Elisabeth Sifton, who edited three of my books and died a year ago, used to put a big X in the margin whenever I mentioned a book that a writer had published. “Writers don’t publish books!” she’d say. “Publishers publish books.” I would dutifully change the wording, but I have to confess that I didn’t understand exactly what she meant—as, indeed, most authors don’t understand what publishers do, other than give them material to complain about.
Well, now I know. Five years ago, with a small group of colleagues, I started a publishing enterprise called Columbia Global Reports. We bring out novella-length works of serious nonfiction—26 thus far—on a wide variety of topics. We began with a charge, and financial support, from Columbia University’s president, Lee Bollinger, who was concerned about the severe contraction of the American press at a time when the immediacy of large international challenges was increasing. Our books are paperbacks, attractively designed and produced in a uniform format, usually based on original on-site reporting that we pay for rather than asking our authors to cover expenses out of their advances.
Doing this work has given me a view of publishing from the other side—the publishers’ side—even as I have continued to write books of my own for other publishers. What is it that publishers know, and do, that writers don’t fully grasp? I can answer that, at least to some extent.
A quick word, though, from where authors are coming from. Authors are like actors, perpetually aware that many more people want to do what we do than the world has room for. Editors and publishers have jobs. We don’t. We feel our status to be eternally provisional.
Being a publisher has changed my attitude about the writer’s place in the world, and it may be useful and encouraging to know what it is that gives a writer real value to publishers. At Columbia Global Reports, we are looking for writers who can do firsthand reporting in faraway places, make original arguments about major issues, and write prose that is a pleasure to read. That combination of skills is very, very difficult to find; anybody who has all three, or even two out of three, is a rare talent, for whose time and energy we always find ourselves competing against others who also want them.
Journalists who write books—that’s most of our authors at Columbia Global Reports—often complain that book publishers edit and fact-check their work far less than a traditional news organization would. As a publisher, it’s easy for me to see where this evidently odd feature of book publishing comes from. Though book publishing is famously dominated by five big companies, the actual work of getting a book out is strikingly decentralized. Small publishers like us have access to an amazing array of service providers who aren’t publishers themselves—such as, in our case, Publishers Group West, which functions as our sales force, and Strick & Williams, which designs our books. As a nonprofit publisher, we can afford to invest in editing and fact-checking, but the one essential function that can’t be outsourced is establishing the identity of the house and drawing attention to its work. Seeing that firsthand has cleared up the mystery (for an author like me) of why acquiring and marketing are the primary tasks for publishers.
Authors are crucial to that part of publishing. We are all hyperaware of authors, usually of fiction, who are reclusive or mysterious—think of Elena Ferrante or Cormac McCarthy. As an author, it’s appealing to think of oneself as somebody whose writing can command the attention of the world all by itself, to the point that no more is needed than producing the work.
To a publisher, writers who think that way are very frustrating. Are you active on social media? Great. Can you produce an op-ed-length version of the core argument of your book? Even better. Are you adept at being interviewed? Will you turn in a very complete version of your author questionnaire?
It is striking to us how much respect books command. Books have the power to launch sustained conversations in a way that other forms of publications do not. Generating that type of debate only works if the author continues to participate enthusiastically through the entire publication process.
So I would amend Elisabeth Sifton’s maxim. Publishers publish. Writers write. And publishers need writers to be their partners in publishing, too.
Nicholas Lemann is founder and director of Columbia Global Reports. His most recent book is Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream (Picador).
A version of this article appeared in the 11/16/2020 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: From Both Sides Now