Discomfort Makes Us Better: 10 Questions with Julie Fain

Julie Fain is one of the cofounders of  Haymarket Books—an independent nonprofit book publisher based in Chicago that publishes work about social justice. A political activist and Brown University alum, she moved to Chicago after graduating from college and took a job as an associate publisher at In These Times, an independent, nonprofit magazine dedicated to advancing democracy and economic justice. In 2001, she started Haymarket Books with Anthony Arnove and Ahmed Shawki, and has worked there since, as a publisher. 

For the June 2020 virtual residency at Antioch University, Fain hosted a seminar entitled Writers at Work: Publishing for Social Justice, where she talked about nonprofit publishers and the world of social justice publishing. Shortly after her visit, Fain answered ten questions about how she got into her profession, the challenges around launching a publishing press at the start of the millennium and how the publishing industry can work to be more inclusive. 

1. I understand you’ve been a political activist for a long time. What did your activism look like before starting Haymarket Books in 2001? 

College was definitely the place where I learned about activism. I became politically active around a number of issues—feminism, racism, the US wars abroad. [College] just sparked a realization that a lot of things I knew weren’t true in the way that I thought they were. I came to think that maybe there was something we could do to make those things better. Maybe there was another side to the history we’d been taught, one that informed the world we live in now. I thought there was a responsibility on the part of people today to do things differently and better. That started in college and then just continued. [My boyfriend and I] moved to Chicago, and there’s a whole world of activism and ways to get involved in a big city like that. 

2. In Chicago, how did communication and books become your activism?

Well, it wasn’t intentional. I got a liberal arts degree but didn’t have a very clear career path. I actually spent a little time working at a nonprofit associated with the university in Providence that did education-related advocacy. So, when I came to Chicago and was looking for work, there was a job at In These Times that required a communications background but also experience with politically progressive ideas and concerns. I happened into that job but didn’t really set out to go into publishing in the way I think some people rightly do.

3. Then, how did you decide to start a book publishing nonprofit with Anthony Arnove and Ahmed Shawki?

Well, we had been working on a magazine project called The International Socialist Review, and I worked on that while simultaneously working on In These Times, in sort of a volunteer capacity. Out of that magazine, we wanted to put together some of the essays that had appeared there in book form. Anthony had come from South End Press; he had been there for a number of years. It was just an idea to see if we could find another format for circulating some of the good political writing we had been doing at the magazine. I think we probably thought there could be a few books collected out of some of that writing. We didn’t know exactly where it would go, we just knew we had interesting political people around us. We were coming into contact with more and more people who were looking at the world in a critical way, and this was another way of communicating with people. 

4. What were some of the challenges you three faced when launching the company?

We did not have any kind of commercial distribution in the beginning, so we didn’t have any particular way of getting books in the bookstores because we didn’t have any track record. We just had one or two books, so we developed a partnership with another press called Pluto Press, who were people we knew from political circles. They published some similar books and they had distribution, so we just co-published those together. We produced the books and sold them to our universe of people, and [Pluto] handled the end of the partnership. I think we did that for five or six books in that very early period, over three or four years.

I learned a lot about book publishing pretty quickly, and we had a lot of connections, both through politics and Anthony’s history in publishing. I think it was in about 2004 that we met with Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, who were the distributors for South End Press. We met with them and agreed to have them distribute our first season of books. We had three or four books at the time , one of which was Dave Zirin’s What’s My Name, Fool? He’s a sports writer, and he was writing early on about the intersection of sports and politics. That was one of the books on our list that did pretty well for us because it hit a nerve. It didn’t take us long to develop deep relationships with new writers and to really learn a lot about the business of publishing. We knew we wanted to say something, and we wanted to have an impact. We got to work with really creative and smart people. It was a lot of fun.

5. What does it mean to be an author-centered press?

For us, what it means is that the relationship between the press and the author is equal. We know that without the author—their knowledge and creativity—we could not do what we do. Our goal is to put their intellectual work out into the world; it’s not just to take a book and sell it and count units. Because the work they’ve created has the potential to move people and change the way people think. When you don’t look at books as units sold, but as deeply creative endeavors that have the potential to change people’s ideas and thinking, that’s a true partnership. We try to take that thinking into all the different phases of the book. 

It starts with having conversations about what we want the book to do. What’s our vision? What’s their vision? How can we help amplify that? So, take something like cover design. We really need to know what the writer’s vision is. We would never say to an author, here’s your cover. That would just never happen. It’s too deeply ingrained in our way of thinking that they know their work the best, and they have spent the time thinking really deeply about who their work is for. We share that thinking, but we know that we can’t think for them. All the way through the process, whether it’s editing, marketing, the kinds of events they want to do. It’s even as elemental as paying royalties and paying them on time. I know a lot of small presses struggle because the financial realities of independent publishing are tough. But for us, it’s always been a principle that we have to pay royalties and pay them on time because that’s a sign of that partnership. 

6. When Haymarket launched, did the mission feel radical to the general public?

Well, I think that most of us have always thought of ourselves as socialists or socialist-adjacent. From the beginning, we published books that had a strand of Marxism or socialist politics; you can see that in a number of our books, although certainly not all. But I think there’s a through line there since the beginning and we see that expansively. An author doesn’t have to say in their book, “I’m for the replacement of capitalism” for it to have a radical view of society and a vision for a different way of organizing the way we live. For us, even publishing poetry is a part of that vision, it’s a part of the imagination, a part of identifying some of the things that are wrong, calling them for what they are and saying it could be different.

We’ve certainly seen change in the last nineteen years in what people understand as socialism and their openness to it. Back when we started, I don’t think we imagined Bernie Sanders getting millions of votes for president as an open socialist. That has been really gratifying and exciting to see. We now see big five publishers publishing books all about socialism. For us, that’s great; it’s validating on the one hand and it also represents a flowering of those ideas, which I think expands the opportunity for everyone. 

7. Sales have been up. Do you think these issues being more in mainstream media has contributed to that?

I think that’s certainly part of it. There are certain social justice issues that are more open and more pressing, especially for younger people, like climate change and anti-racism. We did see a pretty big bump after the Trump election. I think that was driven a lot by both hope and fear—hope that there was something we could do to push back against the Trump agenda and fear that it would really affect people’s lives in a negative way, and it clearly has. There are times when people do turn to books to try to make sense of the world. That was one of those times, that immediate period in 2017 where we were grappling with what seemed like an enormous and frightening situation. There was definitely a hunger for analysis and history and help to understand what was going on in this moment. We released Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough that summer in 2017. I think that book had a big impact for us. 

Publishing Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! or Noam Chomsky, some of the great intellects working today, was part of cementing our position in the left media landscape. 

Publishing Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor during the initial phase of the Black Lives Matter movement was influential. Her book had quite a remarkable impact. It was a book called From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation. What’s interesting about it is that it got no mainstream publicity when it was published in 2016. Zero. It didn’t get a review, left press, moderate press, nothing. But it started to sell just by word of mouth. We were completely blown away. I mean, we knew it was a brilliant book. We knew that it was a book that synthesized and encapsulated this nascent movement and provided an analysis for how to move it forward. We knew that because we loved the book, but we didn’t know exactly how it would catch on, and it did. And it’s one of the books where you can see how many people read it, and we can see in the number of professors who adopted it for their courses, that it was a book that had a really important impact. It continues to sell. Every book we publish that touches on the question of race in America is selling. We’re reprinting as quickly as we can. But actually, what’s interesting for us right now is that we’re seeing an increase in interest for all of our books on all subjects. That was not what we expected at the beginning of the COVID crisis. We definitely thought we might be heading into a really difficult time, as all publishers did. We certainly did not expect the biggest uprising against racial injustice in fifty years to happen in front of us during a pandemic. I think that confluence of events is one of those moments where people are searching for a deeper understanding, and books are a place people turn to in those moments. 

8. You mentioned that Haymarket publishes reprints. Why do you think this is important to do? 

We really love reprints because these are books that would otherwise be lost, but they actually have some really critical historical analysis that can help people today. I think the technology has advanced far enough that they are relatively simple and inexpensive to produce, so you don’t need to see really big sales for them to be cost effective. For example, we did a reprint a couple of years ago of a book called Policing a Class Society. It’s about the origin of the police and how they were designed to maintain class order. But it’s not topical, insofar as it’s not talking about anything modern. It’s a pretty deeply historical book and it’s pretty big, so it’s probably not your first read on the subject, but by bringing a book like that back into circulation, you bring its ideas back into circulation. That’s a service to people who are looking to dig deeper. We can do reprints in print or electronically or both. We try to do both as much as we can. It does sometimes add costs, but you know, people still love print. It’s not going away anytime soon.

9. Quoting you, “The publishing industry needs to do a better job finding voices outside of their own circles.” How does Haymarket Books work to do this? 

We struggle with this, too. There’s no question. In business terms, everyone always talks about how you need to network so you can use connections to get a job or sell a product. That is true in publishing. Authors find agents and publishers through their connections. I don’t think, in principle, that’s always bad, but it’s important to recognize when that’s happening in order to mitigate against that being the only way you meet people, which is why Haymarket typically accepts unsolicited manuscripts. That’s a way of making sure your bubble isn’t closed. We have to have pathways to find editors and to find agents that are not closed to people based on their circumstance, education, or class position. 

Awareness is step one, just acknowledging that those bubbles and circles exist and then being open about your commitment to working to open those pathways up a bit and say, what can we do? How can we be open? How can we use social media to reach people? How can we adjust our editorial process? Or how can we make a point of working with agents who represent writers of color or writers with disabilities? You have to be intentional because those people won’t always just come to you. They won’t always know you’re there. And I’m not saying we at Haymarket have cracked that code. I think that’s something we’re always working on, but we certainly see it as something to be worked on.

10. Do you think the publishing industry as a whole is getting more inclusive? 

I certainly see an awakening of sorts right now. In this moment in particular I see it on the part of people of color in publishing, who I think have been marginalized for a very long time and are gaining confidence to speak up and are seeing openings for that. Maybe this moment will open up some doors, but I think it’s going to be painful for some people to address those realities. I welcome it. It will make some people uncomfortable. But we should be uncomfortable. That’s okay. It will make us better. 

Barbara Platts is an award-winning columnist and the online editor for Sweet Jane Magazine. She’s worked in many forms of journalism, from public radio to newspaper, and is thrilled to be pursuing her MFA for nonfiction writing at Antioch University. She works for Lunch Ticket on the interview, blog, and creative nonfiction teams. She lives in Los Angeles with her fiancé and two adorable pups. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BarbaraPlatts.