As New York’s publishing conglomerates continue to grow and morph into unwieldy behemoths, Doug Seibold, President of Evanston-based Agate Publishing, has spent the last two decades quietly building a lean and profitable company, unlocking resources primarily owned by Black and Midwestern authors are often overlooked in the big houses.
Nestled between print shops and ceramic studios in the tree-lined arts district, Agate Publishing occupies a nondescript store at 1328 Greenleaf St. and seems to have found its sweet spot by any measure.
The company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in October, had annual sales of $4 million last year, employs 24 people and boasts a published roster of Pulitzer, National Book, Caldecott and Newbery authors – received awards.
Seibold said that Agate started with an idea, a laptop and a cell phone in his 400-square-foot basement in the ’90s. After working as a writer and editor for various newspapers, magazines and publishers for almost a decade, his vision began to take shape.
“I had developed this idea of what it takes to make a small publisher work, not to grow to compete with Random House or similar companies, but to become sustainable on a small scale.” Seibold said he never aspired to to reach an “enormous, world-devouring greatness”.
Introduced in 2002, Agate started with one imprint or mark and now includes five. Areas of focus include Black American Authors, Food and Cooking, Education and Training, Business Coaching and Management, and Midwestern Issues and Authors. Bolden, the masthead devoted exclusively to black writers, was the company’s first.
Years earlier, working at a Black-run publishing company, Seibold said he observed that major publishers were beginning to take notice of Black writers, but their attention was mostly focused on writers who had recently emigrated from Caribbean or African blacks Writers whose families had settled here for generations continued to go largely unnoticed.
“I felt like they were getting the shortest end of the stick,” Seibold said. “It meant there was all kinds of talent that wasn’t getting the same opportunities because of this ongoing publisher bias. I figured that meant I could find better writers in this community than in other communities.” It was a gamble that paid off.
In 2008, Agate released Where the line bleedsa debut novel by Jesmyn Ward, whom Seibold regards as one of the most respected writers of the 21st centurySt Century. “I knew she had phenomenal talent,” he said, “but you can’t predict anyone is going to achieve that level of success.” Ward, who time magazine Dubbed the “Legacy of Faulkner,” the novel twice won the National Book Award, becoming the first woman and first black person to do so.
Seibold claims that the exact ingredients that produce a bestseller remain a mystery. “If we knew that, that would be the only type of book we would publish,” he said with a chuckle. “You publish books because you think they’re good, but what makes something a huge, popular success is totally unpredictable.”
The Indian slow cooker, in which writer Anupy Singla puts a healthy twist on traditional recipes, is an example of a book whose performance exceeded Seibold’s expectations. He recalled appreciating the novelty of the subject in a field dominated by Italian and French cookbooks. “I thought, ‘We can do something with this.’ Turns out the audience for that was about ten times bigger than I thought.” Agate will be releasing Singla’s fourth title shortly, instant pot indian, and Seibold said they had sold more copies of their books than any other author.
The company receives between 700 and 800 submissions a year, but typically only publishes 12 titles, so careful selection is essential. Seibold, who can most efficiently thin out the herd due to years of experience, is usually the first reader. He goes through about two manuscripts a day, always on the lookout for “a possible diamond in the rough, or that little nugget in a sandpan.” Approximately 70 submissions pass the selection rounds and are seriously considered.
“One of the things that sets us apart from big publishers,” Seibold said, “is that we just can’t take the huge risks that they take on some books. We can’t afford that. Our books all have to make it. One of the things we don’t do is give up a book. We must give every book we publish the best chance of success.”
Field work, memoirs of a collector by Michelin-starred chef Iliana Regan, is one of several titles set for success in the coming year.
The book, due for release in January 2023, offers an intimate look at living and working in pursuit of harmony in the wild as the author and her wife attempt to establish a culinary destination in Michigan’s often inhospitable Upper Peninsula.
Regan’s earlier memoirs, burn the place also published by Agate, was nominated for a 2019 National Book Award, the first food book to receive such an award since Julia Child and more companies was similarly recognized in 1980.
Also on the horizon for the company next year is a new project called Agate Publishing Academy, a catalog of six online courses designed to provide practical information for launching a career in the industry.
A large part of Agate’s business is in educational publishing, and the company has also developed extensive training materials to support its thriving internship program. Seibold sees the new venture as a natural result of their efforts.
He notes that for outsiders, the publishing industry is a fortress that’s notoriously difficult to breach. “It’s too much of a black box for most people,” he said. “Too many people feel like people who look like me – old white guys – somehow have a handle on this information.” Seibold has finished with the keys.