Group that reflect our philosophy. We now represent some 30 publishers and we want to expand, but we don't want to lose control. We want our clients to know just what we stand for." There were plenty of small publishers with similar philosophies, and in the early 1990s IPG took a major step when it brought together more than 300 of them into a single catalog, most of them with only one or two titles to their name. When asked why he did it, Matthews offered a simple explanation to Publishers Weekly, "We're looking for interesting books."
STRONG GROWTH: 1990–98
From the early 1990s to 1998 Chicago Review Press and its IPG subsidiary grew at an annual rate of 35 to 40 percent. One of the major reasons, ironically, was the increasing power of the superstores. Readers were expecting a wider range of books, not just taller stacks of a handful of bestsellers, and began seeking out books that appealed to them personally. This was not a development that helped the major publishers, dependent on the blockbuster books to pay their Midtown Manhattan rents. On the other hand, according to the Chicago Tribune, "It's a void perfectly suited to independent publishers that gladly and efficiently publish a book that would sell 5,000, 20,000, even 50,000 books—measly numbers for the major conglomerates." Providing evidence of this change, Barnes & Noble reported in 1997 that 46 percent of its sales came from the books of the top ten publishers, but just three years earlier the total was 74 percent.
As the 1990s came to a close, Chicago Press began to expand its list, from about 20 titles to 50 titles. IPG also continued to grow, necessitating the doubling of office and warehouse space in the summer of 2000. Some of that space would be needed, starting in 2001 when IPG began distributing Spanish-language books in the United States and Canada. IPG also took steps to become involved in electronic books and printing on demand, but neither worked especially well. Computer-related titles enjoyed modest success in electronic format until the dot-com bust, leaving only one title that was suited to that format, a how-to-buy-a-piano book that included an annual price guide. As for printing on demand, the cost of a copy was simply too high to make it worthwhile. It was used, however, to keep some titles in print, producing batches of 50 to 100 books.
- Independent Publishers Group is founded.
- Chicago Review Press is founded.
- Chicago Review Press acquires Independent Publisher's Group.
- Zephyr Press is acquired.
- Trafalgar Square Publishing is acquired.
In addition to internal growth, Chicago Review Press looked to acquisitions to build the business. Educational publisher Zephyr Press, with a backlist of some 150 books and 50 teaching aids, was added in 2003. The Zephyr titles dovetailed nicely with Chicago Press's children's activity books. Zephyr also brought with it a mail-order catalog operation. IPG also used external means to expand in the new century. In 2001 it acquired the Massachusetts-based academic distributor Paul & Company Publishers Consortium Inc., a move that took IPG into the field of academic and scholarly books. In October 2006, IPG acquired Trafalgar Square Publishing, a company that handled the distribution of some 50 U.K. publishers, about 13,500 titles year, including some of the largest houses in the country. It was a major step forward and promised to usher in a period of even greater prosperity for Chicago Review Press Inc.
Independent Publishers Group.
Baker & Taylor Corporation; Ingram Industries Inc.; National Book Network.
Barbato, Joe, "The Small Press Struggle for Distribution," Publishers Weekly, November 15, 1991, p. 25.
Gregory, Ted, "The Personal Touch," Chicago Tribune, August 23, 1998, p. C16.
Holton, Lisa, "Going by the Book," Crain's Chicago Business, March 11, 2002.
Kinsella, Bridget, "IPG: Moving Books with a Personal Touch," Publishers Weekly, December 7, 1998, p. 20.
Matthews, Curt, "When, Why, and How to Acquire Another Publishing Company," Publishers Marketing Association—Newsletter, January 2004.