Meet the man quietly revolutionising publishing

Chris Jackson moves slowly through ­clusters of people on the promenade in front of Jane’s ­Carousel, the iconic merry-go-round by the East River waterfront in Brooklyn. He is tall and sinewy with a salt-and-pepper beard and closely cropped hair. His hands are tucked deep in the front pockets of his blue jeans, a pair of round spectacles perched on his nose. He spots me standing at the boardwalk’s edge. I’ve been looking forward to this chance to talk to the acclaimed but reserved editor, and it’s taken a couple of months to arrange this meeting. He greets me warmly with a soft smile.

I am immediately struck by his quiet demeanour and aura of calm. There is a palpable gentleness about him, something akin to shyness, that catches me a little off guard for someone with such a starlit reputation in the publishing world. But I sense, too, his acute attention, a mind churning just beneath the surface.

Jackson is the executive vice-president, publisher and editor-in-chief of One World Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House known for titles that bear witness to the complexities of a diverse world. His list includes the bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson and Wes Moore, the first black governor of Maryland, as well as celebrities such as Prince, Trevor Noah and Jay-Z, whose imprint, Roc Nation, Jackson is also developing.

The subject matter of One World’s books varies — from social justice, politics and environmentalism to memoir and literary fiction — but at the centre of all of them lies an invitation to explore social systems and reckon with cultural assumptions. They aim to offer more inclusive, expansive ways of understanding the world, often by centring historically marginalised perspectives. In 2019, Time magazine named Jackson one of the “12 Leaders Who Are Shaping the Next Generation of Artists” and, in 2020, he won the Medal for Editorial Excellence from the Center for Fiction in New York. But in an industry where, as of 2019, 85 per cent of the editorial staff acquiring books at the big US publishing houses were white, he is something of a unicorn.

Inside Dumbo House, Soho House’s Brooklyn offshoot, the music is loud, the tables are full and all I can see are exceptionally attractive people. It’s a hip joint. Apparently, Beyoncé and Jay-Z were here recently for a ­Kendrick Lamar concert after-party. We eventually snag seats at the end of a communal table and, while we wait for our coffee, I ask Jackson what he’s reading at the moment. His answer says much about his approach to books in general.

“I just finished reading On Freedom by Maggie Nelson,” he replies. Nelson’s 2021 essay collection considers the concept of freedom and how it relates to art, sex, drugs and climate change. “I loved it, but it’s not a book in which I agree with a lot of the things she was writing about,” he continues. “But I loved the wrestling . . . the honest intellectual grappling with these ideas that are difficult or uncomfortable, or don’t adhere to some orthodoxy. Which in some ways is where I start with books: I don’t need books to be things that I agree with entirely.”

Jackson has always known about the power of words and ideas. Born to a tight-knit family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1971 and raised in a housing project in Harlem, he describes himself as being “a depressed and disaffected kid for a while”. He remembers 1970s and 1980s Harlem as a “bombed out place largely abandoned by the rest of the country, with burnt-down buildings and empty lots”. But where an outsider might have seen only poverty and despair, Jackson saw beauty and richness too. He was accepted into the elite Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for high school, and shuttled between the two worlds each day. Still, the influence of his community remained strong. “[My family] was certainly in the business of making a world that they wanted through their imagination,” he says. “So, it’s something I’ve always thought about: a way of not conceding that the only way to navigate the world is to conform to it. Because to conform to it, as a black kid growing up in the projects of New York, is to destroy yourself. You have to find another way.”

Jackson found that other way — a way to resist the pervasive ideas about the undesirability of blackness from the world at large — right there in the neighbourhood. He remembers walking down 125th Street, with its “end-to-end book tables and art tables. There was everything from pulpy street fiction to black poets and writers, and religious stuff like the Nation of Islam. Preachers and political activists would be giving speeches. It was a rich brew of counternarratives, some of which even taught me scepticism. But this place was rich because it insisted on the power of art and ideas in the absence of almost everything else.”

Portrait of Chris Jackson in his study at home in Brooklyn, NYC: ‘In books . . . you can act as if you’re already free, and think about the ideas’ © Al J Thompson

It was also the birthplace of hip-hop. “I saw where it came from: people who got thrown out of school, people who were on public assistance, people who lived in the same crumbling projects I did, they created something that changed the world.” He leans back and gives a small shake of his head. “And if that wasn’t a lesson in the power of the arts . . . ”

His love of language and reading began at an early age, as a member of a church where “I had to read the Bible and give public addresses”. But it was an English teacher at Hunter who encouraged his writing and took him and his peers to literary events. “It was an entrée into this . . . bigger world of literature, and I was invited,” he tells me. “I knew I was going to lose something of my own world, but I just thought, there’s another place for me.”

Jackson’s father died when he was four; he lost his mother when he was finishing high school. He took a three-year break before enrolling at Columbia University to study literature, but he left after a year and a half because he needed to support himself financially. “I was always thinking I would go back. I just had a lot of things going on in my life at the time,” he says. “So I didn’t see it as dropping out, I just thought I was taking time off.” During this time, he also left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was disowned by his remaining family and community, although he continued to live in Harlem.

It was around the same time, in the mid-1990s, that Jackson got his first real job in publishing, as an editorial assistant at John Wiley & Sons. He worked at first on popular reference books. It was there that he learnt the nuts and bolts of the business, as well as how to do more of what he wanted to do. “So, for example, [my colleagues would] say, ‘We’re doing popular reference,’” he explains, referring to general-interest titles. “And I was like, OK, what is the popular reference that I want? Not like, here’s a book on teach yourself physics. What do I think is popular reference?”

His answer came in the form of books like Sacred Fire (1999), a guide to 100 great works of African-American literature, and Kevin Powell’s Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature (2000), the final title he worked on at Wiley. This book was an important milestone for Jackson, a collection of essays, criticism, fiction and poetry by black and brown writers from around the world. They included Claudia Rankine, Hilton Als, Bernardine Evaristo, Edwidge Danticat and John Keene: writers now representative of the sort of expanded literary establishment that imprints like One World celebrates. But back then, “it was not the kind of book that Wiley really did”, Jackson says.

It was at his next job, at Crown Publishing, that he realised the importance of social connections. “It was so much about who you knew,” he says, describing “a world that was inhabited by people [who seemed to come] from the exact same social economic educational strata. And I came in without a mentor, without any contact to a desk. Which was great because it allowed me to build my own infrastructure from the ground up.”

At Crown he inherited a book by Russell Simmons, founder of the music label Def Jam. “One of the things he’d always say is that there are two kinds of people: in-the-building-­people and outside-the-building-people,” Jackson says. “If you’re inside-the-building it means you make everyone happy inside the building, but your work doesn’t mean much outside. Or you can be outside-the-building, where you actually find out what’s going on in the world. I was forced to be outside-the-building, because nobody knew me inside the building.”

For Jackson, the art of being an editor is one of collaboration and negotiation. “I have this theory of the circle of editing,” he tells me. “On one side of the circle you have the writer, and on the other side you have the reader, and the editor travels around that circle. My job is to get as close as possible to the writer, so that I can understand and really see their ideas . . . Then I slide along the circle to the reader and start becoming the reader’s advocate in the process.” This is to ensure both the integrity of the author’s ideas and that the book is not “inaccessible or overly abstract” — that it works for both sides.

He also spends a lot of time acquiring projects. “I always go back to Toni Morrison’s point [that] if there’s a book that you need that doesn’t exist, you have to write it,” he says. “As editors, when we’re out there commissioning work, it’s the same thing.”

portrait of a man
Portrait of Chris Jackson at his home in Brooklyn, New York © Al J Thompson

In 2006, Jackson became executive editor at Spiegel & Grau, a new imprint of Doubleday Broadway. While he was there he raised the visibility of more work by black writers, publishing books like Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestselling memoir Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2015.

In 2016, he moved to One World, a division of Penguin Random House, the world’s biggest ­general-interest book publisher by revenues. Since he arrived, he has intentionally hired more people of colour. Jackson understands that it’s not enough to diversify your list of authors; the make-up of your staff matters too. When he and others in the industry first began publishing big, bestselling books by writers of colour, other editors took note. “But I think they would have been very content for it to be white people [acquiring and editing] those books until they got tired of them,” Jackson says. “It wasn’t until George Floyd’s death that you had this mad rush to do the thing that they could have done all along, to actually hire people [of colour] and not just make noises about it” or claim they couldn’t find people.

Since 2020, there have been some small signs of change. Penguin Random House US reported last summer that 74 per cent of its employees, excluding warehouse staff, identified as white, down from 78 per cent in 2020. At the company’s UK division, the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic employees increased from 13 per cent in 2020 to 17 per cent the following year. In 2021, Hachette announced a 7 per cent increase in the number of employees of colour.

Talking to Jackson about his career, it’s easy to pick up the thread by which he’s pulled himself along. He believes in the power of stories to alter people’s trajectories, to stir or even trouble the broader moral imagination, and to shift culture.

Freedom is a recurring motif in our conversation. When he was working on a book with the late anthropologist David Graeber, one of the intellectual architects of the Occupy movement, he was inspired by Graeber’s phrase, “acting as if you’re already free”. “What if we did act as if we were free?” Jackson asks. “[Then] what does our society or our world look like? I think in books is a place where you can actually do that. You can act as if you’re already free, and think about the ideas.”

I ask him how he’s seen this play out in his industry. “I’m thinking about a few of the books we’ve published in the last two years,” he replies. “One of the things Ibram X Kendi did for his book How to Be an Antiracist that made it special, as opposed to other books that tried to do similar things, is that he focused the reader on [the consideration]: what is going to happen if you let go of racism? What is the goal of anti-racism? It’s not diversity, equity and inclusion programmes at a corporation. It’s not about college admissions policies. It’s about being free of the worst idea in human history . . . which is this hierarchy of human value based on race and other things.”

After meeting Jackson, I speak to Nicole Counts, a senior editor at One World who has worked with him for years. “I think people assumed I wanted to work with him because we were both black,” she tells me. “People still assume we only want to publish people of colour who are writing about race or who are writing about diversity in very specific ways; it is so interesting how narrowly everyone thinks. But the true reason I wanted to work with Chris was I wanted to publish books about freedom and the ways that I access freedom.”

In Jackson’s life, books were one route to freedom. And for him, part of the gift of publishing books is that you can open readers’ minds to new, more courageous possibilities. He’s drawn to books that aren’t afraid to invent new forms, and to writers who might break genre rules in service of the story. “I feel like that’s the thing that literature allows you 100 per cent to do,” he says. “It’s just you and the paper. And if you can’t be free there, where can you be free?”

Enuma Okoro is an FT Weekend columnist on Life & Arts

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