What are some upcoming trends for the next year?
Well, once you identify a trend, it’s very likely nearing its end. It’s always tricky. After Between the World and Me, everyone in town wanted to publish the next Ta-Nehesi Coates. Now, in the wake of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, it’s reasonable to assume everyone will be looking for another “ultimate insider” with “unprecedented access” to the current White House to write something like it. And why not? It’s fertile ground and will likely be relevant for at least a few publishing seasons. But of course such a book can only follow in the wake of Wolff’s. How many publishers walked into their sales conferences and proclaimed “this character is the next Lisbeth Salander”? Some of them got close, but it didn’t make it true. Some things are singular in their success. Ultimately, we may be better at predicting trends in what will be published than predicting trends in what will be bought and read, and I’m not sure that’s our goal.
I do think the mainstreaming of genre is a trend that will continue. A move away from straight realism in adult fiction and toward a crossing over with young adult, fantasy, science-fiction, and hybrid takes on those genres. We’ve been hearing for decades that reality is outpacing fiction; that’s old news, and I don’t think it’s the reason for this trend, at least not quite. But if I can be a bit roundabout here, James Wood began an essay on Tolstoy by arguing that he is so monumental a literary figure, you need to approach him as one would an elephant, not head-on but from the side. I feel like more and more very good writers are taking that approach to engaging our frankly overwhelming world; that to frame things through a genre or a time period (1980s nostalgia?) can focus the work and serve as a successful way of writing about our culture, lives, minds, and feelings.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
I’m intrigued by celebrities writing on something other than their own fame. If a smart comic writer—could be Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, Norm MacDonald—wanted to write a book on the structure of a joke or maybe what makes a bad joke bad, that to me would be really interesting. If Keanu Reeves—he of a thousand memes—wanted to write a short book on the idea of celebrity, that would be (to me) more valuable than him strictly writing his memoir. I mean, think about it—wouldn’t you want to read that?
I love the short novel—longer than a novella but enjoyable over a single day. From Renata Adler’s Speedboat to Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Donald Antrim’s three perfect short novels of the ’90s, I love an encounter that invites me in and, once I’m hooked, allows for “well, I suppose I could stay for just one more drink; after all, it isn’t really that late.” I’m also a sucker for some of that old Sophocles-ian setup: single location, short duration of time. Herman Koch’s The Dinner was one of my favorite novels of the last few years: Put four people around a table for a couple hours, ratchet up the tension, and watch what happens (it’s thrilling to see how we would all behave if we weren’t so damned well-behaved). I can’t get enough of Wallace Shawn’s plays, many of which function in this same way. If something like this crosses my desk, I’m immediately intrigued.
But if I’m really being greedy, I’m looking for books that deliver on multiple levels, both as a reader and as an acquiring editor. There will always be books that are perfect in a single, essential way—a beautiful poem, an honest memoir, an entertaining thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to demand more from a book. As a reader, with my time for reading always at a premium, I want the books I do choose to give more; and from the publishing and publicity perspectives, the books that we find are actually breaking out are the ones that can more fully permeate the culture, which means books that don’t just get written about in the “books pages” but across media.
I think of Adelle Waldman’s brilliant debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., which my friend Barbara Jones acquired and which I had the pleasure of working on as a publicist: It was highly entertaining and smart but also something that could be discussed in style sections, relationship columns, and even, in one instance, a conservative pundit’s weekly column. Last fall, Picador published a remarkable memoir by Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell titled A Disappearance in Damascus. That book is a searing memoir, a story of female friendship, a primer on the nightmare in Syria, and a book that reads like a propulsive espionage thriller. Reading that book is like reading four books.
One of our publisher Stephen Morrison’s authors is Alexander Weinstein, whose debut story collection, Children of the New World, is another great example: 13 stories that are surprising, entertaining, and moving but that also gave the author a chance to talk about technology and how it’s woven into our daily lives, allowing for a story collection to get covered not just in the books pages, but also in Wired. There are, of course, many other great examples.
The point is that there are so many worthy demands on our personal time. We have at our fingertips museums, good TV, good music, and film. And remember, these entertainment options are cumulative: the great books, films, TV, and art of last year don’t all disappear when the new crop debuts, so with each day there is more competition for our attention. In this environment, we should be demanding a lot from the books we select.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
I’m not a particularly big fan of coming-of-age novels. I have nothing specific against them—and, indeed, some of the best books written would fall into this category—but I’ve always just preferred reading about lives further along than my own. This may change significantly as my son grows and I want to read the things he’s reading (or things that help me better understand him).
I wouldn’t ever want to say I absolutely don’t want to at least see a particular type of book, because I find that life is a series of exceptions to rules. One thing I am definitely tired of isn’t so much a topic as it is a tactic. I’m tired of submissions that overstate the case. You’ll see something like “K-Pop songs were downloaded by more than 5 billion people last year, and this novel’s protagonist loves K-Pop. That means potential sales of 5 billion copies of the book worldwide!” I read something like that and I actually say out loud to an empty room: “No, it doesn’t.” I’ve tried to make it a rule, in my “day job” running the publicity department, never to overstate what a book is or to misrepresent who it’s for, and I hope agents won’t when they submit work for publication.
What do you want to change about publishing?
You know, there’s really nothing about our industry that I would wholesale change. In fact, I find that for nearly every frustration I have (why are books returnable?), the wisdom of experience and years reverses my frustration (well, Jim, if booksellers couldn’t return unsold books, they’d never gamble their kids’ college funds on stocking the shelves with your unproven debut novelist). So let’s go broad and idealistic: I’d like for there to be a brick-and-mortar bookstore in every town in America. I’d like for our publishing ecosystem to reside within a country that truly places a value on the book as an important part of our national fabric (tax breaks to open bookstores in neighborhoods that lack them, etc.)
And I’d like for there to be more robust media opportunities for trade paperback reprints, because so many wonderful books deserve a second chance, and the fact is that the best book you read this year may very well not have been published this year (have you gotten around to André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name? Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels? Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides? All in beautiful new editions this year from Picador).
What’s unique about your corner of the publishing industry?
Picador has a unique size and scope that I think works as a real point of strength. We function as the literary trade paperback imprint for Macmillan, so we spend a lot of creative energy in attempting to rebrand and publish paperbacks at a high level. But we also work as a stand-alone publisher of hardcovers and paperback originals, and that list has a distinctively curated feel (and we can give the focus to that list that you might find at a much smaller house).
On the reprint side, it’s tougher than ever to grow an older book in paperback, but last fall we worked to get both Thomas L. Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal to No. 1 on the New York Times paperback list, and last fall into this winter, we’ve worked with Sony Pictures Classics to make the 10-year-old novel Call Me By Your Name a major national bestseller. Right now, we’re working in the same way with Showtime on Patrick Melrose. We know how to do that kind of “big” publishing.
In the same office with the same team, our original and hardcover program often has the feel of a strong independent house, publishing just one or two original titles per month, giving them tremendous focus and not having to give up on them immediately if they spend their first couple weeks finding an audience. We worked like this to make Michael Punke’s The Revenant a critical success before it became a Hollywood blockbuster. In 2015, Stephen Morrison acquired Christopher J. Yates’ debut novel, Black Chalk, and we found a great readership for him as a paperback original, setting the scene for his hardcover follow-up, this winter’s widely praised (and strong-selling) Grist Mill Road.
My colleague Anna deVries has published some incredible books at the center of the cultural conversation, and we’ve been able to grow these authors’ platforms: Damon Tweedy’s Black Man in a White Coat, the anthology Nasty Women, and the forthcoming We Can’t Breathe by Jabari Asim. Elizabeth Bruce acquired a novel we published last summer by Ashley Shelby, South Pole Station, that’s not only a great read, but has spent the last year catching on as a smart and surprising take on climate change (here, again, the books that do more than one thing well). And Pronoy Sarkar just published Raw, a memoir by Wu-Tang Clan founding member Lamont “U-God” Hawkins, a sort of hip-hop Just Kids.
Are we a big small house? A small big house? I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it feels like a good habitat for publishing great books and giving them as much air to breathe as possible.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I don’t know who originally said this, but there’s an idea that if you want to write a book it should be a book you want to read but that doesn’t yet exist. In this day of an editor acquiring a book and immediately being forced to tell people what it’s like, I’d like to be a spoiled brat and say, rather: I want to be surprised. The reason I fell in love with reading and decided to devote my professional life to reading and publishing books is the excitement that comes with discovering something unique. Something that—in a world that seems to defy surprise—surprises me.
In May, we published Alan Stern and David Grinspoon’s Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, and this is a surprising book. Yes, there’s a ton of fascinating science in it, and it gives a record of a major feat in the history of human exploration. But the book is—like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (a title that proudly sits on the Picador paperback list)—more about the people than the rockets and the spacecraft; its real surprises and pleasures are in reading about how a group of people put pencil to paper and consumed a lot of coffee and figured out how to send a spacecraft 3 billion miles from home in an attempt to learn more about our universe. That’s different. That hasn’t been done. I love that.
I’d been in the publicity department at Picador for more than a decade when I acquired my first book as an editor. It was a debut novel by a late bloomer (first novel in his 50s) named Paul Goldberg, titled The Yid, a historical fiction about a ragtag group that plots to assassinate Stalin. I’m not a big reader of historical fiction. I’m not particularly interested in Stalin or Russia. But what Goldberg did with this material…he took the idea of a historical novel and he turned it 30 degrees off square. He defamiliarized the whole deal. Made it new. THAT made my hair stand on end. And that’s what I want to publish.
James Meader is the vice president and executive director of publicity at Picador, where he has worked since 2002 and where he also acquires and edits a handful of books each year. As publicity director, he has planned hundreds of book launches for authors including Paul Auster, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Finkel, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, Thomas L. Friedman, Atul Gawande, Damon Tweedy, Adelle Waldman, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Wolfe. He serves on the Publishers Publicity Association board. Recent acquisitions include: Paul Goldberg’s novels The Yid and The Chateau, Deborah Campbell’s A Disappearance in Damascus, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon’s Chasing New Horizons, and Menno Schilthuizen’s Darwin Comes to Town. A native of Maine, he studied comparative literature and Chinese at Middlebury College. He lives in New York City with his wife and son and is a massive fan of 1970s folk rock.