It’s been quite a year for Spiegel & Grau’s Chris Jackson. He was recently promoted to v-p, executive editor, and two of his recent acquisitions have become bestsellers and earned major critical accolades.
Most recently, Between the World and Me, by prolific journalist and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates, hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list before winning the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In July, Bryan Stevenson, professor of law at New York University and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, took home the American Library Association’s Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction for his masterly book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
Both books examine the deeply troubling, persistent issues of systemic racism, violence, and racial injustice in America. PW spoke with Chris Jackson about his award-winning nonfiction acquisitions on race in America.
Can you tell us a little about how you came to acquire such compelling works?
I had worked with Ta-Nehisi on his memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (Spiegel & Grau, 2008). At the time, no one knew of him. But over the years, his platform got bigger, and we kept in touch. Between the World and Me was originally signed to be a revisionist book about the Civil War. But it evolved into something else, starting with the Trayvon Martin murder and the rise of the protest movement. His writing for the Atlantic was very pivotal and clarified a lot of people’s positions on the issues, which was very personal for him—he has an adolescent son.
Bryan Stevenson’s book came to us as a short proposal based on his TED talk about justice. We preempted the book and signed him up immediately. We ended up doing the book about just one case, which speaks to a range of deeper and broader themes. Bryan truly understands the importance of telling stories and changing people’s hearts and minds.
What impact has the Black Lives Matter movement had on your acquisitions?
I would say one of the great things to happen with the Black Lives Matter movement is that great writers are covering it, and the story has met their talents. Between the World and Me is probably the biggest book that speaks to it, but a number are coming. We are publishing Matt Taibbi; his last book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, was about criminal justice, and his new one will center on the case of Eric Garner, a black man who died in police custody in New York in July 2014. And I have two others coming out that have emerged from this moment of crisis and opportunity.
What do you see ahead for serious works on race and justice?
The proposals I’m seeing speak to this moment of potential reconsideration of race, and the segregation, exploitation, and policing of the black community. I think a lot of journalists who may not yet have book contracts have found in this moment an opportunity to shine: Jelani Cobb, for example, and Joel Anderson, who is an exciting new Buzzfeed reporter. So we’ll probably see those writers in book form soon. And that’s good.
Another thing about Ta-Nehisi’s book is that it has provoked people to respond. For example, people are asking questions like, What about the woman’s point of view? Which suggests there’s a lot more publishing to be done on the subjects he explores, and that’s exciting. Readers want to see more.
Are there other recent nonfiction titles on race you admire?
I published Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (January 2015) by Jill Leovy from the L.A. Times. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (New Press 2010)—in some ways it created a path to Bryan and Ta-Nehisi’s books. And Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010).
Often when talking about race and racism, we are talking about the issues but never getting anywhere new—we’re just chronically recycling information. But Bryan and Ta-Nehisi are two examples of authors who have been thinking deeply about these issues for a really long time. They are going to advance our understanding and not just throw more heat around an already hot subject.