PGS Behind The Scenes: Alison Kalett, editor of biological and earth sciences

Princeton University Press has always published important biology and earth sciences titles, but it was only recently that we expanded the acquisitions department to include an editor devoted to these subject areas. Alison Kalett joined the Press about three years ago (though she was here once before as you’ll learn in this Q&A) and since then has done a stellar job of pursuing and publishing books for general readers (see Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy) and course use (Stan Braude and Bobbi Low’s An Introduction to Methods and Models in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology). Recently, we had a chance to ask Alison about her plans for these growing fields.


What got you interested in publishing, and in science publishing specifically?

I’ve been in publishing for seven years, almost all of it at PUP. I graduated from Davidson College, a liberal arts college in North Carolina, with a B.A. in history. I decided against pursuing a PhD, but was interested in staying in the world of ideas, so to speak. Ultimately, I realized that scholarly publishing was a great way to remain immersed in important and relevant scholarship. As for science, I started my career as assistant to Vickie Kearn, the PUP math editor. After that, I was a history editor for two years, but was increasingly drawn to science publishing, and specifically biology and earth science, because of the fascinating work happening on those fields, from evo-devo to climate science. It was also great that PUP already had a strong history of publishing important books in these fields.

What are the biggest areas of growth in both biology and earth sciences at PUP, and what are your plans for these lists?

I’m growing the biology and earth science list both in terms of subfields in which we publish, as well as the types of books we publish. For example, on the biology list we are publishing more textbooks. Recently we published Stan Braude and Bobbi Low’s An Introduction to Methods and Models in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology and next season we’re publishing John Kricher’s Tropical Ecology, a hugely needed textbook that also complements our strong list in ecology generally. In addition to broadening the type of books we publish, I’m also pushing into new subfields, ones that are exciting in their own right and also complement our core strengths in ecology and evolutionary biology as well as other PUP lists such as earth science, cognitive science, mathematics, and behavioral economics. For example, I’ll be publishing more books in behavioral biology, global change biology, and mathematical biology. The same can be said for the earth science list. In addition to our great popular science titles, we are publishing more textbooks and primers, most notably the Princeton Primers in Climate series discussed below.

How important is the acquisition of textbooks to your publishing program? What are the challenges you face in publishing useful textbooks—is there a lot of competition? Are these courses widespread in higher education?

Textbooks are a very important part of my publishing program, in both biology and earth science. Textbooks complement the more specialized monographs we publish and can play an important role in shaping a field intellectually and how it is taught for years to come. To give one example, in a year or so we’ll be publishing a groundbreaking textbook called Introduction to Mathematical Biology by Lou Gross, Suzanne Lenhardt, and Erin Bodine. There are some great textbook publishers out there and because writing a textbook can be a time consuming and challenging experience it’s often difficult to find authors who are interested in writing a textbook, and who are also good teachers and well known in their fields. The growth of e-publishing will also present some new challenges for textbook publishing. What makes the PUP textbook program unique, I think, is that I look for texts (mostly at the advanced undergraduate level) that fit the overall intellectual strengths of the lists and also help propel a field forward in addition to slotting into courses.

Are there any books in the works now that you’re especially excited about? Why?

Too many to mention here! For the sake of space, I’ll mention just a few and since I’ve mostly discussed textbooks and monographs up to now and I’ll speak to popular science books in the works. There’s Tom Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy, a book that not only tells a great story about honeybees but has something important to say about social behavior and how groups can work together effectively. Also coming shortly, there’s Louise Barrett’s , Not by Brains Alone: The Body, The Environment, and the Evolution of Cognition, which counters a lot of accepted wisdom on the role of the brain in cognition and behavior. I’m excited about these books because they make fascinating, cutting edge science accessible to a broad audience.

What series are you working on, and why are these important to science publishing?

Both the biology and earth science list have several key series, some well-established and others recently launched. We’re perhaps best known for our monographs in population biology series, which has published some landmark books in ecology and evolutionary biology. There’s also our new Primers in Complex Systems series which is a joint enterprise between the science and social science editors, as well as the Santa Fe Institute. The first book in that series, Deborah Gordon’s Ant Encounters, was recently published. One of our most important new series is the Princeton Primers in Climate series. The goal of this series is to publish short books on key topics in climate science written by the field’s leading scholars. I think this series will fill an important niche in science publishing because there’s a dearth of books for students and non-specialists who want to know something about this increasingly important field, but want a book more in depth than a popular book but not quite as detailed as the IPCC report or the primary literature.

What are some iconic PUP biology and earth science books?

Some of our most important books include Robert MacArthur and E.O Wilson’s The Theory of Island Biogeography, John Tyler Bonner’s Cellular Slime Molds, Peter Grant’s Ecology and Evolution of Darwin’s Finches, Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems by Robert May, and Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s The History and Geography of Human Genes. More recently, there’s Peter and Rosemary Grant’s How and Why Species Multiply: The Evolution of Darwin’s Finches, Andrew Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, T- Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez, and Theoretical Global Seismology by F.A. Dahlen and Jeroen Tromp. It’s always wonderful to walk into a professor’s office and see some of these iconic books on their shelves.


  1. [...] with all the Princeton Global Science editors: Robert Kirk, Vickie Kearn, Ingrid Gnerlich, Alison Kalett, Eric Schwartz, and Anne Savarese. These interviews are both interesting as well as highly [...]