Norton’s Liveright Publishing imprint has had many commercial hits and award-winning titles in the 10 years since it was relaunched by editor-in-chief and publishing director Robert Weil. Liveright's recent awards include a 2020 National Book Award, and two 2021 Pulitzer Prizes, as well as multiple nominations for those awards and for the National Book Critics Circle awards over the last decade.
Liveright specializes in serious works on history and literature and has published significant graphic works by Robert and Aline Crumb, Jules Feiffer, David Small, and Ed Sorel, and others. The house has been particularly successful publishing nonfiction works on Black life and the impacts of systemic racism—Weil started acquiring books by Black scholars in the 1990s while at St. Martin’s—as well as on popular culture.
“We don’t do typical bestselling books, but people also like good books,” Weil said. “We’re not an academic publisher, but serious authors like to be published by Liveright.”
Liveright & Company was cofounded by Horace Liveright in 1917, and the house published many of the leading lights of American literature in the 1920s and ’30s—among them E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein. Norton bought Liveright in 1973, and its backlist included works by Cummings, Hart Crane, Jean Toomer, Anita Loos, and a large number of reprints of its classic titles.
By 2011, Weil said, the Liveright backlist was generating about $250,000 per year, and former Norton president Drake McFeeley decided to revive Liveright as a frontlist publisher, tapping Weil to head it. Asked what Horace Liveright might say if he saw the house’s list today, Weil said, “We do more nonfiction than he did, but he would be pleased by the quality of the books. He would be shocked at our profitability, since he was always on the brink of bankruptcy.”
The relaunched imprint released its first books in 2012. It started with two full-time staffers and a list of about 20 books per year, and has grown to eight staffers and about 40 books annually. In addition to Weil, Liveright acquisitions are made by senior editor Dan Gerstle and editor Gina Iaquinta. (Weil also praised acquisitions by former Liveright editors Katie Adams and Marie Pantojan, who have since moved on to other publishers.)
Weil has a long history of turning critically acclaimed serious nonfiction into commercial bestsellers (“A good editor has to produce revenue,” he told PW in 2011), and he continued that work at Liveright. Among the house’s prize-winning bestsellers is The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les and Tamara Payne, a long-anticipated biography of Malcolm X, which was awarded the 2020 NBA for nonfiction and the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for biography. The Dead Are Arising has sold more than 80,000 copies across all formats according to the publisher, with a paperback release due out in September. Weil called the biography “an important book on American history,” noting, “The author Les Payne died in 2018, but thank God his daughter, Tamara, was able to finish the book.”
Marcia Chatelain’s Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, which explores how the fast food industry has impacted Black communities, was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in history. It’s sold 10,000 copies to date, according to Liveright, and the publisher has gone back to press for another 20,000 copies. The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis, an environmental history of the Gulf of Mexico, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for history (63,000 copies sold). And Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, about residential segregation, was nominated for the 2018 NBA in nonfiction and has sold 650,000 copies. Weil called it “the most successful book in my career.”
Liveright nonfiction bestsellers include Pete Buttigieg’s 2019 Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future. The autobiography was acquired while Buttigieg was still mayor of South Bend, Ind., and has sold more than 150,000 copies, per the publisher. Classicist Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto, a history of the ancient roots of misogyny, has sold 81,000 copies across all formats, and her 2016 work SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome has sold more than 115,000 copies in hardcover, 209,000 copies in paperback, and 75,000 e-books.
On the fiction side, Weil points to acclaimed comics writer and novelist Alan Moore, whose hefty 2016 novel Jerusalem sold nearly 40,000 copies, and to Larry McMurtry’s final novel, The Last Kind Words Saloon, which has sold nearly 160,000 copies since it was published in 2015. Liveright also acquired 10 titles from McMurtry’s backlist, Weil said, noting that the author “reconceptualized the West and gave it a realism no one had ever seen before.”
Looking ahead, Weil has combined popular culture with serious nonfiction in Paul McCartney’s forthcoming Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (compiled with editor and poet Paul Muldoon). It’s a two-volume collection of the definitive lyrics of 154 of McCartney’s songs and will feature his commentary and annotations, along with more than 700 images from his personal archive. The $100 book will be published in November with a 200,000-copy first printing. Liveright has already gone back to press for another 50,000 copies, Weil said. “I interviewed McCartney twice for the foreword,” he added, and he believes the book will “reveal his life as never before. He was a joy to work with.”
Liveright’s success can be credited to a commitment to “go out and find and develop the books,” Weil explained. “You need to be in control of your list—we can’t do checkbook publishing. You have to create a backlist. Good editing is good business. We take the initiative to approach the authors we want to publish. Send an email, pick up the phone—it’s key.”
Corrections: the number of NBA and NBCC awards won by Liveright were incorrect in an earlier version of this story; and Drake McFeeley's name was also misspelled.