In a time of growing distrust of both public institutions and one another in America, storytelling might just be the remedy. Stories, according to Martha Bayne, senior editor at Belt Publishing, have “powerful ways of connecting with people [and] of building trust.” But when the five largest publishing companies in the U.S. are in New York City—the “Big Five”—it’s no surprise that the stories and the storytellers of other, less sought-after regions feel the need to fill a void. And Belt Publishing, an independent publisher based in Cleveland that focuses on stories about and for the Rust Belt and Midwest, has taken on that challenge.
“We are interested in creating work that speaks to people here about the truth of their experience and […] that treats their experience with respect and nuance,” Bayne said.
It’s a mission that makes them unique to a certain degree, considering the industry’s concentration on the coasts and its tendencies to flatten the Midwest with stereotypes of “resentful underemployed steel workers, reactionary rednecks, uninformed rural voters…” as Bayne said.
Which stories get to be told and how they are told, however, are not new issues in the publishing industry at large. For example, reckonings over race and diversity have erupted in newsrooms and at magazines in recent months as some employees and consumers call for more equitable handling of stories. And while publishing may not be receiving as much public attention as other media industries, as Jessica Case, deputy publisher of Pegasus Books, said in an interview, “There’s a big kind of reckoning with diversity and publishing.”
Pegasus Books is an independent publisher based in New York, and Case is originally from Michigan.
“I think there’s probably still some work to be done as far as looking at geographic diversity,” Case said. “I think in the Midwest in particular, it is kind of this great melting pot that a lot of people, I think, don’t appreciate. You know, people have kind of a very narrow view of the Midwest…It’s very white, lots of corn and football and mayonnaise and all that kind of stuff. But actually, the Midwest is a very diverse place.”
At the same time however, Case sees an interesting and exciting development emerging in the publishing industry of “people whose voices and maybe appearance and stories and the tradition they come from [that] don’t kind of match that” stereotype. And some of this development can be attributed to the work Belt Publishing has been doing since it was founded in 2013.
Anne Trubek is the founder and publisher of Belt Publishing, and in an interview she said that it all started with an anthology about Cleveland, adding that she “really enjoyed the experience” and “just sort of decided to keep doing more of them.” Since then, she has been “trying to tell the stories of the people who live here primarily for those people who live here.”
“It’s not about trying to show other outsiders the real truth. It’s about telling stories that are worth being told to an audience of people with whom it may—it will—resonate,” Trubek said.
Belt Publishing’s mission to print stories about the Midwest primarily for its residents is fairly different from how bigger, more corporate publishers seem to have approached the region, especially in the last couple of years.
“I certainly think that after the 2016 election when the narrative by the mainstream media was that the Rust Belt went for Trump, there was a sudden uptick—an interest—in books about the Rust Belt by publishers because the idea would be that all the liberal readers would want to better understand this region that went for Trump, and why that happened,” Trubek said.
Trubek pushed back against this perspective on the region, finding it problematic. For one, she said, that the divisive election results of 2016 were entirely due to the Rust Belt “was just sort of a created narrative.”
As talking about the Midwest and the Rust Belt states became trendy, Trubek saw larger publishers catching on.
“It definitely does show a little bit of the chasing trends that you see a lot in Big Five publishing that those books were suddenly greenlit after Trump’s election.”
In some ways, larger publishers’ approach to Midwestern stories is often comparable to the practice of parachute journalism—reporting on a place with little to no prior knowledge of the place or its people. Trubek views this approach as the result of the “homogenization of an industry” and said that publishing tends to be full of people with “shared experiences and interest that dominates in the industry.”
Trubek attributes the homogeneity of the publishing industry to—like most other industries—its closed networks of people that have led to publishing becoming “very, very insular and provincial, as it becomes more and more corporate and centered in one location.”
Still, Belt Publishing’s mission is in part to push against this homogeneity in publishing and its effects on how the Midwest’s stories are told. Trubek, however, clarified that Belt Publishing’s “goal is not to say, ‘Hey, think about it differently!’” Rather, its goal “is simply to publish great books that by their existence make that argument.”
It’s a sentiment Bayne echoed when she said that these stories “speak really widely to a lot of people’s experience in the United States…They actually do speak across regional boundaries.”
At first glance, the books that have been written and published and put on our bookshelves might not seem to play a huge role in shaping a region’s identity. A look under the cover of the publishing industry, however, reveals the effects the industry’s various players have had on the Midwestern narrative for both the region’s residents and outsiders. And considering the industry’s tendencies to flatten a region home to millions of people with old stereotypes that don’t accurately reflect its richness, Bayne said that for the Midwest, “independent publishing in particular has a role to play in […] helping define an identity.”