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The Secret of Our Success: Chicago Review Press

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The publishing company that my wife, Linda, and I started 40 years ago recently had an anniversary party for itself, its authors, and for the Chicago media. In its first year, 1973, Chicago Review Press published two titles. Now we publish 60 to 65 titles per year, and in the 2013 calendar year we sold about a million copies.

Of course, Linda and I had to give little speeches to the 100 or so people who attended the party, which led me to wonder how we managed to do what we’ve done. Very few book publishing ventures last 40 years, and even fewer have a record of steady growth. What was the secret of our success?

    

The very first Chicago Review Press titles.

Mainly just two things: a computer, and an attitude.

 The Computer. Our publishing company bought a microcomputer in 1982, the only one at that time that was affordable and could realistically support the activities of a business. CRP must have been the first independent publishing company (the big six publishers had IBM mainframes), or at least among the very first indie publishing companies, to have a computer.

By today’s standards this computer was a joke. It had a 5 megabyte hard drive in a separate box the size of a suitcase, and 16 K of memory. But it could keep track of inventory and produce invoices and statements, a huge gain in efficiency.

So for 31 of CRP’s 40 years of existence, the company has been organized around a computer; and as ever-more-challenging technological approaches were needed—typesetting and design programs, EDI, ASN, ONIX metadata feeds, e-books, point-of-sale data, data mining, data storage in the Cloud—CRP and its book distribution company, IPG, have been and continue to be up near the front in adopting new technology.

● The Attitude. The crucial attitude is best explained by a story about Linda. In the early years of the company, she was the publisher and editor and just about everything else too. One day I looked over her shoulder as she struggled to edit some tangled prose and I said to her, “You must stop spending so much editorial time on projects that don’t really warrant it. That local Chicago guidebook you are working on is utterly ephemeral. It sure isn’t War and Peace.”

The first of a seemingly endless run of pages showing today’s Chicago Review Press titles on its Website.

She looked me up and down and said, “OK, I quit.” Then she made a number of remarks that I will not repeat here and finished with this statement: “I do it right, or I don’t do it.”

This is the attitude that still informs the CRP publishing program. It may be that we could have gotten by with less editorial rigor, but then again it is more likely that high standards have had a cumulative effect over 40 years, and that this is why our titles get strong reviews in all the right places.

From left to right: Linda Matthews, Chicago Review Press publisher Cynthia Sherry, and Curt Matthews at the 40th anniversary party.

Linda’s talk at our 40th anniversary party was about how much happiness she has had working at CRP, how much she has enjoyed the bright, sensitive, and kind people who have been her colleagues. She did not have to say that every one of them did it right or wouldn’t have done it at all.


Curt Matthews is CEO of Independent Publishers Group, which was the first independent press distributor and is now the second-largest, as well as CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, the parent company of both Chicago Review Press and IPG. He has served as a member of the IBPA board and as its president, and he blogs at ipgbook.com/blog.

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