Haymarket Books Caters to the Literary Tastes of Radicals

Rebecca Stoner

 

This is an excerpt from an article by Rebecca Stoner originally published in The Chicago Reader. Read the rest of the article at The Chicago Reader.

 

"It is that experience of reading a book which can most politicize and most radicalize people," says Anthony Arnove, a founding editor and editorial board member of Haymarket Books, Chicago's foremost progressive publisher.

 

Founded in 2001, Haymarket has grown in tandem with the rising popularity of political organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America. Haymarket's editors have bet on a hunger for leftist classics, Howard Zinn-inspired people's histories, politically engaged poetry and children's books, and on new work from marginalized voices, and they've had notable success with a number of titles, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, Naomi Klein's No Is Not Enough, and Eve Ewing's Electric Arches among them. In everything from its staffing to its book acquisitions strategy, Haymarket has quite intentionally set out to do business differently in a competitive industry where profit margins, especially for small publishers, are usually thin.

 

The press was founded after Arnove, an editor and filmmaker, and Ahmed Shawki, editor of the International Socialist Review, took a reporting trip to Palestine. With a third co-founder, Julie Fain, who'd also worked at the International Socialist Review as well as at In These Times, they produced what would become Haymarket's first title, The Struggle for Palestine, an anthology of essays by pro- Palestinian activists, including Edward Said. "And one thing led to another," Arnove says. They held a contest to choose a name for the fledgling press; Haymarket Books, after the 1886 Chicago labor protest that ended with a bomb, was an obvious fit.

 

 

Today, Haymarket publishes 40 to 50 books a season, including paperback reprints. While some of those titles sell just a few thousand copies each, works by a popular author like Naomi Klein have gone through several printings of up to 60,000 copies each.

 

Haymarket's audience has grown "explosively" over the last few years, says publicity director Jim Plank. "There are many, many people who are becoming politicized in new ways," he says. He characterizes Haymarket's audience as a diverse group that encompasses "anyone who's remotely on the left"—especially those involved in movement politics.

 

"The holy grail of radical publishing," says Fain, now the press's managing editor, is a book that sparks "conversations . . . in existing movements." Many of Haymarket's books—especially those with a connection to Chicago—focus on the achievements of social justice struggles and on offering a counternarrative to dominant accounts of contentious political issues.

 

 

In September, for example, Haymarket published José Olivarez's poetry collection Citizen Illegal, which counters dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric with joyful, vivid, and closely observed portraits of the lives of Latinx people in Chicago. The book is now a finalist for the 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Award, worth $75,000 and given to a book of any genre for its "originality, merit, and impact." (The winner will be announced next week.)

 

Olivarez, like the other Haymarket authors I spoke to, gravitated toward the press because he wanted to work with one aligned with his progressive political values. And indeed because of its values, Haymarket has at times made decisions a conventional publisher might avoid.

 

In a 2014 roundtable on "publishing while black" in Scratch magazine, Chris Jackson, who was an editor at Spiegel & Grau at the time (he's now editor in chief of the Penguin Random House imprint One World), said that large publishing houses "publish to those audiences they think they've mastered," which tend to be white audiences.

 

 

"That's never really been our starting point," Plank tells me. "For us, it's obvious that there's people who read across all identities and political perspectives, [who are] looking for things that reflect themselves. That's where we start from."

 

Poetry collections like Citizen Illegal tend to sell fewer copies than works of fiction or nonfiction, and publishing debut works of any kind carries inherent risks. Olivarez says that his intended audience was "young Latinx people in Chicago"—a group publishers rarely picture as the primary purchasers of poetry. A publisher operating under the model Jackson described might not have taken the chance that Olivarez's book would be able to reach a new audience.

 

But Olivarez's book found its audience and then some. In addition to the PEN/Jean Stein nomination, it won the 2018 Chicago Review of Books award for best poetry and a place on best-of-year lists put out by the New York Public Library and NPR.

 

This is an excerpt from an article by Rebecca Stoner originally published in The Chicago Reader. Read the rest of the article at The Chicago Reader.

 

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