More congratulations to Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward, literary superstar and Agate author (we published her debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, in 2008) is assuming a major new position at Tulane University in New Orleans, near her home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Tulane could not have made a more worthy choice for this endowed professorship.


Is reading anti-social?

Laura Miller of Salon says yes, probably, in this look at how various "social reading" apps have failed to excite significant reader interest. I am with Laura, not only about the necessarily solitary aspect of reading itself (as opposed to the almost-as-pleasurable practice of discussing what one has read), but also about the related one-to-one nature of the author-reader relationship. I believe most of us are uninterested in "participating" in stories or contributing to the directions they take, as one does in, say, video games. That's a different medium and a different experience. And reading fiction and other narrative work is very different than the reading one does for the purpose of gathering information. Reading stories is all about that unique encounter with the imagination and expression of the writer. The solitary aspect of this encounter is not a bug, it's a feature--the feature of the reading experience.


Graywolf and small press publishing

The excellent online journal Guernica has done a terrific long interview with Fiona McRae, the publisher at Graywolf Press, who has a lot of very sensible and insightful things to say about small-press publishing as it's practiced at companies very much like Agate.

My boss when I worked in London—someone who’d published Booker Prize winners, remember—used to say that two-thirds of publishing is about failure. I agree with that: it’s the nature of the business. And yet publishing is an industry that keeps attracting to it, in various ways, people who want it to be two-thirds about success.There are dozens of obstacles to any given book succeeding. If a book succeeds it always does so against the odds. The odds in one generation might relate to the fact that people would rather be watching television than reading your book. The odds in the next generation might be that they’d rather be on their computer than reading your book. Once it was that people would rather be riding a bicycle than reading your book. It doesn’t do any good to be talking, as an author or publisher, about the obstacles. There are better uses of energy, I think. Yes, we can all feel helpless and wary in this industry sometimes, but it’s better, as a publisher, to look at the ways in which e-books and Twitter and so on can help us reach new readers, rather than treating social media as an enemy to literature.


Laurie Colwin on food and cooking

It was a very sentimental occasion to see this recent indication that the work of Laurie Colwin is finding new waves of younger readers. I have immoderately sentimental feelings about Colwin and her work; her novel Another Marvelous Thing was the subject of my very first professional publication after I came to Chicago, and I had a brief correspondence with her before her untimely death. I later had a chance to meet her husband, Juris Jurjevics, himself a writer and also a terrific publisher. Her books about food are terrific, but her fiction is even better.


Ukraine, Crimea, and Risk Rules

From Agate's Zach Rudin: While most days at Agate are spent with noses pressed close to grindstones, we occasionally feel the need to look up and see what's going on in the world.

Luckily, Sam Wilkin, co-author of our B2 title Risk Rules and head of business research at Oxford Economics, has lent his expertise to the ongoing conversation about the Crimean peninsula. He and the book's lead author, Marvin Zonis, have written several insightful pieces on the situation's global impact

Below, we're sharing one piece by Mr. Wilkin. Much is often made of who is "winning" in foreign policy, and we think this post provided a unique take worth considering.

Intervention in Ukraine reflects Russia’s weakness, not strength
Following Russia’s de facto ‘invasion’ of Crimea there has been a great deal of navel-gazing commentary regarding the “weakness” of the West. Some say the EU is impotent; others say the US lost Ukraine; others that the Obama administration is weak.

These comments reflect an astonishing lack of even short-term memory.

The most obvious point first: it is not the US or EU that has lost Ukraine, it is Russia. Until protesters toppled Ukraine’s government, the contest for Ukraine was in the main a soft-power contest. The EU offered Ukraine a trade agreement (a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, DCFTA, in the jargon); Russia offered a Customs Union as an alternative. (Admittedly, Russia’s approach was not 100% soft, as the Customs Union offer was coupled with threats of goods embargoes and energy price hikes.)

Until recently, it appeared that Russia had won. The Customs Union was indeed an attractive package. Signing it would probably have been economically beneficial for Ukraine (although, over the long term, the EU deal would have been much better). Yet Ukrainian premier Yanukovych, after a good deal of wavering, announced that he would sign the Russian deal. Perhaps his oligarch backers (reportedly including men such as Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash, and Andriy Klyuyev) feared the legal and governance reforms that would accompany the EU deal. Perhaps Russia’s economic threats and bailout offer were persuasive given Ukraine’s precarious economic position.

That moment, in early 2014, when Yanukovych sided with Russia, was the high point of Putin’s success. But then Ukraine’s (relatively small) middle-class rose up in the “Euromaidan” people power protest movement that toppled the government.

And thus in a few short months Russia’s success turned into failure. This was by no means a foregone conclusion. But the final calculation is inescapable. Without offering bailouts, without making economic threats, and without military power in play, the EU had trumped Russia’s offer. This is a stunning verdict on the limits of Russian power in its own backyard, as well as a striking illustration of how effective soft power can be.

Russia’s military intervention in Crimea is not some brilliant counterstroke--it is a desperate gambit that makes this failure permanent. Putin might have hoped, in months to come, to win back Ukraine via subterfuge or further economic incentives. A new government is due to be elected, and pro-Russian candidates (such as Yanukovych) have won free and fair national elections in Ukraine before.

This is now off the table. Any soft power Russia had in Ukraine has been thoroughly destroyed. Ukraine’s oligarchs, including Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man, have lined up to denounce Russia, and some are taking positions in the country’s transitional administration (including in relatively pro-Russian Donetsk). The only way Russia might regain Ukraine now is via outright military conquest of the country as a whole, which is profoundly unlikely as it would be bloody.

Indeed, just how humiliating a loss this is for Russia is worth contemplating. The games in Sochi were intended to demonstrate Russia’s burgeoning resource wealth and its resurgent state power. And yet, with only days elapsed, Russia has sacrificed all of this, and any international goodwill, in a desperate bid to hold Ukraine.

So why did Putin decide to take this option?

The best-case scenario for Russia at this point is to retain influence in Crimea (presumably by having the region elect to break off from Ukraine, and perhaps join Russia’s Customs Union). But this is by no means a foregone conclusion. While the majority-ethnic-Russian population of Crimea seems, on balance, to back Russia’s action, or at least to have acquiesced, unrest is possible and would be difficult to manage. The international community is rallying against Russia, and Western Ukraine will do all it can to foil this initiative.
It is, in sum, a high-risk gamble. That Putin has taken this tactic certainly suggests how deeply and personally humiliating it is for him to have lost Ukraine, and sacrificed any goodwill from Sochi, so soon after the Olympics. His best hope is, by engineering an independent Crimea, to turn the loss of Ukraine into a partial win.

It is, in short, the kind of gamble that reflects Russia’s weakness, not its strength.


Monica Pedersen's big new gig

Coming soon, according to the Chicago Tribune, from the author of Make It Beautiful--a high-profile role as one of the judges on NBC's new home-design reality show.


2014 IACP Cookbook Awards


We're thrilled to announce that two Agate cookbooks have been nominated for the 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Awards. The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and Culture of a Mediterranean Island by Viktorija Todorovska is nominated in the Culinary Travel category. Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques by James P. DeWan is nominated in the Compilations category.

The winners will be announced March 15th at the IACP's annual conference, taking place this year in Chicago. Congratulations to both authors!


The IRS and Zane

An in-depth story about the major tax woes afflicting the leading writer and publisher of black erotica, who amassed a huge following well before the Fifty Shades phenomenon. I'm not a fan of Zane's writing, but I've always admired how she built her career. This is a story I'll be following.

Author and publisher Zane is in deep with the IRS, according to the Washington Post


Understanding Amazon

Everyone interested in business, media, technology, and publishing should read this excellent article by Matthew Yglesias of Slate, a very keen-eyed Amazon observer, on how Amazon's profile as a fairly unique publicly held stock shapes its ever-evolving and ever-expanding identity as "the everything store."


Hoosier Mama--not just great pie

...but also, according to Chicago magazine, the best scone in town. "Sheer perfection."


Where Agate books can end up 

From Agate's Anjali Becker: "This might be the most amusing mention of one of our books ever."

Where Warren Buffet meets Chairman Mao


At long last--what we're drinking

You may have heard that the weather in and around Chicago has been a little polar in character over the past several weeks, and our blog has languished while we devoted more of our energies to shoveling, salting, and scraping. But we're about dug out here--helped in large part by plentiful pots of Metropolis coffee, our preferred purveyor. Today's grind is a single-origin bean from Brazil with the evocative name of "Mariano Peaberry." Recommended!


Agate and the holidays

Agate's offices are officially closed December 24, December 25, December 31, and January 1, and for the rest of this week and a good part of next week, we'll be running with a skeleton crew. We wish everyone a happy holiday season.


David Byrne on what artists need to know about business

A nice little intro via Salon to the work David Byrne has been doing about how artists--whether musicians like Byrne, or writers, painters, what have you--need to better understand the basic means by which their work is produced, distributed and sold, especially as these means change so rapidly.

David Byrne wants you to understand where the money goes

Byrne's message resonates here at Agate. Every six months, I spend a few hours talking to our interns about the basic business structures of publishing and how they function, and why they (and everyone involved in this work) should care. This has a lot to do with my interest in the wonderful Elaine Grogan Luttrull's extremely useful book Arts and Numbers: A Financial Guide for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Other Members of the Creative Class, which Agate B2 published in the spring.

Elaine Grogan Luttrull wants you to understand what to do with moneyAnyone hoping to make a living out of their art should pay attention to these kinds of basic information resources. Here at Agate, I feel the more writers know and understand about the businesses of agenting, publishing, bookselling, and the like, the better off they'll be in navigating their careers.


Tribune holiday book event

Regular visitors to this space are surely aware of Agate's publishing partnership with the Chicago Tribune, which has flowered over the past two years into an array of both stand-alone ebooks (roughly 50 published to date) and six newly published print titles. As part of the Tribune's TribNation live event series, Agate and the Tribune are co-sponsoring a large-scale author event featuring the authors and editors behind these new books, to be held at Open Books, 213 W. Institute Place, #207, in Chicago, on Monday, December 9, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Chicago Tribune Foundation and Open Books’ ongoing programs promoting literacy in Chicago. Guests can find great holiday gifts, meet celebrated Tribune authors like Amy Dickinson, Mary Schmich, and James P. DeWan, and contribute to the great work of these charitable organizations. We hope to see you there.


Amy Dickinson and Ask Amy

This wonderful article in the New York Times updates the wedding announcement from five years ago of Amy Dickinson, the beloved Chicago Tribune advice columnist. Can anyone's personal life be held up to more skeptical evaluation than that of an advice columnist? I think Amy Dickinson has handled this challenge with uncommon equanimity. We are very pleased to be the publishers of Ask Amy, the first-ever collection of her syndicated columns, as part of our relationship with the Tribune.


Jesmyn Ward, The Toast

A terrific new interview with the terrific Jesmyn Ward, by the thoughtful and provocative Roxane Gay, can be found at The Toast.


Agate's 10th anniversary

Yes, it's been ten years, hard as it is to believe. It's gone by fast. Thank you to our friends at Publishers Weekly for taking notice.


Literary fiction and empathy

So nice to see Jesmyn Ward quoted by NPR regarding its coverage of this study on how reading literary fiction increases one's sense of empathy:

"'s amazing to me that a study like this shows that people are seeing these characters and can empathize with them and sympathize with them. It makes me feel like what I'm trying to do is working."


Paris Review interviews Kiese Laymon

Agate has done its best break Kiese Laymon big this past summer, releasing his first novel and an essay collection almost simultaneously. It's pieces like this one  that make you feel the push is really having an effect.