If the chance to set up a new list of one’s own is an enticing prospect for any publisher, it also inevitably presents a challenge—and much more so when the process takes place in the middle of a pandemic. For Sarah Caro (pictured below), publishing director at new John Murray Press (JMP) imprint Basic Books UK, which launches its first titles this month, there was also an added complication: on her first day in the new job, 18 months ago, she came down with Covid, and she then went on to struggle with the typical symptoms of long Covid, fatigue and brain fog, from which she is only just fully recovering.
“I was scared because I thought my brain was never going to work again,” Caro explains, over Zoom from her base in Oxford (she has yet to set foot in Hachette’s London base in Carmelite Towers, although she has visited its new office in Bristol). “I was referred to a long Covid clinic, which has been fantastic and helped me. I’m quite a full-on person so I find it quite hard to ease back, but they helped me to work in a more sensible way. So for instance, every day since lockdown I go for a walk for an hour at lunchtime with my husband and the dog, and that really helps.”
Caro says the offer from JMP m.d. Nick Davies of setting up a UK sister to Basic Books, the non-fiction imprint which has existed in the US for 70 years, had come as a “wonderful, extraordinary opportunity”. She had been looking after social sciences at Princeton University Press for six years, after a varied career which saw her start out as a bookseller and rep, and then move between trade and academic publishing in roles at Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, Wiley and Profile, as well as with a non-executive directorship with David Fickling Books.
The UK base
Basic Books US was looking for a UK presence and
JMP wanted to expand its serious non-fiction. Caro stood out for her experience in the social sciences at Princeton UP, a balance to the traditional strengths of the US imprint in history and science.
She explains: “It’s unusual, I think, in that I work very closely with Basic Books US but I have the freedom to commission the books I want to myself, so I report to Nick but also work incredibly closely with Lara [Heimert, Basic Books US publisher], who has been amazing. I think the fact that I’ve worked with US companies from the UK was helpful. I have that experience of working with people remotely and building up relationships remotely, which came in useful with Covid as well.”
The UK imprint has its own commissioning strategy, but in tune with Basic Books US, it will publish books based on scholarship but accessible for a broader audience. What fascinates her, Caro says, is “the power of words to make accessible ideas which can change the way we live and work, the way we think about things. That idea of transformation is really important to me.” She cites one of the imprint’s launch titles—Making Darkness Light by Joe Moshenka, on John Milton—as exploring the theme of “what happens when we read a book and over time we let someone else’s life and words enter our own. That for me sums up what the list is about and what editing is about and reading is about.”
On the hunt
Basic Books UK will be looking for “original ideas that can change the way we think about things, about our own lives and more generally society; books with a global perspective, international relevance; and subjects that can move us in some way” from authors with expertise in their fields—often academics, former academics or journalists.
Unsurprisingly, exploring the likely effects of the pandemic is among the themes which arise. One of Basic’s launch titles, Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in the Age of Isolation by economists Ed Glaeser and David Cutler (out this month), looks at the likely future of the city in the light of the pandemic, “starting off with a historical overview of cholera epidemics and the plague, but then looking to the future.” Caro says: “What’s really interesting about that, and one of the lessons I’ve taken away from the pandemic so far, is that it’s an accelerator for changes that have been latent for quite a long time. Yes, if everyone moves to suburbs that will be a threat to the cities—some are already suffering in terms of the shops that supported office workers and so on—but actually the biggest threat to the city are issues that existed long before the pandemic: issues of inadequate housing, inadequate transport, inequality of opportunity.”
Another upcoming book likely to be of intense interest to those considering pressing decisions on office working will be Julia Hobsbawm’s The Nowhere Office: Reinventing Work and the Workplace of the Future (February 2022). “Basically she talks about how we are all going to have to adjust the way we work, much more task-based in focus rather than presenteeism, but that offices won’t disappear completely,” Caro explains. “They won’t so much be a place to sit and read our emails-—that will go out of the window, we’ll do that kind of work at home—but a place to interact with one another, whether training younger workers, who often learn how to be in their role by observing others who are more experienced, or for people further on in their careers, brainstorming and so on.”
A varied start
Other titles in the pipeline will range over subjects as varied as the relationship between mental illness and identity, in philosopher Noga Arikha’s The Ceiling Outside: The Science and Experience of the Disrupted Mind, coming next April, a book Caro said it personally helped her to work on, as she experienced a parent suffering from dementia; a global history of the idea of free speech, in Jacob Mchangama’s Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media, due in March; and further down the line a book arguing for the necessity of experts and expertise, Credible: Why We Need Expert Leaders Now by Amanda Goodall, set for autumn 2022; and a look at scientific modelling by Erica Thompson, Escape from Model Land: How Mathematical Models Can Lead Us Astray and What We Can Do About It, scheduled for early 2023. A major slavery history, Doorway to the World: 15 Ports that Built Empires Through Slavery by Professor Olivette Otele, is underway for 2025.
Caro says that although there are so many uncertainties about live events this autumn, there are plans for an active programme of events and promotion, with the aim of creating a community of authors, readers and booksellers around the imprint. “If we are keeping it to around 10 or 12 titles a year [Caro is line-editing books herself, which puts a cap on numbers], we can really do that, because the list is very much about quality not quantity.”
She adds: “Ultimately it’s about reading a proposal and getting really excited and stimulated, and that’s what I hope we can do with these books we have commissioned. I hope that readers too will feel that sense of excitement, discovery and curiosity.”
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