Books: Ever wonder how a best-seller is born?

Books: Ever wonder how a best-seller is born?
Books: Ever wonder how a best-seller is born?

While New York 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 business that taps into resources often overlooked by the big houses, notably Black and midwestern authors.

Jane, George, Marla and Doug Seibold celebrate 20 years in publishing at a recent event held at the Peckish Pig. Credit: Evan Girard

Nestled among print shops and ceramic studios in the tree-lined art district, Agate Publishing occupies an unassuming storefront at 1328 Greenleaf St. and seems to have found its sweet spot in every sense.

The company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this October, had $4 million in annual sales last year, employs 24 people and boasts a list of published writers who have earned Pulitzer, National Book, Caldecott and Newbery awards.

Seibold said Agate started during the ‘90s with an idea, a laptop and a cell phone in his 400-square-foot basement. After spending nearly a decade working as a writer and editor for various newspapers, magazines and publishers, his vision began to take shape. 

“I had developed this idea of what it would take to make a small publishing company work, not growing to compete with Random House or companies like that, but to become sustainable at a small scale.” Seibold said he never aspired to achieve an “enormous, world-eating size.”

Launched in 2002, Agate began with one imprint, or brand, and now comprises five. Areas of focus include Black American authors, food and cooking, education and training, business coaching and management and midwestern topics and authors. Bolden, the imprint devoted exclusively to Black writers, was the company’s first.

While working at a Black-owned publishing firm years earlier, Seibold said he had observed that major publishing houses were beginning to take notice of Black writers, but most of their attention was focused on writers who had recently emigrated from the Caribbean or Africa, while Black writers whose families had been here for generations continued to go largely unnoticed.

“I felt like they were getting the shortest end of the stick,” said Seibold. “That meant there was all kinds of talent there that was not getting the same kind of opportunity because of this persistent bias on the part of publishers. I thought that meant I’d be able to find better writers in that community than I would have from other communities.” It was a gamble that paid off.