As an author, Alice Goffman has a few things going for her. She’s the daughter of the late Erving Goffman, a giant in the field of sociology, and her surname alone has long made her of interest to those in academia. Then there is her young age (32) and the somewhat dramatic nature of her fieldwork: starting her research when she was a college freshman, Goffman spent six years following a small group of young black men in inner-city Philadelphia. All of this has put a spotlight on Goffman’s forthcoming book, On the Run, which the University of Chicago Press is releasing on May 13. The excitement around the title has led the scholarly publisher to break with a number of norms; it has gone back to press three times already, and has auctioned off the paperback and digital rights to a trade house.
Levi Stahl, promotions director at UCP, said that On the Run has been, from the start, a unique project. Goffman was initially brought to the press’s attention by her mentor, the famous sociologist Mitchell Duneier, who is also a UCP author. (UCP published, in 1992, Duneier’s Slim’s Table, which chronicles the lives of a handful of black men who congregate at a South Side Chicago diner; the book remains a backlist staple.) Duneier, who felt his student was doing impressive work, passed on to UCP a proposal by Goffman.
The planned book was an ethnography examining the effect of the prison system beyond the reaches of confinement; it focused on the lives of a group of young, male African-American friends in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The proposal was brief, touching on the failings of the war on drugs—specifically, the havoc wreaked by the parole system—but it was impressive enough, Stahl said, that the press acquired it. (At the time, Goffman was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and, according to Stahl, UCP had never before acquired a title by someone still in college.) When Goffman turned in her manuscript a decade later—the submission date was loose, given the lengthy nature of fieldwork—Stahl said UCP’s editors realized the book was not only a “great ethnography,” but also a “gripping read.”
Once positive feedback started flowing in for the book—from booksellers as well as academics—UCP felt the title could become a crossover hit, and decided to seek out a trade publishing partner. One was found in Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where senior editor Alex Star acquired the paperback and digital rights; FSG’s paperback arm, Picador, will publish a print edition (as well as its own e-book edition) of On the Run in May 2015.
Star, who knew of Goffman mainly through Duneier (FSG published Duneier’s book Sidewalk in 1999), initially contacted UCP to get a copy of On the Run out of curiosity. Then, when UCP announced it would be selling paperback and e-book rights, he jumped in.
While Star said it’s “striking” that Goffman started her fieldwork when she was so young, and that there are elements of her own backstory that may draw media attention, he believes the book stands on its own. And, although On the Run is an academic text, Star thinks it touches on themes front and center in the public debate: namely, the inordinately high incarceration rate for black men in the U.S. In the wake of books like The New Jim Crow (Free Press, 2010), which Star felt began “raising questions about who goes to prison and why,” On the Run taps into a “very important set of issues involving the intersection of justice, crime, poverty, and race.” And, echoing Stahl’s feelings about the trade appeal of the book, Star said that On the Run is also, despite its academic nature, a book with “novelistic qualities.”
If it is accurate to compare The New Jim Crow to On the Run, FSG and UCP have a hit on their hands; the former book, by Michelle Alexander, has sold over 200,000 copies in paperback and hardcover combined at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan. Star certainly feels the topicality of On the Run will help it in the trade market; he pointed to another book he recently acquired, tentatively titled Locking Up Our Own, by Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr., which also delves into the subject of black men and prison. Locking Up examines the correlation between the rising number of African-American elected officials and the incarceration of African-Americans in cities like Washington, D.C.
That Goffman is already of interest to the media is also a good sign. The Chronicle of Higher Education profiled her in November, and a number of other interviews are lined up, though Stahl said they cannot yet be discussed.
Early critical reaction to the book has been solid. PW called On the Run a “remarkable chronicle,” and Goffman has a blurb from Cornel West touting the book as “the best treatment I know of the wretched underside of neo-liberal capitalist America.” Picador, for its part, will be looking to capitalize on the debate it hopes On the Run sparks when the hardcover comes out next month.
Picador’s Anna deVries said the goal is to put Goffman on tour next year, reaching out to local media and social justice organizations. The book will be pitched in the vein of other Picador titles that are “classic works of social thought,” deVries noted, citing comparisons such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. For Goffman, who is marking her debut with On the Run, it’s certainly not bad company to be in.