Chris Jackson is on a crusade to change the way people think about the world. Two years ago, Jackson, 37, joined Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Doubleday Broadway, with the opportunity to build a list from scratch.

“Your list reflects who you are as an editor,” says Jackson, who is executive editor at Spiegel & Grau. And he's taking full advantage of his position to challenge, stir and elevate readers. He likes to joke about this urge to proselytize, blaming his need to spread the gospel of fresh ideas and literary aesthetics on his Jehovah's Witness upbringing.

One of his first jobs in publishing was for now-defunct Paragon House, before he eventually got a job at John Wiley & Sons as an editorial assistant. He worked in Wiley's general-interest area, publishing titles on self-help, science, health and popular reference—not exactly the types of books he envisioned for his career. But he learned a lot about publishing and about the entrepreneurial role that editors played.

It was at Wiley that he acquired the book he believes to be the touchstone of his career, Kevin Powell's Step into a World. It's an anthology of writing across genres—hip-hop journalism, fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry—by African-American writers on the cusp of prominence at the time, including NBA-winning novelist Edwidge Danticat—many of whom Jackson would eventually work with on solo book projects.

In 2000, after five years at Wiley, he landed his first job in general trade publishing, at Crown Publishing, with a mandate to expand the imprint's African-American publishing program, a task that Jackson found challenging. “It was hard to say what African-American publishing meant and how to match that with my sensibility,” Jackson explains.

At Spiegel & Grau, Jackson's list includes only a small percentage of black writers. Nevertheless, Jackson believes in the power of the black literary tradition and works to find books that embody that tradition in an unconventional manner. “I bring a black literary perspective to everything I do,” Jackson says, “although hardly anything I do is explicitly black literature.”

Whether it's fiction or among the slew of sociopolitical books he's acquired—from David Sirota's Hostile Takeover on government corruption to William Rhoden's 40 Million Dollar Slaves, an alternative history of black athletes—Jackson looks for books likely to undermine conventional wisdom.

“I don't have to acquire any book out of a need to fill the list,” he says. “I feel very passionate about every book, which is both nice and exhausting,” he says. “I do a lot of editing,” he says. “I really try to inhabit their ideas and be of real use without compromising their position.”

Books even manage to follow him home. Jackson is married to Sarah McNally, owner of the McNally Robinson bookstore in SoHo—soon to be renamed McNally Jackson. “We're expecting a kid in July, and the bookstore will be named after him, not me!” he's quick to point out.

His first books under the Spiegel & Grau imprint were released in May and include Matt Taibbi's The Great Derangement, about America's abandonment of the political mainstream. He's also just published journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, a memoir about fatherhood and black identity.

“Every book has a real intensity,” Jackson says—describing his list as well as himself.

Name: Chris Jackson

Company: Speigel & Grau

Title: Executive editor

Age: 37

Hometown: New York

Education: Columbia University

How long in current job: Two years

Previous job: Senior editor, Crown

Dream job: Head coach of the New York Knicks, presidential speechwriter or judge on Project Runway

Passionate about: “Finding writers who can reflect and interpret a changing world.”