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

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

What do you remember her saying about Midnight?
What I remember about Midnight are the advance reader editions, which came a full year in advance of the book and which you were immediately compelled to pick up because the cover image was so arresting. Ann had a great eye for covers. The look of the Random House books of that period was distinctive and striking. And it wasn't too long before people around the house were saying, "Have you read Midnight?" So by the time we published it there was already a great deal of enthusiasm behind it. Harry Evans was the publisher at the time, and he did some very brash and ballsy things, too. They flew a whole group of reporters to Savannah to meet the people in the book. That got a lot of attention. The New York Times Book Review was very late to the party on Midnight. They didn't review it until it was already on the best-seller list. So it was publicity like that trip that launched the book. 

Everybody knows that books like that are rare, and you can't ever expect it to happen, but it was one of many midlist books that Random House launched at that time: The Hot Zone, The Alienist, Makes Me Wanna Holler, and later, when Ann was publisher, Seabiscuit and The Orchid Thief. These were all "make books" and really spoke to a tradition of publishing that Random House had always done, going back to people like Jane Jacobs and David Halberstam. Ann understood how to get people excited about books that weren't obvious. She often used to say in meetings, "We do it the hard way, and that's why it's fun." I just found that inspiring. There was nothing calculated about the way books were published by Ann Godoff. She was doing it for the right reasons, I thought. 

What was your working relationship like? How were you learning the things you were learning from her?
It's important to remember that she was not just publisher but also editor in chief. Usually every Monday morning I would bounce into the office having read ten proposals, and I would go into her office at eight-thirty—she was there every morning—and I would say, "I liked this, and I liked this, and I liked this." And she would say, "Well, that one sounds interesting, that one I don't see the reader for, that one...I don't know if that writer's really up to it." So she really was a true editor in chief. She guided me and helped me winnow the projects. By the end of our relationship at Random House, we had a wonderful sort of shorthand. I remember walking into her office and saying, "There's this guy I read about in the New Yorker named Kenneth Pollack. He's a Clinton guy who supports intervention in Iraq. I think that's interesting. I think we should do a book with him. What do you think?" And she said, "Oh yeah, I read that article. We should do that." I made an offer that day and we signed him up and it became one of the most influential books on the war in Iraq. That was just a simple conversation between an editor and a publisher with a trusting relationship and a shared sensibility. Every young editor should be so fortunate to have somebody that good guiding him. She really did help me see which books I ought to devote myself to. I mean, let's face it. Every editor has to acquire some clunkers in order to publish the ones that last. I think I was perhaps spared more of the clunkers because of Ann's discerning eye. She's a real editor.

It seems like you had a fairly blessed rise. But tell me what was hard for you in those early years.
It wasn't hard. I'm not going to make something up. It was fun. I think this is one of the great soft jobs in America. What is hard about reading books and telling people what you think of them? It's not hard. If anything it's too easy.

But you were an ambitious guy. Didn't that create any sorts of tensions?
Okay, you know what was frustrating? The seven associate publishers telling me what to do. [Laughter.] By the end, I didn't want any more people telling me what to do, and that's why I started Twelve. So that was frustrating. But with that said, the associate publishers themselves were all very smart and helpful. It wasn't that their ideas were wrong. It was just that I didn't want anybody telling me what to do.

There were also things I probably should have gotten the answers to faster. It took me a while to recognize all of the Kabuki. I spent a tremendous amount of time trying to win friends and influence people within the house, and in the end, while I think it's always good to be collegial, the book probably speaks for itself. I probably didn't need to spend so much time trying to curry favor. But maybe you don't realize that when you're a young editor. You think you're somehow negligent in your efforts if you don't make everybody read every page. I think that perhaps it was a necessary rite of passage. But knowing what I know now, I realize that if you have a good book, people are smart enough to discover it. And if they don't discover it, maybe you need to do more editing. And furthermore, even if they do discover it, its success is probably still up to things out of your control anyway.

Were you close with Bob Loomis?
I wouldn't want to say that I was close to any of the great editors who were there because that implies that I was significant to them, and I think I was a piker to most of them at the time. But I would go into Bob Loomis's office, and Sam Vaughan's office, and Joe Fox's office. I remember talking to Joe Fox about John Irving, and asking him if it would be possible to bring Irving back to Random House, and being elated when Joe gave me an early copy of Son of the Circus. I remember talking to Joe about his experiences editing Irving. That was an incredible opportunity. Joe gave me one of my first books to edit. He had acquired The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll and The Rolling Stone Record Guide, and, as a young guy, I was the perfect person to do all the scut work on those books. So he handed me the contract and said, "Congratulations! You're an editor." I'll never forget that.

Jason Epstein said things to me that I think about to this day. I talked to Jason a lot about Jane Jacobs, whose Death and Life of Great American Cities had influenced me a lot. Jason had also edited Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and I remember him talking to me about the decline of manufacturing in America. He had very astute ideas about that. This was in the early 1990s, and he felt that the diminishment of manufacturing was a sign of America's decline.

That's very poignant right now.
Yes, and he's been talking about it for twenty years. I remember having conversations with Bob Loomis and Sam Vaughan about a writer with whom I was obsessed at the time, Herman Wouk. Sam had been the editor in chief of Doubleday, so he'd worked with Wouk, and he told me some really good stories about working with him and about how Wouk was so influenced by the nineteenth-century novel. After that comment, I began to see fiction in that continuum and realized that a lot of things that I liked about fiction really derived from the storytelling techniques of Victorian novelists.

Bob Loomis's modesty as an editor made a big impression on me. He's so soft-spoken and so devoted to his writers. My favorite book that Bob edited was probably A Civil Action. We had many talks about Jonathan Harr and how he had edited that book. I believe I was in the editorial meeting when that book was acquired, although maybe that's my memory playing tricks on me. But it was a tough story—it was about children dying as a result of environmental abuses by New England companies. And Harr took years and years to write it. I think he put seven years of his life into that book and didn't turn it in until he was ready. The same thing happened with another book that Bob edited around the same time, Sam Tanenhaus's book on Whittaker Chambers, which I also read cover to cover and greatly admired. Both were case studies in writers taking as long as they needed to get it right. Bob never pushed a writer to turn in a manuscript. He was willing to wait ten years for Neil Sheehan, or however long it was, and he waited for Sam Tanenhaus and he waited for Jonathan Harr. The results were best-selling books that will be in print forever. Of the many lessons I learned from editors at Random House, that was one of the greatest. I still remember Jason Epstein joking, "Nobody remembers what day War and Peace was published." But I saw that changing in the industry as publishers came under increasing pressure to meet their fiscal year targets by rushing books out. I think that's antithetical to good publishing. The really important books are often worth waiting for, no matter how long you have to wait. I saw that again and again at Random House.

Wasn't A Civil Action published twice because it didn't work the first time?
Yes, it was published twice within a year. That was another example of really ballsy publishing by Harry Evans. Harry just refused to take no for an answer from the public. He wasn't happy with the original cover, so they redesigned it and brought out the book again. And they eventually got out about a hundred thousand copies. They had a quote from John Grisham, which helped, and then Vintage brought out the paperback and it exploded. I don't think all that would have happened if Random House hadn't published it so well in hardcover. 

Tell me about some of the literary agents who were important to you in the early part of your career.
Flip Brophy gave me a couple of breaks that I'll always be grateful for. Binky Urban sat next to me at a Random House lunch that Harry had set up, and we developed a very good relationship. She's submitted many writers to me with whom I've worked very happily, starting with the novelist Paul Watkins. Then we worked together on Jon Meacham, Sally Bedell Smith, Christopher Buckley, and many others. Binky sent me the first half of Thank You for Smoking, which was my first best-seller and is still one of my favorite novels. The idea of writing about the inner life of a tobacco lobbyist was inspired. Harry Evans was a friend of Chris Buckley's—I was a young editor at the time—and basically it was all set up for me. All I had to do was answer the phone, read the pages, and laugh, and we were going to do the book. Chris and I have worked together ever since. We've done eight books in fifteen years, and that's thanks to Binky Urban. She was instrumental in helping me get started.

Kathy Robbins is another one. I inherited Ron Rosenbaum and began working with Kathy on Explaining Hitler. Kathy is a tremendously attentive and inventive literary agent. She always has good publishing ideas in addition to good editorial ideas. I was so struck by her commitment to every draft of that book. She read everything along with me. We would talk about it and then talk to Ron. Again, I think he spent ten years of his life thinking about Hitler. And it's one of the best books I've ever edited. Working with both of them on that was a foundational experience. 

I looked in my database recently and I've gotten submissions from over five hundred literary agents. So there are a lot. Neil Olsen was great to work with on the Mario Puzo books. Always calm, always constructive. I must mention Peter Ginsberg. Peter submitted a first novel to me in 1993. I read it overnight and loved it. It was set in the financial world and it was basically a satirical novel about the absurdities of the information economy. It was a book called Bombardiers, and the writer's name was Po Bronson. Harry Evans let me preempt it for fifty thousand dollars, and we published Bombardiers very successfully. Harry did this thing where we actually sold futures in the book—we sold stock in the book—and had a party down on Wall Street. That got on CNN. The book was an international best-seller. Then Po wrote another novel, then a Silicon Valley book, and then he began to shift into nonfiction. Peter Ginsberg was with Po from the start. He was on top of everything. He was an incredibly tough negotiator. He got a better deal for Po each time—each time he made us up the ante. Each time I thought, "This is too much money. We're never going to make it back." And each time we made it back. I remember once, I was in the middle of a negotiation with Peter, and I said, "I can't deal with this now. I have to go to the dentist." He wrote back and said, "I bet you're looking forward to the dentist." And he was right. [Laughter.] But, you know, he was involved in all of the marketing of Po in a really constructive way. He's a great literary agent.

Similarly, there's Suzanne Gluck. Not only is she as savvy as they come, but, in terms of pure entertainment value per pound, I'd have to put her very high up there. We worked together on another first novel—probably the most successful first novel I've ever edited—The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. That was one I read over the weekend. I came in on Monday and said to Ann Godoff, "This is great," and we preempted it before anyone else could. It was a huge international success. I haven't looked lately but I think it's sold well over half a million copies. And Suzanne was involved in every aspect the whole way through. I remember we had an author photo of Matthew and she called me and said, "Jon, we can't use this author photo. It's a thriller, and this looks like his Bar Mitzvah picture." [Laughter.]

Tell me about the acquisition of Seabiscuit.
Tina Bennett and I were at lunch at the Four Seasons—not the fancy Four Seasons, the Four Seasons Hotel—and she said, "Have you ever heard of Seabiscuit?" I said, "No." She said, "Well, Seabiscuit was a horse." I said, "I'm not interested." She said, "Well, there was actually more written about Seabiscuit in the 1930s than Hitler, Mussolini, and FDR combined." I said, "Really?" and she said, "Yeah." I said, "All right, send me the proposal."

[Laughter.] You know, if Tina hadn't pitched it to me that way, I never would have wanted to read it. She's a brilliant agent. And the proposal came in and it was great. We won the auction.

For a pretty modest amount of money, right? Five figures?
Five figures and we were the underbidder. Laura Hillenbrand wanted to be with Random House because Random House was the best publisher of that kind of nonfiction at the time, thanks to Ann Godoff. The proposal was really very strong. I remember showing it to a bunch of people. Bob Loomis read it, and, obviously, Ann read it. The thing that's interesting is that I often hear people say, "Well, Seabiscuit worked, so we should publish x, y, or z. Anything can work if Seabiscuit worked." But actually, what I think people might be overlooking is that structurally, Seabiscuit was a great story. It was almost a perfect story in the way the horse kept overcoming expectations and hurdles. You couldn't tell from the proposal that Laura would have been able to write it as deeply and richly and beautifully as she did. The proposal was only about twenty pages, and there wasn't very much characterization there because she hadn't begun to do that yet, so all we really knew at the time was that it was a really good story. We figured that it might just be a short book—we didn't know how much was going to be there. It was only when the manuscript came in that we realized what an extraordinary book we had.

When you look back on that book, is there anything that happened on the way to publication that you think of as the turning point?
People read it. It's as simple as that.

When you say "people," who do you mean?
First of all, I read it. I have the editorial memo I sent her after I read the full manuscript. I said, "This is the best manuscript that an author has ever delivered to me." After we were done editing, I began to give it to people at Random House, and their reactions were similarly off the charts. At sales conference, the sales rep from Maine raised his hand and said, "We're going to sell a million copies of this book." And it wasn't because it was such a commercial subject—everybody knew that horse racing was not a big category. It was about a feeling that the book gave people.

What I learned from editing that book was just how important it is for a book to actually leave you with a feeling. I had been a very analytical guy up to that point, in terms of my editing. For nonfiction, I had always assumed that if it made sense and was well written and had an important point to it, people would respect it and like it. But that isn't what it's about, ultimately. People have to be moved by it. And there was something going on between the lines in that book, from beginning to end. I could give you lots of reasons why I think it's moving. It's a terrific transformation story: The horse is transformed by these three men, and the three men are transformed by the horse. It's about winning. It's about overcoming adversity. And the writer's reasons for writing the book were pure and personal. It was infused with a kind of passion that you very rarely encounter in nonfiction—and that passion was augmented by a degree of focus and precision that you rarely find. So the book worked on every level. It worked on a prose level, it worked on a story level, and it worked on an emotional level. 

I've heard you talk about the three main reasons why people read, and how the best reading experiences combine all three. I think readers would find that interesting.
If I'm remembering it right there are three Es. People read for entertainment, education, or the expressiveness of the language. The best books combine all three, and Seabiscuit combined all three. It was an expressive book that was wondrously entertaining and educational in terms of bringing to life a period in American history. It was published as a work of history even though it was about a horse winning races. 

So you feel pretty strongly that it was nothing that happened along the way except for people reading it?
That book was on the best-seller list before there was any media or any advertising. It was an immediate best-seller. I mean, Talk magazine had done an excerpt, but when has an excerpt ever sold a book? I really believe that it was because we printed about five thousand galleys, people read it and loved it, and book-sellers were hand-selling it. It was publishing at a time when there wasn't a lot of competition. We were very good at publishing in that window—I think it was March. So that's why I think that book worked. It was just a great book to read. And it was different.

What do you mean by "different"?
There wasn't anything else like it. I was so amused that right after Seabiscuit, people began publishing all of these books about horse racing. They completely missed the point. The book didn't succeed because people were dying to read about horses. It succeeded because it was a beautifully written story that was emotionally satisfying and interesting from beginning to end. And let's give Random House some credit for publishing that book so well. Random House is a great publishing company. The sales force was wholeheartedly behind it. I remember that before sales conference, somebody had suggested that we change the title to "Dark Horse." At sales conference the reps kept coming up to me and saying, "Jon, please don't change the title to ‘Dark Horse.'" Before we presented the book, I said to Ann, "They really don't want to call this book ‘Dark Horse.'" And she said, "You know something? I don't either." And she started the presentation by saying, "I have some news. We are calling the book Seabiscuit." The room broke out in applause. Everybody had already read it. Even before the book had been presented, it was known as something that people were going to love. It's just one of those things. It's alchemy, and you can't reproduce it.

On the flip side, tell me about a novel from that era that still breaks your heart because it didn't achieve what you'd hoped it would commercially.
There are a number of them. I'm told by many people that fiction breaks your heart, so I should just accept it. But when I look at my bookshelf at home, I just wish more readers had been able to discover some of those books. There was a novel called Cheat and Charmer by Elizabeth Frank. She's a professor at Bard and she'd spent twenty-five years writing the book. It was a contemporary variation on Anna Karenina set in the McCarthy era. We got some great reviews, but we just didn't push it hard enough. I still regret that.

There was a novel called The Baker by a writer named Paul Hond, which was my attempt to publish a next-generation Malamud. It involved Jews and African Americans in a burnt-out city, post-riots, and it was about people seeking redemption and love. It was a retelling of The Tenants and had a little bit of The Assistant in it as well.

A novel called All the Money in the World by Robert Anthony Siegel. It was about the son of a greedy lawyer who winds up in prison. It eerily foretells the Bernie Madoff story. There are a lot of them.