Economists and political activists have been issuing warnings about growing economic inequality, or the widening economic disparity between social groups, in the U.S. for years. Economic inequality includes income inequality and wealth (or ownership) inequality, and its impact can be measured in how social outcomes for people differ based on their race, gender identification, education, health care, geography, and intergenerational wealth.
PW talked with a variety of publishers about acquiring and publishing books on economic inequality, what’s in the market now, and plans for the topic going forward. Those who weighed in were Dana Bliss, editor, Oxford University Press; Amanda Cook, v-p and editorial director, Crown; Tara Grove, editor-in-chief, New Press; Hollis Heimbouch, senior v-p and publisher, Harper Business; Sarah Humphreville, editor, Oxford University Press; Steve Piersanti, founder and editor, Berrett-Koehler; Lynne Rienner, president and editorial director, Lynne Rienner; and Glenn Yeffeth, publisher, BenBella.
Does your house have a history of publishing works on economic inequality?
Grove: The New Press has published books about inequality from our earliest days nearly 30 years ago—it’s one of our core categories. Classic backlist titles, some of which date back to the 1990s, include Economic Apartheid in America, The Color of Wealth, and books by such renowned progressive thinkers as Joseph Stiglitz, Richard Wilkinson, and Peter Edelman. Lisa Dodson’s The Moral Underground was a groundbreaking social study on how everyday Americans enact “economic civil disobedience,” and Moshe Adler’s Economics for the Rest of Us is also a bottom-up examination of these issues, a quintessential New Press approach. In 2018 we published Hypercapitalism by Larry Gonick and Tim Kasser, a marvelous graphic book on the human costs of commercialism.
Yeffeth: BenBella has long been interested in the topic of economic inequality. Back in 2013 we published George Tyler’s What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class... and What Other Countries Got Right, which was one of the first books to demonstrate the tremendous growth of income inequality in the U.S., and that a governmental role in ensuring a level of economic equality is a fundamentally American practice that was abandoned in the Reagan era. We also published the follow-up title, Billionaire Democracy, which demonstrated the malevolent role this level of income inequality plays in our political life. In 2018 we published The New Human Rights Movement: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression by Peter Joseph, founder of the Zeitgeist Movement, the world’s largest grassroots social movement.
Piersanti: Berrett-Koehler has a long history of publishing books on economic inequality and related topics of income and wealth distribution, going back to the founding of our company in 1992. One of the first books we published was The Fourth Wave: Business in the 21st Century, which dealt extensively with these topics. Then, in 1995, we published the landmark bestseller When Corporations Rule the World, which sold over 150,000 copies and influenced a generation of other authors, activists, and researchers in this area. A few years later we published The Divine Right of Capital, another groundbreaking book. We publish many books in this area, because they are central to our company’s long-standing mission of “Connecting People and Ideas to Create a World That Works for All.” And one of our four main publishing agendas is “BK Currents,” which we describe as “tackling the root causes of social, economic, and environmental injustice with systemic new solutions.”
Cook: We have certainly expanded this part of our list over the past decade. Dorothy Brown’s The Whiteness of Wealth is the most recent example, but we also published Atlantic economics writer Annie Lowrey’s book on universal basic income, Give People Money, which feels newly relevant now, and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which showed how the majority of poor families in this country are spending over half of their income on rent—and facing eviction and homelessness as a result.
Heimbouch: We’ve always tried to publish books that speak not only to our readers’ interests and needs right now but that set the agenda for the future.
Rienner: Yes, we do. In the U.S. context, Hunger in the Land of Plenty comes to mind. We have a growing list of books on homelessness, such as Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can, and many offerings on the economic impact of racial inequality—two examples being Black Asset Poverty and Metaracism. We publish on these issues in the global context, as well—among many others, Promises Not Kept: Poverty and the Betrayal of Third World Development and Getting Globalization Right: The Dilemmas of Inequality.
Humphreville: Across all our lists, from the humanities through medicine and, of course, the social and behavioral sciences, we have put forward insightful, well-researched work on issues of inequality—its histories, influences, and wide-ranging effects.
What is your acquisitions strategy for titles on economic inequality?
Cook: Inequality has many dimensions, which makes it particularly provocative terrain. Acquisitions are mainly driven by editors’ particular interests, though we are all, of course, responding to the zeitgeist. Robert Livingston’s The Conversation looks at the difficulties faced by Black employees trying to gain a foothold and advance in the corporate world. Brittany Barnett’s A Knock at Midnight shows how drug laws impact communities where economic opportunity has dried up and selling small quantities of drugs is a means of survival. I think we’re always trying to start a new cultural conversation, often by drawing attention to an underreported issue, like we did with Evicted. Health care and education are critical drivers of inequality, and I continue to hope readers will be more interested in books about these topics. Sometimes I think we all get worn down by daily coverage—or in some cases, experiencing the problems ourselves—and then are less receptive to book-length treatments.
Heimbouch: We always keep an eye on the market to understand what types of books readers most need and then look for books that help shift the conversation around those topics. It’s clear that the prevailing model of shareholder value and lack of regulation isn’t working for the vast majority of people, and we are always looking for books that address these issues and also provide tangible solutions to these problems. Associate editor Rebecca Raskin acquired Dave Buckmaster’s Fair Pay because the book addresses the realities of pay inequality using data and analysis from someone who works in the compensation field.
Grove: We seek authors who take an intersectional approach, so a great many of our books on economic injustice also touch on race and gender, and explore inequality through the lens of education, health care, the environment, and labor struggles. The New Press is always looking to publish on the cutting edge of the inequality discourse, and we publish two MacArthur “genius” fellows who exemplify that effort. In her book Waste, Catherine Coleman Flowers sheds light on the environmental and health hazards facing poor rural communities that don’t have the privilege to “flush and forget,” and Ai-Jen Poo’s Age of Dignity examines the challenging lives of underpaid care workers in America, a crisis that has now come into sharp relief during the pandemic.
Rienner: I would love to brag about our brilliant strategy, but I really can’t. From the beginning, we simply published books that “felt right,” within the context of peer-reviewed scholarship—and that often involved publishing about important social issues. Other scholars, seeing those books in our catalogs, brought their own work to us, and that pattern continues today. Initially our focus was on issues of development in the Global South, but that broadened many years ago to encompass the United States, Europe, etc.
Humphreville: My area of focus is public health, which allows me to seek out conversations with authors who are furthering our understanding of just how interwoven issues about economic inequality are with the foundational values we care most deeply about, from health to racial and gender equity. I’m drawn to ambitious, interdisciplinary projects that aren’t afraid to go after classic topics with fresh insights and new perspectives, and I’m lucky to be building on OUP’s rich tradition of publishing similar projects. The topics I’m interested in—human rights and social justice, maternal and child health access, social epidemiology, the ethics of consumer health technologies—certainly respond to the current moment. But these topics have been relevant for decades. The authors I seek reflect an openness to embracing new ideas, as well as an understanding of where things may have gone sideways in the past and how we can build upon work being done at the local, state, and national level to share knowledge and enact change.
Yeffeth: BenBella publishes broadly on issues of social justice that extend beyond economic issues to include issues of race, gender, and body image. Our goal isn’t to follow current trends but to identify works of substance that we believe can make a difference and remain relevant as popular concerns change.
Piersanti: We publish a wide range of titles about economic, social, and environmental inequity—and systemic approaches to combatting injustices and creating greater equity. These have ranged from pathbreaking critiques of our economic system, such as The Post-corporate World and The Great Turning by David Korten, to powerful critiques of social inequities, such as our new bestseller The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, to far-reaching rethinking of environmental laws and worldviews, such as The Ecology of Law by Fritjof Capra and Ugo Mattei.
What are some of your most successful titles in this category?
Piersanti: Our biggest titles on economic inequality are Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins and its recent update, The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which together sold over 1.5 million copies and spent 70 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Affluenza by John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor has sold over 170,000 copies. John Hope Bryant’s How the Poor Can Save Capitalism has sold over 50,000 copies. And Bryant’s more recent book, 2017’s The Memo: Five Rules for Your Economic Liberation, has sold over 30,000 copies. Thom Hartmann’s Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class—And What We Can Do About It has sold over 65,000 copies. Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth has already sold over 40,000 copies, and has a new edition coming out this year.
Yeffeth: The New Human Rights Movement by Peter Joseph, noted previously, sold very well, and our latest title in this category, Broke in America by Joanne Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox, had a very successful launch, with a significant amount of media interest and positive reviews.
Grove: We’ve witnessed the ongoing success of Mary Otto’s Teeth, a phenomenal book on inequality in oral health, which seems unusual until you think about the intimate and universal nature of the subject. The economics and inequality of American education have proven to be evergreen topics of interest. Recently A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire has been taking off in this category, and we published a searing book on the “segre-nomics” of education, Cutting School by Noliwe Rooks, that connects dots in ways that are mind-blowing. We’ve also published some very successful collections about inequality, including Divided: The Peril of Our Growing Inequality, an anthology edited by David Cay Johnston.
Heimbouch: Particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, we’ve published a number of books that examine the dark side of neoliberalism and the myths of shareholder capitalism: Broke, USA by Gary Rivlin examines how the working poor have become big business, and The Golden Passport by Duff McDonald offers a critique of Harvard Business School’s power and influence on generations of business leaders. Competition Overdose by Maurice Stucke and Ariel Ezrahi explores how free market thinking turned citizens into market servants, and Accountable by Michael O’Leary and Warren Valdmanis makes the case for “citizen capitalism” and other market reforms.
On the topic of diversity and allyship, we are pleased to have published NYU professor Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean To Be, which offers a model for addressing bias and discrimination; economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s #MeToo in Corporate America, which features the first survey in the aftermath of that movement; Inclusify by professor Stefanie Johnson, which explains how to build truly inclusive and diverse teams; and TV anchor Alicia Menendez’s The Likeability Trap, which confronts the bind successful women experience. Power Moms by Wall Street Journal columnist Joann Lublin views women’s success and power through a generational lens, showing how expectations have changed—or not—through the lives of mothers and daughters.
Humphreville: Medicare for All: A Citizen’s Guide by Abdul El-Sayed and Micah Johnson is such a wonderful example of two brilliant multihyphenates who communicate the seriousness of the public health crisis of underinsurance. Other areas receiving high interest are the various ways we can tackle the realities of climate change. I’m looking forward to publishing leading thinkers with creative ideas on these and related topics.
Bliss: Mark Rank’s previous book with us, Chasing the American Dream, shined a light on some of the misperceptions of the social and economic mobility at the core of the mythology of the American dream. Making Education Work for the Poor by William Elliott and Melinda Lewis made a case for a national children’s savings account policy to address the inequities in our education system.
What have you heard from agents, distributors, or retailers about demand for titles on economic inequality in the current market?
Grove: Agents bring us projects on these topics, our sales reps at Two Rivers are always excited to bring our ahead-of-the-curve books into stores, and retailers themselves, particularly our partners in independent bookselling, are increasingly aware of inequality in the U.S. and the unique power of books to illuminate it. We see steady demand and media attention on both our frontlist and backlist.
Cook: I think there’s been a real hunger for books in this space over the last five years or so. Perhaps that’s no coincidence. Four years of Trump and then the pandemic have exposed the fault lines of our society; we’ve been forced to confront the inequality head-on. But I do worry about what happens after this. What will a “return to normal” do to our willingness to face these issues, read about them, and then take action? As with racial injustice, these moments of awakening have a way of flashing bright and then flickering out. I worry that might happen here, too. It’s of course the role of writers—and publishers—to keep shining the light.
Rienner: As scholarly publishers, we tend to “stay the course” in terms of what we publish, rather than respond to the ebbs and flows of popular demand. Of course, we do have an upcoming book called Pandemic Medicine by Kathryn C. Ibata-Arens, so we are not immune to the lure of current events.
Piersanti: The area of greatest current interest in the marketplace relating to economic inequality is diversity, equity, and inclusion, with anti-racism books being especially hot. DEI has been a major emphasis of our company since our founding, and we have published dozens of books in this space, some of which deal explicitly with economic and social inequality—such as our new books Erasing Institutional Bias by Tiffany Jana and Ashley Diaz Mejias and Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit by Mary-Frances Winters—some of which address other DEI dimensions.
What are your plans for future titles in this category?
Yeffeth: BenBella will continue to publish in the economic and social justice space for as long as we find quality titles. In the pipeline, we’ll be looking at the backlash to the coming nonwhite majority in Igniting White Fear by journalist Roland Martin. We’ll be publishing a history of feminism in South Korea in Flowers of Fire by journalist Hawon Jung and Heard by Angela Marshall, founder and CEO of Comprehensive Women’s Health, a guide to getting quality health care despite the biases that impact women, people of color, and the economically disadvantaged.
Piersanti: Many forthcoming Berrett-Koehler titles deal with economic inequality, including Edgar Villanueva’s Decolonizing Wealth, Second Edition; Thom Hartmann’s The Hidden History of American Healthcare; Minal Bopaiah’s Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives; Rohini Anand’s Leading Global Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; Chandran Nair’s Dismantling Global White Privilege; and Majora Carter’s Reclaiming Your Community.
Cook: I’m especially excited about Matt Desmond’s next book, Poverty, by America, which looks at the stories we tell ourselves about why people are poor. It signals a shift in the conversation. I also think the category will take us in some surprising directions. I’m working on a book by two sociologists who have done remarkable fieldwork on the unclaimed dead in Los Angeles. In a sense, it’s about the afterlife of inequality, the final manifestation of a lifetime of disadvantage. Ultimately, it’s about where we’re headed as a society—and what we owe one another. And that’s true of all the best books in this space.
Heimbouch: We have projects under development that will speak to these issues. We’re keen to find books that not only address the limitations but also offer solutions and new proposals for creating a more equitable society. For instance, in March, we’ll publish Mission Economy by acclaimed economist Mariana Mazzucato. It offers proposals for rethinking shareholder capitalism and increasing innovation to solve pressing problems such as inequality and climate change.
Rienner: We intend to continue publishing as many good books on economic and social inequalities as possible. Coming up soon is Education and the Future of Latin America by former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo Manrique.
Humphreville: We are keen to continue publishing and elevating a diverse pool of authors offering bold ideas in facing the rise of borderless, multifaceted threats—authors such as Alice Hill, whose The Fight for Climate after Covid-19 is coming in September, and Sandro Galea, whose forthcoming The Contagion Next Time ensures that readers can understand how the ongoing fights against racial injustice, with their entwined economic and political histories, cannot be severed from conversations about our collective health.
Grove: Our challenge remains staying out ahead and seeking out underrepresented views and voices. Later this year we’ll publish One Fair Wage by activist Saru Jayaraman, which excoriates the forces that enable millions of jobs to legally pay less than the already pitiful minimum wage. We have two more titles on inequality this spring that are very au courant: On the Job by Celeste Monforton and Jane M. Von Bergen, the story of worker centers, a new labor movement for health, dignity, and wages; and Tax the Rich! by Morris Pearl, Erica Payne, and the Patriotic Millionaires, a title that speaks for itself! Our commitment to publishing on economic inequality, and on social and racial justice more broadly, has and always will be a mainstay for the New Press.
This is the second installment of In Focus, a series examining how publishers are responding to today’s most pressing social problems. In the May 17 issue, we’ll talk with publishers about books on Indigenous publishing.