The Chronicle Review

Being Thomas Piketty's Publisher

Ian Malcolm on editing the big thinker of the moment

Harvard U. Press

Ian Malcolm
April 29, 2014

Q. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is No. 1 on Amazon.com, a New York Times best seller, and a bona fide sensation. Piketty is being feted as a guru. You are Piketty’s editor at Harvard University Press. Are you surprised by the book’s reception?

A. I don’t think anybody guessed that it would sell 100,000 copies in its first two and a half months. But we did expect it to be an extraordinary success and put it on an insane production schedule. This time last year we didn’t even have the manuscript. Thomas finished writing in French on the 8th of May. It’s fantastic to think that less than a year later it not only exists in English but has become this phenomenon.

Q. Why has the book touched such a nerve?

A. There seems to be a sense in the English-speaking world that inequality is a growing problem. So the time is right. And while many books nibbled away at the edges, there wasn’t a grand book that said anything extremely new on the subject.

Q. Piketty has been criticized for being impractical because he proposes a global progressive tax on individual wealth. Is the criticism fair?

A. Thomas anticipated the criticism. At the end of the book he says, This is my best solution, but it is a utopian solution. He is under no illusions. It’s funny that he’s being criticized for being Panglossian or overly optimistic but also for being too pessimistic. A lot of people interpret the book as a prophecy that rising inequality is inevitable. But the book doesn’t say that either.

Q. Has that been the most frustrating misapprehension about the book?

A. Yes. Thomas is skeptical and worried, but not fatalistic. He wants to show that the economy is not an act of God, it’s a human creation. If people care enough about inequality they will search for solutions and take political action. He sees nothing inevitable about radically increasing inequality.

Q. How did the book end up at Harvard University Press?

A. I’d heard good things about Thomas’s work and looked him up. That was 2012, and he had just signed a contract with a French publisher and was starting to think about where to publish in English. I came along at the right time.

I went to Paris to meet with him. Sometimes you have a feeling in your bones when you come across something important, it’s a full-body excitement. I asked what he was working on, and he said: "I’m trying to look at the same problems that Karl Marx examined, but I’m doing so with better data and a clear theory." Normally when you hear somebody say something grandiose like that you quickly get out of the room. But this was arguably the world’s leading expert on inequality, and he wasn’t boastful. He immediately added, "Did that sound pretentious?"

Q. Does the English edition differ from the French version?

A. The substance is basically identical. The translator, Art Goldhammer, made some suggestions about minor things along the way, as did I, but those are trivialities, sentence-level changes, and not very many of them.

Q. So the book, which is 700 pages in all, wasn’t shortened?

A. No, absolutely not.

Q. Were you concerned about length?

A. It was meant to be a little shorter, but we were confident because what Thomas had to say was so important. He sent a nice laconic note when he handed in the manuscript. "The good news is that the book is over and I think it’s a good book. The bad news is that it’s a bit long."

We did worry that the length might slow down the translation. Because of the importance of the book we didn’t want to wait for the French edition to come out. We started translating it right away. Art Goldhammer is the best in the business, and we had him lined up from the time we signed the book. But he developed throat cancer shortly thereafter. He was coming out of treatment as Thomas finished the manuscript. Art was obviously weak and still recovering but managed to do an epic job, finishing the book in four or five months. It’s a brilliant translation.

Q. Piketty just finished his American book tour. He is everywhere being referred to as the "rock-star economist."

A. It’s strange because he doesn’t have a rock-star personality. He’s unassuming. I can’t quite figure out why the press has cottoned on to that description. I suppose it’s the adulation and the crowds.

Q. What does the success of Capital in the Twenty-First Century mean for Harvard University Press’s bottom line?

A. It’s very helpful. It’s a real boost in every sense, without getting specific.

Q. Sales show no sign of slowing?

A. Today our U.K. sales director went out for lunch, came back, and found another order for 5,000 books on his desk. It’s astonishing. We’ve printed and printed and printed, and the market soaks up whatever we print. The American reception of the book has re-energized interest in France. Now the French edition is sold out.

Q. I heard the original reception in France was more muted than in the English-speaking world.

A. It was the No. 1 nonfiction book in France the week it came out. It sold 45,000 copies, which considering France’s population is pretty good. One of the reasons we knew the book was going to be amazing was that we were looking at the reaction in France. We knew we had to hurry the English edition because the French publicity was starting to leak over and people were reviewing the book in English with the excuse that the French version was already out.

Q. This isn’t your first experience with a breakout best seller. You were also the editor behind Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, a huge hit for Princeton University Press in 2005. Any similarities between the two books?

A. They both have a strange connection to French theory. Frankfurt’s book originated as a critique of French cultural theory, which in its heyday was taking over literature departments and which Harry thought was bullshit in its indifference to the truth. Now Thomas turns around and tells American economists that their theories are too abstract and not really concerned with the real world. The kind of critique Harry leveled against French theory is the kind of critique Thomas is leveling against American theory.

Q. And there is the fact that bullshit and inequality are perennial concerns.

A. Publishers can profit from negative things about the world. As long as there is bullshit and inequality, we won’t go out of business.

This interview was edited and condensed.