Q&A With Prof. Nicholas Lemann on Columbia University's New Leap Into Publishing

At a time when books and journalism seem to be embattled, Columbia University has launched a new publishing imprint, Columbia Global Reports. It has just released Bethany McLean's Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants -- the first in a series of shorter-than-usual books on vital global issues.

Nicholas Lemann, the director of Columbia Global Reports and past Dean of Columbia School of Journalism, spoke with The National Book Review about the new venture.

Q: What do books offer today?

A: "Oh, you mean, 'What's the point of books?' (Laughs)

What we publish gives the opportunity for a sustained and full look at a serious issue, and importantly, original research.

All of our books are based on original reporting. So it's not just, "What is your take on this, What is your take on that." We put people on an airplane, and they go talk to people, and they see things, and then write.

Q: Next up are Clay Shirky's Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream and Atossa Abrahamian's The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. Why the theme of globalization?

A: Well, that's kind of doctor's orders if you will. . . . [from] my boss, Lee Bollinger, the President of the University . . .The reason we are able to do this is that he is making it happen financially.

[Bollinger] has started a bunch of initiatives that have to do with trying to make Columbia more globally aware as a university.

The way this all started was he came to me and said, Why don't you devise a journalistic project that covers globalization -- because the press, the American press especially, doesn't cover it enough.

I was given that as a kind of directive from Lee, and then I picked the format -- but he picked the basic journalistic mission.

Q. How does the process work? The authors of these books are skilled reporters and lucid writers, but we wonder: Do you approach them with a formed idea, a question for them, or did you work it out with them?

A: Both. I guess what we were evolving is a model that is somewhere between book and magazine publishing. It has elements of both.

So, in book publishing for the most part it's like movie studios where the book publisher gets pitched and they don't actually assign things. And in the magazine business it is much more assignment-driven.

Our books are some mix of that. That is, I think every book we've done so far, well it's a kind of an interactive process that has some element of assignment to it. We haven't published anything yet where an agent bought a project to us and we just greenlighted it.

Q: So, it's more collaborative?

A: In some cases, like our first book, Bethany McLean's book, I went to her and kind of opened the bidding with a question and she came back with this idea.

Atossa's book, our third book is more her idea that she pitched to us. And the 2nd book is also Clay's idea that he pitched to us.

And then the fourth book that I just got galleys of, a writer, Sasha Issenberg's, agent brought him to us but we assigned the idea.

It's that kind of blend. We are open to pitches and we also sometimes have conversations back and forth with 'What about this,' and 'What about that,' and it kind of goes back and forth.

Q: Why did Columbia decide to be a publisher itself?

A: Well, Lee is a better person to ask that question than me because he is the one who really made that decision. There's some website somewhere that if you type in the search term "Global Columbia," you will see half a dozen things that Lee has started, so in his mind he wants a sort of Journalistic Entity that is one of these Columbia Global Initiatives.

It wasn't like we went to him and pitched the idea, or we just had to start a publishing house.

It was, he decided to start a journalistic entity within the cluster of Columbia Global entities and left it up to me to decide what it would be in particular. But it's clearly to be understood as a Columbia University project, not a partnership with an existing publishing house.

Q: Do you see any cultural or artistic story on the horizon?

A: We have two cultural books now under contract that are going to come out, I think, next year, one is on film and one is on literature. And we are looking for . . . we had one writer we were talking to, with something on art, but it didn't come through. But culture is definitely part of our mandate.

Q: Can you talk about the one on literature?

A: Well I guess I can a little bit, I hope nobody steals the idea.

Do you know a critic named Adam Kirsch? Yeah, so he's the person writing the book. He's a wonderful literary critic and writer, and he's kind of wrestling with the this question which is somewhat being debated out there of "is there such thing as global literature?"

One position is "Yes" and the other position is "No . . . all literature is provincial in the end."

He's taking three or four writers - the final line-up hasn't been picked yet - who seem to have attracted a global audience in translation and trying to sort of tease out what's there. As far as I know he has not come up with an answer to the question of "Yes" or "No" -- there's a global literature, but that is his assignment.

Q: How can you reach a younger generation of readers?

A: Well, we are doing all the things you are supposed to do like Twitter, Facebook etc.
But I guess the real answer is, this is not like publishing the Chicago Tribune or some mass-market publication.

We are a niche publisher. We are looking for relatively small audiences - we are a cheap operation. We have achieved a really nice ratio of quality of output to cost of doing business, so we don't need to reach huge audiences.

Frankly, I'm a little skeptical of the numbers obsession around digital journalism -- it doesn't seem to have any payoff. So the truth is based off one week of officially [being] in business, or 10 days, we are niche publishers.

The first book is going back for a third printing, so that's good. . . . I would say based on what little we know the primary audience for that book is people who are already obsessed with housing and mortgages and stuff like that. Although I'd love to have millennials among our readers, and maybe we will, we seem to be on the course of marketing each book to its natural niche audience.

So I think the people who buy this book are not going to have much overlap with people who buy Adam Kirsch's forthcoming book, I would say.

It doesn't skew young or old. It skews how obsessed are you with the topic.

Q: Will there be a Columbia Domestic Report?

A: Not to my knowledge. What Lee thinks he's doing here is a whole bunch of things that have to do with making Columbia a more global university, and this fits within that category.

So, that's our strong directive - to do globalization as the story we are covering.

This interview, conducted by telephone, has been edited.