What are some upcoming trends for the next year?
I don’t think about this in my professional life much. The buzzing competition in the book industry between diligent, original thinkers keeps this enterprise zone nice and unpredictable and interesting.
That said, we will have some more big sellers that will help us understand the current U.S. administration and what we can do with or about or around it—I’m going with a longer time frame than one year. There will be many more books on artificial intelligence. So much is happening with neural net machine learning technology, it seems likely to affect all aspects of our economy, including the book business, from how we find books to buy to what a small but growing number of them are about. I guess one title over the next few years will capture the AI market, leaving a big field of good books with much more modest sales.
But then again, is AI really a useful category description? Is it the key word? The so-called many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics blows my mind, and there are going to be some more great books about that. It might turn out to be as much of a popular science trend as Brian Greene made of string theory.
Having worked these last years with Carl Zimmer on She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I’m looking forward to reading books on the biological and social realities of heredity.
Maybe it is middle age. I loved Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, and I’m reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer now. Books more or less about aging will have a market as the boomers age—yeah, duh.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
Elon Musk’s book on artificial intelligence (sent from his base on Mars). An author praised as the next Kurt Vonnegut (though my colleagues will take some convincing I should be allowed anywhere near a novel). The next Matthew Desmond (which is probably not going to happen, I just have to say Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a superbly constructed masterpiece). I haven’t done a lot of adventure books, but hanging around Mark Synnott, whose The Impossible Climb: A Personal History of Alex Honnold's Free Solo of El Capitan and a Climbing Life is coming in the fall, makes me keen to find more. I always like to see proposals grounded in science or mathematics. And sometimes dogs. Not cats.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
I can’t think of any (I could even see a cat book come to think of it). I might have said puzzle books, I did one once, but then last week a lead for a puzzle book came up, and I’m dreaming about that now.
What do you want to change about publishing?
There is a balance in this industry between those who come to each book as if it were a unique work of art, resisting classification, defying comparison, and worthy of passionate devotion. And there are those who are required to see patterns, economies, to find efficiencies by reasonably predicting and making business plans. The more that balance is understood as necessary the better. Instead I often see less than real devotion to the work and less than meticulous empirical analysis of the book business’s data. I see these failings in myself. We can do better. Yes we can.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Publishers give a lot of money to authors as advances every year, $750 million in the case of Penguin Random House. This money goes to individuals to go off for months and years to write their manuscripts as they see fit. It is a huge startup fund for human culture. It’s a great thing.
Stephen Morrow joined Dutton in 2006 as an executive editor specializing in nonfiction. He edits a wide range of science, narrative nonfiction, and investigative journalism. His authors include neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload; Maria Goodavage, author of the forthcoming Doctor Dogs; and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itselfand the forthcoming Something Deeply Hidden. Other upcoming titles include She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer, The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott, and Insane Mode: How Elon Musk’s Tesla Sparked an Electric Revolution to End the Age of Oil by Hamish McKenzie. Before coming to Dutton, Stephen founded the imprint Pi Press and the hard science list at Free Press, Simon & Schuster, where he began his trade publishing career.