Books-a-million (PurpleLineFinds)

Scott Gordon

Books published in Evanston include reference indeces, progressive African-American literature, children’s books featuring personified vegetables, and pamphlets entitled “Alcohol — Death’s Friend.”

Evanston’s small publishing companies survive by paying attention to these and other projects that large publishers aren’t interested in.

Doug Seibold, owner of Agate Publishing, believes that being small can be an advantage in the industry because large-scale publishers neglect so many projects in favor of those that will appeal reliably to a mass audience.

“For good or ill, big publishing has become more committed to sort of the boom-and-bust model of major motion picture marketing,” he says. “So many of the resources go to the really high-profile projects and a lot of other projects languish as a result.”

Once a smaller printer has enough size, it can pursue more specialized projects. Agate Publishing, 1501 Madison St., specializes in books on business and African-American literature. Other local publishers also tend to look for projects on specific topics.


The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union published in a small capacity early on, and in 1909 its members voted to centralize and expand its printed-word efforts. Its plan resulted in the Literature Building, 1730 Chicago Ave., completed in 1910. Signal Press, the union’s publishing house, still operates in this building, now hidden behind the Frances Willard House.

Signal Press mostly produces educational pamphlets about alcohol, drugs and social issues. Manager Charles Ens says publishing is important for the WCTU, which campaigned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to close down saloons and ban alcohol. Now the group focuses on spreading information to discourage drunkenness, drug abuse and other “social ills.”

The group tries to publish material about modern issues such as AIDS, domestic violence and single parenting. Because WCTU is a politically active organization, it also publishes guides to organizing group meetings and running effective letter-writing campaigns.

Signal Press coordinates the production of its pamphlets, fact sheets and booklets, sometimes providing grants to researchers who study the effects of alcohol.

Path Press, founded in 1969, grew out of another seminal American political movement. Co-founder Bennett Johnson — former head of the Evanston/North Shore chapter of the NAACP — says Path Press began in Chicago in an industry that was then “a vast white desert.”

“There were virtually no book titles being published by blacks, except for exceptional writers like (Ralph) Ellison,” Johnson says. The company’s goal was and still is to produce books about African-Americans and their concerns. Since the late 1980s, major publishing companies have become more interested in black literature but even within that genre tend to favor more commercial works, Johnson says.

“We try to do books with some gravitas,” he says. Path Press, 1229 Emerson St., releases 15 to 25 books each year, most of them political commentary, poetry and fiction.

One of Path’s most successful publications is “The Negotiations: a Novel of Tomorrow” by Herman Cromwell Gilbert, in which black Americans negotiate with the U.S. government to create a separate African-American state.


Another publisher fills in what major reference materials leave out. John Gordon Burke started his publishing career in 1975 with Access, a reference index to articles in popular periodicals. Access complements rather than competes with the Reader’s Guide, a publications reference published by the H.W. Wilson Co.

John Gordon Burke Publisher, 1402 1/2 Greenleaf St., catalogues about 75 magazines that Wilson doesn’t — including The Village Voice, Spin and Travel + Leisure. Burke was the first to publish bibliographic records of Playboy and Rolling Stone magazines. He also provides a searchable digital version of Access’ editions from 1975 to the present on his Web site,

In addition to other reference materials, Burke publishes a series of nonfiction books for young adults about humanitarian and progressive figures such as Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland.

A hand in just about everything

Seibold runs Agate, which he calls a “virtual company,” from his home, with the help of his computer, some freelance workers and a recent Northwestern graduate.

“In this day and age you don’t need a whole lot more,” Seibold says. Agate currently has its stamp on eight books in the topics of business and African-American life.

The company’s most successful book so far is the novel “Sexual Healing” by Jill Nelson, which was listed as an Essence magazine fiction bestseller last November and December.

Nick Soper, Weinberg ’03, began interning at Agate in January. Soper, 23, says he has been compiling a report on how to improve the company’s publicity efforts and will start editing manuscripts. He says that the advantage of working with a small business is that “you really end up with a hand in just about everything.”

Freedom Publishing Co., 2550 Crawford Ave., does not want to limit its projects’ subjects, but like other publishers in the area, co-owner Scott Jordan wants his original projects.

Freedom has published children’s books such as “Thea the Yellow Tomato” and practical instruction titles like “Garage Sale Magic!” It has published only eight titles, but Jordan says the company will only publish a book if there’s a “compelling reason” to do so.

“It’s been about three years since we found something that we though was worthy of publishing,” Jordan says.

Jordan and Seibold agree: There are enough authors and areas of literature left untapped by larger publishing houses that smaller ones have the opportunity to be selective and seek out new opportunities and experiments.

Publisher contacts:

 John Gordon Burke Publisher, 1402 1/2 Greenleaf St.: (847) 866-8625

 Freedom Publishing, 2550 Crawford St.:

 Agate Publishing, 1501 Madison St.: www.agatepublishing: (847) 475-4457

 Path Press, 1229 Emerson St.: (847)424-1620

 Signal Press, 1730 Chicago Ave.: (847) 864-1322