With Chicago's great jazz festival unfolding this weekend, it's a great time to direct your attention to Agate Digital's newest ebook release, Portraits in Jazz, a collection of pieces by the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich, which Howard himself recently announced in a wonderful feature in the Tribune. We loved Howard's idea to put Ella Fitzgerald on the cover--a great way to recognize the underappreciated contribution women have made to this music.


Swearing at the office

One thing we always tell new interns at Agate is that the staff people here are fairly unrestrained when it comes to profanity. This article has some interesting things to say about the whole phenomenon of swearing at work, but doesn't go into great depth as to how profanity--who uses it, when they use it, why they use it--affects the office environment at large. We try to be reasonably judicious about this kind of thing--usually, it's deployed as an effective means of releasing one's frustration with a difficult set of circumstances--but I find myself of two minds about it. Agate is a pretty informal place, and I hope it's a place where people feel comfortable saying what they think. But in an informal workplace, it can often be difficult for new people (especially those new to the workforce overall) to get a good feel for the unwritten rules that shape office culture. It's important for people to learn where the boundaries are--whether one is inclined to push those boundaries or to ensure one steers clear of them all together. After 30 years of contemplating these things, I find it's typically better to default to discretion and good manners, if not outright formality, when it comes to oral communication, and we encourage new people here to keep that in mind--even as we let them know that on occasion they might overhear some ear-melting invective issuing from a few desks over (and maybe even mine). Like most matters of language usage and communication, whether you use profanity is all about knowing your audience.


The four-day work week


Charlie Trotter Day

The legacy lives on. Learn more about the highs and lows of the chef who transformed Chicago dining, and whose work helped shape culinary culture across the US.


Meet O.H. Bennett

The new novel by O.H. Bennett, Recognition, was just released by our Bolden imprint a few weeks ago. It's already earned high praise from Publishers Weekly, and we think it's a terrific summer read--a twisty, engrossing story about a woman who, while passing a panhandler in her car, thinks she recognizes the face of the long-lost husband she's believed dead for the past decade. Below find a brief Q&A we did with Bennett, the author of four novels (two published by Agate Bolden) who lives outside Washington DC.

O.H. BennettWhat inspired you to write Recognition?

Recognition came from two ideas merging. One came from an article I’d read about a woman whose husband had disappeared. She never learned if he had been murdered or just walked away. I saw another news story about a mother who’d abandoned her family; she dropped her kids off at school, turned the car down the school driveway, and then kept going. Her family didn’t hear of her again for a dozen years. That sets you to wondering why people choose to kill their own lives. I walk to work from Union Station down the streets of DC and see the homeless, some sleeping under plastic tarps, some engrossed in conversation with what looks to the rest of us like air. We’ve all wondered how they got there, what it would take for us to be there. I imagined, what if I saw a homeless person one day and knew exactly who he was?

How did writing this book compare to your previous works?

This story stayed in my head without more than a sentence or two being put on paper for a very long time, years in fact. Then suddenly it wanted to be written and all other projects were pushed to the side. I think this book is a faster read than my other books. There’s only one viewpoint in Recognition and it zooms, or so my wife says.

Did you do any research for the book?

The research was conducted in pieces over a long period of time. It entailed volunteering in a soup kitchen, speaking with homeless individuals, and knowing of people who have vanished. I’ve seen homeless men cleaning up in the bathrooms of libraries and sitting on the same street corners day after day. I have known of people who drop out and fall off the radar as Warren Reynolds did. One always wonders how people get that point.

Who have been some of your own writing influences?

I have a host of favorite authors, but to the extent that they’ve influenced my work, I don’t know. I sure hope so. I am an admirer of the works of Edward P. Jones, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Bausch, and Ernest J. Gaines.

What’s next for you?

I hope ghosts are next. I’ve written a ghost story in which we find that ghosts, like the proverbial sound of a tree falling in the woods, need receptors in order to really exist. Someone has to make them real. I guess we choose, in this way, whether to be haunted or not. And I’ve also begun the biggest project of my writing life—but it is in the first trimester and so it is much too early to make any announcements. I believe in jinxes when it comes to novel writing.


James Brown, American genius

When I was editing the first book ever published by Agate, Jill Nelson's electrifying Sexual Healing, Jill and I spoke frequently, and reverently, of the unique power of James Brown's work, and the depth of his influence on American music. This terrific video from Slate illustrates, joyously, the impact of Brown's work as a dancer--which should be recognized as every bit as significant as his impact as a musician and bandleader. I am very happy that the new film Get On Up is bringing Brown's work the spotlight it deserves. There should be a national James Brown Day for celebrating his achievement.

 james brown 01


Rick Kogan on Chicago gangsters

Yes, it's a cliche, Rick Kogan of the Tribune says, but Chicago's association with violent gangsters in the public imagination seems immutable. Kogan has graciously contributed a foreword to our upcoming Tribune collaboration Gangsters & Grifters, which is coming in November and which is a followup of sorts to last year's Capone. These collections of archival, often rare or never-before-published photos from the 20s, 30s, and 40s bring that association to vivid, often grisly life.


On Sardinia, writing, and eating

The New York Times ran a lovely article about D.H. Lawrence's travels in Sardinia a few weekends back, and I've been meaning to share it here ever since reading it. Sardinia is a remarkable little place with a unique culture and history--as I learned when we decided to publish Viktorija Todorovska's IACP Award-nominated The Sardinian Cookbook last year.

Viktorija TodorovskaLike all of Viktorija's books, this one illuminates the traditions and landscapes of her subject while first focusing on its food. If you like this amusing article's story of how a present-day writer followed in Lawrence's footsteps while visiting Sardinia (in which I also learned that many of the classic 1960s spaghetti westerns were filmed in Sardinia), I hope you will like The Sardinian Cookbook, for what it has to say about this special Mediterranean island.

And yet somehow it has retained its thorny, intransigent, particularity--"lost between Europe and Africa, and belonging to nowhere," as Lawrence put it. It's that very betweeness, at once central and marginal to history, that drew him.


The Green City Market Cookbook

One of my favorite projects from Agate this summer is the first-ever cookbook from Chicago's famed Green City Market, a beloved local fixture that's earned national renown for how it unites regional farmers, restaurants, and shoppers through their commitment to great sustainable produce. The cookbook seems to be everywhere this week, with terrific features in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, and on WTTW and WGN television. Green City is debuting the book at its big annual barbecue fundraiser (featuring no fewer than 100 chefs from around the region) on Thursday, July 17, but this is a book that should be delighting cooks, food lovers, Chicagoans, and others all year round. Green City is a terrific institution, not least for the ways it's galvanized a remarkable community of diverse customers and vendors, and we're very proud to have helped create this wonderful new book.


Publishers Weekly loves Recognition 

Posted this weekend--the first big review for Recognition, the terrific new novel coming out later this month from O.H. Bennett:

This engaging literary thriller from Bennett (Creatures Here Below) chronicles a single mother's struggles to come to grips with the mysterious disappearance of her husband. Fourth-grade math teacher Dana Reynolds, from a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C., returns home from work one night and spots a panhandler who closely resembles her missing husband, Warren. Nine years before, in 2002, the interracial couple had a serious car accident by running off the road into a river. Dana survived, but the authorities never recovered Warren's body. At the time of the accident, Dana was pregnant with her son, Franklin, the result of her brief affair with the PE teacher Steve. After the accident, Dana still clashes with her angry mother-in-law, Maureen, who is stricken with cancer, and Warren's bossy older sister, Ness. The in-laws refuse to believe Warren is dead, blocking Dana from collecting his much-needed $120,000 life insurance policy. While caring for her "bookworm" son Franklin, Dana enlists the aid of a homeless woman Jessie, and they search the local shelters and soup kitchens for the panhandler Dana believes is Warren. Further conflict comes in the form of a stalker named Doug Peel. Bennett ratchets up the tension, and delivers satisfying revelations at the climax, revealing a humane and intriguing story of personal redemption.


New site for Fred Cook's Improvise

Check out this witty and engaging website devoted to the new release Improvise, written by the witty and engaging Fred Cook, Agate's first author/CEO (of PR powerhouse Golin). One of the reasons I like this book so much is because its message, about the value of improvising one's way through a variety of life and work experiences, seems so pertinent today, when too many young people believe their careers should proceed as if on rails, from one fixed station to another. It certainly resonates with me in terms of my own stop-start progress through life. It's a great gift for a new grad, or for all those new grads' anxious parents.


Bridget Albert's Market-Fresh Mixology on WBEZ

Bridget Albert, author of Market-Fresh Mixology, discusses her farm-to-bar philosophy and how she got into bartending in this terrific interview with WBEZ.


Visit Agate at the 30th Annual Printers Row Lit Fest

The sun is finally shining, the lakefront beaches are filling up, and here at Agate, we’re gathering books together to take down to the South Loop. Yes, it’s time for the 30th annual Printers Row Lit Fest, put on every year by our friends at the Chicago Tribune. Agate will be in tent  “AA” again, on Dearborn St. near the intersection with Polk, and right across from Sandmeyer’s Bookstore at 714 S Dearborn St. Come by to check out our new books for Spring 2014, peruse through our backlist titles (all on sale!), and say hi.

A number of Agate authors will be at the Fest as well, demonstrating recipes or giving talks. They will be signing copies of their books in the Agate tent a half hour after their program concludes. Here’s an annotated schedule:


10 AM, Good Eating Stage – Paula Haney, author of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie, will be demonstrating her famed Hoosier Mama Sugar Cream Pie and Rhubarb Pie, along with basics of making pie dough.

10 AM, TribNation Stage – Stephan Benzkofer and Mark Jacob, co-authors of 10 Things You Might Not Know About Nearly Everything will amaze you with a fascinating assortment of odd factoids and tidbits, including many about Chicago history and culture.

12 PM, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034 -- Robin Daughtridge, Chicago Tribune associate managing editor of photography and video and author of Capone: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Most Notorious Gangster, in conversation with author Jonathan Eig. Images will be shown.

12:30 PM, TribNation Stage – Join Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mary Schmich in conversation with fellow Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, discussing her recently published column collection, Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now.


11 AM, Good Eating Stage – We’re publishing The Green City Market Cookbook in July, but in the meantime, you can join Beth Eccles of Green Acres Farm, Rita Gutekanst of Limelight Catering, and Green City Market board member Elizabeth Richter, all of whom are either vendors or serve on the Market’s board. They will be appearing in conversation with Tribune Food Editor Joe Gray.

11 AM, RedEye Stage – Agate’s own Doug Seibold will discuss the statue of the publishing industry after digital disruption and the future of the industry, along with other local booksellers and indie publishers.

2 PM, Center Stage – Bill Hageman, one of the editors of the fun and informative book Life Skills, which provides detailed illustrated instructions for tasks from the most random to most practical, will be appearing on a panel with Colson Whitehead and Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Mark Bazer, founder of The Interview Show at the Hideout and co-host of WTTW’s My Chicago, will be moderating.

2:30 PM, Good Eating Stage – James P. DeWan takes both experienced and novice chefs back to basics in his book Prep School, demonstrating some kitchen techniques that every cook should know.

3:30 PM, Good Eating Stage – Take a trip to the dazzling Provence region of France (home to Cannes, Marseilles, and famous rosé wine), with Viktorija Todorovska and François Millo, authors of Provence Food and Wine: The Art of Living.

3:30 PM, Jones College Prep/Classroom #5034 – CNBC senior producer Lori Ann LaRocco (author of Opportunity Knocking) and global PR firm GolinHarris CEO Fred Cook (author of Improvise) discuss the secrets of the C-Suite with moderator and Chicago Tribune business columnist Melissa Harris.



Indian for Everyone preorder promotions from author Anupy Singla

This October, Agate Surrey is very pleased to be publishing Indian for Everyone, the new book by Anupy Singla, author of the bestelling The Indian Slow Cooker and Vegan Indian Cooking. Below is a message from Anupy regarding preorder promotions that she is sponsoring:

We're just five months away from the official release of my third book, Indian for Everyone, and I predict that this is going to be an amazing summer. Why? Because we are going to party--Indian style. There's a lot to celebrate.

Free books: I'll be giving away a free signed copy of either The Indian Slow Cooker or Vegan Indian Cooking for every 500 new "Likes" on my Facebook Fan page and on my blog as well.

Free spice blends: I'm also so excited to start giving away samples of my latest product offering--custom Indian spice blends from Chana to Tandoori Masala. You are going to love them. I'll be running promotions on them soon. In the meantime, you are a click away from experimenting with them.

Free gorgeous PDF: My favorite promotion of all? The gorgeous PDF my publisher and I have put together for all of you just for pre-ordering my third book. It's yours--just for pre-ording. (Thank you to everyone that already has--you will receive an email with your exlusive password next week.) In this eleven-page spread you'll get a one-pager of your key Indian spices with pictures, the same for legumes, a tutorial on sprouting, and some extra recipes that have not made it into any books yet. I also included a delicious mango lassi recipe. You can get this previous only by pre-ordering, so get to it!

I realize, after dedicating the last five years to writing cookbooks and recipes, that it takes a village to help spread the word and sell books. YOU are all a part of my village. I hope you will all help by purchasing at least one copy of Indian for Everyone...or maybe even two. Its release (October 2014) is timed perfectly for the holidays and Diwali. It's hardcover with pictures that will just blow your mind. They are absolutely gorgeous--not to mention functional. I have step-by-step process shots on how to make roti, makki ki roti, and samosas. This WILL be your go-to Indian cookbook.

So, go ahead. Get clicking, so I can get cooking on some more promos and more fun ways to get us both in the kitchen prepping gorgeously delicious Indian meals at once healthy and authentic.

xoxo Anupy


"A junkyard of the mind"


"To become a better writer, I first had to become a better person."

A terrific essay from the New York Times about the pain involved in receiving truly useful criticism of one's writing. As the late, great Harold Washington liked to say of politics, it ain't beanbag.


Q.&A. with Anna Blessing about Locally Brewed

For all you beer lovers out there: recently Agate published Locally Brewed, the second book we've done with double-threat Anna Blessing, the talented young journalist/photographer whose first book for Agate was Locally Grown. Where that book focused on the sustainable farmers growing food for the Midwest's leading restaurants, her new book centers on the exploding craft beer movement here in the heart of America's traditional brewing culture. Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and neighboring states (there's a pretty well known brewer in nearby St. Louis, for instance) are home to some of America's most established brewers, but the craft-beer insurgency that started on the coasts has exploded here over the past decade. Here's Anna:

Why did you want to write Locally Brewed?

It felt like a natural progression from the project I had just finished, Locally Grown, to look at another fast-growing local movement in the Midwest: craft beer. Beyond simply enjoying craft beer as a consumer, I like to think that it’s in my blood. My great, great, great grandfather, John Stenger, opened the Stenger Brewery with his brother in Naperville, Illinois, in 1848. I see today’s local breweries as a continuation of what our ancestors started when they first settled in towns across the Midwest, brewing beer and opening local pubs where friends and family would gather.

It is a remarkable thing to meet the people who craft something we consume this way, to understand the process and appreciate the work they do. This is a common thread through much of my past work, including Locally Grown; I am interested in the stories of the people, how they got to where they are, and how they do what they do. The brewers I met along the way were creative, innovative people who had taken anything but a well-grooved path. It is their stories that excite me.

What do you think has been the driving forces behind this return to locally produced beer and cider?

The local food movement and the ever-increasing public interest in food have certainly influenced it. While there have been brewers and drinkers passionate about craft beer for decades, it has become more widespread as more people have gained a greater awareness of food and food culture. And chefs have helped with that; restaurants now put together beer menus as intentional as food menus and wine lists.

There are more opportunities to taste craft beer, and consumers notice the difference. When you start tasting locally grown food, it is easy to appreciate the differences in flavor immediately. It’s fresher because it doesn’t have as far to travel, the farmers are choosing varieties based on flavor and diversity, and it’s grown in nutrient-dense soils—all of these factors improve the taste of locally grown produce. It’s the same with craft beer—the fresher the better. Contrary to how we often think of beer, it’s a perishable product and needs to be kept at an even, cold temperature. Craft brewers are seeking out better-quality ingredients, which often means Midwestern-grown ingredients. They visit hops farmers in the fall to hand-select hops, they explore a variety of flavors and styles with their recipes, and they have the ability to brew something different or unusual, often in small batches and served only at the brewery’s brew pub.

There is something very special about sitting at a brewpub where the beer was made on-site, and getting to meet the owners or brewers, the actual people who made the beer you’re drinking. I think people are naturally drawn to that kind of experience, and luckily more people have more opportunities than ever to do that.

What struck you most as you traveled around to all these different breweries?

The convivial community of brewers. The people themselves, equal parts artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The incredible amount of time and hard work they put into their businesses. The passion they have for the work they do.

I love that there is something so inherently simple and straightforward about beer: that it is made of malt, hops, and yeast, but that there are endless variations and flavors and styles that can be created, depending on the addition of specialty ingredients, changes in brewing times and temperatures and fermenting, and on the tastes of the individual brewer. Beer-making uses so much industrial-scale equipment, the breweries are in some ways factory-like spaces of steel and glass. But it all starts with the seed of an idea, to create something no one else has done, or to work to do it better than anyone else. It is, at the end of the day, very much a hand-crafted product.

Your previous book, Locally Grown, looked at the farm-to-table movement, focusing on independent farmers. Are there any similarities between how the breweries and the farmers operate in terms of competing against large corporations?

While there was a drastic difference between walking through fields of corn and grazing goats, talking to farmers who spend the majority of their time outdoors, to being surrounded by stainless steel fermenters and copper brewhouses and talking to brewers who toil inside their industrial warehouses making beer, the similarities between the two disciplines were striking.

I often refer to the farmers I wrote about as being artisans; it takes an art, along with a craft and skill, to do what they do. It is the same with the brewers. There is so much science to brewing beer, but the science can be learned. The art is what makes beer truly exceptional. Craft brewing brings the industrial process of making beer down to a human scale, allowing brewers to create original—sometimes crazy!—recipes, commissioning artists to design labels, and hosting events to bring everyone together. It becomes an art form as much as a commodity. That is something the big breweries can never compete against. They might also never think to brew a beer inspired by a 100 Grand candy bar, as Dark Horse did, or try to recreate an authentic Sumerian beer free of anachronism—and therefore not use refrigeration, or any electricity at all—like Great Lakes is doing.

Craft beer still makes up an incredibly small market share of the beer industry. But as long as they continue to make high-quality beer, and to grow in thoughtful and controlled ways, they should continue to thrive.


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.