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Chris Jackson And The Book Industry's Attempts To Diversify

When Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, was released last week, there was a big party — bigger than most book parties, because this event was also celebrating the launch of a new venture for Chris Jackson, the editor who has helped make Coates famous.

Most people outside the world of publishing probably won't recognize Jackson's name, but they might recognize some of the writers he has edited, from celebrity rapper Jay Z to literary fiction star Edwidge Danticat. And of course there is Coates, who seems to be everywhere right now. Jackson jokingly introduced him from the stage at the event as "a writer ... he's written a few books," and the audience laughed appreciatively.

Jackson published Coates' first book, and more recently, Between the World and Me, which won the National Book Award and became a best-seller. "He is directly responsible for any success I've had, unquestionably, I couldn't have done it without him," Coates says.

Coates is following Jackson to One World, a publishing imprint at Penguin Random House, which Jackson hopes to infuse with new life. Jackson calls One World's story part of a cautionary tale about the publishing industry's attempts to diversify — it started in the early 1990s, when a number of large houses set up separate publishing departments for books by and for people of color.

What people call multicultural — which is to say voices that come from all over our culture, across race and national background and language and across the gender spectrum, across the sexual spectrum — is what mainstream American culture is.

"One of the things it did was it sort of let the rest of the company off the hook from publishing those books, and thinking about those books and thinking about those audiences," Jackson says. "And it made those things disposable. So that if it wasn't working, the imprint's gone, and with it goes every black writer you might have on your list."

One World was first established when multiculturalism was a popular idea. Now, that word seems dated, but Jackson says publishing for a multicultural world is more relevant than ever. "What people call multicultural — which is to say voices that come from all over our culture, across race and national background and language and across the gender spectrum, across the sexual spectrum — is what mainstream American culture is. It's the dominant force, I think, and the most relevant and influential force in American culture."

And in this era of social media and YouTube, Jackson says the depth and detail that can only be found in books is more important than ever. Coates points out that artists, writers and producers in other media look to books for ideas. "It's the font of ongoing intellectual discourse," he says, "and so having a place for black writers and writers of color in general, you know, women writers, trans writers and LGBTQ writers to shape their world as they see it, with all its humanity, beauty and ugliness and all of that sort of good stuff, you know, I think of it as an act of resistance."

Jackson is having little trouble attracting writers to his new publishing venture. And many of them turned out for the launch party. Joe Tone's book Bones was released in August, the first to be published by One World. Tone said Jackson is a challenging editor: "He didn't just tell me how much he loved the story. He wanted to know how I would tell it and what I wanted the book to stand for. It made me really uncomfortable, and I thought that discomfort would probably be a good driving force as I reported the book and tried to write the book."

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes is writing a memoir, and she sought out Jackson as her editor. "The books he has put in the world are incredible," she says. "The thing I love about them is how incredibly sharp and critical they are of our world and how deeply warm and empathetic they are."

Jackson's vision for the future of One World includes not only his writers, but also his readers. Some, he says, will be hungry for books that tell their story. But he also hopes to reach readers who may not entirely agree with his worldview. "I think that's the thing that I would love for all these books to do is to tell the stories, tell them true, not budge an inch on the truth that's important to the writer, but keep a door open so that anyone else can walk through and immerse themselves in that experience with a transformative effect," he says.

Looking ahead, Jackson says, he is excited about finding new writers and new voices who share his vision of literature infused with the experience of many cultures.

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.