January is traditionally seen as a quiet month for serious non-fiction with the emphasis on New Year, New You self-development titles. But in 2018, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury dramatically overturned this convention and took the publishing world by storm in the first few days of the year. His insider account of the chaotic Trump White House dominated the global news agenda for days, with every angry denunciation by the President providing a further boost to sales. This was followed in April by A Higher Loyalty, former FBI chief James Comey’s much-hyped memoir, which proved once again the insatiable appetite for first-hand narratives that take the reader behind the scenes into the corridors of power.
With the fallout from the Brexit and Trump votes continuing to reverberate, there is a hunger to make sense of the world around us and to engage more deeply with subjects and arguments than is possible from watching TV or reading the Sunday papers.
Walk into any bookstore and you will see entire front-of-store tables devoted to ‘smart thinking’, a category that didn’t really exist ten years ago and which encompasses political theory, economics, psychology, technology, statistics etc. The best authors in this genre have a happy knack of rendering rarefied subjects accessible and making you, the reader, feel smart for understanding. It seems book buyers are still willing to trust experts…
Books on the future of democracy and the impact of technology and AI reflect the big concerns of the age. The sight of Mark Zuckerberg appearing before a US Senate committee was a wake-up call to many about the dangers of unregulated Big Tech. As ever with non-fiction publishing, timing is all, and Jamie Bartlett’s People vs Tech was rushed out in April to capitalise on the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
‘Ordinary people with extraordinary lives’ is a category that continues to resonate with readers. I’m proud to be representing Neil Samworth’s Strangeways, a gripping and at times horrifying account of life as a prison officer inside one of the country’s most notorious jails, which Macmillan will publish in June. Not only is the book a brilliant read, but it sheds a harsh light on the state of our prisons and the mental health of the brave prison officers tasked with maintaining order.
The Secret Barrister and forensic scientist Sue Black’s All That Remains are two further examples of books that give us a privileged peek into the workings of our criminal justice system through the medium of personal memoir. Both were published to widespread critical acclaim this spring. Meanwhile the appeal of medical memoirs shows no sign of abating. The Language of Kindness by former nurse Christie Watson is currently receiving rave reviews, and Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt is getting a shot in the arm with the paperback ‘summer reading’ campaign.
Publishing houses are beginning to take the issue of diversity seriously, both in terms of their own workforces and their publishing output. We are finally beginning to see this reflected on the shelves as minority voices are marketed to a mass readership. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was a game-changer, which has paved the way for other books such as Afua Hirsh’s Brit(ish) this spring.
But for me the non-fiction book that has had most cut-through this year is Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Love him or loathe him, Peterson is responding to a need and he has found a hitherto untapped market of book buyers searching for alternative perspectives, challenging viewpoints and deeper meaning in this time of unsettling turbulence.
What does this all this add up to? I would argue that we are living in a golden era for serious, ideas-driven non-fiction.