Nick Lemann acknowledged that he “stumbled” onto the format that would become the signature look for books published by Columbia Global Reports, which earlier this month released its 20th title since launching with its first list five years ago. Based out of Columbia University and directed by Lemann, dean emeritus of the Columbia Journalism School, the press publishes books that, on average, run 150 pages and come in a 5”-by-7.5” trim size.
With his background at the journalism school, Lemann created CGR with the aim of publishing books that could deliver information in a timely way and also garner attention from book buyers. “I’m really happy with the unified format and length,” he said.
But CGR would not have enjoyed the success it has without the writers it has attracted. Lemann believes that the length of the press’s books, its quick turnaround time (about one year from contract to pub date), and its willingness to allow authors to address complex issues in an accessible way have been attractive to a certain type of writer. Among those who have written for CGR are John Judis, David Kaye, Bethany McLean, and Tim Wu. Wu’s new book for CGR, The Curse of Bigness, was praised by MSNBC anchor Chris Hughes as “the best primer on the topic” of antitrust. Released last November, Curse is already CGR’s second-bestselling title, having sold more than 16,000 copies. The press’s top seller is Judis’s The Populist Explosion, which was published a month before Donald Trump was elected president. Though the book didn’t predict a Trump win, it did analyze the forces that made the victories of Trump and other populists possible.
Lemann noted that Populist, which has sold 36,000 copies, is a great example of the type of book CGR wants to do—a book “that looks around the corner for the next big issue.” Lemann does not want to publish the types of stories that appear on CNN and in the New York Times. “We don’t want to be repetitive,” he said. “There are lots of important stories being ignored.”
Though CGR has given a platform to some heavy hitters (many of whom are journalists), Lemann said that the hardest part of running CGR has been finding writers. His preference is to assign topics to writers, and those assignments can be labor intensive and require lots of original reporting. “That is not something everyone wants to do,” he said.
Lemann said that every week, he and editor Jimmy So have conversations about the topics that they want to cover. When they hit on an idea and find a writer, they spend time with the author to come up with a mutually agreeable approach. The two books set for release later this year are New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop by Fatima Bhutto, which CGR describes as a “vivid look at the global popular culture emerging from the East and challenging America’s soft power dominance,” and State of War: MS-13 and El Salvador’s World of Violence, for which author William Wheeler traveled to El Salvador to report on the gangs that are terrorizing the country’s people and analyzed the U.S. policies that have backfired there.
Lemann doesn’t see CGR breaking away from its current six-books-per-year model anytime soon. That approach, he observed, lets the small CGR team, which also includes publisher Camille McDuffie, devote their full attention to each title. CGR’s books, which are distributed by PGW, have started to be adopted in some courses, but consumer sales have been the press’s greatest source of revenue. To deepen its ties with independent booksellers, CGR just launched a “Making Sense of the World, One Short Read at a Time” promotion, which highlights 10 of the press’s titles and offers indies $20 in display co-op. The campaign runs through August 15.
In addition to sales (including rights sales), CGR relies on support from Columbia and foundation grants. And Lemann said that though he “doubts we will break even on sales alone in my lifetime,” he believes it is important to be in the marketplace to get a sense of how its books are being received.