PW met George Gibson, president and publisher of Walker & Co., in its offices on Hudson Street. Il Rigoletto was sounding from the art department.
PW:The Oath [a memoir by a Chechen doctor during the Russian-Chechen war] is your lead title this season. How did you come about this book?
George Gibson: I came across it from a literary agency in Boston. I wanted to expand Walker's list in new directions—to take us into the broader realm of memoir as it relates to history and science. Two years later, the proposal was done, and when it came up at auction, we won—and we were the underbidder. Earlier, I had written to [Khassan] Baiev, telling him the effort we would put into publishing his book, and I think that played a role in our signing it on.
PW: You've published such popular books as Longitudes and Measuring America. Do you have similar expectations for The Oath?
GG: I can say what my hopes are, but I won't predict. It's harder now than ever to predict how a book will do. It's an important story, and my hope is to get it into the hands of tens of thousands of people.
PW: Why is it harder to predict?
GG: Because the public is more distracted; there is very little that is national media. At one time, one good review in the New York Times could set a book on its way. Today, it takes a confluence of things—TV, newspapers—to happen.
PW: What can publishers do to help a book?
GG: Actually, it's magical as to what makes books break out—a lot of it is alchemy and luck. Our job as a publisher is to put ourselves in the position to be lucky. Morgan Entrekin does this well. He has a selective list, and he's aggressive about the books he publishes.
PW: How would you define Walker books now?
GG: Generally, we look for books that have a human story attached to them. Recently, we've added titles in the realm of travel history.
PW: How does an independent publisher like Walker compete against the bigger publishers?
GG: If we compete head-on with a publisher, we'll get smashed. We can't be as commercial as a big house, but we can use our taste in acquiring books as well as our editing skills. We can manufacture books as well if not better than others. We can't compete financially with buying or marketing, but we don't feel we need to. We can keep a book in print and watch carefully over our inventory.
PW: What is the state of publishing nowadays?
GG: The economy had been hard—and it's been challenging for everyone in publishing. Midlist books are not being bought as much, and there are higher numbers of returns than had been expected. This is the time to focus on the essentials, not to get distracted. At Walker, we don't need to change what we do. At challenging times, you stick to your knitting—stick to what you know best. But in general, I'm optimistic: I feel absolutely certain that books as a physical object will not be changed, will not be supplanted electronically. Although I don't feel that a large percentage of the population will be reading more in the future than they do now, I don't despair that the younger generation will be reading less. It's just a question as to what they'll be reading.
PW: How do you plan to get attention for The Oath?
GG: The challenge is to let people know about Chechnya, and the best way to get the story out is through a human drama—much like Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You.... We will publish the book in time for Chechnya's free election on October 5.