June 26, 2015

Spiegel & Grau moves up publication date of new Ta-Nehisi Coates book


CoatesCoverWhenever a book proves timely, we tend to think of that timeliness as accidental—a matter of circumstance.

Earlier this month, when the nation first learned Rachel Dolezal’s name, a number of commentators took note of the controversy’s surreal parallels with recent novels by Jess Row (Your Face in Mine, which imagines the invention of “racial reassignment surgery”) and Nell Zink (Mislaid, about, in part, a white woman who passes for black), among others. These were timely books—even prescient books—but they had only become so in retrospect. Events had given them a kind of cultural heft that they had surely deserved from the beginning, but which they may not have otherwise acquired.

Occasionally, though, timeliness in book publishing can be harnessed ahead of time—even provoked. Which is what happened yesterday with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, when Penguin Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau announced that it was moving up the book’s publication from September 8 to July 14—less than three weeks away.

The considerable effort involved (compressing the production, publicity, and marketing schedules; rushing the printing and distribution; notifying all interested parties—particularly booksellers) means that a publisher doesn’t take the decision to accelerate lightly. Moving up a publication date is a way to assert a book’s urgency, to say that that book has something to offer right now.

Between the World and Me, which is written as a letter to Coates’s fifteen-year-old-son, explores racism and racial violence throughout American history. Coates’s editor, the great Christopher Jackson, told the Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Maloney that in the aftermath of the terrorist killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston last week, it didn’t make sense to wait:

“We started getting massive requests from people” for advance copies, said Christopher Jackson, executive editor of Spiegel & Grau. “It spoke to this moment. We started to feel pregnant with this book. We had this book that so many people wanted.”

As Maloney notes, “[m]oving up a book’s publication date is logistically complicated but not unheard of,” though it doesn’t happen in more than a handful of cases every year. That the demand for World was high enough to justify such a shift suggests that Coates was already primed to receive significant attention. Now that attention will come sooner.

I should add that I have a personal stake in this move for a very simple reason: it allows me to read Between the World and Me three months earlier than I was planning to. I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates since 2008, when he had a stint as a guest blogger for Matthew Yglesias at The Atlantic, and since then—like many others—I’ve been awed by his extraordinary talent. One time, during a debate with people I had met like five minutes earlier, I argued at length that Coates our greatest public intellectual, and when I searched my inbox for mentions of Coates’s name, I discovered that at one point I told my best friend in an e-mail that Coates was “the internet’s only moralist,” (which I meant as a compliment). I basically stand by both of those claims.

It’s corny to announce one’s heroes, but Coates is one of mine. Over the last seven years, he has written modest, inquisitive blog posts and huge, conversation-starting pieces like last year’s “The Case for Reparations” and tackled everything from the Civil War to twentieth-century housing policy, and throughout it all, he has allowed readers to participate in and affect his intellectual journey. It’s been a bracing thing to behold, and I, for one, am glad that I can encounter the next chapter in Coates’s career in less than a month’s time.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.