Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Most Interesting Publishing News of the Week: Penguin Launches a New Science Imprint

I was intrigued to see the announcement a few days ago that Penguin USA is launching a new imprint, called Current, specializing in science titles.  Its publisher,  Adrian Zackheim, already heads two other imprints, Sentinel and Portfolio, devoted to conservative books and business books respectively. As Adrian observed in the press release, Penguin has had good success with niche publishing in those two areas: expanding into another niche seems like common sense.

To me there are two interesting features of this news. First, that Penguin is expanding its array of special-interest imprints (it has several other small lists in addition to the ones mentioned above).  The estimable Mike Shatzkin has long argued that mastering niche audiences is the only viable future for publishing companies, and I think he may well be right. Penguin, with its vast and broad lists in paperback especially, is a long way from being a niche publisher--but are they beginning to steer the ocean liner in that direction?

And I'm pleasantly surprised to see that the area they have chosen to expand into is science. For some years now, popular science has been a category underserved by big publishers. Ten to fifteen years ago, in a great publishing tradition, every house in town piled into science books, chasing blockbuster successes like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and James Gleick's Chaos.

The inevitable result, after a couple of years in which there were some further, moderate successes while advances for science books went into the exosphere, was: the market was glutted and collapsed. Then, equally inevitably, the word went around the business,
"Science books don't sell." It became difficult for even a first-rate science book to find competitive bidders.

Of course, the audience for good, accessible science titles never went away--it was first surfeited, then starved, by publishers. Other categories have gone through similar cycles. After the rage for science, we had a rage for history books--then that bubble burst and we heard, "oh, you can't sell history any more." Anyway, Adrian Zackheim is a smart publisher, and if he thinks science is a category on the upswing he probably has some solid evidence.   I enjoy reading, and editing, science titles so I'll keep an eye on Current with interest. Meanwhile, I and my colleagues at Walker & Co. have been quietly publishing popular science all along (as have several other fine editors elsewhere). We'll all be here to provide Penguin with some competition.

Two Books for St. Patrick's Day: the Irish in America, and an American in Ireland

With St. Patrick's Day upon us I have to toot the horn, or the uilleann pipes, for two books that every good son or daughter of Erin should know about--one that I published, one that I didn't. 

The first is Jay P. Dolan's sweeping history The Irish AmericansIt surprised me to learn, when I began talking to Jay about the book he was planning, that no general history of Irish-Americans had been written, at least for a trade audience, since the 1960s. Any field of historical research throws up new insights over such a span of time, but social history and ethnic history in particular have boomed in the past few decades. Jay, who had written pioneering works in this area, was an ideal author for the the topic. He drew on his own research and wove it together with the other recent scholarship in a richly colorful narrative. 

The Irish Americans follows the Irish from their first arrival in the American colonies through the bleak days of the potato famine that brought millions of starving immigrants, right up to the election of JFK, the triumphant moment when an Irish American attained the White House. The book manages to evoke the ghastly ships crowded with men and women fleeing the potato blight; the backbreaking toil of Irish navvies digging the Erie Canal; vibrant life of Catholic parishes in cities like New York and Chicago; and the world of machine politics, where ward bosses often held court in the local saloon.  It's a grand tapestry of the Irish experience in America,  and I might add, the perfect gift for your Irish da, gran, or brother-in-law. Don't just take my word for it--the Wall Street Journal's excellent review is here

If you'd rather read about the old sod itself rather than its diaspora, you might seek out a lovely, more personal book, The Irish Way: A Walk Through Ireland's Past and Present. Full disclosure: the author is my Irish (-American) da, Robert Emmett Ginna. A few years ago he walked across the whole island, north to south. To stroll across the Irish landscape is to travel through time, so his account becomes a mosaic in which encounters with history and encounters with a profuse variety of present-day Irish characters are interspersed.  (Again, don't take my word for it. James Salter wrote, "Ginna takes you along with him into the ruined abbeys, the villages and towns, the great houses with their extraordinary histories, the talk-filled pubs, and, more than this, into the soul of the country.")

Pour yourself a Jameson's, or if it's not that hour, brew a cup of tea--in my family we ask for it "strong enough to trot a mouse across"--and settle in.