Last week at the annual Professional and Scholarly Publishing (PSP) conference in Washington, D.C., Harvard University Press accepted the R.R. Hawkins Award for Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The Hawkins—the highest honor given by the PSP Division of the Association of American Publishers—recognizes the most exceptional professional, reference or scholarly work of the year. The book’s editor, Ian Malcolm, accepted the award on behalf of Piketty and the Press, and used his acceptance speech as an occasion to highlight some of the many people involved in the book’s success. A chance to pat ourselves on the back, yes, but also an opportune moment to acknowledge the unseen efforts involved in the publication of any scholarly work, and to remember that even the most singularly stellar of studies relies on a wide network of actors to help it realize its potential to “inform democratic debate and focus attention on the right questions,” the contributions that Piketty identifies in Capital as the critical role of expert analysis.
The text of Malcolm’s speech is below.
Thank you, on behalf of the author and on behalf of Harvard University Press. It’s a huge honour for all of us who worked on the book to win an award chosen by our peers in publishing, and to win it against such extraordinary competition.
I’ve been asked to speak for 5 to 10 minutes on the making of the book and why it’s an important contribution to scholarly publishing.
One of the joys of this book is that it has sold well and been reviewed widely. Many of you will already know what it’s all about.
So, thank you. I’ll sit down now.
Or so I’d like to conclude. But I’ll say a few things.
First, I want to pay tribute to the author. When I first met Thomas Piketty on a routine acquisition trip, I asked what he was working on.
“I’m trying to answer the same questions as Karl Marx,” he said, “only with better data and a clearer theory.”
Normally, that sort of grand claim is a cue for a quick editorial exit.
“Good luck! I’ll send you the email of an editor at Oxford University Press.”
But this wasn’t a normal author. Thomas was already a star in the profession. He had started thinking hard about the history and dynamics of inequality 20 years ago.
He didn’t think we knew anywhere near enough about the basic facts of inequality, and that our theories, our explanations of what we did know, whether inherited from Karl Marx, Simon Kuznets, or Genghis Khan, were deeply inadequate.
So like a climber at the base of Mt Everest, he planned a route and proceeded slowly, step by step—year by year, in his case—to find and analyze the relevant information, working with some formidable colleagues, notably Emanuel Saez and Tony Atkinson, the godfather of inequality studies—and whose own Harvard book Inequality: What Can Be Done will appear two months from now at the extremely reasonable price of $29.95. You can place an order with the waiters.
So given Thomas’s heavyweight reputation, when asked if it was pretentious to say that he was working on a modern version of Das Kapital, I explained that there would be plenty of time to talk about all that sort of stuff after he signed a contract.
We’re very lucky that he did sign, and placed his faith in us.
What he produced is one of the most important books of the century so far, a masterful compilation and distillation of data on 200 years of inequality, combined with bold theoretical interpretations of its rise and fall and its possible future—and with a non-revolutionary set of ideas for moderating it.
The Hawkins award is, obviously, above all else for that intellectual achievement.
But it’s a publishing award too and I would like to credit the collective effort of my colleagues at Harvard. It takes a lot of people to take Word files that arrive by email and transform them into more than half a million 3-lb. blocks of paper and distribute them around the world from Timbuktu to Tuktoyaktuk.
We didn’t know, of course, that the book would sell that number. But it wasn’t the case either that we treated it as a run-of-the mill book and then hammered the reprint button with panic and delight when it turned out otherwise.
We received the 250,000-word manuscript in French on May 8, 2013. And on May 7, 2014, 364 days later, the book hit #1 on the NYT best seller list.
That’s a real achievement of planning, execution, and foresight.
Art Goldhammer, the peerless translator, deserves special mention for turning the manuscript into exceptionally clear and elegant English not only at record speed, but while recovering from cancer.
The book had phenomenal support at the top from Bill Sisler, Susan Boehmer, Susan Donnelly, Tim Jones and Richard Howells. And I’d like to credit a few people who quietly got on with the sort of work that everyone here knows makes such a difference not just to the end product but also to the process of getting there smoothly: production editor Kate Brick, editorial assistant Joy Deng, designer Graciela Galup who made a cover that is now an icon, and two publicists, Lisa LaPoint and Rebekah White, who have had to plant a microchip in Thomas’s shoulder so they can tell the media where on the globe to find him at any given instant.
I’d also like to say why the book is an ideal symbol of the power and potential of academic publishing.
I think the demand for the book is in part a demand for the real thing, for genuine substance, for knowledge you can rely on about a matter of vital importance. You can disagree with aspects of the book, but that’s in part because there’s something there to disagree with.
This isn’t the French theory we sometimes like to ridicule, wilfully obscure and at times indifferent to truth and even meaning. It’s French theory of an older sort. It’s a grand project steeped in the Enlightenment tradition of grappling with difficult truths and explaining them in the clearest terms possible to as many people as possible.
In academic publishing, we don’t, of course, always reach vast numbers of people, and our authors aren’t always beacons of clarity. But we are, more than publishers in any other corner of the industry, committed to the project of getting complicated things right, to telling the truth, and to figuring out what subjects it’s worth saying anything about in the first place. Other publishers put portraying the world accurately and fairly lower in the list of priorities. In that sense, Piketty’s book is a calling card for the sort of work we all try to do every day.
One final thing.
The book has changed academic debate, but it has also affected the world. It’s done so in numerous ways, one of which I read about recently.
The CEO of Aetna read the book, asked all his fellow executives to read it too, and gave all his lowest-paid employees a 30 per cent raise because he was worried about the inequality that the book diagnoses.
It’s really nice to think, especially when we talk about the pace of technological change in the industry, that one of the things that helped to change the world a little bit in 2014 was in the humble technological form of the book.