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The truth about writing careers in Chicago - and a call to action


As this is a blog specifically about Chicago writing careers, it seemed appropriate to take a moment to delve into the literary landscape for writers. As local writers know (and as recent grads and recent transplants are rapidly discovering), that Chicago is a hub for educational publishing, trade publishing, and associations. The writers that make up local groups such as the Independent Writers of Chicago (IWOC) and the Midwest Writers Association (MWA) are technical writers, medical writers, journalists, copy editors, and jacks of all trades. They’ve written for non-profits, ad agencies, PR companies, hospitals, medical information and technology companies, technical manual developing companies, and oh so much more.

Many of them are night-time poets and weekend novelists; some have published non-fiction books in their area of freelance writing expertise. Many of them have resumes trailing out the door. Jobs in traditional trade book publishing can be hard to find in this city, especially these days, though the Chicagoland area is home to several independent publishers (some well-hidden) including Sourcebooks, Albert Whitman & Co, Lake Claremont, Academy Chicago, Ivan R. Dee Publishers, and of course, the university publishers: Northwestern University, University of Chicago, and Loyola Press, to name a few.

Chicago media, unsteady though it is these days, is more diversified than a first glance may reveal. There are the Tribune Company, the Sun Times, magazines like Chicago and Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Reporter, Poetry Magazine, and a handful of independent publications as well.
Online (the new frontier of media and the new home of book reviews) there are several strong literary bases. Bookslut, Literago, and La Bloga. Local celebrities like Donna Seaman and Victoria Lautman have their own distinct niche in the Chicago publishing scene, helpfully backed by the Chicago Public Radio and the Chicago Public Library’s monumental efforts to keep Chicago reading and more importantly, cultured.

However, despite this seemingly healthy list, the literary industry in Chicago is in crisis.

Many argue that crisis is everywhere, especially where publishing is concerned, but it simply isn’t true. International literary centers like London reflect the tighter budgets of a disappointing economy, but publishing there is far from the danger of extinction. Though it’s taken a devastating hit from the economy and the challenge of integrating electronic components into a print-centric business model, the publishing industry in New York is built on a foundation of literary bedrock and is rapidly evolving to adapt to this new climate.

And then we look at Chicago. The marketplace is flooded with freelance writers, journalists, editors. The largest media company has filed bankruptcy. Independent book publishers are clinging on and weathering the rough tide, but only for as long as people continue to buy their books.

What, then, is the solution? The Department of Cultural Affairs’ Publishing Program has hosted literary events and industry networking functions which certainly help somewhat to developing a centralized and united front, but it cannot create jobs for thousands of unemployed literary professionals.
What can create these jobs? Traditionally speaking, the answer would be groups of talented, motivated individuals gathering together under the umbrella of “start-up” with a catchy name, a phone line, and a mission. How can these unemployed literary professionals band together to provide a needed service at a reasonable cost? There is certainly no lack of talent in Chicago. What we may lack is a vehicle for it.
As the first few paragraphs of this article prove, Chicago has a diverse literary marketplace. Yes, it’s in crisis, but every one of these organizations needs something, whether it’s book publicists for self-published authors or clean-up editors for association high-priority materials. If we’re to learn from our past, many of the most successful companies were formed during economic recessions. Some of them, according to, include Hyatt, Burger King, FedEx, General Electric and Microsoft.

It’s the familiar swan song of Bedford Falls. Shop locally, save your local economy. Keep the big guys out and keep your neighbors employed. But the literary economy depends on readers. Buy books, buy newspapers, buy magazines, and most importantly, encourage your peers, your colleagues, your neighbors, and your children to read. Finally, to the unemployed and freelancing literary experts, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Prove to me what Chicago’s talent and entrepreneurial spirit can achieve. It's time for a change.