Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Jonathan Karp

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the November/December 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For many writers, the world of publishing is fraught with so much uncertainty and anxiety that it can be helpful to take a deep breath and remember that, at the end of the day, we are all working in the service of the same simple and enduring thing: dreams. The writer sits in a room with a piece of paper and tries to spin one that is, in John Gardner's phrase, vivid and continuous. The agent sorts through the many dreams that are submitted to her in search of the most captivating. The editor does the same thing and then, if he's any good, tries everything he can think of to bring that dream to the widest possible audience. 

Today there is probably no better expediter of literary dreams than Jonathan Karp, the publisher and editor in chief of Twelve, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group. In 2005, frustrated by his lack of freedom at Random House, where he spent sixteen years editing acclaimed best-sellers such as Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, and Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, Karp quit and founded Twelve with the objective of publishing no more than one book per month. He acquires and edits each book himself (for the most part) and then works with his publicity director, Cary Goldstein, to craft a monthlong promotional campaign that is unique to the book. While this publishing strategy, which values intense focus over the toss-the-books-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach of many publishers, is not unique to Twelve, one thing has become clear: The model works. In a business where the conventional wisdom dictates that nine out of ten books will never make money, it's difficult to fathom how fifteen of the first thirty books published by Twelve have been New York Times best-sellers. (They include Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss, Dave Cullen's Columbine, and Christopher Buckley's Boomsday, Supreme Courtship, and Losing Mum and Pup.) This fall Karp added his latest: True Compass, the memoirs of the late U.S. senator Ted Kennedy.

Although Karp's hit rate is impressive, it is by no means his most noteworthy accomplishment. The thing that makes Twelve truly remarkable is the way it has managed to unite the dreams of any publisher's disparate constituencies: writers (who want nothing so much as a publisher's attention and effort), literary agents (who encounter fewer and fewer editors who are experienced, credible, and essentially autonomous), booksellers (who complain, rightly, that too many books are published with too little care), the media (which can only cover so much and is happy to be steered toward the few books that are important), and readers (who are, by and large, blissfully unaware of the mad sausage making that goes on behind the scenes but know a good thing when they taste it). To those who wonder what the publishing industry of the future will look like: It may be right in front of you.

Why don't you start by telling me a little bit about your background.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey and I was always interested in writing. I was the editor of my junior high school newspaper, my high school newspaper, and my college newspaper. I was even the editor of the newspaper at my summer camp. We published an exposé on leeches in the lake. So I was pretty directed. 

Do you remember certain books that captivated you?
Absolutely. In around eighth grade, I read Goodbye, Columbus, and that spoke to me immediately. We had that second refrigerator in our basement just like they did in the Patimkin household. Roth was from Newark. So was my dad. So I really identified with that world and read Portnoy's Complaint shortly thereafter. I still remember that amazing love scene with the liver. I went through a phase where I was reading all of those Jewish American writers. The Assistant by Bernard Malamud was a particular favorite. Bellow's Humboldt's Gift. Then I discovered John Irving. The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp really spoke to me. The Hotel New Hampshire.

Why were those books speaking to you?
Garp probably just because it sounded like my last name. My high school column was called "The World According to Karp." I think Irving said that his first three novels were ironic, and he realized after the third one that in any novel he would write in the future, he would admire his characters. I certainly admired Jenny Fields in Garp, and I admired Garp. I thought they were unconventional, romantic people. I remember being terribly sad, just like T. S. Garp, by the time I finished that book, and feeling as if I had lived a lifetime with those characters. When I read The Cider House Rules, it was a different feeling. I felt total identification with Homer Wells—wanting to be of use, just the way he did—and Irving's research into the lives of doctors performing abortions made me see that issue in a whole new way. I just thought the novels had dimensionality, and I was living in them in a way that seemed incredibly vivid and powerful—more powerful than the life I was living at the time.

My mom actually turned me on to a book that had a lot to do with where I wound up working. It was a book written in the 1970s by Sara Davidson called Loose Change, and it was about the experiences of three women coming of age at Berkeley in the 1960s. It was all true—it was a memoir—and I learned a lot about women from that book because it was about their personal lives: the men in their lives, the career choices they made, and the compromises they made. I was probably seventeen or eighteen years old at the time I read it, and it really influenced me. 

When I was applying for jobs, I saw Loose Change on the shelf of Kate Medina, with whom I was interviewing. I wanted to work for her because she had edited that book. It was probably a very strange reason for a twenty-five-year-old guy to take a job, but it's true. That was one of the reasons.

I also remember hearing you talk about The Best and the Brightest having a big impact on you as a young guy.
Oh, yes. That was when I was working as a reporter for the Miami Herald. I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and I read The Best and the Brightest and The Power Broker right around the same time. It was quite simply the best journalism I had ever read. I was in awe of both reporters and, being a reporter myself at the time, I knew the incredible amount of work those books must have taken in order to not just get the facts right but to put them into a larger context and to reconstruct the lives of the characters and to convey their points of view. I knew how hard that was. I was genuinely in awe of it. And it was also a wake-up call because I realized that I was never going to achieve that level of insight by writing for a daily newspaper. It just isn't possible. You can't go that deep. You can't take those liberties.

So I quit. I quit and I moved back to New York City to work in publishing because I thought that being closer to that level of insight would make me a better reader and make me more knowledgeable about the world.

Did you enjoy being a journalist?
I did. I loved writing for newspapers. But the problem with newspaper journalism, for me, was the uncertainty of it. I really didn't like getting up in the morning and not knowing what calamity was going to befall me that day. I wanted to learn one thing and learn it well, and I didn't feel like I could go deep as a newspaper reporter. I was at the Washington Post as a summer intern for two summers, and I had an opportunity to stay there as a reporter. The metro editor said, "You give me ten years and I can make you David Broder." But at the time—I think I was twenty-two—ten years seemed like a very long time. I thought, "I don't want to give you ten years. I'm not even sure I want to be David Broder." [Laughter.]

I've always wondered what would have happened if I had stayed there for ten years. One of the interns who was there with me was John Harris, who has now started the Politico and done really well. I wound up editing one of his books. Another intern who was there with me was Jeffrey Goldberg, who's written an outstanding book on Israel called Prisoners. So I worked with some really good interns and probably could have had that kind of a career path. But I really didn't like that daily confrontation with uncertainty. When I started at Random House, I remember this incredible feeling of relief that I was going to get to sit on my ass all day—that I wasn't going to have to run off and cover some fire or some murder or some scandal.

But I love journalism and I love journalists. I respect the work they do. I think it's incredibly important, and I think the sensibility I have as an editor is basically that of a journalist. It's probably one of the reasons why I've done so much nonfiction. I love fiction just as much, but when it's ingrained in you the way it was for me—the who, what, when, where, why, how—it becomes kind of a discipline and a way of thinking. 

How did you make your way to Random House?
I answered a classified ad in the New York Times. I interviewed at Harper & Row, Doubleday, and Random House. I could type over a hundred words per minute, so they were all very interested in me, but I went with Random House because I was so impressed with Kate Medina. She's a great editor and she was a great boss. She really taught me how to be an editor. I was her assistant for about three years. I did all the things that assistants do, but the most important thing was that I took dictation or, more precisely, I typed memos that she had dictated. They were her editorial memos, and they were extensive and brilliant. I saw the way she deconstructed a novel, or any manuscript, and saw it holistically: structurally, thematically, etcetera. She saw the big picture and the details at the same time. She was able to steer writers, in a positive way, toward a better, more vivid work. It was largely about improving the definition of the novels. And having typed dozens of those memos over the years, I began to learn the discipline of being an editor. How to see whether characters rang true. Whether the storytelling was paced well. How certain language either did or didn't have an impact.

There's something about hearing a person's voice in your head. I would put on these headphones and hear her administering her editorial medicine, and it definitely shaped me. But there are a multitude of reasons why Kate Medina is a great editor. I would overhear all of her phone conversations, and I vividly remember being struck by the fact that she never raised her voice and was always pleasant to everybody. I was kind of an angry twenty-five-year-old guy at that point, and I remember going into her office and saying, "Kate, you never yell." She said, "Well, I've always found that there's a nice way to deal with everything." That really changed me. I saw her professionalism, her very positive and constructive way of dealing with people. I also saw her vision. I typed a letter that she wrote to Tom Brokaw suggesting that he write a book. It was not the first letter—she'd been writing to him for years before I got there. I think about ten years after I typed that letter, The Greatest Generation came out. That was a case of an editor pursuing a writer she was interested in literally for years. It all starts with somebody like Kate Medina, frequently. I think the world of her.

Tell me about the atmosphere of Random House at the time.
Obviously you're overly nostalgic about any place you grow up, so I apologize if this is a little sepia-toned, but Random House really was an extraordinary editorial environment. I was very fortunate. I still remember the people who were on the hallway when I got there: Kate, Jason Epstein, Joe Fox, Bob Loomis, Sam Vaughan, Peter Osnos, Joni Evans, Susan Kamil, Becky Saletan, David Rosenthal. And then shortly thereafter, Harry Evans, Ann Godoff, Dan Menaker, and so many others. Julie Grau was there as an associate editor. These were really some of the best editors in the business. Just between Bob Loomis, Joe Fox, Jason Epstein, and Sam Vaughn—that's over 150 years of editorial experience right there. And they all talked to me. They were so generous with their time and their wisdom.

I was fortunate enough to be the young assistant who got to attend the editorial meeting and take the minutes. Only one assistant was allowed in, and somehow I got the gig. So I would listen to them talking about projects. I remember one week, one of them jokingly said, "So what's our view on Catholics?" Another one said, "We're in favor of them!" [Laughter.] It was a collegial place, even though I'm sure there was a lot of stuff going on above my radar. But they were seeing all of the best projects—this was when Random House was owned by the Newhouses—and I remember somebody saying, "They're like the Medicis. They just want to have the best."

Anyway, I was watching all of this. I rarely spoke up in meetings because I was so junior, but eventually some projects started to come my way. I had written to the best reporter I had worked with when I was a reporter at the Providence Journal, a guy named Wayne Miller. I encouraged him to send me any book ideas he had, and he sent me a proposal for a narrative nonfiction book about one of the great pediatric surgeons of our time. I showed the proposal to Becky Saletan, Joni Evans, and Kate. They all said nice things about it, and Joni let me offer twenty-five thousand dollars to buy world rights. This was at a time when people seemed to like medical stories. The Book-of-the-Month Club bought it. We actually did respectably with it. I think they let me do it because it was a good proposal and they wanted to give me a break. That was the first book I got to edit on my own.

And then I got a lot of really good opportunities along the way. Peter Osnos asked me to help him edit Tip O'Neill's second book, so Peter and I drove up to Massachusetts in Peter's convertible and spent a weekend with Tip, listening to his stories. It was just wonderful. Harry Evans asked me to help edit Colin Powell's autobiography, which was a great experience. I remember working on the captions for that book. There were some pictures of Powell with famous people, including the Pope. I had titled that section "Friends," and General Powell faxed me back, "Pope ain't my friend." [Laughter.] 

When you look back and think about those early years, what were some of the first acquisitions that you feel were really important to you?
I was following my passions. We had this magazine called At Random, which I was writing for. I got to write about Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes. I read that book in manuscript and it blew me away. It was by far the most interesting book I had ever read about politicians. So I got to meet Richard and his literary agent Flip Brophy. One of the most interesting characters in the book was Gary Hart, and I had been a Hart supporter. I thought he was ahead of his time and somebody who was trying to do something important about energy and defense issues. I said to Flip, "I would really like to do a book with Gary Hart about why political reform doesn't happen. Every four years we have politicians running on a reform agenda, but we never get the reform they seek. Why is that?" So I wrote a letter to Hart and we did a deal. That book did fine. It wasn't a best-seller. It just sold respectably. But it was the first book I was able to do with a major political figure. A few years later, when Flip was representing another United States Senator, John McCain, she thought of me, and we preemptively acquired that book, thanks largely to Ann Godoff's celerity in dealing with it. Since then I've done four other books with John McCain and several other books with Flip Brophy. I think that was a case of naturally following my curiosity.

What other books?
My favorite story, and probably the best opportunity I had as an editor, was with Mario Puzo. This is all true. You're not going to believe it, but I swear that it's true. I was answering the phones, filling in for the receptionist at lunch, and the publisher at the time, Joni Evans, came back from lunch, walked out of the elevator, saw me standing right in front of her, and said, "I need a guy to read this novel I'm working on." And I was a guy. So she gave me the manuscript. It was a thriller set in Washington called The Fourth K—Puzo's only Washington novel. It was about a son in a great political family who is very unpopular as president. He's the second president in his family and, to strengthen his popularity, he allows an act of terrorism to occur in the United States, thereby seizing dictatorial power. This was in 1990. 

I loved The Fourth K. I still remember sitting at home on my couch all weekend reading it. I wrote a ten-page memo about it—what was good about it, what I thought needed to be improved, etcetera. Joni showed it to Puzo and we all agreed that the manuscript still needed work. This was during a time when publishers sometimes traveled to be with their authors. I still can't get over this, but Joni, Julie Grau, and I flew to Las Vegas, where we edited Mario Puzo in person because Mario felt that he did his best work in Vegas. He liked to gamble. So Mario's walking around Vegas in his sweatpants. During the day we worked around the table and edited, and then at night he took us gambling. I had never gambled in my life, and he decided that he wanted to introduce me to the game of baccarat. He gave me a hundred dollars and said, "Have some fun." I proceeded to lose the hundred dollars. I felt horrible about this. You know, I've come to work with him and I've lost his money. But he gave me another hundred dollars and something remarkable happened: I began to win. I think I won about five hands in a row. I paid back the two hundred dollars, which was good, but what was really good was that Mario had been gambling along with me while I won my five hands, and he'd made about seven thousand dollars on it. So he felt very good about it.

Anyway, we finished up the editing and the book came out and did fine. But then Joni and Julie Grau left the company. There were no other people at Random House who Mario knew well, and a lot of more senior editors wanted to work with him. But Mario told the CEO, Alberto Vitale, that he wanted to work with me, not because of my editorial work but because he thought I was good luck. He'd made seven thousand dollars gambling with me. And that is how I became Mario Puzo's editor.

We worked together on The Last Don, and it was a huge best-seller. It was his comeback novel. Then we reissued The Fortunate Pilgrim, and I wound up editing his last novel, Omerta. Working with Mario was just a magical experience. He was the kindest, sweetest man. It was always so striking to me how gentle he was, because he would write these violent scenes full of revenge and bitter irony. But in person he was one of the nicest people I've ever met. 

Did you become close personally with him?
I felt that way, yes. I was actually there when he died. I was at his home when he died and got to tell him that I loved his new book. I said goodbye to him and held his hand. It was amazing to me. He was really very good to me, and very generous to work with me.

Did he take editing?
Yes. He was a great storyteller. He'd grown up going to the public library and reading about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and he always saw these mafia novels as myths. It was never a real thing to him. People didn't appreciate Mario's sense of humor in those novels as much as they should have. Even The Godfather is a very funny novel. Mario cared about his characters. He cared about the story being satisfying to the very end. I remember him telling me that his great disappointment with most novels was that they petered out at the end. Mario cared deeply about his endings. The Last Don had a great surprise ending.

The only editing he would not take was when I begged him to bring back Johnny Fontane, the Sinatra-esque singer from The Godfather. I was sure that there was more life in that guy, and he just wouldn't do it. But he said, and this is a quote, "When I croak, you can do whatever you want." [Laughter.] So after he died we decided to do a Godfather sequel, and I got Johnny Fontane in that way. And I know that Mario would have been just fine with it, because he really wanted his books to be read. He cared about that, and he was glad that we were keeping his work out there. He actually asked us to.

Tell me about Ann Godoff.
I think Ann Godoff is one of the great publishers of the last two decades. I learned so much from her and was so inspired by her. To this day, rarely does much time go by without me thinking of something I learned from her. I think that what distinguishes her from a lot of other publishers is her conviction about the work. There is nothing cynical about the way she publishes. She really taught me to look for the authentic voices and the people who are saying something relevant and fresh.

Give me an example of something you saw Ann do that taught you something about how to publish.
The first thing that comes to mind is the way Ann published Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was a midlist book that was not acquired for a lot of money. I remember Ann's presentation of it. People don't realize how important it is that an editor be able to articulate what is compelling and different about a book, and Ann did that time and time again. I remember when she published White Teeth. She said to a room full of people, "We will remember this as the year we published Zadie Smith." It was just the perfect way to get your attention.