This year’s BookExpo America was held in Chicago. While an unwelcome change for the New York publishers, everybody else seemed pleased by the change in scenery. While staffs and overall attendance were smaller (stats are lacking in published reports), the composition was different, drawing more heavily from publishers and book lovers in the mid-west.
I left breadcrumbs of my time at the show on my Twitter feed, which you can find here. I provide more substantial bites below. Pouring over the fall catalogs after the show certainly extends my excitement and anticipation for the forthcoming titles this fall. Perhaps a few will surely make excellent candidates for an upcoming podcast on the New Books Network.
For those who aren’t familiar with the show, BookExpo is the place where publishers, printers, agents, authors, and booksellers gather every year to talk about their new offerings and, in the case of vendors, services. The focus of the show is to get book buyers at independent booksellers to place advance orders and generate buzz among consumers for the new offerings. So everybody is showing off their best. Since all of the different slices of the industry are gathered in the same place, there’s a lot of peripheral wheeling and dealing that goes on: meetings between acquiring editors and agents, between book packagers and book publishers, author signings and book giveaways, seminars on hot topics, and networking—lots of networking.
At an industry event like this one, there’s always a lot of chatter about the changes in the marketplace, particularly those prompted by the “Four Horsemen” (yes, of the apocalypse): Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple. It’s a strange combination of wanting to engage with the new technologies and exploit them on the one hand and vilifying the companies that innovate with those same technologies on the other. Often the debate gets bogged down in technical discussions of anti-trust law. This is even more so when technology is the main focus of a conference, such as Digital Book World, which I attended in March. (Along with novelist and radical individualist Ayn Rand and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was also identified as a lead culprit.) At BookExpo, the focus is more squarely on content, ideas, storytelling, design, and selling—lots of selling. It’s all the more enjoyable for it, because this is really what we all love in common (with tech merely being a vehicle for those other things).
To be fair, publishing folk who love ideas and stories and design often question why the moneymakers are the vehicle providers and not the authors, designers, and content creators, whose cut seems to diminish every year. But the reality is that the vehicles have primary uses beyond platforming or promoting book-length content, which piggybacks awkwardly on or is incidental to those primary uses. As you can see, there are many aspects to the debate!
If you’re interested in general industry trends, this recent article provides a good summary.
My shout-outs below are highly idiosyncratic. At the show it’s difficult to get a handle on breadth and depth of the new offerings from the Big Five publishers. Their booths are thick with people, and apart from a few rotating digital wall posters and stacks of catalogs, there’s little to focus the attention. The imprint names hovered above the space but the space below remained undifferentiated, with staff and titles from one imprint mixing with the next. I would have loved to know what Penguin was doing, but its titles were indistinguishable from Random House’s other offerings. I did catch sight, though, of a poster (but no galleys) for Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time.
I found Hachette’s booth similarly confusing. The only book I saw that piqued by interest was Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (Little Brown). I love his other nonfiction—particularly From Bauhaus to Our House and The Painted Word—and this new one, about language and evolution, is sure to please.
I don’t mention fiction or science fiction or fantasy—the largest consumer markets by genre. I only track with a few contemporary authors: Mario Vargas Llosa, Marilynne Robinson, Ethan Canin, John Burnside, and Wendell Berry, to name a few. I have heard a lot of rumbling, though, about Adam Roberts’ The Thing in Itself.
On a side note, I had the privilege to walk the floor one day with the lovely and enchanting Aviya Kushner, whose book, The Grammar of God, I discovered last year at BookExpo. (You can listen to my interview with her here.) She highly recommended Peter Orner’s Esther Stories (Mariner Books, 2001) as an example of good, important, and beautifully written fiction.
I also don’t mention celebrity memoirs, diet books, or gift books. And I don’t know what’s up with the adult coloring book fad. I’ll leave it to others to comment on those things.
The 2016 List (in alpha order by publisher)
In year’s past, I’ve counted on Basic Books to provide a wide range of serious nonfiction. Usually very strong on politics and history. This year two books stood out: Alexander Nehamas’s On Friendship and Leonard Sax’s The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups.
Eerdmans is among the top Christian publishers—and for good reason. It has a long history of publishing excellent books. But this year I only found three that piqued my interest: John J. Collin’s The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 3rd edition, Stanley E. Porter’s The Apostle Paul: His Life, Thought, and Letters, and Henry Chadwick’s Selected Writings.
This San Francisco imprint ranges from spiritual and self-help to serious Christian books and reference works, which its parent, HarperCollins, had no appetite or expertise to promote. Its list represents, to be cynical about it, what a Big Five publisher thinks will make money in the religion category.
Last year it published Robert Cargill’s The Cities That Built the Bible, which is decent (Angelina Jolie apparently prompted the author to write it), but it also published Peter Enn’s latest, The Sin of Certainty. I am somebody who liked Enn’s 2005 book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, reissued in a 10th anniversary edition in 2015). But after I finished the new book two weeks ago, my reaction was—meh. He’s not wrong per se, but it’s way too breezy to bother with difficult questions and obvious challenges, particularly from the academy. It will satisfy those who are looking for soothing palliatives (grab your adult coloring books!) but certainly not those who are invested in discovering the true, the good, and the beautiful, which require diligence and mastery (among other things).
In July, HarperOne will publish Douglas Axe’s Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. Apparently, there’s still cash to be drawn from this seemingly inexhaustible well. I recommend that interested readers take look at Tom McLeish’s Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford UP), before going back for another draught from intelligent design. They’re not in tension exactly, but there’s a wider conversation to be had.
Harvard University Press
Harvard’s fall catalog leads with books about Marx and Freud. To complete the modernist trifecta, I half-expected to find something about Darwin—alas, not on its front list. Here we are, nevertheless, revisiting these sets of ideas no matter how frequently they are discredited. With forthcoming biographies of Flaubert, Hardy, and Elizabeth Bishop and collected letters of Robert Frost, Harvard’s engagement with modernist writers seems more rooted in offering commercial crossovers than with carrying the torch for the literary canon.
Still, Stephen Fine’s The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel and its excellent annotated editions of Jane Austen make a welcome appearance in Harvard’s mix.
IVP continues to define the space for the best in Christian publishing. Recent releases include Andy Crouch’s Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing (perhaps preempting interest in the disengagement of the so-called Benedict Option), Makoto Fujimura’s reflections on Endo’s novel Silence, and David Dirk’s upending missive, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. An honorable mention goes to Jen Pollock Michel for her 2015 book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, which IVP has supplemented with a new five-session DVD companion.
Among IVP Academic’s offerings was Andrew T. Abernethy’s The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach—a topic that is too often neglected or misunderstood through broken critical lenses.
Jewish Publication Society
JPS, distributed by Nebraska University Press, has much on offer—giving the Yale Anchor Bible series a suitable competitor. Kenneth Seeskin’s Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible undoubtedly shares some affinity with Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (2012). Recent releases include Alan Levenson’s Joseph: Portraits through the Ages and Rabbi Steven Bob’s Jonah and the Meaning of Our Lives: A Verse by Verse Commentary.
Knopf will publish Sarah Ruden’s long-awaited The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible in 2017. (Her translation of Augustine’s Confessions will also be published the same year by Penguin.)
Princeton University Press
Among university presses, Yale and Princeton are the clear standouts. I am a great admirer of Princeton’s series Lives of Great Religious Books. Two recent volumes include C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity by George Marsden and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by Bruce Gordon. I am looking forward to forthcoming titles by Jonathan Spence on the Analects of Confucius, Martin Goodman on Josephus’s The Jewish War, Ilana Pardes on the Song of Songs, and Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on the Talmud.
There are plenty of other compelling books on offer, among the richest and most diverse in all of publishing. Books that caught my eye were: Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings, John R. Bowlin’s Tolerance Among the Virtues (we need new ways of parsing this important concept), Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, and Jason Brennan’s provocative Against Democracy (endorsed by economist Bryan Caplan).
Several strike me as important books in religious or biblical studies: John Barton’s The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion (Barton is a frequent reviewer for the TLS and often very wise in his assessments), Bruce Kirmmse’s new translation of Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Discourses, Hillel Halkin’s After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition, Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions (endorsed by a favorite philosopher, John Cottingham), and John T. McGreevy’s American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global.
With the release of Julia Rothman’s Food Anatomy, Storey Publishing bundles it in a slip case, along with ten framable prints and her two earlier installments, Farm Anatomy and Nature Anatomy, for $50. It’s hard to think of a better way to engage a child in the need for a wide lexicon to capture the grandeur of our natural world. An excellent gift!
Thames and Hudson
Thames and Hudson, a standard bearer for illustrated books, will publish David Thompson’s Television: A Biography. Perhaps more of a romp than a life, the book helped organize my thoughts about my own 40-year enslavement. Recommended.
The British Library has curated a new collection in The Art of the Bible (edited by Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle), which may replay the greatest hits, but will be well timed with the opening of the Museum of the Bible in DC in 2017.
For admirers of Roger Scuton’s and Alain de Botton’s writing on architecture, Henry Plummer’s The Experience of Architecture explores how “specifically built elements and volumes . . . can affect our powers of decision.” Fascinating.
An excellent and unfailingly gorgeous publisher of gardening and plant books. This year one standout was Joan Maloof’s Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests. Check out their illustrated books on individual plant species, including ferns, salvias, and tulips. Great gifts and inspiration.
W. W. Norton
One of the few remaining independent publishers, Norton always offers a list of high literary quality. This fall it will release Adam Kirsch’s The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History, and Miriam Horn’s Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland. Parents considering homeschooling their children will be interested in Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.
There was no mention of a new translation and commentary from Robert Alter this year. I am hoping he’s working on Isaiah and Ezekiel.
Yale University Press
Yale never fails to offer a diverse and deep list, with considerable crossover to the nonacademic trade. This year the following books caught my attention: Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels, Wendy Stein’s How to Read Medieval Art, Tony Seddon’s Essential Type: An Illustrated Guide to Understanding and Using Fonts, and Patrick Lynch and Susan Horton’s Web Style Guide: Foundations of User Experience Design, 4th edition.
Several strike me as important books in religious or biblical studies: Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s Moses: A Human Life, Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion, and Saul Olyan’s Friendship in the Hebrew Bible.
Tired of the now-unmoored plot of HBO’s Game of Thones? This pair of biographies about English monarchs might sate one’s interest in the deep English past: Levi Roach’s Aethelred: The Unready and David Bates’s William the Conquerer.
I should also call attention to a few recent honorable mentions: Christopher Bollas’s When the Sun Bursts: The Enigma of Schizophrenia (a topic that few people have been able shed light on), David Crystal’s The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works (the go-to expert on linguistics and the history of language), Leo Damrosch’s Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake (his biography of Alexander Pope was luminous), Gabriel Josipivici’s Hamlet: Fold on Fold (his book on the literary aspects of the Bible broke new ground a la Robert Alter and Frank Kermode), and Terry Eagleton’s Culture (sure he’s a self-professed Marxist but deeply learned in a bygone sense and often quite illuminating: see his excoriating critique of the New Atheists).
Happy reading, friends!